Friday, December 31, 2010


This was the blessing offered by St Francis of Assisi to people he met:  "Peace, and good(ness) to you."  Don't we all long for this blessing more than for virtually any other in the world?

Can we find peace in the midst of suffering and sadness?  I think we can (and the illustrations in the song below show some ways in which it is possible).  This is the peace that comes from solidarity, outreach, love.  It is the gift that says "You can relax, you can be safe; it's going to be all right."  This is the promise of the Lord to Mother Julian of Norwich:  "Sin was bound to happen, but all will be well..."

1 January is the old Feast of the Circumcision (and the Gospel still reflects this fact).  Now it is celebrated as the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.  Her Son is also known as the Prince of Peace; He assures us (John 14:27, 20:19, 20) that he gives His peace to us "not as the world gives," but for the sake of forgiveness of sins.  Think of the peace that could come if those words were truly taken in--"I know all about it--every detail.  I forgive you because I love you."

In 1986 Pope John Paul II met with leaders of the world's religions in Assisi to pray for peace.  At one point it was thought a heretical idea--the Holy Father went forward with it anyway because it (the prayer itself, and the witness) was what the world needed to see.  At the distance of 25 years, the event now seems prophetic, but will its spirit carry us forward toward the fulfillment of that vision?  Pope Benedict's Message for the World Day for Peace 2011 says that it can and must--that peace must be built on mutual religious freedom.

This evening at Our Savior we will be holding a Holy Hour Vigil of Adoration for peace.  Would that the church might be as crowded as it was for the 5:00 pm Mass of Christmas Eve!  But for those of us who will be there, the Prince of Peace will have something to say to us:  "I love you; take courage, for I have overcome the world."

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


The meditation in Magnificat for December 26 (Holy Family Sunday) was excerpted from the writing of Mother Elvira Petrozzi, an Italian nun who has founded Communità Cenàcolo, dedicated to outreach to “lost and desperate” people, often drug-addicted. Interestingly, Bp Robert Baker of Birmingham was the guest on EWTN’s The Journey Home, speaking about his invitation to Mother Elvira to open such a house in his diocese: Our Lady of Joyful Hope.

The idea is an exercise (sustained) in Catholic Christian living. It is the Benedictine model of ora et labora (prayer and work) allows addicts to experience structured, devout and practical life in community, rooted in the Sacraments, the Rosary, and hands-on tasks of cleaning, repairing, building: whatever is needed so the community can thrive. People coming to such houses are there for the long haul: they commit to three years of life in the community. This produces true formation rather than a band-aid.

But more to the point for me are Mother Elvira’s thoughts in the Magnificat meditation. Hers is a vision for the addicted that is similar to that of Jean Vanier with the handicapped in his L'Arche homes. Both see as essential for truly human life the experience of community which is in fact the experience of family:

“Each of us has a desire in his heart to become a family, because only within the family can our greatest needs be expressed; a dialogue not only with words but with our feelings, our affections, our gaze, in a reciprocal gift of self and in concrete gestures of love. …It is an essential and fundamental need, natural to us, which each one of us has inside, a need to see ourselves in the gaze, smile and reception of another person.”

Mother Elvira’s thoughts continue in the direction of forming relationships that lead to Christian marriage and family, but the thoughts I have included here are more wide-reaching than spousal life and love: it is why people at her Cenacles find such a gift of freedom: freedom from, and freedom for, and openness to.

Robert Frost famously defined home as “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I would rather call it “the place where you fit in and belong and rest, and are safe.”

Home—another of my favorite 4-letter words. Home, family, community: all of what we long for in this week that began with Holy Family Sunday, goes past the Holy Innocents, and ends with the Mother of God, prayer for peace, and the Epiphany. There is no greater longing in our souls, is there?

Friday, December 24, 2010


The Day has arrived; the celebration begins--for shepherds and kings, for ox and ass, for all of us.  "In Him we see our God made visible, and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see" (Preface #1 of Christmas).  Enjoy the choral depiction of this great night.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Rocco Palmo ("Whispers in the Loggia") is publishing Gregorian chant versions of the "O Antiphons" on a daily basis; they're great, but I'm still partial to this setting from Mannheim Steamroller.  Enjoy the rest of the Advent season!

Saturday, December 18, 2010


La rievangelizzazione del mondo secolarizzato passa anche attraverso un recupero del senso del sacro”, ha osservato.
Re-evangelization of the secularized world also requires a recovery of the sense of the sacred.

“Le stesse scoperte meravigliose della scienza e della tecnica, anziché portare al disincanto, possono diventare occasioni di stupore e di esperienza del divino”.
The same wondrous discoveries of science and technology, rather than bringing a sense of disenchantment, can also become occasions of wonder and of the experience of the divine.

Allo stesso modo, nella vita umana quotidiana “non mancano occasioni in cui è possibile fare l’esperienza di un’'altra' dimensione: l’innamoramento, la nascita del primo figlio, una grande gioia”.
…everyday human life itself does not lack times when it is possible to have an experience of another dimension—falling in love, the birth of a first son, any great joy.

“Bisogna aiutare le persone ad aprire gli occhi e a ritrovare la capacità di stupirsi”, ha detto.
It is necessary to help people open their eyes and recover the ability to be amazed.

These excerpts (found on the Zenit website--my translation) are from Fr Cantalamessa’s 3rd homily for the Holy Father for the season of Advent. In playing with one of Pope Benedict’s favorite themes, that of re-evangelization of the secular world, the papal preacher emphasized the need to have eyes open to the Great Beyond (al di là, in Italian): the notion that, as Hamlet put it, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (I, v).

It is more than an awareness of the sense of the transcendent that is lacking; it is a lack of the sense of wonder in itself. Not all things can or should be reducible to particles; there needs to be a recognition that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Theologically, we say this is especially true of the human being, but it is also true of most of creation: of a dog’s affection, or a bluebird’s domestic sense, or a sunset’s grandeur, or a rose’s uniqueness. Yes, I am referring here to Le Petit Prince, a book of central significance for awakening the sense of the “more” in life:
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Albert Einstein was quoted as saying that the greatest thing is the sense of the mysterious. Even if one were to try to break down all existence, all creation, into its particular parts, one would still be confronted with the mysterious: quantum physics shows us this. In the words of the great scientist Niels Bohr: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.” The life of the micro-cosmos is so radically unexpected, unpredictable, that one wonders how we macro-cosmic types could think we can make universal laws at all.

But we do not need to enter into particle physics to be amazed—why not just enter into the deeper meaning of poetry, or love, or liturgy? William Blake wrote: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And heaven in a wild flower…” How do 2 otherwise unique (and solitary) beings see each other and ‘fall in love’? What can we make of a spiritual declaration that God is 3-in-1 or that bread becomes His Body?

These ideas seem radically ridiculous to some, yet the alternative is to believe creation (and oneself) to be the moral and effective equivalent of a rock—a being whose behaviors have no significance, no purpose, no value here or ultimately. To quote Thomas More (in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons)—“Some men are capable of this, but I would be loath to think your Father one of them.”

Do we have yearnings, longings, in our hearts? Why stifle them? Why not see them, in Wordsworth’s phrase, as “intimations of immortality,” hints that we are made of more than material and destined for more than a grave? Even if wrong, what really has been lost, and what has been gained?

I want to embrace the notion of transcendence (which underlies the notion of transubstantiation); I want to celebrate the reality of authentic mutual love of another; I want to see a world in a grain of sand. We are the worse as individuals and as nations for saying “no” to the possibilities this vision offers us.


NEWS ITEM: Bishop Munib Younan, President of the Lutheran World Federation, is calling for a “common Roman Catholic-Lutheran declaration on Eucharistic hospitality” by 2017 as a way of marking (and undoing) the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. He made the remarks in Rome shortly before a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI.

Is such a vision a possibility or a mirage? At this distance it seems unlikely, but one can never know. After all, it is not we frail and ego-bound human beings who are in charge, but the Holy Spirit. If Vatican II could happen, if agreement (even if not 100% complete) on the theology of “Justification” could be produced, if a Palestinian-born Lutheran bishop could make this request to a German Pope…

Would such a statement require 100% agreement in all areas of faith, morals and church practice and discipline? I think not. I have two reasons for saying this.

The first is that it is clear the Catholic practice of closed communion is one of discipline and not doctrine. The (then named) Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, in their 1972 Instruction Concerning Cases When Other Christians May Be Admitted To Eucharistic Communion In The Catholic Church sets out guidelines for when such communion might occur; it even specifies circumstances when Catholics might approach the Sacrament in other communions. They are not to be considered as “regular” events, but they are in fact not impossible.

The second is that from the time of the 1983 Revised Code of Canon Law the Catholic Church recognizes the right of the Orthodox Churches, along with members of “the Assyrian Church of the East, and the Polish National Catholic Church”: they are not to be refused if they present themselves for the Sacrament in a Catholic Church. Such welcome is not reciprocal at this point, but it is significant that from the Roman Catholic point of view a lack of 100% agreement even on issues like the wording of the Creed and the juridical authority of the Pope do not in themselves have to be Church-dividing.

What will happen in 2017? I have no idea, but I want to be around when it (whatever “it” is) does happen. The Book of Proverbs (29: 18, KJV) reminded us, millennia ago: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Here we have a vision. I pray we can make it possible.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


Celebrating St John of the Cross is a dangerous thing: are we really ready to celebrate the life of the one who insisted that the path through the Cross to the Lord must be via a “Dark Night of the Soul”? This is the man who stressed that the only way to enlightenment is through the thicket of suffering…

John’s writing is crucial, as is that of the anonymous spiritual guide who wrote (in England, perhaps 200 years earlier) The Cloud of Unknowing. These masters of the Via Negativa (the experience of God as “absent Presence”) know that their own journey parallels that of many disciples—far more so than of the kinds of experiences that others might call “mystical”—filled with visions, revelations, consolations.

The best place to begin to gain insight into John is, I think, a small book edited by David Hazard: You Set My Spirit Free. It is billed as “A 40-day Journey in the Company of John of the Cross,” published by Bethany House. It is one of a magnificent series of books on the great spiritual masters of the centuries. Every “day” will begin with passages from Scripture, a paraphrased excerpt from John’s writings, and then a closing prayer. I highly recommend this book and this series.

John’s own experiences (well narrated in David Hazard’s introduction) were those of darkness and suffering as a way of coming to Christ. In many ways they were brutal. But he came through them, thanks be to God, and he is a great guide for us as result. He could have made his own a song by Steve Green, The Refiner’s Fire—it is a song of suffering as a road to purgation, to purification; a road that leads to “God alone.” It is a road that Pope John Paul II would have understood instinctively (his doctoral thesis in Rome’s Angelicum University was in fact on this great mystical writer)—a road that would lead to his own motto, Totus Tuus. This is a motto of surrender into the hands of a God who is at once hidden and loving Abba

I hope you will find David Hazard’s book, unless of course you are ready for the “whole enchilada” of John of the Cross’s writings. And I hope you will enjoy Steve Green’s song. And for good measure, a setting by Loreena McKennitt of St John's original poem, Dark Night of the Soul.

The Refiner's Fire
There burns a fire with sacred heat
White hot with holy flame
And all who dare pass through its blaze
Will not emerge the same
Some as bronze, and some as silver
Some as gold, then with great skill
All are hammered by their sufferings
On the anvil of His will

The Refiner's fire
Has now become my souls desire
Purged and cleansed and purified
That the Lord be glorified
He is consuming my soul
Refining me, making me whole
No matter what I may lose
I choose the Refiner's fire

I'm learning now to trust His touch
To crave the fire's embrace
For though my past with sin was etched
His mercies did erase
Each time His purging cleanses deeper
I'm not sure that I'll survive
Yet the strength in growing weaker
Keeps my hungry soul alive


Words and music by Jon Mohr and Randall Dennis
Copyright 1989 Birdwing Music/Jonathan Mark Music (admin. by Gaither copyright management)/J.R. Dennis Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.


All this year the calendar nearest the desk in my study has been one made by and for the Sisters of the Visitation Monastery here in Mobile. The final picture, for December, is a group photo of the sisters—a community of eight women.

Just a couple of weeks ago I received word of the death of one of the sisters at the Dominican Monastery of St Jude in Marbury. I was able to offer Mass for her repose, and I got a lovely note from the Mother Superior there, along with a memorial card.

There are two things that connect the card and the calendar for me, and they are equally important. The first is that both the Visitation Monastery and St Jude Monastery are communities of cloistered nuns: their entire life is focused on prayer, seeking God alone.
The second is the tremendous happiness that radiates from all their faces: they have found joy in their vocation, joy in our Lord.

Most of these women are about the same age—in their 80s. Sr Mary Magdalen of the Marbury Dominicans was actually born the same year as my own Mother—1925. Does it take a lifetime before one comes to see the truth of one’s vocation and love it (and be loved by it)? Perhaps it’s only at the end of a long road that one can really look back and say that whether or not it was the “road less traveled” it was the right road for me, and that the Lord’s hand was upon me even when I wasn’t aware of it or didn’t perceive it…

“Vocation” in many ways is what our hand finds to do (to refer to Ecclesiastes 9:10)—will we “do it with our might” for God’s glory and the advancement of the Kingdom? We might be cloistered nuns, or diocesan priests; we might be single-parents or ministering to spouses with Alzheimer’s or cancer; we might be young adults in college or starting a first real job. The key is always the answer to the question “Given all that I am, given who and what I am, how can I take this package of personhood and give God the glory with it today?” No answer will produce the kind of joy and happiness of the sisters here in Mobile or in Marbury other than that that particular calling was truly their calling.

And to know what is your—or my—calling, requires listening to the whispers of the Spirit within. When heart’s deepest inclinations resonate with outward choices, then one finds peace; one finds one’s vocation.

May we all live and die in the Lord with the joy of these cloistered sisters!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


In honor of today's/tomorrow's Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (our nation's and our Archdiocese's patronal feast day, as well as the patronal feast day of my seminary, the North American College in Rome), I offer this setting of the Gospel for the Mass (and which we are singing this year as our Communion Hymn)... Enjoy, and remember that in terms of enthusiasm our December 8 is "only a shadow" of what will be going on in so much of the Americas on December 12.


It may strike some as fatalistic, but the text of this movement of Johannes Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem [A German Requiem] is actually that of the 1st reading for Mass this morning (Tuesday, 2nd Week of Advent)--"All flesh is grass..."

For Isaiah, the contrast is the temporal nature of our life as opposed to the eternal reality of God. How small we are! And yet, as Is 40:1-11 is yoked in the liturgy to Matt 18:10-14, we see that even grass-like (human) flesh is worthy of being loved, of being pursued, by our Maker/Savior/Sanctifier. Why would God bother? What benefit would there possibly be to the Divine Majesty by our redemption, or loss by our perdition?

Those questions are not answered; instead, we are assured that even at the risk of losing the rest of the 99, God wants to seek and save US, the 1 lost sheep. "Wants to" must, in the context, be translated as "loves us so much that He chooses to." This is our God...

So enjoy the excerpt below from Brahms' great work, and may the love of the Lord be with us!

Friday, December 3, 2010


It is Chanukah, the Jewish festival of lights. The special 8-branch menorah is lit in homes, one candle at a time, for the eight days of the celebration--commemorating the re-dedication of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus and his followers after its desecration by the Seleucid Greeks who tried to force the Jews (even by torture and executions) to give up their faith and practices and become (if I may put it this way) secularized and modern. The story is told in the Books of Maccabees (for some, found in the "apocrypha" or "deutero-canonical" section of their Bibles).

In the month of December, when nights rush toward the winter solstice getting longer and longer, we Christians also celebrate our own "festival of lights," our 4-candle Advent wreath. It is our marking of the time of waiting and expectation for the arrival of the One who will bring justice and peace, forgiveness and healing, to our hearts and to the world.

Whether we look back to the events of the 2nd century BCE to Judas and his followers, or to the birth of Jesus, we look to one whom we long for as our savior. And we also know that if we are to be children of the light, we must stand in solidarity with the light--the light of menorah and the wreath. For both Jews and Christians, the words of the Fourth Gospel are true and important: 'The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it."

In the spirit of this season, I offer below a clip from "Peter, Paul & Mary: A Holiday Celebration." Enjoy, and let's commit to keep the flame of faith alive in our hearts.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Can you imagine a situation, a dinner party, where all the diabetics are eating baskets full of Sister Schubert dinner rolls; all the cardiac care people are putting down 2# Ruth's Chris T-bone steaks; all the alcoholics are drinking bottles of really good wine; all the overweight folks are enjoying hot fudge sundaes--and it's all OK?

Even further--the present bite is as wonderful as the first, and no bite sates you to the point of feeling over-stuffed...

In a way, that is the vision of Isaiah in today's first reading for Mass. It all works because in fact there are NO diabetics, alcoholics, obese or cardiac people: all are healed, and all are joyously celebrating at the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb.

Jesus in the Gospel for today is the image of this: on a mountain He heals those afflicted with ailments and then provides a meal of loaves and fish for the crowds. He offers the double sign of outer healing and satisfying of hunger--pointing to the spiritual healing of forgiveness and the spiritual nourishment of His own self, given and poured out for us; we celebrate both every time we partake in the Eucharist.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Folks who check out my Facebook page will know that we had a real scare at 11:00 Mass this past Sunday--a man who was having (to all intents and purposes) a heart attack in the middle of Mass. We all paused; 911 was called; a doctor and two nurses (from the congregation) went to assist; I got the oils and administered the Sacrament of the Sick--ultimately, all was well after a visit to the ER and a series of tests.

But my point in writing here is to celebrate the faith, hope and love of the parishioners of Our Savior at that Mass: they all went to their knees while we were attending to the man, and they began to pray the Rosary for him and his wife.

This was pretty well spontaneous, though I believe our music minister took the lead at the podium with the prayers. Whether or not, this was a magnificent expression of everything good that as Christians we stand for: prayerful solidarity with those who are suffering.

Praise the Lord, and thanks be to God!!


This item below was posted this morning on the Vatican's website (original language, Italian, of course):


In the context of the exchange of Delegations for the respective feasts of the Patronal Saints, 29 June at Rome for the celebration of Ss Peter and Paul and 30 November at Istanbul for the celebration of St Andrew, Cardinal Kurt Koch this year leads the Delegation of the Holy See for the Feast of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is accompanied by Bp Brian Farrell, secretary of the Council, and Rev Andrea Pelmieri, official for the Oriental [Eastern] department of the same Council. At Istanbul, the delegation will be joined by the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey, Abp Antonio Lucibello.

Visits like these are the least we can do, as Sister-Churches, and there is hope we will be able to do more and more. Certainly that is the hope here in Mobile between myself and Fr Elias, the pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation.

What is, to me, of more than symbolic significance is the fact that these two patronal feast days are celebrations of brothers. Both died for our Lord, and both according to tradition were martyred strangely by crucifixion (Peter upside down; Andrew on a X-shaped cross). It was Andrew (in John's Gospel) who brought Simon Peter to Jesus in the first place. How much more should we be willing to live together in Him, when they were gladly willing to die for Him?

May the Holy Spirit bless us soon with the surprising gift of break-through to unity, and may we be open to embracing this gift. Though it is actually the motto of our Christian-Jewish Dialogue here in Mobile, the sentiment still fits here: "Hands that reach will touch."

Friday, November 26, 2010


What a traumatic story to read the day after Thanksgiving, that a Christian woman is accused of blasphemy and is sentenced to death in Pakistan. And yet, unfortunately, there is really no surprise in it. Ultra-conservative Muslims are sensitive (hyper-sensitive?) to any affront to The Prophet, as we already know from the outrage felt with the publication of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, or the editorial cartoon in Denmark more recently.

It is a strange charge, though, to accuse a person of 'blasphemy' when (at least in Christian and Jewish circles) this word specifically refers to insults offered to God. The Prophet most emphatically is not divine in Muslim eyes, though in fact specially chosen. Or have I just also 'blasphemed'? I don't know...

The newspaper article implies that the woman's blasphemy was her resistance to pressure that she convert to Islam. On that score, I certainly would also be guilty, by saying the simple word "No."

Needless to say, this kind of law and its application raise the question, again, of the relationship between truth, freedom and charity which has been a hallmark of the writings of Pope Benedict XVI. Recently, too, the Pope spoke out against the forced episcopal ordination of a government-selected bishop in China.

What we have witnessed in the past, and what we are witnessing in the case of this Christian Pakistani woman, is the hijacking of theocracy by extremists who seem dedicated to their own views to the extent of utter contempt and hatred for any and all who differ. This is more than disappointing--it is terrifying. How does one reason with people who reject rational discourse in the name of the conviction that "God is on our side--only!"?

Will her death sentence actually be carried out? Will she be a martyr for our Lord? We do not know the answer to the first question. But the answer to the second is easy: she already is a "martyr," a witness, for His sake who told us only this past Wednesay in the Gospel for Mass: "They will seize and persecute you...they will put some of you to death. You will be hated...but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives" (Lk 21:12-19). May God strengthen the resolve of this woman, and may God soften and anger and hatred of her enemies, and may God send the touch of reason and not resentment to this situation.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


We have so much to be thankful for, whether it be health, or security, or family, or a hundred other blessings. But there is one other blessing we should not forget, and it is for this blessing I am offering the musical excerpt from Messiah below. Blessed day to us all!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


C. S. Lewis once wrote (he actually spoke it first, in fact) about Christian marriage in what became Mere Christianity (originally a series of BBC radio talks). He was discussing couples who wanted a church wedding without taking seriously the values to which such a public profession would commit them. He wrote:

...someone may reply that [they] regarded the promise made in church as a mere formality and never intended to keep it....Most often, I think, the couple (or one of them) hoped to deceive the public. They wanted the respectability that is attached to marriage without intending to pay the price: that is, they were imposters....If they are still contented cheats, I have nothing to say to them: would would urge the high and hard duty of chastity on the people who have not yet wished to be merely honest? ...If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they live together unmarried... But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury.

This is is the logic that illuminates the recently publicized quotes of Pope Benedict XVI with regard to condoms and male prostitutes (who potentially are carrying the HIV/AIDS virus)--it's a "first step" in responsibility, as he put it. It is scarcely "the high and hard duty of chastity," but it is the beginning of being "merely honest." People must walk before they can run, after all.

This is not exactly the kind of statement that should justify all kinds of clamor about how the Vatican is "caving in" on its teaching on sexuality and contraception. After all, it is of no comfort to me if the one semi-justified use of a form of contraception is in fact to be found in the context of being a male prostitute! We need to avoid being carried away: on this logic, physical violence in defense of self or others would lead to the "slippery slope" of validating gang shootings. I don't think so.

What is of relevance in all of this is the overall outlook we have as human beings on issues of respect for all life. I say this having just watched "Karol: the man who would be Pope" on EWTN. What kind of radical defense of the defenseless (including those in the womb) would you be willing to make, if you had lived through the horrors of the "final solution" first-hand?

If I can see that in some cases I might tolerate what is called "the lesser of two evils," I should never be tricked into thinking that somehow what I tolerate is in fact anything other than "evil." It is not a good; it is not a virtue; it is not honorable to choose it except in the context of a greater and immiment evil.

Let's be careful. Let's respect human dignity (all too quickly and easily dismissed in the case of those we do not like or with whom we disagree). There is only one "Final Solution"--it is love.

Friday, November 19, 2010


For more than 10 years now, both at St Bede and here at Our Savior, I have been leading a prayer-vigil/Eucharistic Adoration the evening of 31 December in advance of the World Day of Prayer for Peace, 1 January. Begun by Pope Paul VI, our world desperately needs all the help it can get in seeking paths we can walk together in harmony. Famously, Pope Paul titled one of his earliest messages If you want peace, work for justice.”

This coming year’s theme from Pope Benedict is “Religious freedom, the path to peace.” And as usual there will be a vigil this 31 December at Our Savior. We mix times of silent adoration, excerpts from the Pope’s message (yet to be published at this point), Scripture and hymns. It allows us to focus with the Holy Father on the desperate need people throughout the world have to be people of faith in the authentic freedom of their conscience (where God calls them), without coercion from any outside source. The Vatican II Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignatatis Humanae, championed by theologians like Rev John Courtney Murray, SJ (and found to be so distasteful by the schismatic Society of St Pius X) was also championed by then-archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who knew first-hand about the kind of oppression Catholics were suffering for the Faith in his home country of Poland.

Today, our hearts and prayers and thoughts go out in particular to the Catholic and Orthodox Christians of Iraq and the Holy Land, caught in the crossfire either of Sunni/Shiite or Muslim/Israeli conflicts.

But we don’t have to wait for 31 December to pray and fast for peace. We may think we cannot effect religious freedom in the world; we may believe we cannot achieve justice for others on the global scale we need. But we can make more of a difference than we think, and if our prayer makes us more welcoming of the stranger and more eager to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8), we can begin to make a difference. As Gandhi put it, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Monday, November 15, 2010


How can unity be achieved between the Orthodox East and the Latin West? The Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue for North America has made a proposal for exactly this. It's a document that is only 5 pages long, yet it is a splendid summary of where we are in dialogue, East/West, and where we can go. It can be found on the web-site of the USCCB.

I am excited about the possibility of having dialogue on this topic in the near future, and I am excited about the prospects of taking significant steps to reunion, even if the final and perfect end is not in my own lifetime.

Prayer and study together, along with fellowship, are keys to eliminating the barriers that have no purpose in existence other than misunderstanding and prejudice. We can avoid what former Vatican ecumenical head Cardinal Cassidy called "the dialogue of the deaf"; we might actually, authentically listen to one another. Once those pseudo-barriers are gone, we can discuss properly the remaining issues of substance.

On every level this is good news. It is another step in the process begun in such earnest by Pope John Paul II in his ground-breaking encyclical letter Ut Unum Sint (1995). There is much hope for the future, thanks be to God!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


This Latin phrase actually might be loosely translated “throwaway lines.” They are not necessarily relevant to the main thrust of an argument, but they are worthwhile and interesting on their own terms.

One such statement appears in the 8 Nov 2010 issue of America, in the book review section. It is a review of the letters of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, and reviewed by Notre Dame theology professor Michael Baxter. He writes (p. 27): “…detachment—the kind that [Rev John] Hugo urged—is acquired less by inspired resolutions, more by practicing wisdom as it is revealed in the unfolding of one’s life.”

A more pietistic and simpler version of this statement might be “Allow yourself to be the person God is making you to be.” Even more trendy a version, yet still evocative and effective, would be “Bloom where [and how] you are planted.”

In discussing vocations, I often share with young people a number of truths: our minds are about 2/3 unconscious in function; most of the unconscious has to do with memories, recalled or repressed, and most of these are about persons we loved or failed to love, or who loved or failed to love us.

Given the summary of those memories and the events within which they were shaped, I ask them to ask themselves one honest question: “Given who I am now, as a result of what has happened to me and what I have done, what my memories are, for good or bad: given all of this, how and where can I best serve you, O Lord, and be all you wish me to be?”

Another way of asking this is to co-opt a line from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and ask, “Lord, can I say YES to you as I am, where I am, how I have come to be, and do something beautiful for you as a result?”

Who doesn’t yearn to do “something beautiful for God”?

But I cannot know what that will be, for me, if I don’t accept who/what I am, brokenness and all. We all of us are called, in differing ways, to be “wounded healers,” tools in the hands of the Almighty for the benefit of our brothers and sisters, and ourselves. We are indeed saved by grace, but the Lord desires to use us in the process…

It’s a great journey: but it begins with the riskiest of all journeys—the journey inward.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


How easy it is to rattle off, in The Divine Praises, “Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man,” and never realize the struggle the early Church found itself in, trying to sort out how this could be true! How is Jesus of Nazareth also somehow divine? How is the eternal Son of God somehow an incarnate human? Beyond that, there was a common philosophical belief (also shared, to a great degree, by Christians) which said “God and matter do not mix.” What a problem for theology and for faith this was.

Leo’s famous Tomus ad Flavianum (a theological letter addressed to the Patriarch of Constantinople) was adopted by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as the definition of how this incarnation of the God-man should be understood. It wasn’t the last word in the controversy, but it has held the line ever since as what we call “orthodoxy.” The contents of Leo’s letter are summarized by the devotional line in the first paragraph.

Leo was a politician as well as a theologian. The bas-relief images along with this blog post are from St Peter’s in Rome, created by the Baroque artist Alessandro Algardi. They show Leo in 452, confronting none other than Attila the Hun, persuading him not to sack the City. The detail shows Leo gesturing to the heavens, past the processional cross behind him, but Attila sees instead Ss Peter and Paul ready to do battle against his forces—he thinks better of his plan and (with money, it must be added) retreats.

I observed in the daily homily today that one can go to St Peter’s in Rome and see not only Algardi’s bas-relief but also the tomb of Pope Leo himself. It is the mark of a tremendous continuity of history and faith—Leo, the formulator of Catholic doctrine, the diplomat of the imperial City, the successor of Peter. Remember him the next time The Divine Praises end Eucharistic adoration and benediction.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


My homily this morning contains a synopsis of some of the most central theology of the great German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner, a peritus (theological expert) at Vatican II, and who died in 1984. He was convinced that the act of faith must never be trivialized by teaching or expecting “immediate return” on prayers—especially those asking for material blessings. I wonder what he thought of sports figures attributing their victories to divine intervention, to say nothing of the now fashionable “Gospel of prosperity” that can be found on television…

His experience (like that of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI) was one of living through the horrors of World War II, the Nazis and the communists. In the face of Ha Shoah who can easily expect that faith is anything other than ‘looking into the abyss’? The Jewish Nobelist Elie Wiesel looked and saw night; Jesus from the cross looked and saw Abba-Love.

What do we see when we look? Sometimes our “faith” is simply a benign acceptance of a general sense of well-being in life. But most of us have been challenged at one time or another to take the “deeper look”—usually in the context of a death. Then we resonate far less with Joel Osteen and far more with Jesus’ “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Rahner insisted that ours is authentic faith when it still exists in the "wintry seasons" of our lives.

One person expressed it like this: “Religion is how you hold on; Faith is how you let go.”

More importantly, it was also put like this: “False religion tells you, ‘Relax and fear not; have faith and nothing bad will happen to you.’ True religion, on the other hand, tells you, ‘Have faith; all the bad things you are afraid of happening to you will probably happen. But they are nothing ultimately to be afraid of.’”

How do we let go? In whom and in what do we trust?

Saturday, November 6, 2010


Was it a mistake, a miscalculation, a disregard for the importance of the issue…? I have no idea, and surely there are facts about which I am ignorant. Nevertheless, as an “outside observer” I wish to offer a few thoughts about the “non-meeting” that occurred in Rome on 31 October.

A large number of demonstrators was expected to want to enter St Peter’s Square on this Sunday evening. Their goal was to declare a “Year of the Survivor” which would parallel the recently ended “Year of the Priest” proclaimed by Pope Benedict. In fact, the number was estimated as only between 60 and 100. A delegation was met by Fr Federico Lombardi, Pope Benedict’s Press Secretary, who delivered a personal message (his own, not the Pope’s) to the demonstrators. They had wanted to gather at St Peter’s and were prohibited by Italian police; they gathered at nearby Castel Sant’ Angelo, instead.

The organizers included 2 men who had been abused in Boston—they had both been consulted by Cardinal Law (before his resignation) and Cardinal O’Malley in the course of this scandal; one of them was among those whom Pope Benedict met during his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008. So they were not “nobodies” from anyone’s point of view. More to the point, far too many revelations of sexual abuse of minors (in countries other than the US) have come to light in the last few years. What was perhaps “good enough” in 2008 has the complexion of incompletion now.

Virtually co-extensive with this particular demonstration was a gathering of well over 100,000 Italian youth from “Catholic Action,” and they did indeed enjoy a celebration in St Peter’s Square on the day before—30 October, with the Pope presiding.

If only: if only the Holy Father had taken this opportunity to say, “Evil happened in the past to other young people; we will never allow such evil to happen again to such wonderful young people as are now gathered in this Square!” If only there could have been a bridging of past and present and future during that celebration.

It was a perfect opportunity to make the world see that the Church does in fact take its sins of omission (and commission) deadly seriously; it was a chance to live the pledge of our Act of Contrition—“I firmly intend, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.” In the “old school” this was referred to as “firm purpose of amendment.”

Some demonstrators carried signs that said “Put the Pope on trial” and “Shame!” Should these have been tolerated? Perhaps, in the sense of the Holy Father’s saying, “I allow you to accuse me in this way; I am indeed ashamed of what happened.” The words of Proverbs 15:1 ring true here: “A mild answer calms wrath…”

What if? What if things had happened differently? What if I had all the facts? Still, as one man said to John Henry Newman, “…the world is ruled by seems, not is, by words and appearances, not by things and realities; that if you once give an obnoxious name to a book or a man, no power can rescue them, no power can make them sufficient for good.” Can we at least pray that seems and is can be closer together and beg for mercy for our past without seeming to paralyze us for our future? In fact, the former may well lead to our empowerment for the future…
PS--For those who want more of the facts as they have been published, I encourage you to see Rocco Palmo's blog "Whispers in the Loggia" (from which the photo above was in fact taken).

Saturday, October 23, 2010


The proof which comes home to my own mind that God is good, is His dealings with myself. This proof any man can have—for it is a personal proof. Nothing can get rid of it, and it grows the more it is cultivated.”

This is an insight from John Henry Newman, in a letter written sometime before his 75th birthday (and before Pope Leo XIII made him “Cardinal Newman”). It is instructive for us, it seems to me.

When I engage in spiritual direction with another person, I typically encourage records-keeping for the sake of seeing, perhaps six months “down the road,” the path traveled and the point of departure. When we review our lives “in retrospect” like this, we can more easily determine patterns and blessings that otherwise would have passed by unnoticed.

The phrase “Count your blessings” sounds trivial, yet it is a fundamental insight of what St Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuits refer to as “consciousness examen.” It means taking the time to see where God in Christ was acting or present in your life and giving thanks for it, even when those times were not acknowledged or even recognized. In our weekly review of life in the Cursillo method of discipleship, we also try to discern a “close moment” when Christ was most vividly present in a situation.

Where can you see God’s dealings in your life? Even painful times may well be times in which what is really happening is the “pruning” which is intended to give more growth (John 15:1-2). Ignatius reminds us that a “consolation” is whatever draws us closer to God (even if it is painful or undesirable at the time).

God is good—what is your “personal proof” of this? Remember that it may be months down the line before the trajectory of your travel can be clearly discerned. Meanwhile, let's take to heart the words of Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). And (as Sr Thea Bowman used to say) let's "Keep on keepin’ on!"

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


This October 26 would have been my Dad’s 89th birthday. When I was in seminary in Rome I always went on this day to pray for him in San Paolo fuori le Mura (St Paul’s Outside the Walls). Why?

Partly, I think, it’s the answer to the question: “Do you want your child educated in a Catholic HS, or in a private, high-powered prep school?” In my case, the answer was the latter—which happened, also, to be the former: I went to St Ignatius HS in Chicago, the best school in the City. My Dad was extremely insistent that I go there.

St Ignatius and his companions spent an all-night vigil in a chapel in St Paul’s in Rome, and the following morning took the vows that formed the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. I think this is my connection with that church with my Dad.

I will never forget the last time I was able to be there on his birthday. At the doors was a gypsy woman with a toddler and an infant. She was, of course, begging. And normally I flee from the gypsies for their (earned) reputation as thieves. Those following the news know that the gypsies (aka, “Roma”) are being expelled from France, for example, pretty well for this reason.

This time I promised her I’d see her when I came out of the church. And I did. And I did something I’d never done before (nor, I think, ever since)—I sat down and talked with her. I played with the toddler (perhaps 2-3 years old). And I gave her money. She asked for more; I told her (honestly) that was all I had (other than bus tickets). And this time, I didn’t give alms to a beggar—I encountered another human being (and Christ, along the way). I am convinced it was my Dad looking out for me that led me that day to use the eyes of the heart instead of only the eyes of the body.

My Mom taught me a similar lesson years later with a homeless Vietnam vet at an interstate exit in Chicago (Damen and I-55, if you know the City)… And my cousin Tim taught me the same lesson some weeks ago (interestingly, at the same exit).

I am heading to Rome next week—I may not make it to St Paul’s on 10-26, but I’ll be there one day, one way or another. What will I see? What will I do?

Mom, Dad: pray for me: make me stronger; make me better.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The Cloud of Unknowing is one of the great classics of mediaeval mystical writing, penned by an anonymous English writer of the 14th century (roughly the same time as other great spiritual writers whose names we know: Mother Julian of Norwich, Walter Hilton, Richard Rolle. While Mother Julian, for example, wrote of her experiences with what can be called “direct contact” with the Lord, the author of The Cloud takes a different approach—one hinted at by the title of the work.

This book is a description of what is known as apophatic, or the Via Negativa. It focuses on the distance between Creator and creature and the inability of the latter ever truly to comprehend God—thence the sense of “unknowing” that is the path to God.

A recent day’s meditation in the prayer-guide Magnificat was an excerpt from this great work. In part it said:
With all due reverence for God’s gifts, it is my opinion that we should be quite careless of [not pre-occupied about] all delights and consolations of sense or spirit… If they come, welcome them but do not rest in them… [Otherwise] you may begin to love God on their account and not for himself….
Some people experience a measure of consolation almost always while others only rarely…. Some people are so spiritually fragile and delicate that unless they were always strengthened with a little sensible consolation, they might be unable to endure… Yet there are others so spiritually virile that they find…such spiritual nourishment within that need little other comfort.

I could not help but think of Bl Mother Teresa of Calcutta when reading this passage, and all the darkness of the last decades of her life—the lack of spiritual consolation she endured.
And yet the basic prayer she never ceased teaching her novices was “Jesus in my heart, I believe in your tender love for me. I love you.” Not a word in this prayer is about feelings or “consolations”—only the choice to trust and love.

Today’s feast is that of another great Teresa who knew the “dark night”—Teresa of Avila. She also went years without a spiritual consolation and yet never lost focus: she knew (even without feeling it) Who it was she loved, and by Whom she was loved.

How will our prayer progress today? Will we renew the choice to love, and be convinced of being loved, even if the feelings aren’t there? Is this a description of our love in friendships or marriages, as well? We can do far worse, today, than make Bl Mother Teresa's prayer our own.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I strongly urge all to check out the blog by Rocco Palmo, "Whispers in the Loggia" (also at for today's post on Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose feast is today (the anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council). The feature that is posted there (after the video and text of the "Discorso della Luna") is a joy to watch.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Today’s Mobile Press-Register had an op-ed piece by Doug Gansler about the case (currently before the Supreme Court) of Snyder v Phelps, in which a local congregation chose to picket (and violently and vulgarly attack the family of) a funeral—the young man was a soldier killed in Iraq. The congregation (basically consisting of a single family of about 50) has decided these deaths are God’s punishment on America for tolerating homosexuality. Let’s explore all these ideas.

First of all, on what ground would this congregation decide that only military deaths are “God’s punishment”? Why would they not equally demonstrate at every other funeral in our country? There is a dimension of selectivity here that is at least biased.

Second, on what basis can the Phelps family decide (in law, at least) that they are a “church”? Does the government grant protection for any group that decides to refer to itself as a religious body? Unfortunately, this is the historical reality of Protestantism in general: when a divisive issue surfaces, groups splinter and form new “congregations.” It is the reason we have the number of Protestant denominations that we do: everyone seems to be “protesting” against someone or something.

Third, is there any basis for thinking that by simply refusing to allow such protests (designed to offend) that anyone’s 1st amendment right of free speech is impeded? I doubt it—these people are completely free to preach whatever they choose within their own church. No one is knocking at their door with warrants for their arrest.

Fourth, under what rubric is hate-language to be protected? We Catholics have forcibly rejected the anti-Holocaust remarks of the schismatic bishop Williamson; are we to be regarded therefore as intolerant of freedom of religious expression? I doubt it.

Finally, most Americans understand the letters RIP (even if they are not Catholic)—they mark tombstones all over our country. They are an abbreviation of the Latin phrase Requiescat in pace, or “May he/she rest in peace.” Implicitly we recognize this as a right; surely we must also recognize as a right the ability of a family to bring a loved one in peace to his or her place of rest.

Even to discuss this issue is more than disappointing—it is part and parcel of the bitterness and anger that characterizes Terry Jones and his desire to burn copies of the Qur’an. The Supreme Court has a vested interest in insuring the domestic tranquility and protecting the general welfare of the nation (as the Constitution’s Preamble states). Small-minded people who insist on shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre do not deserve protection under the law; those in the theatre do.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


I spoke this morning in the homily (especially the one primarily aimed at our young people being formally enrolled as candidates for the Sacrament of Confirmation) about wanting to be pro-life in its fullest dimensions. I mentioned that I wanted less to condemn the “Culture of Death” and more affirm the “Gospel of Life.” What do I mean by “fullest dimensions”?

I want to affirm the fundamental dignity of the human person in ALL aspects of our existence: I want to celebrate and support and defend unborn babies and infants, children and teens and young adults and mature adults, parents and grandparents. I want to affirm those in ICU units or in nursing homes, in prisons (even on death row) or in war zones (even those we consider the “enemy”). I want to embrace those that are physically or mentally or emotionally challenged; I want to say YES to them all—we are ALL children of God, ALL brothers and sisters (even when we behave like cats and dogs with each other).

But along with life itself, I want to celebrate and affirm those human activities that are life-giving in and of themselves: literature and music, art and architecture, good food and good drink, generosity of spirit in energy and finances. I want to enjoy the blessings of forgiveness and friendship and love, of prayer and adoration, of praise and worship. In short, even though mixed in with sin, I want to say YES to all that can be found within the Church and its long history. There is much to be grateful for here, and to rejoice in (as well as to repent of, it is true).

To enjoy all of this is, for me, truly to be pro-LIFE. It means presenting a vision that attracts to Truth/Beauty/Good rather than condemns those we think are too far away. I want to be part of doing what Mother Teresa called "something beautiful for God." Surely to celebrate life means to be joyful people are attractive to others.

Who wants to be pro-LIFE with me in this way?
Enjoy this recording of the 16th century English composer Thomas Tallis' anthem "If Ye Love Me," which coincidentally was the first anthem I ever sang in the choir of my Oxford College, Oriel, during Evensong when I was a student there.

Thursday, September 30, 2010


After doing a wedding at “Church in the Pines” on Lake Martin this past weekend I was packing up all the vestments, sacred vessels, altar linens, etc and preparing to head back to Mobile (a 3-1/2 hr drive that evening). I found myself surrounded by four children, ranging in age from perhaps 4 to perhaps 11. I’m not at all sure whose kids they were, but we had quite the conversation as I engaged them to help me with getting things into their proper bags and cases.

The conversation began with the littlest ones somehow interested in the idea that God and Jesus could see them always. They brought up the topic, and they were a bit nervous about it (as, no doubt, most adults would be if they thought about it a bit). So I wanted to re-assure them that the reason Jesus always saw them was that He loved them so much He didn’t want to stop looking at them. They seemed satisfied with this, and I will scarcely claim this as “original” with me, but I do take it as important.

Children (and adults) don’t need the image of God or Jesus as a divine version of Santa Claus as represented in the Christmas carol: “He sees you when you’re sleeping/He knows when you’re awake…He’s making a list/Checking it twice/Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” The vision of a cosmic referee just waiting to catch you in a foot-foul on your serve may instill caution, but it will not lead to love. And if God is Love (as Scripture assures us--John 3:16; I John 4:7-21), there has to be a way of approaching the Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:16)other than in pure fear. There will no doubt be (at the time of our own judgment) a sense of shame, but it will surely be overcome by our sense of desire and longing to be near the One who loved and loves us so totally.

I also had a conversation with my two altar servers. They asked me about the palls I used (these are the stiff cloths often placed on the chalices during celebrations of Eucharist). They saw when and why I put them on, and they were intrigued. The issue was a fly at the outside altar. “I thought they were just for decoration,” one said. I assured him that everything at least started out with a purpose, and this one was to keep things out of the Precious Blood that didn’t belong there. I related a story (true, in fact) of a time at St Bede when I didn’t have a pall (this was a daily Mass), and a fruit fly did get past my waving hand and land in the chalice. I doubt anyone else saw or knew it, but I surely could not offer Holy Communion to people when the chalice had a creature in it! There was only one thing to do: I had to make sure I was the one that got the fruit fly. So the idea of the palls (they are always on the altar for me now) is very practical and in some ways selfish. I would rather have them and not need them than the other way around.

Footnote: my “Pastor’s Corner” essay for a week down the line will be a commentary on the theme and summary of the upcoming “World Day for Social Communications” that the Vatican sponsors every year. It’ll be at But for those who want to see at least the Vatican’s announcement about it, you can check another blog: Rocco Palmo is a master blogger of all things Catholic.

Friday, September 24, 2010


In Birmingham, he beatified John Henry Newman, personally raising to the altars a son of the Church for the first time in his pontificate. In doing so, he quoted Blessed Cardinal Newman: “I want a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.”

This citation, from the glowing post-papal visit analysis in Britain’s Catholic Herald, is deeply important for our times as Catholics, especially in areas where we are in a religious minority. The spirit of the lay-folk as armed with the weapons of the Faith (Ephesians 6:10-17; I Thessalonians 5:7-8) was dear to Newman’s heart. It led to his willingness to engage in the founding of a Catholic University in Ireland (which involvement produced his famous The Idea of a University). It imbued his defense of the dignity of the whole Church in his On Consulting the Faithful In Matters of Doctrine. And it was fitting that Pope Benedict would draw it to the attention of his hearers in the context of the beatification.

We need to hear these words, as well.

We all know the experience that was recently highlighted in a prayer breakfast address given in Los Angeles by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York. There he raised the example (which he said he was personally involved in too many times) of a conversation he has had with parents who sent their children to college after years of Catholic school and faithful attendance and participation in church life, only to find their new room-mates have told them that Catholicism is wrong. Having no solid answers, they have begun attending the church of their room-mates. “Where did we fail?” the parents typically lament. Archbishop Dolan’s answer: “We did not equip them; we did not give them the solid answers of apologetics: not argumentative, not an “in your face” quarrelsome style, but solid answers to what should be expected questions. No one wins a chess match by making one move and waiting to see what the opponent might do. Part of the strategy of great chess player is anticipating the opponent’s move and being prepared for it. We want our young people (who are the laity of the present and the future) to be able, calming and confidently, to deflect all these sad, stereotypical objections with ease. But such ease, even on a football field or in a battlefield, comes only with practice and proper equipment.

[Commercial: check in the archives of “The Pastor’s Corner” in the web-site of Our Savior——to find my “Answers to Top Ten Questions”].

So the Pope presented the insight of a Cardinal who 150 years ago stated the need that is still with us today, according to a prominent Bishop. What will we do, then, to arm our young people and give them effective strategies? What will we do to work for a properly formed laity? The future is in our hands...

Friday, September 17, 2010


The feast celebrated today in the Church’s liturgical calendar is St Robert Bellarmine, a Jesuit theologian, teacher and writer; head of the Inquisition (the Holy Office, now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); cardinal; and friend of the rich and powerful and influential, most notably Pope Urban VIII and Galileo Galilei.

The opening prayer for today’s Mass remarks on Bellarmine’s “wisdom and goodness”—a combination that, sadly, does not always occur in human life. Bellarmine was brilliant, but he was also humble. He acknowledged, for example, that science might one day prove Copernicus and Galileo correct about the solar system, and if so, there would need to be some re-thinking on the understanding of Genesis on the part of the Church. For his part, Bellarmine was not convinced that this proof had been supplied, and he wished Galileo not to promulgate as fact what was as yet theory. But he was open to the possibility, and he realized (as John Henry Newman put it much later) that “…to grow is to change, and to become perfect is to have changed often.”

Unfortunately, Bellarmine was caught between two figures of towering greatness, both of which had streaks of pettiness in them that made them (though once friends) immovable with regard to one another. Pope Urban was a most forceful personality who knew what he wanted and usually got it (commissioning many of the master works of Bernini in St Peter’s and around Rome, and even having all the birds of the Vatican Gardens killed so he could sleep at night).

Galileo was the greatest scientific mind of his day, and he knew it. When he was convinced he was right, no one could be more stubborn. The story is that at his trial before the Inquisition he was required to recant and admit that the earth does not revolve around the sun, and supposedly he whispered Eppur si muove, which freely translated could be rendered, “Oh yes it does!” Galileo gained the resentment of Urban by making him the butt of an insulting joke in a publication. Urban would never let this slight go unpunished; Galileo didn't apologize.

So both men were marked by tremendous greatness and pettiness at the same time. Is this what has to happen to people in positions of prestige or power?

Bellarmine’s example says this does not have to be the case, but the marks of humility and holiness must be present to counteract the negative power of position and ego. So it is fitting that it is the Jesuit cardinal (imbued with the spirit of the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius) who is the canonized saint; the two other figures, great as they are, are simply historical figures.

Today especially it seems (taking a cue from another of Pope Benedict’s comments during the in-flight news conference on the way to Great Britain) that bishops need to recognize their primary role is one of humble repentance as the only way to restore a sense of credibility and trust in the structures and institutions of the Church. There is neither time nor place, now, for posturing, only for humble service and ministry. May God bless us with bishops and pastors who understand and live this for the good of the Church, the Body of Christ, the faithful. Let our times sound the death-knell of triumphalistic clericalism and the welcoming of the ministry of service. We clergy all need to be ‘deacons,’ and really, we never need to be any more than deacons.


The imminent beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman is a joyful thing, and it is made even more joyful by a couple of interesting items. The first is the report of a 2nd miracle through his intercession. If validated and accepted, it would clear the way for his canonization, something that Benedict XVI of all popes (except me, if they ever elect me by acclamation!) wants to do.

Along with this, there is the interesting comment Benedict made in the papal plane on the flight over to Great Britain. In the course of a customary news conference, he let drop this remarkable statement (official Vatican translation in English):

So I would say these three elements: the modernity of [Newman’s] existence, with all the doubts and problems of our existence today, his great culture, knowledge of the great cultural treasures of mankind, his constant quest for the truth, continuous renewal and spirituality: spiritual life, life with God, give this man an exceptional greatness for our time. Therefore, it is a figure of Doctor of the Church for us, for all and also a bridge between Anglicans and Catholics.

This is special because it hints at the final signal honor which could be accorded Newman—being named a Doctor of the Church. If being named a cardinal by Pope Leo XIII was a gesture that ‘lifted the cloud forever’ from him, this (along with the formal declaration of his sanctity) would vindicate the specific way he spent his life’s search for faithfulness, for truth, and for the life of the mind in the Church. And I can hardly wait for this to happen!


I have a strong hunch that St Augustine would have played well on television—if we were talking about the 1950s, the same time-frame as Bishop Sheen or Billy Graham in their hey-day. Today? Not so much, I don’t think. He (and they) would be swimming too much against the current of the wave of what is known as the “Gospel of Prosperity.” Today the theme of much televangelism is the doctrine that God wants us to be wealthy and well-off, and if we have the right kind of faith this will be the result.

In his long sermon On Pastors, though, St Augustine strikes a different note. The excerpt in today’s (Friday of the 24th Week of the liturgical year) Office of Readings from the Breviary includes these potent words:

The negligent shepherd fails to say to the believer: My son, come to the service of God, stand fast in fear and in righteousness, and prepare your soul for temptation. …Such a believer [who is prepared in this way] will not then hope for the prosperity of this world. For if he has been taught to hope for worldly gain, he will be corrupted by prosperity. When adversity comes, he will be wounded or perhaps destroyed.
The builder who builds in such manner is not building the believer on a rock but upon sand. But the rock was Christ. Christians must imitate Christ’s sufferings, not set their hearts on pleasures.
…What sort of shepherds are they who for fear of giving offense not only fail to prepare the sheep for the temptations that threaten, but even promise them worldly happiness? God himself made no such promise to this world. On the contrary, God foretold hardship….
For the Apostle says: All who desire to live a holy life in Christ will suffer persecution.

So: should St Augustine be on television? Probably! But I don’t think he’d get the ratings or the commercial endorsements. Thanks be to God, that is not what he was looking for. I hope it is not what we are looking for, either: let’s look for nothing other than to be faithful fellow cross-carriers with the Lord.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


“You can’t trust those people—they’re anti-American! They want to take over the country, and if we elect one of them President he’ll become the agent of the Antichrist to conquer us and try to impose their religion on us. We know he’s not really a Christian. We have to take a stand now!”

We can imagine (some who listen way too much to talk radio don’t have to imagine) folks saying exactly these things about President Obama and the proposal to have a Muslim community center near the site of the World Trade Center. But the words I’m using are only a summary paraphrase of words thrown at another group of Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries: Catholics.

It was widely believed that Al Smith, and later, John Kennedy, were most likely secret emissaries of the Pope, whose Vatican “legions” were ready to invade our shores (irrationally, some people somehow seemed to expect another Spanish Armada, this time directly from Rome). We are still regarded by some ultra-evangelical Protestants as not Christians. Even with the finessing of crucial speeches by Rev John Courtney Murray, SJ, Kennedy might well have lost the 1960 election had it not been for “creative bookkeeping” in election returns in Chicago (and, less famously, in Texas). People dreaded a Catholic in high office like they dreaded the apocalyptic four horsemen. Why?

Not only were they regarded as the vanguard of the Vatican and not Christian (“everybody” knows that Catholics are idol-worshipers), they were foreigners. They came from countries where English was not the primary language: Poland, Italy, Hungary, Germany, Lithuania, Portugal; or worse, they came from a country where English might have been spoken but whose people were chronically despised—Ireland.

If we contemplate standing in condemnation of a race or nation or religion, fostering misunderstanding and malice, we need to see our own history in the mirror—we who are Catholics, and we who are Protestants as well. What is the heritage of anti-foreign xenophobia in our country? What can we do to combat its irrational grip on people’s hearts? These are not trivial questions, and I do not propose simple solutions. I do think we need to think, and to pray…

Friday, September 10, 2010


A thought: if we Americans want to think that all Muslims are anti-American terrorists because of the actions of a fanatical few, should not Muslims think all Americans are anti-Islamic terrorists because of the acions of a fanatical few (as proposed in Florida for tomorrow)?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


My first instinct in writing about the plan of Rev Terry Jones is to say, “Let’s consider this rationally.” But the more I think of it, the more I think that trying to do that would be like trying to consider rationally things like Kristallnacht, or the rants of Iranian President Ahmadinejad, or the claims of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il about his prowess at golf.

There is nothing to be said for (or to) people who have hearts filled with hate, who have power (either political, or economic, or military, or because celebrity has been conferred on them), and who are megalomaniacs who see their view (and themselves) and nothing else.

Rev Jones’ behaviors and proposals are about as inverted a twist on Christian teaching as it is possible to get. He seems to have ‘modified’ the sayings of Jesus to read things like “Hate your enemies; curse to those who oppose you…” or “Blessed are you when you insult them and persecute them and utter every kind of evil against them…” or “Blessed are the war-makers…”

If in your own mind you can justify acts of deliberate and provocative offensiveness, you can justify anything. It has happened far too often in human history in the past; we must not stand by simply to watch it happen again in the present. This is not about religious freedom. This is not about political speech. This is about hatred, pure and simple.

The most interesting inter-faith group has assembled in Washington, DC to produce a statement that rejects Rev Jones’ Koran desecration—it includes Jews, Muslims, and Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, and Orthodox Christians. In our hearts, in our prayers, and in our voices of public protest, I pray we will all stand with them in condemning acts of hatred in all its forms, at all times, most especially by all who claim in doing so that they are giving glory to God.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Though I might cite C S Lewis or Cardinal Newman more in homilies, those who know me know the great regard I have for the insights of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince. I (without much joking) refer to it as “one of the most important works of sacramental theology in the 20th century.” And so I wonder if this is why, of all the special guests I have at the rectory’s back yard, my favorite critter is the fox.

So last night’s visit by the fox was an especially happy time for me. It had been a long time since I had seen a fox in my yard (which is not fenced in, and which butts up against woods). Everyone else is pretty well a regular: raccoons, possums, armadillos, turtles, squirrels, snakes, rabbits (and moles, drat it). And of course I feed them: scraps from supper, ends of bread, and so on. It’s a pleasure to watch these nocturnal creatures enjoying a meal.

And last night all I put out was stale bread. But there was the fox—silvery-grey, skittish, ears always up and tuning in all sounds, having a snack. It didn’t last long.

He was rudely bounced from “Club Rectory Yard” by a raccoon. The contest lasted only a few seconds, and though the fox waited around off to the side for a short time, finally he accepted the inevitable and returned into the woods. If anyone thinks raccoons are cute because they are frequent visitors at state park campsites, that person needs to be disabused of the thought. They are (for their size) ferocious animals, not to be trifled with. The fox knew this.

I have a friend who was afraid I wanted somehow to make a pet of the fox, when a pair of them first appeared a couple of years ago. I was taken to task that they were wild animals by God’s design and not to be “kept.” And I fully agreed.

Still, I did want to “tame” the fox in the sense of Saint Exupéry—to create ties of relationship, to make a friend (not to possess): Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi! “If you want a friend, tame me!” the Fox told the Little Prince. And it begins patiently, just looking at each other—recognizing that you are in fact “others.”

How long does it take to “tame” another (or allow oneself to be “tamed” by another)? Commercials for on-line dating sites suggest that 1st dates can (and should) lead quickly to relationships (these days a code-word for being sexual partners) and marriages. But it’s not that easy—not if the idea is for the connection to last. Il faut des rites, the Fox said. Some rituals are necessary, including taking the time, going slowly and gently, accepting the idea of otherness and not falling in love with a fantasy, an artificial construct of the mind, instead of the person him-/herself.

Prayer is my allowing myself to be truly who and what I am (for better and for worse) in the presence of God who loves me. It is my patient and gentle opening of myself to God. Of course I cannot ever truly hide myself from God, but making the choice to be open actually opens me to myself—I come to see myself honestly (perhaps for the first time). And letting myself be tamed changes me—friendships formed in this way make me different, and better—they make me more aware of and sensitive to things that otherwise I would have ignored. I am led to cherish what matters to the one who has tamed me. This is true in all deep friendships; how much more so when I open myself to God in this way?

This is the lesson (the sacramental lesson) my backyard fox teaches me.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


The meditations in the pages of Magnificat for today (2 September) include a one-sentence quote from (Blessed) Abbot Columba Marmion:
We must go to God in his way; we shall only be saints in the measure wherein we adapt ourselves to the divine plan.
What might this mean for us?

There is an obvious and easy interpretation of the Abbot’s words: surrender to God’s will. And this is true enough in its own way (see the words of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:33ff. for a parallel). But knowing how to do this is quite a bit trickier.

I want to suggest a way that has a realistic application while remaining faithful, I believe, to the sense of the quote. You must explore your own depths (probably with the aid of a spiritual director, or someone who can be objective with you in ways you cannot be with yourself). You must examine yourself to see who you really are, and this means exploring your past—memories of events, joys, sorrows, disappointments, hurts, being loved or not, loving or not… All these are what go into making you, spiritually and psychologically, who and what you are today. “You” cannot successfully adapt yourself to a divine plan (or anyone else’s) without knowing who “you” is. You have to come to God in prayer with words to this effect: “All right, Lord—given all this, all I’ve been and experienced, all that has made me “me” today—given all this, how can I best serve and follow you?”

Then you must “test the waters,” so to speak, with life decisions. Make a choice (Pascal would have said Make the wager). See the results. You are looking for the results that produce peace in your heart and soul, for this peace is the resonance of who you are and what you are choosing. And this, I suggest, is “the divine plan” for you. Albert Camus put it like this: But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?

Your harmony must be yours; no one else’s will do. Nothing else will bring you peace or happiness. Abbot Marmion’s quote was an encouragement to become a saint. But consider the incredible diversity of kinds of saints we celebrate: hermits and virgins, bishops and priests, kings and queens, religious and lay, mystics and missionaries and martyrs, old and young… There is no one road to heaven, to sanctity: we are simply called (as Bl. Mother Teresa put it) to be holy where God has placed us.

This road is not easy; it is surely a “road less traveled.” But is the journey, the destination, worth it? Is it worth it to you? Consider the alternative of never being truly happy or at peace, never being truly who and what you can be. Honestly, no road is more worth it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bl. (Mother) Teresa of Calcutta!

Will you and I pray for her canonization (like she needs it, or we need to be told it)?

Will you and I make a difference today in the life of a poor person (emotionally and spiritually poor, as well as materially)?

Will you and I pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and diaconate and religious life--especially those orders that have outreach to the poor as their special "charism"?

Today is also the commemoration of Our Lady of Czestochowa, so we can celebrate TWO "Blessed Mothers" and pray for faithfulness in the Church. We are indeed blessed in them.