Monday, March 29, 2010


Holy Week is always a time of special seriousness and sadness liturgically, but this year is especially somber thanks to the accusations, revelations and admissions of sexual abuse of children by priests, pretty well throughout the world. Pope Benedict referred to it in his Palm Sunday homily, and New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan dealt with it directly, as did Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. I addressed the issue, as well, at our Palm Sunday liturgies.

It is time that the institutional Church as a whole, and I as an individual in that institution, admit we are sinners, that we have too often badly hurt people (sometimes accidentally, sometimes through stupidity or cruelty or insensitivity). Sometimes there was no wrong-doing as such, but only a perception by someone else of being wronged; even in cases like this, though, if someone is offended the offense is real for that person, and the reality is something I also have to deal with. Nothing other than confession will do. I have to face the fact that I am guilty in all these areas.

I think that for child abusers the simple act of apologizing and asking for forgiveness is too easy a way out. There needs to be, ideally, some authentic form of restitution (I am not thinking of anything financial here) and recognition that I have no right to expect forgiveness until and unless the persons offended freely choose to do so. And there needs to be some kind of punishment or penance. The false kind of mercy that was shown to Fr. Murphy is simply wrong: he begged not to be put on trial in ecclesiastical courts and to live out his priesthood with dignity. He didn’t have that right because he lost the dignity of his priesthood when he abused those deaf boys.

What is finally meant by “restitution” and “punishment” is hard to say, except that what constantly occurs to me is the process by which South Africa avoided a blood-bath when apartheid finally ended: it was the Truth and Reconciliation process by which victims and perpetrators sat down at tables facing one another, speaking to one another about what they did, or what they suffered. What if this could happen in the Catholic Church? Pope Benedict made a step in this direction when he met with victims of sexual abuse during his pastoral visit to the United States in 2008. What if the “Fr. Murphys” of the Catholic world had to do the same with their actual victims?

The crucifixion that we commemorate this week should have us all on our knees, crying. And I pray the grace of Easter will make me less sinful and a better priest and more faithful to the One who is utterly faithful to me—to us. The Church as institution may crumble—so what? The Church as Body of Christ will not be overcome.

PS--The illustration is of the Crucifixion by Giotto, in the lower basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. Look at the grief of the angels; shouldn't we have that kind of grief at the torture of the Body of Christ?

Below is a bonus for our Holy Week meditation from JS Bach's "St. Matthew Passion."

Friday, March 26, 2010


Good Friday is arguably the most dramatic of the days of the Holy Triduum, the “3-day Day” (the liturgical commemoration and celebration of the Lord’s Passover from the Upper Room, through Gethsemane, arrest and trial, to Golgotha and burial, and finally to triumphant Resurrection). The one day in the liturgical year when the celebration of the Eucharist is forbidden EVERYWHERE, it involves stark silence, prostrations, powerful readings of Scripture, intercessions for all the world: and veneration of the Cross. Why do we do this?

The answer begins with the diary of a pilgrim of the late 4th century to Jerusalem, Egeria, a nun who traveled to the Holy Land from Gaul (or perhaps Spain?) and who wrote about everything she saw and experienced. Let’s remember that as she was traveling and writing, what we nowadays call the “Nicene Creed” was only just formulated; great saints like Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Cyril of Jerusalem were still alive, and Christianity (legalized only 65 years earlier) was just being made the State Religion of the Empire.

Egeria was in Jerusalem for Good Friday (or Friday in Great Week, as she calls it). On that day the relic of the True Cross on which our Lord was crucified was brought out for veneration. The antiphon that developed for chanting tells the story: Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependitBehold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. All came forward, not daring to touch but only to kiss the sacred relic.

Pieces of the True Cross (known in Spanish as Vera Cruz) were sent to Constantinople and Rome, with the major portion remaining in Jerusalem. From these came the relics other churches soon craved and (rightly or wrongly)claimed to have. The trouble with relics in the days before things like DNA testing is that they couldn’t easily (or at all) be verified.

[footnote: for a pointed commentary on the practice of fake relics, you may check Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both in the description of the Pardoner in the “General Prologue”, and the conclusion to the “Pardoner’s Tale,” and a biting comment by Pope John XXIII.]

Pilgrims could not get to the Holy Land after a while, once the Muslims conquered that territory. And the memory of venerating the Cross of Christ (along with the memory of literally following His path along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha) was one that longed to be satisfied in local churches, at least symbolically. And so was born the “representational” veneration of the True Cross (and the practice of the “Stations of the Cross”) in individual parish churches. This is the origin of the way we honor the crucified (and risen) Savior today. It is not Jesus that we honor in this devotion, but the wood of the Cross, because it was this on which He hung—because the Church in Jerusalem believed they had the Cross, but they knew they could never “have” the Savior.

Our practice is like that of a father on a business trip kissing a picture of his wife and children before going to bed. Is it “idolatry”? Scarcely, so long as our hearts and minds are on the Lord. On Good Friday, whether at Stations of the Cross or the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, where will your heart and mind be?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Today’s 1st reading from Daniel 3 offers one of the most awe-inspiring statements in all of the Old Testament (indeed, in all of the Bible). Threatened with death for failing to worship the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, the young men (Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, to give them their original Hebrew names) reply:

“If our God, who we serve, can save us from the white-hot furnace and from your hands, O king, may he save us! But even if he will not, know, O king, that we will not serve your god or worship the golden statue which you set up” (vv. 17-18).

Written most likely in the middle of the 2nd century BC (or BCE), the stories were rallying cries to courage in the face of torture and death by the Greek Seleucids. These young men were saved, of course, but they offered their bodies “even if [God] will not…”

It is around this time that belief in an afterlife where good and evil will be recompensed really took hold in certain segments of Judaism (in the school that would become the Pharisees, for example). Its logic (once you grant the ‘major premise’ of the syllogism) was air-tight: God is just. But injustice is rampant. Therefore God’s justice must be played out in a world after death. Therefore, what Christians came to call the “Four Last Things” (death, judgment, heaven, hell) came to be more and more a belief held in Judaism.

But it was not so in the 2nd century, when this idea was only just percolating. And so what we are faced with in this story is the witness of 3 young men who are willing to offer their lives and the totality of their existence (with no reasonable hope of afterlife) for the sake of fidelity to God. This is what makes their statement so awe-inspiring.

After all, Christians would endure terrible tortures and persecutions, but they did so in the confident hope of resurrection and glory (read I Corinthians 2:8 or Romans 8:18-24 to see what I mean from a New Testament point of view). These young men were offering everything (absolutely everything) out of love for God. Their only salvation would be here and now, and that did not seem likely.

Back in the 19th century, in a famous sermon, John Henry Newman asked his congregation if they had the heart to make a “venture in faith”—to risk something that, should the Gospel prove false, would actually have produced a loss for them. The three young men risked it all. What are we willing to risk, for the love of the Lord?
Footnote: the illustration above is from the catacombs of Santa Priscilla in Rome. The 3 Young Men were popular catacomb art images of resurrection.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


We are very familiar with the story of the trap being set for Jesus by the “scribes and Pharisees,” using for bait a woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Before reflecting on the story itself as it is presented to us in John’s Gospel, chapter 8, verses 1-11, it is worth noting a bit of what in Biblical studies is known as ‘textual criticism.’

Virtually all of the oldest manuscripts and papyrus fragments we have of the New Testament do not have this story in John’s Gospel. And in some of the late manuscripts that do finally contain this story, it is located in differing places, including the end of the Gospel (rather like an appendix, even as John 21 is already a sort of appendix), or even in Luke’s Gospel (at 21:38). The story itself seems best known in the part of the Christian Church that spoke Latin as opposed to Greek (the important early commentator on it is Augustine, then much later Gregory the Great and Bede). So one thing we know: it wasn’t originally part of the Fourth Gospel.

Yet one other thing we know: it is accepted by the whole Church as canonical and inspired Scripture. So however it came to be in the New Testament (and if this isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit…!), we honor it now as the Word of God.

In this story is Jesus allowing the woman to “skate” for her sin? No. More importantly, though, He will not allow the “scribes and Pharisees” to get away with their sin, either: the sin of cynical and hypocritical using of the woman as an object (and, of course, allowing the man to escape—after all, she was caught “in the very act”!).

Augustine is poignant in his description of this scene: in His disgust at the manipulations of these men, Jesus will not even look at them; He will trace (write?) on the ground in an attempt to distract Himself, temporarily, from the meanness of the situation.

It’s almost as though this is the time in His life among us when our Savior was most tempted to sin in reacting violently to these men. Majestically, He stands up to make His famous (and devastating) pronouncement about “the one among you who is without sin,” and then goes back to His tracing/drawing on the ground. The One who was in fact without sin was the One who refused to throw the first stone.

What is amazing to me is that after they all leave (“beginning with the elders”), the woman is still standing there. What made her remain when everyone else departed? Was it just that she was so stunned by Jesus’ statement that she was frozen in front of Him? Again, Augustine captures the moment with the grace of Latin that characterizes his writing: Relicti sunt duo, misera et Misericordia (The two were left, the miserable [woman] and Mercy Incarnate). And Jesus charges her—never again commit this (or any other) sin.

And Jesus charges us in the same way: “Be merciful in your actions with one another. Be slow to condemn others and swift to repent of your own sins. I know the price and the seriousness of all sin—I bore them on the Cross, and I have won the victory of forgiveness by that suffering. Realize the price that has been paid for your redemption. Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


The 1st reading from Mass this morning (3-17—Wednesday of the 4th Week of Lent and not, I hasten to add, the “solemnity” of St. Patrick!) comes from Isaiah (49:8-15), ending with the famous appeal:
But Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.

The great thing in this reading is the play between forgetting and remembering, and between the deliberate choice as opposed to the accidental occurrence.

We know that women tragically have abortions; this gives the lie (the Biblical writer would have been shocked) to the idea a woman could be without tenderness for the child in her womb. Yet this is not “forgetting” in the sense to which Isaiah is referring: this is choice to ignore. Based on my experiences in counseling and Reconciliation, I can assure folks that many, many women do not in fact forget the child that was in their womb, and they live (painfully) with the reality of their choice for years afterward, in much grief.

But beyond this, we realize that we as human beings are all too prone to things slipping our minds (I am not even referring here to “Senior moments”). This “accidental” forgetting is precisely what God assures the people will never happen: the LORD will always remember the Chosen People. This is critical since it is only God’s active remembering that allows things to remain in existence at all.

We as humans must make special efforts to “remember,” and that is why our celebration of Eucharist, among many other things, is also referred to as a memorial: it is our gathering explicitly to remember the sufferings, death and resurrection of our Lord (called anamnesis in liturgical language) and to give thanks to God that our Lord continually remembers (and therefore makes Himself present to us in the Sacrament):
We remember, we celebrate, we believe.

God, however, can choose to forget: Jeremiah 31:31-34 declares that in the new covenant God will “forgive our iniquity and remember our sins no more”—they will cease to exist! God does not simply choose to ignore or overlook our sins and “pretend” we are made righteous (this is what theologians refer to as forensic justification: we are declared righteous even if we are not truly so). By forgetting our sins, we are really, completely, made righteous through the mercy of God and the redemptive power of the Son’s Cross and Resurrection and the ongoing action of the Holy Spirit.

I want my sins completely destroyed. I don’t want to hear God’s Word saying to me, “Yes, but…” I want to hold on to the promise made by St. Paul (II Corinthians 1:18-20) that in Christ God’s only word to us is YES. This forgiveness implies repentance and change of heart and life. It means that we can let God be God and be greater than our hearts’ condemnations (I John 4:19-20). It means that there is Good News for me, if only I make my YES back to God in Christ.

Lent is the time when we can see more clearly where we need to make that YES (and therefore a NO to other kinds of behaviors and attitudes that we might have). Easter is the promise that our YES is transformed in the ultimate YES of the Resurrection.

Are we ready for God to do some forgetting, and for us to do some remembering?

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Folks, this is why I don't wear pink for Gaudete or Laetare Sundays... This really is a "Pepto-Bismol" moment, isn't it??


Friday morning in the homily I had the presumption to stand off from comments made by the Capuchin Preacher to the Papal Household, Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., in a snippet printed in Magnificat. His was a comment on the nature of the 2nd great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” His point was that here Jesus was forcing us to face real love because we cannot deceive ourselves as to how we love ourselves, though we could deceive ourselves as to how we love even God:
“Man knows what it means to love himself at all times; it is a mirror which is always in front of him.”
His conclusion is that therefore we know the true depth of love of the other required of us. It is precisely on this point that I think Fr. Cantalamessa is mistaken…

We all too often do in fact deceive ourselves as to self-love: worse, too often we secretly (unconsciously) regard ourselves as unworthy of being loved at all. This, then, becomes translated into a projection onto others that they, too, are not worthy of being loved, surely not by us. And so in an ironic fashion we love others as we love ourselves: badly.

Once we project the sense of being unlovable onto another, it is a fatally easy series of steps to move from that to “He/She/They are to be mistrusted, to be feared, to be hated: to be regarded as Enemy.” If they are enemy to me, violent retaliation (or “preventative strikes”) are now justified in my mind. And there we are—in the world-view lived out and acted out as we know it today. The results of this are being played out now in the Middle East, Honduras, Tibet, Pakistan, Nigeria…; they have historically been played out in Northern Ireland, South Africa…the list goes on.

To me, there is only one way out of this vicious cycle of believing oneself contemptible, therefore holding others in contempt: it is accepting the reality of being loved. This is the great promise of God: "In spite of your failings, your backslidings, your sins—I love you, and you are mine. Won’t you let me love you—please??"

If we believe we are loved, we by definition realize we are lovable, and by projection can conclude that others are lovable, as well. We cannot hate lovable people, only despicable ones. And so the cycle of evil can be broken—by forgiveness and reconciliation in love.

Whom do we “hate”? I ask this because those with whom we are angry are typically hated in our unconscious. Do we really want to hold on to this? Isn’t it time to let go and let God be God, the God who loves? When we do, then the words of Jesus to the scribe in the Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) will be true for us, too: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.”

Thursday, March 11, 2010


When Paul and Mary Filben began the Mobile Christian-Jewish Dialogue over 30 years ago in their living room, they eventually created a logo and motto for their work: “Hands That Reach Will Touch.” This is true today, and not only with regard to Christian-Jewish relations.

Hands reached out last night at St. Paul Episcopal in Daphne, where my good friend Rev. Albert Kennington hosted me for a Wednesday night supper; I was to give a talk in their Lenten series on “Reconciliation” with the topic: Reconciliation in the Church. It was, of course, an ecumenical theme.

I encountered the parishioners of St. Paul as good and caring people; they encountered me as someone concerned and open. There was much hand-reaching last night, I am happy to say.

I knew a monk of Mt. Saviour Monastery some years ago—Fr. James Kelly, OSB. He told me that a Greek Orthodox monk said to him once: “We will never be reunited as a single Church until we are all caught up in Christ.” I used this quote last night in my presentation, and I observed that it could have two meanings.

The first, a disappointing one, would be to understand the statement as referring to the End and Final Judgment—being “caught up” in the sense that some understand the “rapture.”

The second, though, is a bit more encouraging, and I think it’s what the monk actually meant: when we quit looking solely at ourselves, when we quit thinking that unity means the admission by others that WE are 100% perfect and that others must conform to and accept us as we are—when we live the principle of the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism which says “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (metanoia, or conversion)”: then we can hope for the unity wished by Christ.

“Hands that reach will touch”—I would like to suggest that the best place for our hands to touch and grasp, would be with the Blessed Mother and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the Cross. If we all hold hands there, and if we all look up in mourning at Him whom they have pierced (see John 19:37 and Zechariah 12:10, 13:1), it would surely be hard to remain arrogant or self-righteous. We might be ready, then, to become “one body through the cross” (Ephesians 2:13-18). What a glorious Lent and Easter that will be—Come, Holy Spirit!

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Following one of the themes of my homily this morning (based on the Cycle C readings), was the idea of God's remembrance. I was sent this quote from Fr. Richard Rohr, which is so pertinent to the same ideas:

Our remembrance that God remembers us will be the highway into the future, the straight path of the Lord promised by John the Baptizer (Luke 3:4). Memory is the basis of both pain and rejoicing: We cannot have one without the other.
Do not be too quick to heal all of those bad memories, unless it means also feeling them deeply, which means to learn what they have to teach you. God calls us to suffer (read “allow”) the whole of reality, to remember the good along with the bad. Perhaps that is the course of the journey toward new sight and new hope. Memory creates a readiness for salvation, an emptiness to receive love and a fullness to enjoy it.
Strangely enough, it seems so much easier to remember the hurts, the failures and the rejections. It is much more common to gather our life energy around a hurt than a joy, for some sad reason. Remember the good things even more strongly than the bad, but learn from both. And most of all, “remember that you are remembered by God.”

I mentioned that I thought God's word to us would be THANK YOU--for God remembers better than we do what good we have done (or even tried to do). We forget the good and hold on to the bad (our human curse: it haunts us)--God remembers the good and forgets the bad (the divine blessing: it eliminates our sins). Thanks be to God that GOD is God, and we are not!

Thursday, March 4, 2010


What did Dives (this name only is the Latin for 'rich man') see when he looked at Lazarus?

What would/do we see?

What would Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta have seen?

Monday night, in the storming, I heard insistent ringing of the doorbell at the church office--it was man in desperate need.

It was obvious that he was completely drunk. He admitted as much--he'd been sitting on the side of our church drinking, he said. But he couldn't get home on his bicycle in the storm. After perhaps 5 minutes of conversation (during which, mostly, I was berating him), I agreed to drive him to his home--a nearby trailer park. It was a bizarre journey, to say the least. And I got him into his trailer and said good-bye. He wanted to know my name and phone number, but I said I didn't think that would be a good idea.

I did him a kindness, but I doubt I saw "Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor" (as Mother Teresa used to say). My behavior was not that of worshiping Christ in the poor, the same Christ in the Blessed Sacrament (as she also used to say).

I might have forgotten about this man but for the fact that the Gospel for today was this very parable. And I had a funeral today; the final invocations speak of being taken to the "bosom of Abraham," "where Lazarus is poor no longer"...

What do we see, and how do we interpret what it is that we see? If the famous saying of St. Teresa of Avila is right ("Christ has no body now, but yours..."), am I using the eyes of Christ to see?

Are we?
In the early 20th century Ralph Vaughn Williams traveled the English countryside to record folk songs. His passion was shared by others, including Cecil Sharp and Gustav Holst. One that he found was titled "Dives and Lazarus," and when he worked on the publication of The English Hymnal the tune was named "Kingsfold," used more familiarly (for us) as the tune for I Heard The Voice Of Jesus. There are good versions on YouTube (most, unfortunately, not able to for me to attach to this message). Find the one sung by Maddy Prior at Cecil Sharp House.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Yesterday’s meditation in Magnificat (the regular monthly edition, for March) was taken from the writings of Msgr. Romano Guardini. In it, he wrote:

There is nothing brighter than the eyes of God, nor is there anything more comforting. They are unyielding, but they are the source of hope.
To be seen by him does not mean to be exposed to a merciless gaze, but to be enfolded in the deepest care. Human seeing often destroys the mystery of the other. God’s seeing creates it.

When we were children (or at least, when I was a child) we were taught about the omnipotence of God who “sees all things and knows all things.” We were, the sisters assured us, always being watched by God. Buying into this idea, how could we help but feel fear that all our sins were being observed by the One who is so totally holy and powerful that all we could do would be to offend? This is the genesis of the unhealthy “fear of the Lord” on which many of us were raised.

We knew of this especially at Christmastime, when the confusion between God and Santa Claus (which still afflicts some adults to this day) was so real for children: “He knows when you’ve been sleeping/He knows when you’re awake/He knows if you’ve been bad or good… He’s making a list/He's checking it twice/He’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…”

This image presents a God who at all costs must be avoided—we cannot look on Him, we dare not come into His presence sinful (and we cannot come anywhere except as sinful); we are unworthy, we deserve only hell-fire…

But Fr. Guardini wanted to change that sense of God’s gaze. It is not the gaze of the prison guard but the gaze of the Lover that marks God’s regard for us. If I am in love, the last thing I want is for my beloved to look away, either through distraction, or boredom, or hurt, or anger. I want to meet my beloved’s gaze and never break away from it. Can anyone imagine Rick ever saying anything to Ilsa other than “Here’s looking at you, kid”??

A famous vignette has an old illiterate man coming to church and staying a long time in prayer. The priest asks him what he is doing, and his reply is, “I look at God, and God looks at me.”

God, Father—look at me and love me! Please, never take your eyes from me!


Many of you use the Magnificat Lenten Companion, but many others do not. Yesterday’s meditation was a special one, I think, and so I want to share it with you, with full acknowledgement both to Magnificat and to the author of the meditation, Msgr. Gregory E. S. Malovetz:

I observe my dog as she makes her way into the veterinary office, ready for her annual checkup. At sixteen years old, she is no longer ‘showroom new,’ as her face is now gray and arthritis slows her down. Once we are with the vet, I explain what has changed since my last visit: my dog can no longer jump up on the bed, she will not go up stairs, and she has difficulty getting into the car. The vet senses the melancholy in my voice. She pets the dog and smiles, and looking at me, says, ‘Well, that’s what you’re there for.’ As I get older, Lent becomes less a time of recounting my sins. It is a time when I sense how things have changed in my life. In consider the situations over which I have no control. The challenge of the season is to stand firm in faith during those moments. The journey of Lent is a time of counting on the power of Jesus to keep me firm and steady, when the ground below me shifts. All around me, there are people for whom the journey has become more difficult. They do not need my judgment or my opinion. They need me to stand with them in the power of Jesus. I must realize that’s what I am here for.

May this Lent be for all of us a time for realizing “what I am here for.”