Monday, May 31, 2010

MEMORIAL DAY REMEMBRANCES, RETREATS AND NIMROD

The train of thought I’m expressing here was triggered by a post by my blogging hero, Rocco Palmo, on “Whispers in the Loggia.” It is a performance of the “Nimrod” variation from Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations, played for Remembrance Day in England. The quality of the music speaks for itself as to why it is chosen for this occasion. But why would I also choose it?

There is much that we need to remember on Memorial Day when we think of ultimate sacrifices: I think of the Honor Flight which brings World War II veterans to Washington, DC for a special tribute and visit to the WWII Memorial. One of our own parishioners, Paul Hogan, made the trip last year. He, a survivor, did honor to those who gave their lives in the course of the combat to break the Nazi war machine and the machinations of Adolf Hitler. And I think of the ultimate of all sacrifices for freedom, fought and won almost 2,000 years ago on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. Every of Eucharist is a “Memorial Day” for us…

But as I prepare (along with the other priests of our Archdiocese) to enter into retreat, my mind goes back several years to another retreat. It was at Spring Hill College, and we were gathering in the Gautrelet Room for the afternoon conference when Msgr James Oberkirk heard a joke, laughed, and dropped to the floor with a massive heart attack. He was given CPR by Fr. Paul Halladay (and anointed by another priest) and was rushed to Spring Hill Memorial, but he died that day. We were all shaken by what had happened right in front of us. And after the conference, we moved slowly to St Joseph Chapel for Adoration and Evening Prayer—and the organist just happened to be playing “Nimrod” as we entered, not knowing what had happened (the organist, Chris Uhl, was a close friend of Fr Oberkirk). It was surreal, and tremendously appropriate.

On this Memorial Day, please remember those who have fallen for the sake of freedom; please remember those who have passed into the true Sanctuary after a lifetime of ministering in sanctuaries here; and pray for all of us who remain to be dedicated to the freedom which truly sets us free (John 8:34-36). We are all called to be ‘soldiers of Christ’ in spiritual warfare. May we be armed with the virtues (Eph 6:10-17) that enable us, in Him, to persevere and share in the victory.

Below is a performance of “Nimrod” for your Memorial Day pleasure, performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Daniel Barenboim.




Saturday, May 29, 2010

TERRIFYING STATISTICS

In a recent essay in America (May 24, 2010, p. 16), former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph Califano writes:

Consider these three facts: We in the United States make up 5 percent of the world’s population. We consume 66 percent of the world’s illegal drugs. We incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

This is a terrifying statement about our culture. It says that the simple declaration of an action or an object as illegal is not “The Answer” to eliminating it from our lives. It reminds us of the truth (presented so humorously by Fr. Guido Sarducci in his 5-Minute University) that economics is all about supply and demand. If there is a demand, there will be a supply.


It is why there are drug wars and drug lords, in Mexico, in Colombia, in Afghanistan, in the United States. Too many people see no other way to make money, and they want to be part of the supply for America’s demands, and they take enormous risks (and often act with enormous brutality) to satisfy those cravings and make that money.

Perhaps this suggests that the “War On Drugs” has been focusing on the wrong enemy…

LIFE AND DEATH IN ALABAMA

A prayerful vigil was held Thursday afternoon (5-27) in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Mobile—a vigil to mark the execution of Thomas Whisenhant for rape and murder, and to pray for his victim, Cheryl Payton, and her family. The majority of those present at the vigil were from Our Savior parish.

My comment there was simple enough: what Thomas Whisenhant did to Cheryl Payton back in 1976, was evil. He may or may not have been morally responsible (seeing that he was also earlier diagnosed as psychotic with paranoid schizophrenia). But taking his life was not the answer.

The feelings of Ms Payton’s family, as expressed in Friday’s Mobile Press-Register, confirm this, it seems to me. Before he died, Mr Whisenhant smiled and tried to lift up his left hand to respond to those who supported him. Relatives, the news article stated, saw this as an act of hostility. Why? Were they only seeing him through the lens of anger (surely understandable, but which blurs the vision nevertheless)?

Beyond this, Ms Payton’s brother was quoted as saying, “There really wasn’t justice served today. We watched him die an easy death.” Perhaps he did. But if death itself is not the point of capital punishment, what else would have been necessary to satisfy the family? “He died a much easier death than my wife,” Ms Payton’s widower, Douglas, said. Does this mean that we need (or that people want) to inflict death by torture rather than by lethal injection? Is death itself not the point…?

Please—I regard the rage and the hurt and the anger of the Payton family as completely understandable. But these feelings lead to expressions of a desire that is really about revenge and not about “justice being served” or experiencing “closure.” The rage and hurt and anger go on, even after the execution. And this family does not deserve to be held in the grip of these feelings—no family does.

This is why the most painful thing they could be asked to do is the one thing that can release them and heal them—it is the act of forgiveness. They cannot be reconciled with Mr Whisenhant now (they probably never could). But if they could begin to pray for peace for him, as well as for their beloved Cheryl; if they could begin to pray for themselves, for the grace and strength to let go the hate; they could begin to become whole persons again. They deserve this.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A BRILLIANT ORATORIAN INSIGHT


St. Philip Neri (feast day today—26 May) was known for “aphorisms”—short, pithy sayings that were rather like proverbs in their intent (especially those found in the Biblical Book of Proverbs). A selection of them was offered as a meditation today in Magnificat, and one in particular struck me:

Not everything which is better in itself is better for each man in particular.

I suppose some people may think this obvious—a truism of sorts. But how many of us chase after what seems to be beneficial for others (and seems desirable “in itself”), never considering that we are not “others.” How many of us find ourselves following career paths because they are expected of us, especially if our Fathers or Mothers enjoyed that career. The most superficial glance at British history will show that simply being the son of a king does not make you able to be a good king yourself. Edward II and Henry VI, for example, would have been far happier, far better off, and probably longer-lived, had the throne not been part of what was expected of them…

This is really a meditation on the meaning of vocation. In order to know who and what I can be as a person, I have to have a realistic knowledge of who and what I am, and how I came to be what I am. This takes serious and in-depth introspection—real soul-searching—to find out what my memories are, and how they have shaped me (for better or for worse) into the person I am now. Only then can I ask myself the intimate question, “Given all that I have experienced and all the choices I have made, and what it all has made me to be, for better and for worse: given who and what I am now—what life-style, what vocation, what career is truly suited for me, to make me authentically happy and allow me scope to exercise my unique gifts?” Sometimes, by the way, brokenness can be one of these “unique gifts”—think of people in AA ministering to other alcoholics…

It might mean becoming a Trappist monk; it might mean becoming a surgeon; it might mean having eight children; it might mean working for NASA—it might mean a hundred thousand other possibilities. And we need to choose one, not because it seems to work for others, but because it is right for me.

This brings me to the greatest of all Oratorians (after St. Philip, of course!)—John Henry Newman. He knew no Catholics as friends; he had scant experience of the Catholic Church in practice. But his theology led him to the doorstep of the Church, and as he agonized about his future, he wrote:

The simple question is, Can I (it is personal, not whether another, but can I) be saved in the English Church? am I in safety, were I to die to-night? Is it a mortal sin in me, not joining another communion? (Apologia Pro Vita Sua)

We all know the answer Newman finally arrived at to these questions, but the key is that he was not advocating a universal antidote but a specific prescription—for himself.

We all have back-stories (as TV show producers refer to them). We all are the sum of our experiences and choices up until this point, making us who and what we are. We all need to ask, “OK, God—given all this—what would you have me do?”

ON DEATH AND DYING


Thomas Whisenhant is scheduled to be executed on 5-27 as a result of his conviction of rape and murder of Cheryl Payton. He was found guilty more than 30 years ago.

There will be a prayer vigil in front of the Cathedral in Mobile at 4:30 tomorrow afternoon because of this execution. I will be there (as I usually am, when executions occur in our State).

At the vigil we pray, sing and share. First and foremost we pray for the families both of victim and criminal. We do not pretend that those who are executed are somehow all innocent and are being railroaded; we know most are in fact guilty of the fact of the crime, even if (as Mr Whisenhant’s lawyers argued) he was legally insane at the time.

I am sorry that Ms Payton’s family members have experienced such suffering for the last 30 years. But I want to offer a couple of observations on executions in general.

First of all, when families think there can be no “closure” until the murderer is executed, what happens when the crime’s punishment is determined to be “life imprisonment without hope of parole”? Does this mean there can never be “closure”? I also know (anecdotally) that families sometimes do not have peace even after an execution ends the life of one who ended the life of someone they loved. And the additional tragedy is that, regardless, the life of the victim will not be able to be restored.

If family and friends of a victim could let go of their anger and forgive (this does NOT mean excusing the criminal or saying anything that justifies an evil action), they could find peace and “closure” far earlier. The anger is what eats at them, and it makes them bitter. They need healing, too; they do not deserve to live in the grip of outrage and hatred. Forgiveness
is the only way of dealing with these overwhelming emotions. The “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in South Africa taught us this, after apartheid was finally ended in that country. The United Nations’ “Nelson Mandela International Day” will mark this leader’s 92nd birthday—18 July. Why wait? Why not ask for the grace to begin the process of forgiveness and healing now?

Executions are unworthy of us as a civilization. Opposing capital punishment does not mean some people have not committed great evil; it means that taking another life does not solve the problem and only makes us the more callous and vengeful. This may be a meaningful legal response, but it is not the Christian response. “An eye for an eye” was a good law in times when the lust for revenge was out of control. Can we not move forward a little, as a society, toward the Sermon on the Mount? It’s time… --isn't it?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

THE SPIRIT AND THE CHURCH


Scripture readings at Mass yesterday (Wednesday of the 7th Week of Easter) included the final part of Paul’s farewell speech on the island of Miletus (Acts 20) and a middle portion of Jesus’ priestly prayer for unity (John 17). The two contained over-arching themes that really work well for telling us things about ourselves as Christians of varying denominations.

Paul insists there will be “savage wolves” to attack the Church [from outside], and also from within “men…perverting the truth” in order to lead others into schism. It is a view that is repeated, in its own way, in the Fourth Gospel and letters of John: it is a view, “retrojected,” if you like, into Apostolic times, of the experience of the post-Apostolic Church communities.

Why should these things happen? Jesus gives us the answer: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons [and Satan’s kingdom with it], then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). And Satan won’t go down without a fight. Attacks and infiltrations are what we must expect, and we should be utterly vigilant against both. Our situation today shows that we have not been vigilant enough with regard to infiltrations, and this means not only the “faith” issues explicitly referred to by Paul, but also the “morals” issues of what we do in our lives that is contradictory to the Gospel we preach.

We are a divided body, and we are divided bodies. As was emphasized several times at the National Workshop on Christian Unity (a conference I attended in April), there are splits within denominations that are at least as serious as those between denominations, especially with regard to views of what is proper in the realm of sexuality.

Yet Jesus prays that we would be united in Him as He is in the Father. We hear and recognize the call, but we are not always ready to listen and follow. Our various denominations all need the refiner’s fire to purify us; we need tremendous individual and collective repentance; we need to be open to the re-forming in His image that the Holy Spirit’s fire can bring. The Latin phrase is Ecclesia semper reformanda: the Church, ever in need of reform. This doesn’t mean us only in the past and others now—it means us all, always. Otherwise, as Gamaliel told the Sanhedrin, we might even find ourselves fighting against God (Acts 5:39)

Here is a good focus for the final days of the “Novena to Pentecost”—to quote a contemporary hymn, “Let the fire fall”/”Come, Holy Spirit”/“Come, Lord Jesus.”

Monday, May 17, 2010

WHO MADE ME? GOD MADE ME...


American poet Dana Gioia received the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame this weekend, and his acceptance speech (found on “Whispers In The Loggia” and worth listening to) highlighted the role of others in making us who we are: God, parents, teachers, friends…

It’s a wonderful exercise (and probably done by most of us too infrequently) to take the time actually to write down all those persons who had (to our memories, anyway) a major influence in the ways we behave, or think, or love, or believe. It involves those who nurtured us, or challenged us, or engaged us, or taught us, or inspired us: those who encouraged us to be who and what we are, and to dream of being even more than we were at that time. The influences never really end; we can be “re-formed” at 70 just as well as at 20.

Who made you? This time, the Catechism answer is only the beginning!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

COME, HOLY SPIRIT

It's the period of the "original Novena" of days of prayer in the Upper Room between Ascension and Pentecost. This "novena" concluded with the incredible outpouring of the Holy Spirit--an outpouring we need today, as well.

Though there is no formal, shared prayer at Our Savior during this time, we are all encouraged to make our personal novena to the Holy Spirit--what will we do extra, do without, give away... as a means of entering into prayerful, hopeful watching and waiting?

Pope John XXIII called for a "new Pentecost" in the context of his convoking Vatican II. Pope Benedict XVI has called for a new efflusion of the Spirit, both a couple of years ago in his pastoral visit to the United States, and now as he has ended his pastoral visit to Portugal.

Are our hearts (is my heart) open to transformation? What might it ask of me--to do, to be, to surrender, to embrace...? The institution of the Church cannot be reformed unless the members of the Body of Christ (which is the real Church) are reformed: this is the conversion we must long for and be open to. Will we be ready to sing Veni, Sancte Spiritus on this Pentecost? This sequence will be chanted at Mass next Sunday. And just a couple of weeks later another ancient prayer will be chanted: Veni, Creator Spiritus--at the ordination of Fred Boni, Dan Good, James Morrison and Wayne Youngman to the priesthood. They will be transformed for committed service and ministry to the Church in a total way. Are we ready to be used by the Spirit, too?

The great prayer to the Holy Spirit is a great way to engage in this special novena:

Come, Holy Spirit; fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created, and You shall renew the face of the earth. O God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit instructs the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever rejoice in His consolations, through Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Below is a clip (this one is acceptable; I promise!) of one of the most famous of all settings of the Veni, Sancte Spiritus, by the 15th century composer John Dunstable (mis-spelled in the clip's title). And let's pray in these next days for the "fire" to fall!




Friday, May 14, 2010

APOLOGY OFFERED

Please see the bottom of the post "IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO TODAY" for an apology to all those who already saw that post and were (very properly) offended by the YouTube clip I attached at the end...

Thanks!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO TODAY...


Actually, it was 29 years ago today (see comment below) that Mehmet Ali Agca shot Pope John Paul II in the Piazza of St. Peter’s in the context of a Wednesday General Audience. Seriously wounded, the Pope nearly bled to death before surgeons at the Gemelli Clinic were able to get things under control.

People remember exactly where they were when the announcement of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was made (I am one of them). I also remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the word came to us about the Holy Father.

I was teaching an Honors Humanities class (world history/English/theology) at Montgomery Catholic HS that morning. Among the students was Laurie Gulley, now newly named the Principal of the St. Bede campus of Montgomery Catholic Prep. The word came, and I was stunned into silence and shock: I was leaning backward against my desk, and for what seemed forever I simply stood silent, eyes closed. I think it was at least 20 minutes. The students were all equally silent.

The fact the bullets missed the major arteries in the Pope’s abdomen was amazing: he knew it was a miracle, the protection of the Blessed Mother on the anniversary of her first appearance at Fatima in 1917. The Pope’s own devotion to the Mother of God, surely in its supreme expression for him in the “Black Madonna” of Jasna Gora, at Czestochowa in Poland, made it the most logical connection. It is no coincidence, then, that John Paul placed the bullet recovered from his wounds in a shrine at Fatima as a memorial and a thank-you. It is also no coincidence that the optional memorial we celebrated today was only added to the Church’s liturgical calendar by John Paul in the 3rd revision of the Sacramentary (this is the edition which has finally been officially translated into English and which will be implemented in the near future).

In commemoration of this sorrowful (yet joyful) day, I offer the following clip from the 20th century Polish composer Henryk Gorecki—from his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Enjoy the music, and pray for Pope John Paul II (now declared “Venerable”)—if ever there was a true “Servant of God,” he was it.
APOLOGY!!!
I attached a clip as indicated above, and was recently told that a number of minutes into it images that were clearly inappropriate were being posted--I am embarrassed and VERY SORRY!
The great 19th century Oxford scholar Martin Routh, asked toward the end of his life for a word of advice, thought carefully and then said: I think, sir, wince you come for the advice of an old man, sir, you will find it a very good practice always to verify your references, sir!
Clearly, I did not, and I am at fault. I ask your forgiveness, and I encourage you to seek out your own recording of the Symphony #3 of Sorrowful Songs without my "special help"!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

EMBRACING THE TRUTH IN LOVE ACROSS THE CENTURIES






Today’s Memorial (an optional one) was for 3 early Christian martyrs: Nereus, Achilleus and Pancras. The latter died for the Faith at the end of the 3rd century; the other two may have died then, or perhaps the beginning of the 2nd century—we’re not sure. What we are sure of is their tombs, and the churches built over the catacombs where they were buried.
They stood alone against the power of the Roman Empire and its leader, the Emperor Diocletian (and Trajan, if the first two were martyred in the early 2nd century as one source suggests). Their tombs and the churches over them are their trophies of victory. But who would have considered them glorious and “winners” back then?

We fast-forward to the 20th century. In the same spirit as these early martyrs, but even more “alone,” Franz J├Ągerst├Ątter was a young Austrian who refused to be conscripted into the Nazi army after his home country was over-run by Germany. His was a martyrdom of faith, more “alone” because even the local clergy advised him that to oppose the regime of the Third Reich was pointless. His story was first told movingly by Gordon Zahn in the important book In Solitary Witness. And in a fitting “twist” it was the German pope, Benedict XVI, who declared him a martyr—he was beatified in 2007.

Finally, the three children (from left, Jacinta, Lucia and Francisco) who are celebrated especially on 13 May: the visionaries of Fatima. It is to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their beatification (more on this point in a minute) that Pope Benedict is now making his apostolic visit to Portugal.

These children did not stand up to the power of an “Evil Empire” but only to the local government authorities who tried to get them to admit they were making up the story of the Lady. But at ages 9, 9 and 7, a town police chief would seem equally as threatening, especially when he did in fact threaten the children. Lucia (the oldest) long outlived her young cousins (Francisco and Jacinta): they died in the influenza epidemic shortly after World War I, but she lived to age 97, dying in the Carmelite convent where she spent so much of her life. How “alone” must that have felt, I wonder? Beyond that, since she died so recently, Lucia is the one child of the visionaries not beatified. “Left out”? Probably not really…


Glory does not come from fame or praise: it comes from faithful, prayerful love of Christ, in and with and for others. It comes from only one word—that of our Lord, when He says to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Luke 19:17). May we all hear that word spoken to us in joyful welcome home!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

UNDERSTANDING


At the reception Saturday morning after we celebrated First Eucharist with our children, one young person came up to me with a question: “What was it that I got?” I said, “That was Jesus.” The reaction was priceless—taking a jump backward and eyes widening like the plate the cake was on, the reply was, “Really?? Wow…!”

Perhaps folks are thinking that this little encounter should have left me (and the Religious Ed. teachers) somewhat depressed—after all, wasn’t a realization of the reality of the Presence the main point of their classes for several months now?

But I think the reaction of this child was very like the sense many of the children had that day: “Wow!” And when was the last time we adults had the same kind of reaction, realizing what we were actually doing when receiving the Eucharist?

Young people’s engagement in the sacramental life of the Church is often very much deeper and more profound than we give them credit for, and often much more so than adults. I remember a First Reconciliation I was celebrating when the child went on for perhaps five minutes with sins; when I asked if that was all, the reply was, “Oh, no—I’m only up to when I was four”! During another First Reconciliation the child burst into tears and cried, “I’m so sorry!!” These children were capable of examination of conscience and repentance in ways that were truly amazing.

How much “understanding” is required to receive the Eucharist? Families with handicapped children have been challenged by priests on this score, and in some cases the priests have flatly refused the children. But the question can fairly be asked, “How much understanding (true understanding) do we as adults have, of what we receive?

“Transubstantiation” is a word that older adults may remember, and we may even remember the text-book description of what the word conveys. But do we understand it? For that matter, do we understand the idea of grace? We have had various descriptions of grace in the past, no doubt: the “gas pump” image, the idea of “uncreated Light,” or “God-life dwelling in me.” What do those images really mean? Do we understand the Trinity in any way beyond the famous illustration of St. Patrick with the 3-leaf clover?

I think my 3rd grade teacher, Sr. Emerita, was probably very wise, after all, in simply saying, “It’s a mystery.” This isn’t a cop-out but an admission that God is God, we are not, and if we think we can comprehend God and God’s ways, then what we’ve “understood” is not God at all but a figment of our imagination.

Trinity, Grace, Eucharist—these are God’s ways of dealing with us and sharing divine life with us—our job is less to understand and more simply to accept gratefully this incredible love.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

NOT AS THE WORLD GIVES...




Jesus’ farewell gift in today’s Gospel (John 14:27-31a) is the gift of peace. He makes it very clear that this peace is given “Not as the world gives…” And this of course raises the question of how it is that the world gives peace (or, perhaps, what sometimes passes for peace).

One person who struggled with this question (with no conclusive result) was T. S. Eliot, in his drama Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot’s model was Greek tragedy, and his play is complete with chorus and couplets. But there is a prose interlude, a “sermon” preached by Becket in Canterbury cathedral on Christmas night—four days before his murder in that same cathedral. In this sermon, Becket (Eliot) comments that the world’s sense of “peace” is primarily the absence or cessation of violent conflict, whether between England and its neighbors, or king and barons or a happy householder with peaceful gains, a good friend and a cheerful family. Lord knows these are all blessings! But they are not the peace our Lord promises. And Becket (Eliot) has nothing concrete to offer beyond the statement that they are not the same.

Another person who struggled with the idea of the Lord’s peace was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. He knew much sadness in his ministry: for preaching and writing on the view that ALL life issues should be regarded as sacred, as a “seamless garment,” he was accused of being soft on abortion; he battled pancreatic cancer and beat it; he endured 18 months of slander before a false accusation of his being involved in sexual abuse of a seminarian was finally proved not only false but maliciously spread by a discontented priest. His proposal to bring divisiveness in the Church to an end with his “Common Ground” initiative was met with direct opposition by other American prelates. And then the pancreatic cancer came back.

Two things indicate to me the meaning of the Lord’s peace in him. After the accusations were proved false, he journeyed to the young man’s bedside (he was dying of AIDS); there was a reconciliation and forgiveness, and Bernardin was able to bring the young man back into the graces of the Church before he died.

Then when the cancer returned, it was the most powerful of all press conferences when he announced the fact and insisted that he regarded death as a “friend,” a friend who would take him to Jesus. On his deathbed he wrote his final memoir, titled The Gift of Peace. I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially to anyone in whose life cancer has been an unwelcome visitor.

To forgive; to surrender; to be content—this is the essence of the Lord’s gift of peace. No desire for revenge, no petulant cries that the cancer’s return is unfair. Just a simple, heart-felt YES to the Lord. I am not sure whether the gift of peace enables the forgiveness and the YES, or whether the YES and the forgiveness bring the gift of peace. But I am convinced that they must all go together.

Who is ready for this gift?