Saturday, July 31, 2010


When I say Mexico here, I actually mean Mexico City, DF, the federal district which is the equivalent of Washington, DC. Its airport and its most famous shrine were special treats for us pilgrims to our sister-parish this past week.

Elvia, born and raised in Colombia, speaks perfect Spanish, of course. The same cannot be said for Vivian or for me! I, for one, wondered how I would deal with the language barrier even in the airport—trying to find my way hoping that similarity to English and Italian would be enough. After all, I am in someone else’s country, and the reasonable thing (right?) is to expect that everyone who comes into another country can cope with the language of that country…

In the case of the airport, though, this fear was unfounded. The signs everywhere were both in Spanish and in English. No doubt the large number of Americans who fly in is one reason, but I think there is another: the sense of hospitality, of courtesy to guests. They want people to feel welcome in their homeland. So in many cases people's English was as clear as ours.

This was confirmed for me after we ate lunch in a restaurant with the Timon (the sister-parish steering committee for our education project with the children). Having come from breakfast with Fr Valentín, the pastor, and the bishop, Mons Francisco Escobar, I was still dressed in clerical clothes, definitely not the tradition in this country for all kinds of historical reasons. I wondered aloud what others in the restaurant thought of me, both a foreigner and dressed as a priest. I was assured that there was no issue at all; Mexicans are tolerant and have a great desire to respect all people. This was both a relief and an eye-opener for me. Sensitivity to others is a beautiful thing; we most realize this when we are on the needful, receiving end of this virtue.

Once we were picked up at the airport, Rolando took us to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas. The old original basilica is sinking, so it is closed; a new basilica has been built nearby. It is a huge (permanent seating for 10,000) circular structure, filled with sites for confessions, chapels for daily Masses with smaller groups, candles, flowers, and so on. The axis, the central focus of the basilica is clearly the main altar—the sanctuary is elevated over the rows of pews. But one might have asked, where is the Blessed Sacrament? And where is the tilma, the cloak of St Juan Diego, with the miraculous image of the Blessed Mother?

Behind the sanctuary there is a moving sidewalk that passes people in front of the image (smaller than we might think, but then it was a man’s robe)—this allows for a full view of the image while keeping folks from blocking the view of others.

And around the corner from this area is the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. It is kept away from the main part of the church and is a place intended for quiet prayer. The tabernacle itself is “hidden,” as it were, by a massive bronze enclosure, on which are written several phrases from the Gospels (hard to read because of the ornate lettering)—“This is My Body, given for you”; “Who eats this bread will live forever”… We paused to pray in this lovely and peaceful place before continuing to Temascalapa for our “real” visit.

I learned so many lessons in just a few hours: hospitality, courtesy, prayerful quiet, kindness. I learned these all again a hundred times over in the course of our actual visit to the people of San Francisco de Asis parish. But that is a story for another time.

Sunday, July 25, 2010


I recently wrote a piece about “Memory and Identity”—that item was general in its thrust. This one is much more specific: Monday is the feast of St Anne, Mother of the Mother of God, and patron of my old parish in Chicago.

From 19 to 26 July every year my old parish, St Joseph & St Anne (now merged with St Agnes, one block away, and given the new name of Our Lady of Fatima) celebrated (and still celebrates) its Novena to St Anne. It involved guest preachers, 3-4 evening outdoor processions with the Blessed Sacrament while praying the Rosary, and Benediction: sometimes in the church, sometimes on the steps outside. I was an altar server for several years for these events (repeated during the same days of August, in Polish).

While our church is on 38th Pl, the property (and our school) was on 39th St, otherwise known as Pershing Rd. It is a significant thoroughfare, as is California Av, the other intersecting street. Both have bus lines. Yet somehow we managed to get the City to place sanitation district saw-horses to block off traffic, enabling us to process south from 38th Pl to Pershing Rd; then west from California to Francisco; north again to 38th Pl, and finally east back to the church. If I remember correctly the police chief of our precinct (their office was across the street from our school) was a member of the parish…

Along the way, most of the houses were ready for the occasion. Front-yard shrines of our Lord, or the Blessed Mother, usually lit up, were everywhere; sometimes people were sitting on their porches and joining in the prayers as we passed by, even if they didn’t join in the procession. These shrines were often illuminated with devotional candles.

The procession was led by a car (a convertible) in which a priest rode, with a bull-horn, leading the Rosary so everyone could hear. The great thing, of course, is that folks could make the responses to the prayers without really worrying about the words, so they could concentrate on not falling while walking. Directly behind the car was the priest carrying the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament. I think the rule for this (and the outdoor Benediction) was “weather-permitting.” But most of the time, weather did indeed permit.

Our church had a side chapel to the left of the main sanctuary—our national shrine to St Anne. There were the leavings of folks who claimed cures from her intercession: mostly leg braces and crutches. There was also inscribed this quote: “You have loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore, God, your God, has anointed you above your fellows.” It is from Psalm 45:8, though I don’t think I was aware of the source when I was young.

In other words, in the 1950s/1960s in Chicago we could be (and were) Catholic pretty well without having to worry about it: it’s who we were and what we did. We lived in my old neighborhood (a curious mix of 2/3 Polish and 1/3 Mexican) rather like we were in Tevye’s Anatevka: Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.

But times (and locales) have changed. I received a Facebook post today from friends in Oak Ridge, TN: their church has been vandalized in a vulgar way, and police have labeled it an anti-Catholic hate crime. It is all so pathetic. But then, even in Fiddler on the Roof, Anatevka was the victim of intolerance and violence, and a pogrom which ends the musical. Sadly, perhaps the old saying Plus ça change… is true: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

I miss the old traditions and the sense of community, and the security they produced. It may be that, like seminary (literally, a seed-bed or hot-house) this was only an experience intended to help us “root” until we are ready to be transplanted into the world of parish priest-life, or of disciple-life. Still, it’s good to remember where we come from.
[Only family will care about this, but the picture above is our church, and the priest to the right, Fr Barr, was the pastor who ministered to my Dad when he was dying, and who surprised me by being at my Mom's wake, some 20 years later. He is a good, good priest.]

Friday, July 23, 2010


Given what I wrote on memory, can you see why the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so important? Just a thought...


[Thoughts triggered by the title of a book by Pope John Paul II]

The old saying that you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from is true enough. We need the trajectory of our lives to be traced out to see where we’re aimed. Kant insisted that the fundamental questions of life were “Who are you?” “Where did you come from?” and “Where are you going?” These answers do not have to have “cosmic” implications to be important.

Without the kind of memory that tells us where we are from we don’t know, really, who we are—right here, right now. A powerful clue into the answer of the question “Who are you?” is the answer to the question “What do you remember?” Tell me your answer to the latter, and I’ll tell you your answer to the former.

Memories are powerful and slippery things: mysterious in their nature because so often the memories are shadows (sometimes distortions) of actual events. But because the memories are real for us, they are more important than the actual events themselves.

It is said that 2/3 of our mental activity is unconscious. Of that activity, most is made up of memories—typically of persons and times when (as we believe) we have either loved or refused to love; when we were either loved or not loved. I know one person especially who believes that the most devastating part of his relationship with his (now deceased) Father is that he has no memory of ever being told “I love you” by him…

While in the seminary, at the request of my sister, I wrote a series of essays for her daughter (my niece), describing the “old neighborhood” and its personalities—the experiences we had as kids growing up in an inner city area of Chicago. My sister wanted her to know, and she reckoned I’d have memories she didn’t share. My Mom, before she died, wrote a similar set of essays describing her own upbringing in the Depression. As kids we could never have guessed the experiences she had. I wish (like the person in the paragraph above) that I had a similar set of memoirs from my Dad. I do recall one night in an uncle’s house when Dad and the family had had a few drinks and started telling the stories of the “old neighborhood” (we grew up in the same house my Dad and uncles/aunts did)—and how I wish I’d had a tape recorder for that session!

This is true for nations; it is true for the Church. It is a great loss that heritage (read: traditions; read: lived memories) is waning. After all, the essence of Eucharist is that it is a memorial (a remembrance) of the Lord’s redemptive gift of self to us. It’s why we proclaim the “Memorial Acclamation”—the Mystery of Faith.
So much more can be said on this topic; I must stop. I can only conclude with the words of the great philosophers Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: teach your children. Help them (and yourselves) to remember. Know where you came from, so you can know who you are and where you are going. And I hope you will soon sing in church Marty Haugen's contemporary hymn, We Remember.


NCR's Vatican columnist John Allen (perhaps the best reporter on things "Catholic Church-y" in the American English language) has posted a quiz that I think everyone should take, and I think many will have fun taking. In the interests of full disclosure, I got 9 out of 10 [and I won't reveal which one I missed--:)]. See how you do (this is more interesting than the quiz I designed for The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' a while back). The link to the quiz is below. ENJOY!
PS--in the further interest of full disclosure-- YES, I took the picture seen here (walking up all the steps to the cupola of the dome to do so!).

Thursday, July 22, 2010


EDITORIAL NOTE: I offered this view at our Christian-Jewish-Muslim Trialogue this evening; I hope you will think it worthwhile.

In many ways I think the faith of Rabbi Silberman, Mr Ashraf Sayyad and myself is derivative. The rabbi’s belief in Melek ha-Olam is transmitted through Moses. Mr Sayyad’s belief in Allah is the result of the witness of Muhammad. My belief in God is derivative from my belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. My own study leads me to conclude, in the phraseology of John Henry Cardinal Newman, that there is a ‘convergence of probabilities’ that makes an act of faith in Jesus, in virtue of the Resurrection, a reasonable thing to do. This leads me to belief in His being Messiah and Son of God. While Jews and Muslims agree that God must never be represented or imaged, I confess that I hold Jesus as the image of the invisible God, the form of God that I can see, leading me to love of the God I cannot see.
I am aware that this ‘convergence’ doesn’t have to lead to such a belief: the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, for example, could accept the historicity of the Resurrection while still rejecting the idea of the Messiahship (to say nothing of the divinity) of Jesus. But I, personally, do come to this conclusion.
It means for me that the proclamation of Jesus is at once eternally a valid insight into the nature of God, and that this insight is into the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom Jesus called Abba. It is through this lens that I come to my understanding of God.
There is a song popular in Christian “Praise and Worship” circles called Our God Is An Awesome God. Its refrain is: Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/With wisdom, power and love/Our God is an awesome God. To be able to sing this with full conviction is surely a joyful, energizing and (if I may say it) triumphalistic celebration of the God of presence.
For me, though, all too often, it seems that “My God is a silent God” (a Deus absconditus, a “hidden God”). Some mystics have glorious visions of the Deity; I am more at home with writings like The Cloud of Unknowing or The Dark Night of the Soul. I resonate with the poetry of St Thomas Aquinas, celebrating the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, when he writes (in the Holy Week hymn Pange, Lingua): Et si sensus deficit/Ad firmandum cor sincerum/Sola fides sufficit… Praestet fides supplementum/ Sensuum defectui [And if senses finally fail us/For to strengthen hearts that trust/Faith alone is what one needs…Faith stands ready to assist us/When our senses fail to see.] And so you can see that slogans like the mediaeval cry Deus vult! [God wills it!] are foreign to my experience—I am simply not so sure I know God’s will for someone else that I am able to lead any Crusades. I only want to bear witness, to “cry the Gospel with my life” (as Bl Charles de Foucauld put it).
And so I am very uncomfortable with those (especially on TV) who seem to have 14 conversations with God every day, when they are told specific things to say or do—quite specific things. This is not my experience.
And yet, I do have (beyond my trust in the Resurrection) what Wordsworth called “Intimations” of God’s presence—the quality of the answer to certain prayers (including those that led me to seminary, or at the times of my Dad’s and my Mom’s deaths) that force nothing yet invite and hint at everything. I trust them; I choose to remember them, I embrace them. It my hope they are (it all is) true.
St Paul (Rom 8:24) tells us that hope is not hope if we in fact already see. My faith, then, my hope, is to be able one day to see, to know even as I am known (I Cor 13:12). What supports and sustains this hope, for me?
Two things lead me to trust in God’s existence and love: to return to the beginning, my trust is in the reality of the Resurrection and the proclamation of God as love, a Father of forgiveness and healing, that Jesus announced as the Good News of the Kingdom. Second is the community of the faithful of which I wish to be a part: the people like Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola; Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Teresa of Avila; Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Bernardin; Bl Pope John XXIII and Bl Charles de Foucauld. These people knew all too intimately themselves the ‘dark night’; all followed Jesus to the cross and (in the words of the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner) looked down from the cross into the abyss of darkness, entering into it with Jesus, trusting that at the bottom they would find Abba-Love. I want to join them in this journey.
The Jews (I defer to Rabbi Silberman) have a story that when a rabbi dies, it is because there is a tremendous debate going on in heaven over some point of Torah, and another voice is needed. I believe that this debate is real, even if I cannot hear the voices and the arguments right now, and I am excited about the possibility of getting the chance to have my say.

Saturday, July 10, 2010


Most folks know that John Henry (Cardinal) Newman will be beatified this September by Pope Benedict XVI. For this reason our local ecumenical theological symposium, Christus, is sponsoring a dual presentation on this great theologian and Church figure. As I am one of the presenters, I am delving into his writings this summer. In particular, I am reading (for the first time, I admit) his Lectures on the Prophetical Office of the Church, Viewed Relatively to Romanism and Popular Protestantism. It sounds serious, doesn't it? And it is.

There is joy for me in reading Newman (I have had that joy a great deal, reading much of what he wrote, both in his Anglican and his Catholic lives). His prose is a model of clarity, and his controversial writing is a model of charity. He was known consistently to be able to state his opponents’ views more clearly than they could, and only then would demolish the arguments!

In 1837 Newman was supremely confident in his position within the Anglican Church and his construct of what he called a Via Media between the heresy of Protestantism and the corruption of Romanism. Presented more popularly in ##38 and 41 of the Tracts for the Times series, the Prophetical Office is the more reasoned, the more developed, and the more ‘serious’ a case for being a ‘catholic’ without Rome. This confidence would begin to crumble in 1839; it would take devastating blows for the next 5 years, and would lead to a sea-change in Newman’s life in 1845 when Fr Dominic Barberi, a Passionist priest, received him into the Catholic Church. But all that was not even a cloud on the horizon when writing Prophetical Office.

There was one fundamental drive in Newman all throughout his life: the desire to be rooted in the truth of his relationship to Christ, and therefore the longing to do all he could to lead others there. This desire and longing are (for me) best expressed in his Parochial and Plain Sermons, preached mostly at Sunday Evensong in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin while he was Vicar there. These can be read over and over again with great benefit today, though preached over 175 years ago. One might summarize his approach as follows: “If what I preach and what you believe is true, what are you and I going to do about it? How will it make a practical difference in our lives?”

These are questions that need to be asked by each of us today; Newman’s own life (the life of choices and the life of the mind) are a "kindly light" to lead us to answers.


A recent quote found its way into one of the meditations printed in the July issue of Magnificat: a challenge and rejoinder between Martin Luther and Desiderius Erasmus. Criticized by Luther for remaining in the Church and its corruption, Erasmus replied: I put up with this Church, in the hope that one day it will become better, just as it is constrained to put up with me in the hope that one day I will become better.

This clever retort, typical of Erasmus, is also filled with deep meanings for us today, and not just on the level one might think—of my somehow advocating (which I emphatically do not) overlooking all the sinfulness within the Church, pretending it doesn’t matter. Of course it does.

Erasmus’ insight was shared, centuries earlier, by St Augustine in his massive work The City of God. The Church, Augustine thought, was mirrored in the parable (Matthew 13:47-50) of the drag-net: while still trolling in the sea, it gathers all sorts of things, good and bad. Some good outside the net is destined to be swept in; the bad will at the End be sorted out and thrown away. Meanwhile, we live in a spiritual society that is mixed. The Church is made of good popes and bad; good bishops and bad; good priests and bad; good religious and bad; good lay-folk and bad. In all cases, the Church (more properly, the Triune God) is putting up with us “in the hope that one day [we] will become better.”

Here is the second part of the “rub” of Erasmus’ comment—did my behaviors, my choices, my prayer, my responses to grace, yesterday lead me to be better today in my following (my imitation) of Christ? Will my behaviors, choices, prayer, responses to grace today lead me to be better tomorrow? Over the period of, say, the last three months, what has been the trajectory of my spiritual life? Am I sufficiently self-reflective to be able to know this?

Such investigations into the interior of one’s heart and soul are very important, not only because they require focus and energy, but also because they dilute our interest in others’ answers (it is well to remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:1-5 in this regard). If we all focused on journeying closer to our Lord, individually and together, the whole Church would “one day become better.” The drag-net would have that much less that is bad and that much higher a percentage of “fish” that can be sold for a profit at market. In the words of Hamlet’s famous speech, ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished (III, i).

Sinfulness in the Church matters. What will I do (not another--I) to eliminate it?

Friday, July 2, 2010


John Allen is one of the most highly respected Catholic reporters on the scene today. In a recent post describing chaotic events this past week affecting the Catholic Church, he wrote:

When the dust settles, policy-makers in the church, particularly in the Vatican, will be ever more committed to what social theorists call “identity politics,” a traditional defense mechanism relied upon by minorities when facing what they perceive as a hostile cultural majority.
While there are an almost infinite number of ways of defining a “minority,” one widely invoked model says it has four characteristics:
• Suffering discrimination and subordination
• Physical and/or cultural traits that set them apart, and which are disapproved by the dominant group
• A shared sense of collective identity and common burdens
• Socially shared rules about who belongs and who does not
A growing swath of Catholics in the West, particularly in the church’s leadership class, believes that all these markers now apply to the Catholic church, and the events of the past week will strongly reinforce those impressions.
Taken together, the police raids in Belgium, the refusal by the Supreme Court in the United States to block a sex abuse lawsuit against the Vatican, and the European Court of Human Rights challenge to display of Catholic symbols in Italy all suggest that the final pillars of deference by civil authorities to the Catholic church are crumbling.

Though one may nit-pick about his description of “minorities” and its application to the Church, in the “short run” John Allen is, I think, right on target. But I am clear that his description, while accurate, is (in the long run) irrelevant. Let me explain.

The markers of minorities presented above are really sociological markers. They are true and important insofar as the Church is a human institution (that is, made up of men and women, operating in the dynamics of social and political realities). It is this dimension of the Church that might once have been (in some places, still might be) associated with the concept of “Christendom.” And it is this aspect of the Church that is dangerously close to collapse, if Allen’s analysis is on target.

But the Church is also the Mystical Body of Christ, and is called to be (in this world) a body of the suffering servants, not the triumphant. Arguments can and often have been made that the Church is never more the Church than when persecuted, despised, ridiculed, rejected (as Jesus was). An argument can be made that the “Golden Age” of the Church was the pre-Constantinian age, when one never knew what professing the Faith might entail. This was, all too often, literally an “underground Church” which knew nothing of extensive possessions granted it, deference paid to it, respect accorded it, influence allowed it. Ignatius of Antioch knew nothing of this, nor did Peter and Paul, nor the early martyrs of Rome (all of whom we celebrated liturgically this past week). Yet they are our true glory as a Church.

If lack of civil deference to the Church becomes a reality, so much the better. If privilege and honors are withdrawn, we can celebrate. We are not destined to be martyrs of blood, but of dismissal and ridicule. Let’s seek opportunities to live as the Body of Christ, rather than looking for ways to be celebrated as such. We will have to change; we will have to grow.

This will be a different experience for many bishops, priests and lay-folk (I doubt it will be very different for many consecrated religious). But to quote my hero, Cardinal Newman (himself quoting an inspirational teacher)—Growth is the only evidence of life.

PS--In the interests of "full disclosure": the picture above is much like the wallpaper of my own computer, but that is a picture I took myself, while this one is off the internet.

If you like this post (or any others of mine), you might want to look at our parish's web-site,, and click on Pastor's Corner.