Friday, December 30, 2011


By "special request" for someone--I hope you all enjoy it!


Today is the Feast of the Holy Family.  The special carol "Once In Royal David's City" has already been posted (for Advent) by Rocco Palmo on his blog "Whispers In The Loggia," so instead I am posting one of my favorite carols in my all-time favorite arrangement--enjoy!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

LUKE 2:8-14

With its instrumental "pastoral symphony" as a gentle, lilting introduction, here is the most delightful of all settings of this great feast day's most popular Gospel:  enjoy, and MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL!  May we all know and live the gift of His peace. 

Monday, December 19, 2011



VATICAN CITY, 19 DEC 2011 (VIS) - The Holy Father today received in audience Cardinal Angelo Amato S.D.B., prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and authorised the promulgation of decrees concerning the following causes:
- Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, American laywoman (1656-1680).

So declares the Vatican Congregation, which sets the stage for a Consistory to confirm the canonization of Bl Kateri (and a number of others).  After that, it remains to see when Pope Benedict will set a date for the canonization itself.  Kateri will be the first Native American saint of North America, and this will be a great day for the Church in upstate New York and Canada (where her shrine is).  Ora pro nobis, Beata!

Friday, December 16, 2011


Today is Beethoven's birthday.  According to tradition, Schroeder is celebrating by playing his piano sonata #31 in A-flat, op 110 ("Alone!" he emphasizes to Lucy!). 

Life can be filled with tragedy, and Beethoven's life of deafness is surely a great example, especially if (as has been plausibly suggested, it was caused by eating from clay-fired bowls that were decorated with lead-based paint that leached into the ceramic and the lead thence into his system).  He insisted on conducting even when he could no longer hear:  including the premiere of his Ninth Symphony.  The 2nd movement got a standing ovation (in those days, it was acceptable to applaud after every movement and even call for an encore of it)--but Beethoven was lost and was still "conducting" even after the orchestra finished playing.  His back was to the audience, and so he could not hear their approval until one of the singers took him by the hand and turned him around to face the cheering.

Below is not that 2nd movement, nor is it the famous finale ("Ode to Joy").  Instead, it is my favorite portion of the symphony:  the slow 3rd movement.  There is incredible beauty (really mystical) here--let this be a chance to "smell the flowers" with the ears for about 10 minutes and give thanks that when Beethoven realized his deafness was progressive and incurable, he did not commit suicide (as he was contemplating) but instead chose to live until he could bring forth all that he felt was within him to produce (his words, from the Heiligenstadt Testament).  ENJOY!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Attached please enjoy a musical setting of St John's famous poem, "The Dark Night of the Soul," sung by Loreena McKennitt.


[I wrote this essay in 2000, but in honor of St John of the Cross' feast-day today, I re-post it.]

Congruence is the experience of threads or strands of life coming together to make sense in a larger way than would have been possible if only the individual strands or threads had remained separate. It is the joy of an insight.

Special congruence was a gift I received this past summer, in ways as disparate as a present from my Mom earlier this year, a book I was reading as a result of a commitment to a person with whom I do spiritual direction, and my visit to Poland.

Much earlier this year my Mom sent me a copy of the video of the Frontline special on Pope John Paul II. She knew I would enjoy it. But I didn't get around to watching it until this summer, with her in Chicago. If only her VCR hadn't died, midway into the watching!

But of what I saw, the background and history of Karol Wojtyla and of Poland in general (of which I knew some already) was heart-breaking. This can be discovered in greater depth in the first sections of George Weigel's papal biography Witness To Hope. His Mother's death, his brother's death, his Father's death, came in all too quick succession in Karol's young life. So did the devastation of Poland in World War II. Yet here history was only repeating itself.

For hundreds of years, Poland had formally ceased to exist, as empires chose it as their battlefield and territory: the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Russians all had their hand in the partitions of Poland; here it was happening again. How did the Poles, and how did Karol Wojtyla, endure it?
During the communist regime, the Church was persecuted and harassed regularly. How did the Poles keep the Faith? How could they manage, in the face of the darkness they had individually and collectively lived for so long, with glimmers of light every now and then?

It was during this trip that I finished reading You Set My Spirit Free. It is a collection of 40 excerpts from the writings of St. John of the Cross, done by David Hazard in a series he calls Rekindling the Inner Fire. They are a powerful collection. St. John has some of the most inspirational and challenging writing about the spiritual life one could ever read. Interestingly, his works had long ago been recommended to me by a friend, who uses them in AA meetings.

The biography of St. John would break anyone's heart. He was hounded by the Inquisition and tormented for his attempts to reform the Carmelite Order along with St. Teresa of Avila. He was locked in a broom-closet for months, being unable to stand up or sit in it, not permitted to wash. He was beaten on a daily basis for weeks. And in all this he could write about the power and beauty of God who is encountered through the dark night, and that surrender to God must also involve surrender of the desire for spiritual consolations. St. John insisted that these would become false gods.

In these readings, I could now understand how the Poles endured their experience: it was the experience of St. John of the Cross, lived as a nation. Even after Warsaw was destroyed by the Nazis, the underground would continue to paint their special resistance symbols on the walls of what buildings were still standing. And no collaboration government was ever established in Poland. During my trip I saw, imbedded in the wall of the rebuilt cathedral of Warsaw, a piece of tread from one of the tanks that destroyed the old cathedral. So the challenge was met, and Faith triumphed over Nazi hatred.

This was the Polish experience, even though they had not read St. John. And yet someone else did:  Karol Wojtyla. The dissertation he wrote for his first doctorate, for work he did in Rome, was on the writings of St. John of the Cross. And how could it not be, when St. John was the prophetic spiritual chronicler of the Polish nation?!

To understand Poland and to understand Pope John Paul II is to understand the insight of St. John of the Cross; to embrace St. John is to experience the radical freedom of surrender of all to God, knowing that Love exists beyond the dark night expressed so miraculously to me in the final
chorus of Les Miserables.  Let me end my ramblings with those lyrics:

Do you hear the people sing/Lost in the valleys of the night?
It is the music of a people/Who are climbing to the light.
For the wretched of the earth/There is a flame that never dies.

Even the darkest night will end/And the sun will rise.
They will live again in freedom/In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the ploughshare/They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.
Will you join in our crusade?/Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade/Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?/Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring When tomorrow comes!

Saturday, December 3, 2011


There is nothing simple in international relations. No doubt people were cheering their support of the uprising in Egypt against the hard-handed Hosni Mubarak. And the affirmation led to celebration when democratic elections were scheduled and actually began. Results are not complete, but there are good indications of the outlook of those who will be regarded as “winners” in this referendum.

Unfortunately, there will also be “losers.” And the most significant of the minorities in this group will surely be the Coptic Christians. They have suffered discrimination and persecution for decades; if Shariah is established in Egypt, all religions and religious expressions except Islam could be outlawed.

How will the Copts (a most ancient Christian Church) cope? Will they (like their brothers in the Holy Land, or Iraq) feel compelled to leave their homeland?

What to do? Should the United States, as a matter of policy, support the results of democratic elections and the potential of making Egypt a hard-line Islamist state? Or should it make a strong stand in favor of human rights for the Copts?

It is this kind of fear that makes other Orthodox and Catholic Churches wary of the uprising in Syria. Even while the Arab League calls for President Bashar al-Assad to halt his vicious counter-attacks against anti-government demonstrators, Christians there fear that if he were to fall, the alternative would be another strongly Islamist state in which their existence would be severely limited, or even eliminated by law.

What to do? Should the United States stand by and watch as protesters are butchered? Or should it support the Assad regime on the theory “Out of the frying pan means into the fire”?

As a Catholic in the United States I want to affirm freedom, which implies democracy in politics) and religious solidarity (which means support for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in North Africa and the Middle East). But how can I do both?

There is nothing simple in international relations.

Sunday, November 27, 2011


In his blog, Whispers In The Loggia, Rocco Palmo asks how things went in the “roll-out” of the new Missal. After exactly 1 Eucharistic celebration with the Tertio Editio Typica, here are my thoughts:

A couple of weeks ago, borrowing language from the theatre, I suggested that we’d all be “on book” for a while, until we were comfortable with the new “script.” And so we were. But knowing what to use when made things a bit easier, especially for the singing of the new setting of Mass parts (we are using Dan Schutte’s Mass of Christ the Savior).

Were there some glitches? Of course—some “And also with you” mixed in with “And with your spirit,” a few “It is right to give Him thanks and praise” added to “It is right and just,” and so on. That’s OK; we’re getting it.
There were glitches on my part, as well: lapsing into the “old” prayers for the Preparation of the Gifts (mercifully, done silently as the congregation was singing); getting a bit tongue-tied in singing the Preface (not only different words, but the chant patterns are different), and so on.
Am I (are we) now “slaves of the book”? Perhaps, but not for long, I think. Familiarity breeds—well, familiarity, finally!

Is it difficult/impossible to pray? One priest commenting to Rocco seemed to think so. I partially understand what he was saying. Surely after (for me) 20 years of being able to lapse into sets of words like a comfortable pair of bedroom slippers, now having really to think about the words, makes this flow less automatically and smoothly. But being “automatic” or “rote” doesn’t necessarily make for better prayer, only unself-conscious prayer (which may or may not be “prayerful” at all, depending).

The new Missal is indeed heavy (it weighs more than some of our altar servers!). So I have a chapel-size edition at the chair that they can manage; the large one is brought up only to be used at the altar. I discovered that I need a pillow to prop up the Missal since I have to be far more careful about words now; I can see them more easily when they are at an angle. But this is a small “adaptation.”

At the end of Mass, everyone seemed to be able to agree with me that “We did it!” It will become 2nd nature to us after a while, and I am convinced that by serious (and cheerful) preparation, always insisting “We can do it!” the transition is going to be that much more effective. I hope the Missal itself will help us all to be more effective—in our prayer, and therefore in our faith-walk as followers of Jesus Christ.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Instead of standing in line in the wee hours of the morning at a mega-store for sales, I offer the words below for consideration:

If…a direct appeal is made to [the] instincts—while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free—then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to physical and spiritual health.

It is not wrong to want to live better; what is wrong is a style of life which is presumed to be better when it is directed towards “having” rather than “being”, and which wants to have more, not in order to be more but in order to spend life in enjoyment as an end in itself.

…alienation—and the loss of authentic meaning of life—is a reality in Western societies too. This happens in consumerism, when people are ensnared in a web of false and superficial gratifications rather than being helped to experience their personhood in an authentic and concrete way.

A person who is concerned solely or primarily with possessing and enjoying, who is no longer able to control his instincts and passions, or to subordinate them by obedience to the truth, cannot be free: obedience to the truth about God and man is the first condition of freedom, making it possible for a person to order his needs and desires and to choose the means of satisfying them according to a correct scale of values, so that the ownership of things may become an occasion of growth for him. This growth can be hindered as a result of manipulation by the means of mass communication, which impose fashions and trends of opinion through carefully orchestrated repetition, without it being possible to subject to critical scrutiny the premises on which these fashions and trends are based.

          --excerpted from Pope John Paul II:  Centesimus Annus, ##36, 41

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


Thanksgiving:  a time of rejoicing in blessings, particularly the blessings of family, friendships, and faith (and yes, to be honest:  food and football, as well!).  Of all these, faith perhaps gets the shortest shrift on this day, and yet the essence of Christianity is that it is a eucharistic (thanks-giving) faith.  In the words of the Exultet, the great hymn of the Easter Vigil:  "Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed."

To celebrate properly, an excerpt from Messiah for everyone's holiday pleasure.  Enjoy!

Friday, November 18, 2011


The laws of physics (as we know them today, thanks to Albert Einstein) insist that there is one constant in the universe, and it isn’t necessarily death or taxes: it is the light-speed barrier. According to Einstein, c (the standard abbreviation for the speed of light: ~186,000 miles/second) is absolute. And so it is. Or so it was…
Two separate experiments seem to demonstrate that neutrinos (sub-atomic particles with neutral electrical charge) in fact break the cosmic speed-limit. What does this mean?

The first conclusion is that it means all our science is wrong. This is perhaps too radical, but when fundamentals are proved inadequate, it is hard to see why such a conclusion would not be jumped to. Yet when Einstein’s mathematics showed that Newton was not 100% precise in all cases, this did not mean Newton was “wrong”—only incomplete.

Still, the history of science in the last century has demonstrated one thing in complete clarity: what we think we know is nowhere near so certain as what reality is in itself.

Atoms were once supposed to be the fundamental building-blocks of all matter: yet they themselves, as it turns out, are made up of an almost infinite range of smaller particles.

I could go on, but you would be better served by watching NOVA’s series “The Fabric of the Cosmos” with Brian Greene (or, better still, reading his book). What is clear is that, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet told Horatio (Hamlet, I, v, 166) there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy.

This is not a bad thing—why should we think we can easily and simply explain and understand the reality of Reality? If we believe the universe is expanding (and accelerating, at that), in what is this expansion taking place? We have no answers. We talk about “multiverses,” series of parallel universes, yet we doubt the possibility of a Being beyond this cosmos. Why?
Peter Kreeft, borrowing a turn of phrase from C S Lewis, titled one of his books Chance—Or the Dance? I am happy to accept that any cosmic “dance” has steps far more complicated than I could ever learn. But that is not a bad thing.  God is GOD, after all...  And don't we ALL hope, one day, that we can travel (like the star-ship Enterprise) at warp-speed??

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


The dedication of a church is usually an “internal affair” in terms of celebration: one celebrates this anniversary when actually in that particular church. But then, St John Lateran is no ordinary church. One of the great patriarchal basilicas of Rome (along with St Peter’s, St Mary Major and St Paul Outside the Walls), it is in fact THE church of Rome.

It is the oldest Christian building, given by Constantine on what was once property belonging to the Laterani family (which came to belong to the family of his wife)—thus, the church was on private (imperial) land. It is the cathedral of Rome, and it is the home-church to the pope as bishop of Rome.

It has been the site of 5 ecumenical councils (the last one, in 1510, a “reforming council” that, sadly, failed utterly).

It is the church in which Pope Innocent III first encountered St Francis of Assisi, and it was this church that featured in the pope’s famous dream of an earthquake shaking the building, its being held up by a little man in a brown robe.

It is the place where St Francis and St Dominic met.

From this church the very first “Holy Year” was proclaimed (by Pope Boniface VIII, in 1300). On a column in the left-hand aisle there is a fragment of a fresco by Giotto which depicts the event.

It is the church where, every Holy Thursday, the pope presides at the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper and washes the feet of twelve people.

When a pope speaks ex cathedra to define an article of the Faith (which has happened formally only twice, actually) the "cathedra" (bishop's chair) of St John Lateran is what is referred to, even if the “chair of Peter” is preserved in the monument of the same name in the basilica of the same name.

She calls herself the mother and head of all churches in the city and the world. And so she is, for Catholics. Could she ever be more, for other Christians?
The keynote speaker for our Lutheran-Anglican-Roman Catholic Conference, Dean Thomas Ferguson, spoke very wistfully about the meeting between Pope John Paul II and President George W Bush, in which the pope spoke strongly against the 2nd Iraq war. Ferguson said, “I wish, when he was speaking, that he were speaking also for me.” Then he added, “I wonder—in Ut Unum Sint (the pope’s encyclical on church unity) John Paul asked us to help him re-imagine the office of Peter to be a source of support and unity: could we do this?” Theologian Robert Jenson has also reflected such a desire. This longing comes from Episcopalian and Lutheran voices. What a joy it would be if such a vision could become a reality, and St John Lateran would truly be a motherly voice for ALL the Christian world.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


In the context of a press conference discussing the upcoming (9-11 Nov 2011) convention on adult stem-cell research, former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson had this to say. Especially in the light of the wonderful speech given by Lila Rose at our annual 2B pro-life banquet, exposing the fraudulent (and criminal) practices of some Planned Parenthood abortion clinics, this makes for important reading. There is so much we can do; why drive the agenda bus any further with regard to the supposed necessity of abortion and embryonic stem-cells as the only way forward in this research?

Footnote: in the near future Our Savior will sponsor an evening with myself and Dr Richard Duffey to discuss the ethical and political implications of our stem-cell policies. It will be a follow-up to the presentation Dr Duffey made earlier here, presenting the medical and scientific basis of stem-cell research and treatments.


Thank you so much, Card. Ravasi, and thanks also to NeoStem, The Stem for Life Foundation, and of course, The Vatican for bringing us all together on this historic day.
As many of you know, I was The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2001 to 2005. This was obviously a great privilege for me, and while I am no scientist or doctor, the job gave me a unique understanding of the many issues driving today’s dialogue on healthcare.

And adult stem cells deserve to be at the heart of this discussion – and it’s a subject I’m very passionate about.

Throughout the course of my career, whether in the public or private sector, the best ideas I’ve come across have always been the simplest ones. And frankly, I just don’t believe that man can engineer something superior to what The Good Lord has already given us. That’s what I love about adult stem cells – we’re using the divine wisdom inside of us to supercharge our bodies and wipe away disease. And as we do this, not one single human embryo is destroyed.

And that to me is a very big idea – but this idea has been shrouded in an ugly political argument that has served no one.

When I talk to the average American about adult stem cells, many of them are really surprised. All they have ever heard about are embryonic stem cells and this political battle about who is right and wrong. They see the constant finger pointing in Washington – and instead of focusing on "what we can do right now" with adult stem cells, our leaders argue about "what we should not do" with embryonic stem cells.

That doesn’t make any sense to me at all – and that’s why today is such an important, historic day, and I’m just thrilled to be a part of it.

The 246 million people in this world suffering from diabetes need to hear our voices today. The 770,000 Americans that will have a heart attack or stroke this year need to hear this message. Our men and women in uniform need to know that there is so much to be hopeful for – a day when our wounded veterans can regrow their own skin, organs and bones. And maybe, just maybe, one day our quadriplegics will rise up from their wheelchairs.

This is not wishful thinking, folks – that day is here if we want it – and that’s why I want to share my vision for a future of cellular collaboration.

President John F. Kennedy once challenged the nation and in fact the whole world to put a man on the moon in a historic research and development initiative. It was a race against the clock and an unprecedented era of scientific collaboration.

Ladies and gentleman, if we can put a moon on the moon, then we can surely unite to return health to the hundreds of millions of people suffering needlessly throughout the world. And we can do so without destroying one human life.

And we’re in our own race against the clock. The American baby boomers are just hitting retirement, so we’re going to see a huge spike in chronic disease in the years ahead. Just look at diabetes. Currently, one out of every eight Americans has diabetes and by 2050 one out of every three of us will have it. And already our nation is spending $200 billion dollars per year to manage this disease.

Can you believe this? $200 billion a year for this one disease? Can you imagine what diabetes will cost us when one third of all Americans have it?

This makes no sense to me. We’re wasting money managing a chronic disease instead of finding a cure for it. And ironically, the cure is sitting right inside of our own bodies, a divine intelligence just sitting there to be harvested and given back to us.

So why not create a coordinated network of scientists and professionals devoted to discovering and funding these vital therapies? We must tap the best of private enterprise to "get the job done fast". We must turn to America’s brightest companies and business leaders to take the best research from our universities and translate them into here-and-now cures.

Today I am calling on President Obama to create a Presidential-level commission of private sector business leaders to begin this important work. This group should evaluate all of the Federal efforts to date surrounding regenerative medicine, and they should make specific recommendations to our President on how we can better coordinate these efforts and unite them with the best of private enterprise. And I’m not alone in calling on our President to lead us in this initiative. Just this year The Alliance for Regenerative Medicine called on The Obama Administration to develop a national strategy for regenerative medicine.

But to date, nothing has been done.

That’s why I am so excited to be with all of you. Today, here in The Vatican, we are beginning that process – we are ushering in a new era of scientific collaboration – a true ‘race for the cure’ that will bring hope to the entire world.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening. And now I’ll be glad to answer any of your questions…

[01563-02.02] [Original text: English]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011


It is All Souls’ Day—a time of commemoration of all those who have died, praying for them that they might enjoy redemption, healing, forgiveness and final transformation into children of light (and of the Light).

Is it morbid to see the skull-decorated altars of Mexico, or the “Bone Church” of the Cappuccini in Rome? Is there a connection to them with Halloween and our carved pumpkins?

The key here is self-understanding. In the crypt of Santa Maria della Concezione (aka, the “Bone Church”) there is a script (repeated in other churches throughout Italy) that allows the bones to speak to observers, saying (typically in Latin): “What you are, we once were; what we now are, you will become.” This is a direct and awesome slap in the face of reality, is it not? We all know that death and taxes are the only two guarantees in our life; do we really think it might happen to us, though—perhaps today?

If we were truly (and regularly) aware of our mortality, how differently might we live our lives? What that we think so critical to happiness now might be seen as irrelevant? Perhaps a re-reading of Luke 12:16-21 would help us (“You fool! This night your life will be demanded”)…

As Catholics, we believe our prayers can make a difference in others’ lives: here, and hereafter. Today of all days, we should concentrate on how we might make sacrifice for others (perhaps, also, for ourselves) and know that one day the “Day of the Dead” will be celebrated on our behalf.

Monday, October 31, 2011


The charge was made in the Mobile Press-Register on Saturday, 29 Oct in an AP item, that Pope Benedict showed his typical closed-mindedness and craving for control by refusing to pray with members of other religions in an inter-religious gathering. [Ironically, this was in an article supposedly all about upcoming new liturgical language at Mass.]  The reference was obviously to the “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World” which took place on 27 October in Assisi. This charge is inane and really does not deserve the time I am taking to refute it—a refutation that would be less likely to be needed if the correspondent actually made some effort to research the piece before writing it.

Perhaps this correspondent overlooked the fact that this event was not something the Pope was asked to participate in, for which he gave “hard-line conditions” for his appearance.   Assisi was from first to last his initiative, and he was the one who did the inviting and set the parameters for it. Should he have run his thoughts past our correspondent first, for approval?

Why would Pope Benedict “refuse” to pray with others at this gathering? Perhaps the answer is out of respect for his own beliefs, and those of the others. Let me elaborate—it seems to me at the very least an imposition to pray as a Christian when supposedly sharing prayer-time with a Jew or a Muslim. There are, incidentally, theological views among those latter faiths that regard Christians as heretics for introducing another god (Jesus Christ); they therefore would not recognize Christians as true monotheists. It is one reason why these three world religions are typically referred to, these days, as Abrahamic, rather than monotheistic, faiths.

What about Hindus? I cannot speak for the AP correspondent, and I mean no disrespect to Hindus. But I would be reluctant to pray to Kali…
Buddhists, on the other hand, do not strictly speaking have a belief in God at all—their prayer is for the purposes of achieving enlightenment (as the Buddha did), and of attuning themselves to nirvana, the cessation of the cycle of reincarnation and the cessation as well of personal consciousness. It is very akin (in the best possible sense) to the philosophy of Stoicism, in which the serenity produced by detachment is a most high value.  Yet noble as it is, I would not want to pray for that same goal for myself.

Pope Benedict invited atheists to join in this meeting. To whom would they have prayed together?
It is fascinating that our society so vigorously opposes things like prayer before sporting event(preferring “a moment of silence”) yet would express the editorial opinion (misplaced in honest reporting in any case) that the Pope is at fault for sharing moments of silence with those who would reject his notion of God.

Perhaps this can be best explained by realizing that the critique is coming from a mind-set that thinks prayer in any form is really a trivial exercise. But at least from the Catholic point of view, and, I am convinced, from the point of view of the overwhelming majority of those taking part in Assisi, Pope Benedict was simply being hospitably sensitive to those who do not agree with his own view of God and prayer. In the end, his outreach surely trumps the small vision of the AP correspondent.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Pope Benedict has announced the intention of making a “Year of Faith” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II. It is obvious why such a commemoration would be marked (50th anniversaries are pretty major), but why mention a notion like “faith”? More to the point, how does this reflect a linkage with a favorite theme of Benedict—faith and reason?

If we begin with the mediaeval definition of theology as Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), then perhaps we can make sense of this linkage. This would be especially true if we consider the insight of Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, that the act of faith is essentially a choice to make an assent to a reality that is pointed to by what he called “converging probabilities.” But these probabilities can only be discovered by means of reason—that is, by thinking through the implications in a logical way. Not to panic: the principles of logic/reasoning themselves must also be accepted as axiomatic (that is, on faith)…

This sounds terribly esoteric, arcane, intellectual, abstract: and every other word I can think of that makes this topic seem “unrealistic/irrelevant” to 99% of believers! But I want to suggest that this is a wrong idea. I recently had a conversation with a high school girl (a junior) who is wondering about believing in God. As a result of what she is learning (and her school-mates are telling her) about science, she is asking: “Doesn’t the “Big Bang” deny the possibility of the existence of God?” I tried to assure her it was really quite the opposite: the wonders of science (like the heavens of Psalm 19) proclaim the glory of God. But how does one come to this insight, without examination of the possibilities laid before us by things like physics, calculus, analytic geometry, quantum mechanics, and so on? “Do you know why mathematics is the basis of life as we know it?” the little girl asks her Father in the TV ad. “Do tell me,” Dad replies, as they walk along the beach. Little girls (and young ladies in high school) want to know (this is beyond “enquiring minds,” as you can tell). Should knowledge and religious tenets be opposed to each other?

Still, the definition of theology I quoted above states that we must begin with the act of faith. Does this mean reason has no place until the (arbitrary?) act of faith is made? According to Newman, the answer is no. Our examination of the possibilities must lead us to the insight that making an act of faith is a reasonable thing to do: rational, even if not provable. So the intellect must be involved if an authentic act of faith is to be made. Newman referred to this as the principle of “converging probabilities” which justify the act of assent, even if they do not absolutely “prove” the fact-hood of the article to which the assent is given.

Perhaps this idea is all that much more important these days when there is a great deal of coercion (real or attempted) in religion, and when there is a great deal of unreflected embrace of particular expressions of one’s faith. The systematic persecution (often with the tacit approval of authorities) of minority Christians in countries like Egypt, Iraq or Pakistan—to name those most recently in the news—would be examples of the former. The “Christian” sect going around the country screaming hate slogans at the funerals of military personnel killed overseas is a sad example of the latter. Combining these two produces a totalitarian regime with the veneer of theocracy: probably the worst of all possible forms of government…

As a Christian, I should be bound by the words of I Peter 3:15—“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for you hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence…” How can I express my faith in terms that are understandable to others (even if not finally persuasive to them)? How can I sort out the ways my reasons to believe are in fact finally persuasive to me? And how can I present my reasons (and reasoning) in ways that are persuasive to those of open minds? I think of Jesus Christ Superstar and its version of Pilate’s famous question:
But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law?
We both have truths; Are mine the same as yours?

All this means two things especially: open-mindedness to the wonders of our cosmos as signals of the presence and activity of a Creator; and honest facing of all the facts and arguments that suggest the opposite. Brilliant scientific men have been fervent believers in God, and other brilliant men have been determined atheists. It will not do simply to suggest that all believers are naïve and all non-believers realistic; nor, conversely, that all believers are open to the truth and all non-believers have ulterior agendas. And in any event, as Newman again insisted, the issue is far less what others choose to accept as sufficient evidences for the act of faith: what is crucial is how I use my best lights to lead me to make a “yes” or “no” to the question of belief.

Once I make an act of assent in a matter that is religious, it is required of me that I put the implications of this assent into practice in my life. Thus Newman, in coming to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was the one true church, not only became a Catholic but steadfastly refused to be a “cafeteria Catholic.” From his logic, the act of assent must be an “all or nothing” approach—otherwise, he judged, he would be setting himself up as arbiter of Scripture, Tradition, magisterial teaching—becoming the supreme authority in his own person.

Nevertheless, he refused to belittle the role of conscience in coming to terms with assent. Newman’s view of conscience here is critical—it is not a sense of “what I want” but rather an interior faculty to which I must listen and by which I must be guided, in determining where I find that truth to which I must give my assent. Newman did not “want” to become a Catholic; he saw it as his moral and religious obligation in conscience (and in fact he suffered for the choice in many ways). The phrase “freedom of conscience” is all too frequently abused and twisted to mean “I can do anything I want.” But the exercise of conscience is always and only a commitment to the truth as honesty comprehended—it is never an easy way to dodge an unpleasant responsibility.

Is all this too far-reaching an exercise in academic issues for most people to care about, much less get involved in? I hope not, because if we as human beings are not willing to examine our beliefs in the light of reason and then act upon the logical conclusions of those beliefs, what really are we? I am reminded of a pivotal speech of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons (a speech, by the way, lifted from More’s own writings):
God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for their innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle and clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. …But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping…

It is important to remember that in the exercise of reason in one’s faith-life and on the formation of one’s conscience one need not be a scholar. It is only important that one strive to understand to the best of his or her ability. At whatever level of my education and study, I must honestly ask (and answer) questions such as: “What do I believe?” “Why do I believe this?” “What are the implications for me personally of my belief, both in what I may do, and what may be done to me?” Am I willing and able to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28ff)? Unless I know the cost, I cannot determine if I am willing or able to afford it. And again, these must be personal answers—what does this all mean to and for me?

This is why there is probably no more important on-going activity offered by most parishes than religious education. In the younger years, this is dedicated to inculcation of basic premises and truths of the Faith. But as we grow older, facing choices like a personal YES to Jesus Christ (or not), and working out the implications of this YES, study is critical. An example: many people were sure (and are sure) that they have a legitimate disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Yet how many have actually read any of the Church’s documents on this subject (beginning with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae), or engaged in any sort of classes that would help explain it? Did we base our decision to reject this teaching on a sound-bite from television? Conversely, did we make a knee-jerk acceptance of the teaching because a prominent Catholic figure said to do so? In both cases we are abdicating our responsibility to think through, to understand, and to give the deepest, most authentic personal affirmation in conscience to the teaching.

So: is this entire essay an overblown appeal for adults to engage in religious education sessions? Maybe…

Friday, October 21, 2011


St Paul famously described the internal spiritual struggle he had in this passage, including the insight “The good that I would [do], I do not do; that which I do not want [to do], that is what I do” (Rom 7:19). How many of us have not felt this same conflict (not necessarily reducing it to the trivial level of “The devil made me do it”)? What is this alternate law in the body that is seemingly so diametrically opposed to spiritual growth?

The 14th century Dominican spiritual master John Tauler had a fundamental insight: “Our nature looks to self in everything. …[M]an is inclined to love himself more than anything else…even more than God… And this evil tendency is rooted so deep in us, that its traces baffle the search of all the wise men in the world. All the industry of man cannot correct this innate weakness. …It often happens, that when we fancied God alone was our motive, it turned out that…we were but seeking self in everything.”
The more modern buzz-word for this propensity (from 12-Step programs) is “self-centeredness.” Ironically, the less we see this tendency in ourselves, the more likely it is deeply rooted in our hearts—it is the master-teacher of the exercise of rationalization, by which we can justify whatever we wish to do, in the name of the principle that declares, “This is wrong for everyone, all the time—except for me, this time.”

How can we put to death this cause of spiritual death? How can we break out of the prison of self-centeredness? Surely it must be a step-by-step process (so long as we truly continue to take the next steps)—what act of outreach, of generosity, will I engage in today that I otherwise would choose to avoid? Can I look into another’s eyes and see the other as a true other, rather than just a reflection of (or extension of) myself? So hard…

It seems to me that the precise meaning of Matt 5:48 (“You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) is the complete transformation of the person from self-centeredness to other-openness—it makes us heavenly creatures rather than hellish ones (those who, by definition, are utterly wrapped in self). The final letting go may be difficult—even painful: here is the beginning of the practical theology of purgatory—but utterly essential.

Who is willing to make today “the first day of the real ‘rest of your life’”?

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Focolare is a movement in the Catholic Church dedicated to living lives in community and fostering ecumenical and inter-religious understanding. Their current president, Maria Voce, has been writing and speaking about the upcoming “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” This day, called by Pope Benedict XVI, will be held in Assisi on 27 October, and it will also be the 25th anniversary of the first such event (also held in Assisi)—in 1986, in answer to the call of Pope John Paul II. He called another such gathering in 2002.

Is this “syncretism”? Is this “relativism”? These are dirty words that imply we can all gather together because one belief system is just as good as another, or because we don’t believe there is any such thing as objective truth which can in any way be known. This is not what these gatherings are about. It is a recognition that on the basis of natural law and our common humanity and our shared conviction in the reality of a Deity, there must be (even if only for reasons of simple self-preservation) a concentrated effort to end the violence and the injustices that plague our world. It makes sense for religious leaders to stand together in such a path: would a Greek be more likely to listen to a word of peace from a Hindu priest or from Patriarch Bartholomew? Would a Muslim be as open to such a word from Pope Benedict as he would from an imam?

If you truly think of the words, there is little in the famous “Peace Prayer” of St Francis (other than, perhaps, the hope to be “born to eternal life”) that the leader of any world religion could not recite with integrity. What a joy it would be if we could all put those words into practice in our daily lives!  If there is ever to be peace on earth, I will have to "let it begin with me"...

This event will not be strictly only ecumenical (a word reserved for dialogue and the search for reconciliation and agreement between different Churches and Christian denominations). This gathering will also be inter-religious, and there will be leaders from many world religions: all with a longing to contribute in some concrete way to world peace and justice from their own unique faith-based perspectives.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


For an imaginatively faithful biography, I recommend Francis: the Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo, OFM.
We cannot do better on this feast of St Francis of Assisi, than his prayer for peace (pray it and live it), and John Michael Talbot makes the words come intensely alive in his musical setting.  Enjoy, and happy feast day to all who love God's creation, who love peace, and who yearn to enjoy and be 'simple gifts.'

Monday, October 3, 2011


This is the theme for the upcoming World Day of Communications (officially on 24 January, the feast of St Francis de Sales). The Pope’s message will focus on evangelization, but I want to reflect first on the concept of silence.

This past weekend I was called to a home to administer the Sacrament of Anointing to Mary, a woman who is in fact dying. It really is “the last rites” in her case, I believe. I made it out to the house where the adult children (eight siblings) and their children and spouses were gathered. We all went to the woman’s bedroom (she is, sadly, unresponsive). I asked them to lay hands on whatever part of Mom/Grandma they could, to let her know through feel that they were there. It took a few minutes for everyone to settle down, get to a comfortable place in the room, and touch Mary. But they did, and then I laid hands on her sacramentally as well—in complete silence. It lasted 2-3 minutes, and the silence was overpowering—it led to all kinds of tears and sobbing, especially after the anointing itself, and the prayers of commendation.

The following morning at Sunday Mass I was privileged to confer the sacrament of Confirmation on a young woman. Again, there is a laying-on of hands in silence before the anointing (this time with the Sacred Chrism). The whole church silently prayed for her with me during this time. And again, the silence was deafening in its statement of presence.

Cromwell and Norfolk (in A Man For All Seasons) are talking about Thomas More’s refusal to take the oath of supremacy and standing on his silence. Cromwell remarks, “Not being a man of letters, Your Grace, you perhaps don’t realize the extent of [More’s] reputation. This ‘silence’ of his is bellowing up and down Europe.” And so it can, even if More attempted to take his stand on the legal maxim Qui tacet consentire [Silence gives consent]. Cromwell, in the trial scene, is quite right on one point: “So silence can, according to circumstances, speak.”

It is amazing (and very true) to think that silence can be regarded as eloquent. Do people in love always need words, or is not it often the case that looking into each other’s eyes is the best way of saying enough?

Our silence in prayer (even, according to the circumstances, in liturgy) is for some just a time of fidgeting—“When will the priest finally stand up and get on with it?” For others, it is a time of deep communion of heart and soul with our divine Lord and Savior.

The psalmist understood silence: “No speech, no word, no voice is heard; yet their message goes out to all the earth, and their words to the utmost bounds of the world” (Ps 19:4-5).

And in the spirit of wondrous, silent presence in love, I wonder if we cannot ourselves draw strength to be witnesses (martyrs) for the Lord by our example far more than our arguments. We can leave those to the debaters; let’s instead be people whose silent, loving witness draws others to the Master. And we can all gaze into His eyes and know we are loved, and home.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Below is the final official speech of Pope Benedict on his pastoral visit to Germany, which I have excerpted.  It is on the long side, but I have indicated by italics and underlining where I think crucial thoughts were being conveyed.  I encourage you to look for those selected passages and read the larger context for them. 

The liturgical language changes that we are about to experience are small enough, all things considered.  Are they like "re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic"?  Perhaps, but EVERYTHING is like that, compared to Bl Mother Teresa's comment below.  It's the heart of what we need to do and be, to reflect the Church authentically as the Body of Christ for others.  See below...


Concert Hall, Freiburg im Breisgau
Sunday, 25 September 2011

Mr President of the Federal Republic,
Mr Minister President,
Mr Mayor,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear Brother Bishops and Priests,

I am glad to be here today to meet all of you who work in so many ways for the Church and for society. This gives me a welcome opportunity personally to thank you most sincerely for your commitment and your witness as “powerful heralds of the faith in things to be hoped for” (Lumen Gentium, 35 – validi praecones fidei sperandarum rerum); this is how the Second Vatican Council describes people like you who do dedicated work for the present and the future from a faith perspective. In your fields of activity you readily stand up for your faith and for the Church, something that, as we know, is not at all easy at the present time.

For some decades now we have been experiencing a decline in religious practice and we have been seeing substantial numbers of the baptized drifting away from church life. This prompts the question: should the Church not change? Must she not adapt her offices and structures to the present day, in order to reach the searching and doubting people of today?

Blessed Mother Teresa was once asked what in her opinion was the first thing that would have to change in the Church. Her answer was: you and I.

Two things are clear from this brief story. On the one hand Mother Teresa wants to tell her interviewer: the Church is not just other people, not just the hierarchy, the Pope and the bishops: we are all the Church, we the baptized. And on the other hand her starting-point is this: yes, there are grounds for change. There is a need for change. Every Christian and the whole community of the faithful are called to constant change.

What should this change look like in practice? Are we talking about the kind of renewal that a householder might carry out when reordering or repainting his home? Or are we talking about a corrective, designed to bring us back on course and help us to make our way more swiftly and more directly? Certainly these and other elements play a part and we cannot go into all these matters here. But the fundamental motive for change is the apostolic mission of the disciples and the Church herself.

The Church, in other words, must constantly rededicate herself to her mission. …

In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God. In this she follows the words of Jesus: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:16), and in precisely this way he gives himself to the world. One could almost say that history comes to the aid of the Church here through the various periods of secularization, which have contributed significantly to her purification and inner reform.

Secularizing trends – whether by expropriation of Church goods, or elimination of privileges or the like – have always meant a profound liberation of the Church from forms of worldliness, for in the process she as it were sets aside her worldly wealth and once again completely embraces her worldly poverty. In this she shares the destiny of the tribe of Levi, which according to the Old Testament account was the only tribe in Israel with no ancestral land of its own, taking as its portion only God himself, his word and his signs. At those moments in history, the Church shared with that tribe the demands of a poverty that was open to the world, in order to be released from her material ties: and in this way her missionary activity regained credibility.

History has shown that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly. Once liberated from material and political burdens and privileges, the Church can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world, she can be truly open to the world. She can live more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbour. The missionary task, which is linked to Christian worship and should determine its structure, becomes more clearly visible. The Church opens herself to the world not in order to win men for an institution with its own claims to power, but in order to lead them to themselves by leading them to him of whom each person can say with Saint Augustine: he is closer to me than I am to myself (cf. Confessions, III,6,11). He who is infinitely above me is yet so deeply within me that he is my true interiority. This form of openness to the world on the Church’s part also serves to indicate how the individual Christian can be open to the world in effective and appropriate ways.

It is not a question here of finding a new strategy to relaunch the Church. Rather, it is a question of setting aside mere strategy and seeking total transparency, not bracketing or ignoring anything from the truth of our present situation, but living the faith fully here and now in the utterly sober light of day, appropriating it completely, and stripping away from it anything that only seems to belong to faith, but in truth is mere convention or habit.

To put it another way: for people of every era, and not just our own, the Christian faith is a scandal. That the eternal God should know us and care about us, that the intangible should at a particular moment have become tangible, that he who is immortal should have suffered and died on the Cross, that we who are mortal should be given the promise of resurrection and eternal life – for people of any era, to believe all this is a bold claim.

This scandal, which cannot be eliminated unless one were to eliminate Christianity itself, has unfortunately been overshadowed in recent times by other painful scandals on the part of the preachers of the faith. A dangerous situation arises when these scandals take the place of the primary skandalon of the Cross and in so doing they put it beyond reach, concealing the true demands of the Christian Gospel behind the unworthiness of those who proclaim it.

All the more, then, it is time once again to discover the right form of detachment from the world, to move resolutely away from the Church’s worldliness. …Only a profound relationship with God makes it possible to reach out fully towards others, just as a lack of outreach towards neighbour impoverishes one’s relationship with God.

Openness to the concerns of the world means, then, for the Church that is detached from worldliness, bearing witness to the primacy of God’s love according to the Gospel through word and deed, here and now, a task which at the same time points beyond the present world because this present life is also bound up with eternal life. As individuals and as the community of the Church, let us live the simplicity of a great love, which is both the simplest and hardest thing on earth, because it demands no more and no less than the gift of oneself.

Dear friends, it remains for me to invoke God’s blessing and the strength of the Holy Spirit upon us all, that we may continually recognize anew and bear fresh witness to God’s love and mercy in our respective fields of activity. Thank you for your attention.

Friday, September 23, 2011


The proposed petition to the United Nations to establish a State for the Palestinians is problematic on more fronts than people sometimes realize.

Let us be clear from the outset: the State of Israel has a right (even the obligation) to exist, and in fact to thrive, in peace and in security and in authentic fellowship with her neighbors.

Beyond that, there must be room for Palestinians who have also lived in the Holy Land for centuries. They cannot be disenfranchised and dismissed out of hand. Torah itself teaches us this:  You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt... (Ex 22:20)

As must be obvious to all but the most fanatical, terrorism cannot secure these two needs, nor can a resolution from the United Nations.

But there is a complicating factor in what is too often assumed to be a conflict between Jews and Muslims. It is that significant numbers of Palestinians are in fact Christians: typically they are Catholic or Orthodox. They are distained by Israelis as being Arab; they are held in contempt by Muslims because they are Christian. They are caught in a cross-fire that dismisses them as unimportant.

We have seen the results of contempt for Christians in the Middle East: in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria and Lebanon. Christian Arabs are leaving in record numbers, either by their being killed, or else by self-imposed exile in the face of (I use the word deliberately) pogroms.

Too many ethnic groups have memories that are too long and too alive: what happened hundreds of years ago is kept burning as though it were yesterday. This is tragic. All have made disastrous mistakes—Jews least of all, it must be said. They have been victims vastly more often than anyone else. Given the history of European Jewry and Christendom, there is no wonder there is mistrust of motives when Christians speak well of Jews. We must move beyond that.

Muslims remember the Crusades. These began in 1095. Do Muslims also remember the Saracens’ attacks on Rome (and especially the church of St Peter’s there) in 846? The slaughter in and desecration of that church (and the tomb of St Peter) were massive, and it was in contempt of a holy place of Christians.

We must all learn to forgive, even if we do not (or cannot, or should not) completely forget. We must live in the present and face the future; pre-occupation with the past is counter-productive.
Our Mobile Trialogue (Christians, Jews and Muslims together) is an attempt to build a community of tolerance and reconciliation. It is far easier to achieve this goal here in Alabama than in the Holy Land. But perhaps with patience and prayer one day we can hold hands and proclaim (with Martin Luther King Jr) “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


What did Jesus see in Matthew/Levi the tax-collector that He called him?

What did Matthew see in Jesus “the Messiah”(?) that he followed Him?  That is, when he finally looked at Jesus--judging by the painting, money was far more interesting to Matthew...

Matthew must have been a leader: look at the numbers of tax-collectors who joined him and Jesus and His disciples for dinner.

What do we see in Jesus?

Whom might we lead to the Lord (or away from Him) by our example?

It’s good to be called; it’s even better to respond and follow.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


It is remarkable to read words like those below, especially when they were penned by the judge of the original sentence of death. I share these with readers of the blog for several reasons: they speak against the fairness of capital punishment, they remind us of the irrevocable nature of such a punishment, and they reinforce the evidence that many capital cases are resolved in favor of death because of inexperience: how often are indigent defendants actually represented by adequate counsel in their trials? It is for this reason that a moratorium (at the very least) needs to be placed on executions in the State of Alabama. We want justice to be served, not simple rage and blood-lust, no matter how understandable those emotions might be.  Please read on:

The Huntsville-Madison County NAACP is sponsoring a Candlelight Rally in support of Derrick Mason's death sentence being commuted based upon the compelling legal reasons provided by the trial sentencing judge, Lloyd H. Little (retired) in his letter to Governor Robert Bentley requesting that Mason's death sentence be commuted and changed to life imprisonment. Judge Little cited Mason's attorneys and his own lack of experience in trying a capital murder case and stated: "That lack of experience, combined with its being my first experience in capital litigation, more than likely affected how the case was tried..... I believe that more experienced defense attorneys could have more effectively presented evidence of the mitigating factors (his age, lack of significant criminal record and drug and alcohol use) that could have affected the jury's recommendation and my ultimate decision." He further stated:

".... [T]]he law of Alabama requires that this aggravating factor of being especially heinous, atrocious and cruel be so when compared to other capital murders. In hindsight, and with so much more experience now in these cases, I do not believe this aggravating factor would have been available to the jury or the Court. Without that as an aggravating factor to consider, the advisory verdict of the jury wuld [sic] most likely have been different. They would have recommended life without parole and I would have followed that recommendation. That is what should have happened 15 years ago."

"Governor Bentley, I am confident that when I am asking you to do now is absolutely the right thing to do under the facts of this case and the law of this State."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


This past several days I've been in a whirlwind of ecumenical and inter-faith encounters. I enjoyed lunch on Friday with Rev Joy Blaylock, an old friend of mine who is now pastor of St Paul Lutheran Church (ELCA), really just round the corner from Our Savior. She is, in her own words, passionate about communion and unity.

Sunday was the celebration of our parish feast (Exaltation of the Holy Cross, which we transferred to Sunday evening)—Pastor Chris George of 1st Baptist Church in downtown Mobile was our guest preacher, and his words on behalf of ecumenical outreach and longing for unity were deeply touching.

This week we welcome Rabbi James Rudin to speak in our Christian-Jewish Dialogue; a special meeting of ecumenical and inter-faith clergy will also gather at our Cathedral’s rectory, graciously hosted by Archbishop Thomas Rodi: over coffee and pastries we will converse about the future of Christian-Jewish relations, nationally and locally here in Mobile.

What is the real point in all of this?

Is it just to make us feel good, to feel that somehow because of a few social and intellectual encounters we are breaking down walls of discord? Is it to trick us into thinking that our differences don’t matter, after all, and we can simply hold hands and think we all think (and believe) alike? Is it a desire to make an actual beginning of barrier-breaking, even if we don’t know what the barriers really are, or if any are genuinely necessary for the sake of preserving personal integrity?

For myself, I am immersed in this activity because I am convinced that the destiny of the human race (a destiny we seem wonderful at thwarting) is to unite and be one family in relationships (as we surely are, in genetics). Why should we not long to sing together, “Free at last; free at last; thank God almighty, we are free at last”?

There was an old saying in early ecumenical endeavors: “Doctrine divides; service unites.” I want to modify this: “Sin divides; love unites.” The motto of our Christian-Jewish Dialogue is “Hands that reach will touch.” If I do not reach out, does that mean that I am wrapped up in myself? Probably…

Can we eat together, or pray together, or serve together, or minister together, or witness to justice together, or love together?

If not, why not? Is our family really too big for new brothers and sisters?  Today's title ("All men shall be brothers") comes from Schiller's An die Freude, set famously by Beethoven in his 9th symphony.  The text continues: 
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt? 
[Can you sense your Maker, World?]
Such ihn über’m Strenenzelt!   
[Find him well beyond the Stars]
Brüder, über’m Sternenzelt      
[Brothers, well beyond the Stars]
Muss ein lieber Vater wohnen.  
[Surely dwells a loving Father.]

I want to be part of the family; who wants to join me?

I hope you will enjoy the section of Beethoven's last symphony which includes these words and this sentiment.  Ut unum sint!

Saturday, September 3, 2011


A couple of years ago I wrote this as a "mass mailing e-mail" to about 425 folks who had signed up (since then Outlook decided I was spamming and has blocked the sending of these items--oh, well).  It was addressed to President Obama on the occasion of comments he made in the context of his invitation to give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame in 2009 (this explains the use of 2nd person in my questions).  I offer them in this forum as a way of reflecting on an item in the 9-3-11 Mobile Press-Register (by the Associated Press), reporting that pregnant women who take illegal drugs can be prosecuted for endangerment of a child, provided the woman is carrying a "viable fetus."  This application, along with its terminology, begs many questions--some of them reflected in my remarks below.  I hope they can still generate meaningful dialogue in pursuit of truth. 

1. You support a woman’s right to an abortion. Is this on the basis of a belief that a pregnant woman is not carrying a human life, or on the basis of a belief that that human life is not worthy of protection?

2. In either case, what is the scientific/medical information that leads you to this conclusion?

3. In either case, when do you believe that human life (or human life worthy of protection) does begin, and how scientifically/medically did you determine this?

4. If an unborn child at 8-1/2 months of gestation can be aborted by the mother, what logical barrier is there for not following Prof. Singer of Princeton and thinking that a baby 2 weeks after being born cannot also be “aborted”? The answer must surely involve more than “location”...

5. You have said you are “wrestling” with the issue of life. If the unborn child is not a human life or a life worthy of protection, with what are you are wrestling?

6. If induced (adult) stem cell research is offering such promising results, as opposed to the results of any kind of embryonic stem cell research, why is the Administration reducing funding for such research?

7. If the unborn child is not human life or human life worthy of protection, why express willingness to work to reduce the numbers of abortions?

8. If the unborn child is not human life or human life worthy of protection, why should the slaying of a pregnant mother be regarded in a court of law as a “double homicide”?

These are questions that not only deserve but cry for an answer in honest dialogue.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Today I saw a church marquee that proclaimed, “Better to be alone than to be in bad company.” I posted the quote as is on my FB page; interesting comments have been made. But I want to expand on the idea behind the quote, if I may.

My “in-law cousin” Tim thinks: I agree. But on the other hand, bad company is so much more exciting, and you can live vicariously, and have better stories to tell 30 years from now.
And my dear friend Pastor Randy thinks: Interesting, but aren't those the sort of folks Jesus sought out?

I have comments in reaction to both of these, beyond what I just posted on my FB site in reply. The first is that there is a basic agreement with me and Tim on the issue, though not quite for the reasons (which Mark Twain would have loved) he gives. For me, the difficulty is precisely that “alone” for most of us equates to “loneliness,” and this is NOT a good. We have only to reach into Genesis 2 (an anticipation, by the way, of Aristotle’s Politics)—“It is not good for the man to be alone…” (Genesis 2:18).  It is fundamental to the understanding of humanity that community is essential to meaningful life. And so, all too often, we choose bad community over no community at all (or what we are afraid will be, or become, no community). Think of teen-agers and peer pressure…

Still, I think it is a serious mis-apprehension to relegate all efforts of desert spirituality, including the desires of people to be hermits, to some kind of pathological anti-social sense. I have to spend time alone in order to come to know myself—and if I am not happy with myself, why should I think that the presence of anyone else need be a “magic wand” to make me happy? Relationships and communion are, after all, mutual gifts of one to another, not a parasitic dependency of one on another.

When I reflect on Pastor Randy’s comments, I agree wholeheartedly (almost): as I said to him, it all depends on what you mean by associating. Did Jesus “seek out” those who were, so to speak, fallen by the wayside? Of course He did. But He didn’t become a “fallen one” Himself in so doing; that is the key to understanding the message of the marquee. Jesus encountered “bad company,” but He didn’t become part and parcel of bad company: He called it to higher, better things. For so many of us, tragically, being “in” bad company usually means being absorbed by it.

Being alone, if we embrace it, might just be the context and opportunity we need to listen to the voice of the Lord to us. We long (rightfully) for community, but embracing too quickly the wrong kind of community can damage us for a lifetime. Which is really better in the long run?

Friday, August 26, 2011


Today, 26 August, is the non-liturgical feast day of Our Lady of Czestochowa.  In her honor I am re-printing an essay I wrote reflecting on a trip to Poland I took in 2000 (guided by a Polish family I was friends with). 

Knees are arguably the strongest parts of the Polish body, to judge by the extended kneeling on stone church floors that they do. Knees are arguably the weakest of my body, thanks to surgery and other injuries. This leads to a magic moment for me in the monastery of Jasna Gora, the “Mountain of Brightness,” in which is enshrined the “Black Madonna,” Our Lady of Częstochowa.

We attended Mass there at the chapel of the Black Madonna, with a crowd that far exceeded the normal mental picture of “standing room only.” Though it was only during the Consecration itself and Communion that we knelt, the stone was hardly smooth. It took something out of my knees. It was simply standard operating procedure for all the Poles there.

After Mass, we moved up to get a better look at the Madonna. This chapel (and in fact most of the monastery church) is predominantly ebony wood and black marble, trimmed in gilt. The effect is initially gloomy, ultimately powerful. We were at the central entrance to the chapel, when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and Rosary was begun. What happened next is terribly important, but it is hard to describe.

The chapel itself is surrounded on three sides (like a horseshoe) by a kind of passageway. This passageway is completely in view of the chapel on the two sides; the back portion goes behind the altar in which the icon is displayed. The Poles (very, very many of them) were going round the icon in this passageway– on their knees, while reciting the Rosary. I knew I could never do anything like that, partly because it wasn’t “my kind of devotion,” and partly because I knew the condition of my knees. And yet, by the strangest coincidence, I found myself in the line to do exactly this!

I barely made it around. I was in physical agony for the entire 2nd half of this loop, and if there had not been a kind of hand-rail around the chapel, which I clutched with my right hand and arm, lifting myself off my knees for seconds at a time, I could not have made it around at all. I would have had to lie down (and hold up scores of people right behind me), or else stand up (and probably be looked at as a heretic).

Pope John Paul II has written that “in the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” Was this a “design of Providence”? What was the point for me of this devotional exercise?

One thing that is true is that this activity is NOT a “devotion.” I believe, especially based on this experience, that no such activity is ever a “devotion.” But they are actions which, if performed with the right disposition, foster devotion. I say this because devotion is a function of relationship, not of activity in itself. “Devotion” is the state in which one is “devoted” to another. To say “I love you” from the heart is to say I am devoted to you in ways that may cost me; I am glad to pay that price for you. To say “I love you” to someone without the proper interior disposition becomes worse than a non-devotion: it is a lie. It becomes a mechanical substitute for authentic relationship, a mask of “the right words” behind which one hides one’s lack of commitment, or ennui, or immaturity, or selfishness. It says “You are not important to me, but I cannot be bothered to be honest enough with you or myself to say so, and so I go through the motions as a path of least resistance.”

For myself, I longed for the proper interior disposition; I wanted to be “devoted.” And so my thoughts crossed to our Lord and Mary while I was on my knees. You suffered and died for me, my Lord; you watched your Son die, Mary. My discomfort cannot identify with your anguish and pain, but let it remind me and make my desire to love you burn with new life. May it intensify my prayer, and may I never shy away from discomfort brought upon me by commitment to the Gospel.

Don’t we all yearn to offer visible, physical, authentic displays of our affection for others? The people at Jasna Gora were in love; they were committed. On my knees I re-discovered my love and commitment, and I re-dedicated myself. Was the visit “devotional”? You bet it was, in the best and fullest sense of the term! I pray the intensity of relationship will never wane, and I pray that other opportunities will present themselves to strengthen me, even if they present themselves through “mere coincidence”! In point of fact, they have in the past and in the present. I know God will continue to shower them upon me– and upon us all– in the future.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


We are all sympathetic and want to help; we want to do the right thing.  Sometimes, though, others can turn our "right thing" into a very wrong thing, and that is what is happening in the famine-gripped country o Somalia now.  It is the saddest kind of repeat of the famine in Ethiopia years ago.

What can be done?  The strongest suggestion I can offer is to make a contribution, if you so choose, to an organization on site that can use the funds in the most proper way--an organization like Catholic Relief Services, known throughout the world for being able to do exactly this wherever there is great need.

Mother Teresa was often asked by people what they could do to help her in her work.  She never asked for money; she would simply say, "Come and see.  If you come, then you'll see what needs to be done, and what you can do, and you can do it."  We don't have the same opportunity to "come and see" in Somalia, but by going to the CRS web-site link, we can "come and see" even if from a distance, and we'll see what we can do, and we can do it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Excerpted as the “Meditation of the Day” for 3 August in Magnificat, Fr Bede Jarrett, OP reflects on the way to make the mysteries of religion come alive in one’s faith-walk: The whole series of mysteries will certainly be of no use to me in my endless advance toward God unless I try to make them my own by ceaselessly pondering over them. Of themselves, they are just the bare outlines of truths, yet it is not truths, but the facts that are contained in the truths, that are ultimately to influence my life.

This is a striking statement, and yet it is not the first time I have come across the attempt to make such a distinction. In another book, referring to the Christian story, a voice tells the main character, Pilgrim John:
Child, if you will, it is mythology. It is but truth, not fact: an image, not the very real. But then it is My mythology… this is My inventing, this is the veil under which I have chosen to appear even from the first until now. For this end I made your senses and for this end your imagination, that you might see My face and live.
This is the insight of C. S. Lewis in his first “apologetic” book, The Pilgrim’s Regress.

What does this attempt at a distinction (in Lewis or Bede Jarrett) tell us?

I think, first of all, that it is a way of entering into our sacramental worship—a reminder that what we do liturgically is true and real, but not final and absolute. Our celebration of the Eucharist, for example, is not the final goal but the vehicle by which we participate now by foretaste in what is our actual ultimate destiny—union with God in the Body of Christ.

It is also a way of keeping us intellectually humble. We humans must seek after, and may indeed have discovered, the truth; this does not mean we have a comprehensive grasp of Godhead. To think that we do really suggests that we have an idol instead of God. It is one of the virtues of a theology of the Trinity that it allows us to acknowledge fundamental truth about God (community of life and love) while forcing us to face our conceptual limitations (unity in multiplicity that permits the use of words like “triune”). Muslims and Jews regard Christians as polytheists; Christians loudly insist this is not the case, but “Trinity” is not a category in those other Abrahamic faiths, so we have problems explaining what we mean in a credible way to them. This is, I believe, all to the good—we have an expression of faith that leads us to surrender to the Mystery. We can be certain of the truth—we are less confident of the Fact. So we can be content to let God be God, and we recognize what the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 already taught us: that the distance between Creator and creature is so great that no matter how true the analogy we make about God might be, it will always be more “unlike” than “like.” As St Paul put it (II Cor 5:7)—“we walk by faith, not by sight.” And as he also said (I Cor 13:12)—“At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” That will be the great Day when truth becomes eternal Fact.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Clare was perhaps 13 years younger than St Francis, but she outlived him by 30 years, faithfully leading the first ever convent of what were to be called the “Poor Clares,” and never leaving San Damiano for the rest of her life (over 40 years as Prioress).

Only toward the end of her life did St Clare realize that the extreme discipline of her and her sisters’ lives was too strict (as St Francis realized much earlier, about his own life)—she encouraged the sisters to modify their life-style with the words “After all, our bodies are not made of brass.”

Nevertheless, St Clare was adamant about living in complete evangelical poverty. When the pope (!) offered to dispense her and her companions of this vow, she said, “I need to be absolved of my sins, but I do not wish to be absolved from the obligation of following Jesus Christ.” The pope backed off, and he conferred on San Damiano the Privilegium paupertatis, the privilege of poverty.

When St Clare escaped to the Porziuncola at Santa Maria degli Angeli the night before her wedding (she was 18), St Francis tonsured her, gave her the robes of a penitent, and took her to a Benedictine convent for safety—a good thing, as her family tried to drag her forcibly out of the church and back to “normal” life.

A delightful biography of St Clare is Clare: The Light in the Garden by Murray Bodo, OFM. He also wrote Francis: The Journey and the Dream.

The site of St Clare’s family house (marked by a plaque) is on the left-hand side of the piazza in front of San Ruffino in Assisi—in this church both she and St Francis were baptized.

The sisters were forced to leave San Damiano because there were fears for their safety (San Damiano is well outside the city walls of Assisi). They were given the church of San Giorgio (now Santa Chiara), with the friars moving down to San Damiano. The sisters reluctantly agreed, but they insisted on taking the famous crucifix with them—which is why it is now enshrined in Santa Chiara in a side-chapel to the right as you enter the church.

In the crypt of Santa Chiara in a reliquary one can see a glass and silver box containing some of the locks of St Clare’s hair from the tonsure—a touching memento.

Her dying words were: “Go forth in peace, for you have followed the good road. Go forth without fear, for He that created you has sanctified you, has always protected you, and loves you as a mother. Blessed be thou, O God, for having created me.” May we all find ourselves able to make such a prayer at the time of our departure.