Sunday, February 27, 2011


Though these words were given by Robert Bolt to Thomas More in the trial scene and final scene of A Man For All Seasons, referring to More’s own execution, they can have wider implications for many of us.

I’ve been on a ‘death-watch’ for the last 10 days—a man suffering from a complex of conditions that had him in ICU for a week; he’s now been in a Hospice wing room for a week. It seems that, close as he is to dying, he and God are not ready for his final breath just yet. I stood at the bedside with the family for over an hour Saturday—we were sure his passing was minutes away. As I write this, however, it’s been over 18 hours more…

I have had spiritual counseling sessions with several others who have lost their jobs, often in circumstances that seem grossly unfair. There is a kind of death involved here, too: a death of self-respect and dignity. New jobs can go a long way toward restoring a person’s sense of worth, but it typically is not a resurrection that happens after only three days.

After checking on Facebook this morning, I found that one of my “friends” there (a young woman whom I first got to know in 1997 when she was in 4th grade) has changed her status to “single.” She was married; she has a child. What happened to cause the death of that relationship? I have no idea, but a death surely occurred there.

We are approaching Ash Wednesday (which of course here in Mobile means the day marking the end of two weeks’ worth of Mardi Gras parades, balls and general partying). And here I take a cue from St Augustine, who loved to make theological points based on the etymology of words (no matter how wrong his etymology actually was!). Mine will be wrong, too—but I am doing this deliberately.

Lent (our penitential season of preparation for Easter and the celebration of the sacraments of Christian Initiation) is a word that actually comes from the Old English lencten, meaning “spring.” But I want to associate the word instead with the Italian lento, meaning “slow.” Lent’s emphasis is also on dying—to self-centeredness, to sin. How good for us would it be to slow down, take serious stock, and see where we need to shed our selfishness and expand our sense of connection with God and others through the traditional practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer?

The Church Fathers always linked these three practices together, insisting that in this way we become more like the children of God we were meant to be (“the best version of ourselves,” as Matthew Kelly would put it). Would it not be special to realize, after the “slowing-down” period of Lent, that Easter saw in us a real resurrection of graced life after dying to what is unnecessary or sinful in us?

“Death comes for us all, my lords.” And sometimes that can be a good thing.  I hope it will be, for us, this Lent.

UPDATE:  Mike Walsh (1st paragraph above) died this morning at about 10:10 am.  Please pray for the Walsh family.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


The very early Church had its share of martyrs, and for a number of reasons. The first Christians tended to come from strata of society that were looked down upon, including slaves, women and the poor (recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians—I Cor 1:26ff.). Beyond that, Christians showed themselves unpatriotic by refusing to sacrifice to the genius of the Emperor, suggesting they were not interested in contributing to the security and order of the social fabric. Finally, once their separation from Judaism was complete, they were a “non-protected cult” and as such opposed for introducing “new gods” that were alien to, or in opposition to, the Roman pantheon.

There were sporadic outbreaks against the early Christians, including famously that of Nero after the fire of 64 CE. In his Annals, the Roman historian Tacitus describes this scene, giving a glimpse into both the horrors of Nero’s actions and the general dislike for Christians felt by “decent” Romans (Annals XV, 44). The Church celebrates these witnesses for Christ on 30 June (the day after the great Solemnity of Ss Peter and Paul, the two Roman martyrs par excellence).

Where the Church would have gone devotionally if this were all there is to tell, I am not sure. But in the 2nd century CE two other martyrs came to the fore, and they set the standard for witnessing that inspired thousands of others in the next centuries before Constantine. They were St Ignatius of Antioch (whose memorial is 17 October) and St Polycarp (whose memorial is this Wednesday, 23 Feb). What made them so important?

In the case of Ignatius, it was in part the circumstances of his martyrdom: arrested for his faith, he was taken to Rome around 107 CE to be thrown to the lions in the Coliseum (known then as the Flavian Amphitheatre). The legend of such a fate for the Christians is strong (and most of the time false); this time it was spot-on. More to the point, though, are the letters Ignatius wrote to various churches while on his way to his death. They are filled with beauty and dignity, humility and courage. They enjoin the recipients to remain united and faithful. And in the letter written to the Roman church in advance of his arrival, he touches poetic heights in his longing for Christ: Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ And this leads to this Wednesday’s memorial.

For one of the letters Ignatius wrote, besides to the church at Smyrna in general, was to its bishop, Polycarp. And Polycarp himself would follow the path of witness to death for Christ in the year 155 CE. But: while we have Ignatius’ own words to describe his longing to be with Christ, we have what seems to be an eye-witness account of the martyrdom of Polycarp—the first such written account in Christian history. It is filled with wonderful dramatic literary touches: Polycarp’s confession of faith even as an old man; his insisting he would stand firm in the pyre; the fire’s inability to burn him; his being stabbed to death at the end. The author writes: …he was like a noble ram taken out of some great flock for sacrifice: a goodly burnt-offering all ready for God. …The fire…formed a wall round about the martyr’s figure; and there was he in the centre of it, not like a human being in flames but like a loaf baking in the oven, or like a gold or silver ingot being refined in the furnace. And we became aware of a delicious fragrance, like the odour of incense…

Quickly this description circulated throughout the Church and became an inspiration. From this moment, martyrdom was seen not only as something that happened but something to be embraced.

Another pivotal event that really sealed the celebratory view of witness to death was the description of the martyrdoms of two young women in north Africa—Perpetua and Felicity (commemorated on 7 March). But that is another story for another time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Perhaps this is a bit premature, but the joy of seeing the report of Muslims and Christians together in Egypt, helping one another pray on their respective holy days, during the protests was more than heart-warming.

It is a reminder of several things—first and foremost, it reminds us that not all Muslims are fanatical, violent terrorists willing to bomb Christian churches in an abuse of the name of Allah.

It is a reminder, too, that the regime of Hosni Mubarak, was regularly accustomed to turning a legal “blind eye” to attacks on religious minorities, especially women. In a truly democratic Egypt, minority individuals and groups may be able to enjoy a larger degree of equal protection under the law. We can pray that this is the case.

Finally, it is a reminder of the book penned some years ago by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the main architects in the ending of apartheid in South Africa without a resulting bloodbath. His book, No Future Without Forgiveness, is a description of the role of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” that were active during the time of Nelson Mandela (who himself had every reason to be angry and bitter after 27 years imprisonment by the former government for his anti-apartheid stands).

People can move forward, if they can not only forgive (after all, this is a “one-way street”) but truly reconcile (this is the “two-way street” that is crucial, allowing for healing). From a Christian perspective, this is the message of Jesus—to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name (Lk 24:47).

These Sundays the Gospel readings are all from the Sermon on the Mount—over and over they are challenges to us to do more (magis, as St Ignatius Loyola would refer to it in Latin). In the realm of forgiveness it is often very hard to do anything beyond the minimum. But Jesus was not a minimalist. We cannot afford to be, either.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Is Sandra Hocutt competent to stand trial?  Why was she competent to marry??