Thursday, May 31, 2012


Sounds morbid, no?   But it isn’t, really:  we must all face the inevitability, and sometimes things bring that fact home to us more clearly than at other times.
Sunday Deacon Joe McGonagle (who was at St Ignatius when I was first assigned there after my ordination) died this past Sunday of complications from dementia (and, I think, Parkinson’s).  Wednesday (yesterday) Bobby Rimes, SJ (my spiritual director for 21 years) died from malignant lesions on the brain.  And as I walked the Mississippi River levee here at Manresa Retreat Center today, I wondered:  how will I die?

One pope had a marble skull carved by Bernini on his writing desk; another pope had his coffin in his bedroom.  No, this is not morbidity:  it is consciousness of a reality we most of us would sooner pretend doesn’t exist.  But it does—and it does, for you and for me.

How will I die?  It’s not an academic question, obviously.  Will it be cancer or a car wreck, dementia or diabetes, stroke or something else?  Will I have friends around me, like the Venerable Bede, or will I die alone, like Francis Xavier?  More importantly, will I be able and willing to live out Colossians 1:24 and offer any suffering for the sake of His Body, the Church?  I hope so:  my two models for this are Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bernardin.  I can only pray for courage similar to theirs.
Even more important for the Lord’s disciples, I think, is the question how will I die to self today?  What indulgences am I willing to surrender, what sorrows and pains of others am I willing to embrace, what hardships am I willing to undergo, for the sake of the Name?  Am I really a servant in the parish where I am assigned?  What is the quality of my ministry, and is it self-giving or self-serving?

Hard questions, these:  but we need to ask them, especially priests.  Our retreat master this week emphasized that if priests are ordained to stand in persona Christi during the celebration of the sacraments, we must also do so away from altar/font/reconciliation room, in our daily lives:  we are given the task of being in persona Christi as He was the Self-Sacrificing Servant:  “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Mark 10:45, from Wednesday’s Gospel at Mass).

Let's ALL be servants...

Monday, May 28, 2012


As our Archdiocesan priests (most of them, anyway) prepare for our annual retreat at Manresa Retreat Center outside Convent, LA this week, I think a reflection on the meaning of this kind of exercise is worthwhile.

I have a friend from college days (we recently re-connected via Facebook) who thinks that we should never make "retreats" unless it's for the purpose of "re-loading"!  There is much to this insight, I think.  The word "retreat" sounds like running away; "re-loading" (or, perhaps even better, "re-charging") carries the connotation of only being out of the action for a brief respite, rather like the time in one's corner before the bell rings and it's time for "Round 10" of the boxing match. 

This kind of respite is important for physical and psychological as well as spiritual reasons.  It gives us a chance to enjoy the fraternity of one another's company in prayer and socialization (many of us are by default "Lone Rangers" as the sole priests of parishes, perhaps also geographically isolated from the others of our presbytery).   It restores our enthusiasm for the Lord and our ministry in His Name through the conferences offered by our retreat masters (think of the famous "Win One For The Gipper" speech from Knute Rockne, All-American).  There is time for reading, writing, more sustained prayer, physical exercise or just naps that simply don't exist on a regular or systematic basis in day-to-day parish life. 

Before being ordained as a deacon, a priest or a bishop, the Church's canon law requires the candidate to make a 5-day retreat.  It would be nice if we could make this annual gathering a 5-day retreat, as well.  But we'll take the 2 1/2 days we get and be thankful for them.

Most of us will return from Manresa late Thursday and need to hit the ground running again, with funerals, weddings, ordinations...  And we will.  This time away will make us that much more ready to do this, for God's glory and the building up of His Kingdom in the parishes where we minister. 

Please pray for us--we will be lifting up all the members of the parishes of our Archdiocese while we are away, in a special way in the chapel pictured above.


On this Memorial Day it seems the right thing to do, to offer a musical remembrance for those who have died for our country, and also for those (now gone before us) who have been central to our lives and growth as decent human beings. 

Rocco Palmo in his blog "Whispers in the Loggia" traditionally posts the "Nimrod" section from Elgar's Enigma Variations as performed by a British military band in tribute to their fallen ones; for myself, I have in the past (and have again, below) offered the performance by the Chicago Symphony, led by Daniel Barenboim.  In his case, there must have been a double memorial:  officially, it was a tribute to the former CSO music director, Sir Georg Solti, who had just died.  But surely there was the remembrance, too, of Barenboim's deceased wife, the great cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, who died 10 years before this 1997 performance from the complications of multiple sclerosis.

In my own case, as we are heading into our Archdiocesan priests' retreat, I cannot forget the scene some years ago when before our afternoon session Msgr James Oberkirk had a massive heart attack in front of us all, and died.  As we moved from that session into the chapel, Fr Oberkirk's protege was at the organ, and he happened to be playing this particular work.  It was eerie, and deeply moving.

So for all our fallen heroes, named and unnamed; and for all those whom we love-- let's enjoy the day, be thankful for their sacrifices, and re-commit ourselves to faithful service in the name of the One for whom service is most fitting...

Saturday, May 19, 2012


We are celebrating Ascension Thursday on Sunday (oh, well!).  But in honor of the Lord, I offer this performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams' setting of the text of our Responsorial Psalm 47:  "O Clap Your Hands."  It is, of course, to the text of the Authorized (King James) Version, and wonderful.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


As I write this meditation, I am listening to a wonderful 2-CD set, The Pilgrimage to Santiago (L’Oiseau-Lyre 433 148-2), including to the song “Non E Gran Causa,” also recorded by Loreena McKennitt (The Mask and the Mirror, on this disk simply titled “Santiago”).  This is “required listening” as I am reflecting on The Way, a movie made jointly by Emilio Estevez and his Father, Martin Sheen.

What is “The Way”?  It seems to me that the title of this movie is a multiplex play on words and meanings.  It clearly refers to the pilgrimage route(s) to the shrine of St James, Santiago de Compostela, on the north coast of Spain.  It also refers to a method:  it is the “way” by which we do things (or things are ‘done’ to us)—it’s the ‘way’ in which things need to or ought to or in fact happen.  It is also an allusion to the earliest name for Christianity (Acts of the Apostles):  the new Way.  Finally, I think there is buried in here an allusion to the famous statement of Jesus (John 14) that He is the “Way, the Truth & the Life.”  If I may paraphrase a bit, the movie suggests that the Way reveals the Truth of one’s Life…

I have done pilgrimages (walking ones) in the past, while a student in England—both in England and in the Holy Land.  Let me assure you that there is nothing more likely than meeting up with unlikely companions!  As a footnote, there were, in the Middle Ages, three major pilgrimage destinations:  Rome, Canterbury (whence Chaucer’s Tales), and Santiago.  For over 1,000 years people have made this pilgrimage (and there are actually several routes one can take from France through Spain to Santiago).
Why make such an arduous trip?  That is the question one might ask of Tom Avery (Martin Sheen), a quasi-depressed lapsed Catholic.  His only son died while setting out on this pilgrimage, and Tom (ostensibly) wants to finish the journey for his son (whose cremated ashes he carries).  He is joined by three other characters:  Joost, an overweight man from the Netherlands who says he wants to lose weight to fit into a suit for his brother’s third (!) wedding; Sarah, a woman from Canada who says she wants to quit smoking; and Jack, an Irish writer with writer’s block.  Not one of them easily (or at all) admits to the others the real reasons for their trek—despite it all, they all have religious reasons.  Should we be surprised?

The writing for the script is sometimes very forced, as for Sarah’s early encounter with Tom, or most of Jack’s effusions.  Beyond that, though, the characters are strong enough to deal with the occasional lapses in their dialogue.  In ways redolent of the personalities and fates of the characters in Brideshead Revisited, they are attractive in strange ways.  I wouldn’t want to be around them all the time, but I would enjoy visiting them from time to time.

“You don’t choose a life, you live one” Tom’s son, Daniel, tells him.  It is clearly a statement intended to evoke the significance of the opening of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven:  “All endings are also beginnings.  We just don’t know it at the time.”  But it’s not that simple, as Peter Brown suggests in his monumental biography Augustine of Hippo:  “Men choose because they love; but Augustine had been certain for some twenty years, that they could not, of themselves, choose to love” (p 373).  Choosing and living have to go together:  we choose (how, we don’t really know), then we embrace what we have chosen and have joy:  or do not embrace the choice, and experience misery.

And we are also on pilgrimage, even if not to Santiago, or Rome, or Canterbury.  The Church itself, after all, is a “pilgrim people” (see, eg, Lumen Gentium 8, 14 from Vatican Council II).  We are on a journey toward self-realization, self-actualization (not that we achieve this, but that it is our selves—individually and collectively—that seek this transformation).  What would we gratefully lay down at the feet of St James (or St Thomas a Becket, or Ss Peter and Paul), and what would we want to pick up to enable us to continue the journey?  “I come to you with nothing in my hands,” once said one monk to a master.  “Then drop it at once,” the master replied.  Even “nothing” can be something (especially when permeated with pride).  What should we/must we “drop at once”?

Pilgrimages, at their best, can end in this transformation.  Think also of the “pilgrimage” of the mercenary Rodrigo in The Mission, carrying his armour and weapons up the hill to the tribe of Native Americans he’d been in the business of enslaving.  What transformed him, and how might it do the same for us?

This is why, as Chaucer wrote (in the title to this post) that people do, indeed, long to go on pilgrimages.