Monday, December 30, 2013


This question was thrown at me (I do not exaggerate) by a woman who was admittedly a “visitor” to Our Savior church this past weekend.  It was clearly a question of contempt both for the Jesuits and for me.  What triggered it?

The woman was upset (to use a mild descriptive) because the tabernacle in Our Savior is not directly behind the altar, but rather in a chapel area around to the side.  She insisted that I consider moving it to where she regarded it as its only place.

I tried to be calm (I probably failed), but my attempts to reason with her were not productive.  This was the case even though I freely admitted that the tabernacle is now where it would not be, had I been the designer of the church.  But I would not have put it where she wanted it, either.  When I would not agree with her, she threw the “Jesuit” question at me.  I assured her I was not a Jesuit (maybe I should have said, “But I have been educated by the Jesuits”!).  And so she left, very angry.  [Where would I have put the tabernacle, had I been building Our Savior church?  This is a difficult question!  I am glad I am not in the position to have to answer it.  But one model for me (for those who know it) is the “old” St Michael’s in Auburn.]

What is the great “sticking point” for people like this woman?  It is, I believe, custom and a (perhaps unconscious) resentment toward all that was brought in by and is aligned with “Vatican II.,” especially in the realm of liturgy.  A tabernacle in another place is not what some people are used to; they see any move as an insult to Jesus.  But is this necessarily the case?

First of all, we must see what the Catholic Church says about the purpose of reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.  In order, they are:  1) to bring viaticum to the dying; 2) to bring Holy Communion to the sick and for private prayer/adoration (Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside Mass, #5).

Next, we should see what the Catholic Church says about the location of the tabernacle:  “…to express the sign of the eucharist, it is more in harmony with the nature of the celebration that, at the altar where Mass is celebrated, there should if possible be no reservation of the sacrament in the tabernacle [if one exists at that altar] from the beginning of Mass.”  “The place for the reservation of the eucharist should be truly preeminent…This will be achieved more easily if the chapel [of reservation] is separate from the body of the church…” (ibid, #9).  “…the Most Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in a tabernacle in a part of the church that is truly noble, prominent, conspicuous, worthily decorated, and suitable for prayer….It is more appropriate as a sign that on an altar on which Mass is celebrated there not be a tabernacle in which the Most Holy Eucharist is reserved.  Consequently, it is preferable that the tabernacle be located…even in some chapel suitable for the private adoration and prayer of the faithful…  (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 3rd Typical Edition, ##314-315).

It seems to me that while one can argue (reasonably) that our tabernacle’s location is not sufficiently “prominent [and] conspicuous,” it does meet the other criteria set up by the Catholic Church’s documents.

Why does this matter?  In large part, it is the culmination of a trajectory of liturgical sensibility that began with Pope St Pius X and even before—to make participation in the Mass the primary purpose of a church, not to have it as simply a very large Adoration Chapel.  Historically, before Pius X, there was (to put it gently) a reluctance neither to participate in the celebration in any active way, nor to receive the Holy Eucharist.  Church law actually had to mandate reception of Communion at least once a year (the famous “Easter duty” from the Six Precepts of the Church).  Most Catholics were far more comfortable and far more used simply to gaze, worship, adore, and go home—seemingly forgetting that the command of the Lord was “Take and eat; take and drink.”  We then believed ourselves too unworthy…

Is there a place “in the center of the church” for the Eucharistic Presence of our Lord to be worshipped?  Of course—during every Mass!  And when you receive Holy Communion, please realize:  YOU have become a “tabernacle”!

I wish we were as passionate as this woman about the way we need to take Christ into the world, rather than worrying too much about where He is “located” in our churches (do we really think we can lock Him up in the tabernacle?).  Pope Francis’ challenge in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”) makes it clear that our role in the “new evangelization” is precisely to experience the presence of the Lord sacramentally as we receive the Eucharist, and then be His missionaries to those in need.  Liturgical worship and private prayer do not exist for their own sake—they are they to nourish and empower us to live and be the Gospel. 

I pray that 2014 will be a year of evangelical re-birth for us, to do just this.  Meanwhile, I pray before the Blessed Sacrament before every Mass.  I hope you’ll join me there.

Monday, December 23, 2013


Pope Francis has famously asked for “…a poor Church, for the poor.”  I agree with him on one level, but I think (God forgive me!) that I disagree with him on another (though we actually in fact both agree)…
If a poor Church is one that has solidarity with the poor, yet the goods of the Church are necessary to help alleviate the suffering of the poor.  These are two dimensions necessary for the moral life of the Church, it seems to me.

So must the Church be rich?  I think so, understood in a specific sense.

I went to buy some seafood today at a store run by a family who are parishioners.  They have been too kind to me in the past—I feel guilty going there, knowing how much they want to give me.  Today was not much different—I left with seafood (at a discount) and a wonderful “to-go pack” of lunch.  As I was driving back to the rectory, I realized, “I am rich.”  But where does the wealth come from?  It comes from love.

It is in this sense that I want a “rich Church, for the rich.”   I want us to be so overflowing with love for one another and for others that no one can help also but be rich—and grateful.  As St Paul reminds us (II Cor 8:9):  “…our Lord Jesus Christ, [who] for your sake…became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty [we] might become rich.”  This is not just a clever Scripture passage for Stewardship Sunday—it is fundamental to the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption:  He freely gives what we desperately need, but what ourselves could never merit or earn or purchase. 

So I want a Church rich in love, rich in receiving the blessings of the Lord, rich in willingness to share those blessings (material and spiritual) with those who long for them.  This is a Church in which the loaves and fishes are gladly shared in confidence that they will be multiplied to feed the thousands.  It is a Church in which water, freely offered, can be transformed into wine.  It is a Church where the Bread broken and Wine poured out will offer reconciliation and healing.

This is a Church in which no one, ultimately, is poor.

Monday, December 16, 2013


What kind of “Body of Christ” do we need to be, to be a credible (and creditable) Body of Christ?  It’s hard to think of anyone giving a better witness and lead in this direction, now, than Pope Francis.

His Christ-like embrace of the poor and ministry to the poor is not only something that flows from his spirituality and identity (it’s nothing appliqued).  It is marked by creativity and thoughtfulness.  Most recently, the Holy Father has sent off a “small Christmas gift” of two thousand envelopes to be distributed by volunteers to the poor of Rome.  The distribution centers, it was reported, are the places where Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity do their ministry.  That means their international mother-house on the edge of the Circus Maximus, at San Gregorio Magno; and their outpost alongside the Vatican’s offices for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (the Holy Office), just to the left and outside the colonnade of the piazza of St Peter’s.  What is in those envelopes?

The poor will receive a one-day pass on the City’s Metro (subway) system, and a phone card; the envelopes will be stamped, so that they can be used by the recipients to mail letters; and they will have a Christmas card signed by Pope Francis—expressing his solidarity.

Does he roam the streets around St Peter’s at night, to help the poor?  No.  But does his special emissary in charity, Abp Konrad Krajewski, do so, down the Via della Conciliazione where many of the homeless poor spend the night?  Yes, he does.
Creativity in mercy is a powerful way to show the love of Jesus Christ. 
Why be a Christian?  It is because we are utterly convinced of the reality of the Resurrection which validates the ministry and message of Jesus.
How be a Christian?  Engage in the virtue of active love/forgiveness/reconciliation of others.  How much more clearly do we need to be told, beyond the parable of sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46)?

To these seven “corporal works of mercy” the Church has since added seven “spiritual ones.”  Check out all fourteen!!

Not everyone can do all fourteen, but every Christian must do some, and the Church must regularly engage in them all and be known and seen to do so.  This I not self-aggrandizement; it is the command of the Lord (Matt 5:16) to let the light shine.  It’s not all about “me”—it’s all about Him.  It’s about faith working in love (Gal 5:6), or, if you prefer, “walking the talk.”

And Pope Francis knows this better than most.


Thursday, December 12, 2013


There is a tremendous amount of upset, it seems, amid certain quarters of the Catholic Church, with Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.  Most of it is curious, to say the least.  We have the spectacle of TV “reporters” on Catholic channels (or “commentators” like Rush Limbaugh) questioning the degree of the “binding nature” of this document because there are statements in it about economics and re-distribution of wealth on behalf of the poor.  They are convinced that the Pope knows nothing about economics and that there is no reason to take him seriously when he speaks about systemic change.

They may or may not be right in their critique of his analysis, but in focusing on the points that they do, they miss the forest (deliberately?) in order to wring their hands at a given tree.  This is tragic, but perhaps it is understandable.  And there certainly is precedent.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church (quoting Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae) stated that the justification for capital punishment was “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” some of the same pundits pounced on the words “rare” and “practically,” arguing that this meant there is no definitive condemnation of capital punishment, and so death penalty-happy States like Texas and Florida (and yes, Alabama) are perfectly fine morally.  Of course, this ignores the overall intent of the Catechism’s statement and the lived practice of Pope John Paul himself.  But that is another matter…

By claiming that Pope Francis’ rejection of the principle of “trickle-down economics” is mistaken, it is too simple a step for others today to reject the principle of the poor as our brothers and sisters.  And this is the “forest” that Pope Francis is trying to put into focus. 

Needless to say, the Holy Father has the principles of the Bible, the words of Jesus, and the teaching of the Church Fathers as the continuous trajectory from which his thought proceeds.  So why (and how) can some Catholics find so much to reject?

It seems to me that when some Catholics take moral stands in a rather sanguine way (even if they are intensely involved emotionally) it is too often when it offers a chance to point a finger at another person.  In condemning abortion, for example, it is something someone else does; we would never do such a thing.  When capital punishment is defended, it is because it is something someone else has done; we haven’t committed that horrible crime.

But Pope Francis’ words are now a critique of us.  We live in the most privileged society, economically speaking, in world history.  We also live in what is possibly the most self-absorbed society in human history, as well.  And there is a vast inequality of life-style between us and much of the rest of the world, in terms of standard of living, of educational opportunity, of access to medical care…  In short, too many people in the world live in conditions that degrade human dignity.

Should all nations be democracies, just like America?  No.  Should all nations have the standard of living of America?  No.  Are all countries governed by leaders whose integrity is uncorrupted?  No. 

But should world hunger and disease exist on the level that it does?  No, not if we Catholics were to take seriously the dogma of the Body of Christ, and the words of Jesus in the parable of the sheep and the goats.

The Pope is saying that the wealthy have too much wealth spend on self, and that the poor are too regularly ignored or rejected for the sake of the wealthy keeping their wealth for their personal pleasure. 

Worse, we not only take for granted our “birthright” of wealth, but we waste much of what we have as our food.  Is it an accident that we are one of the most obese nations?  How much food is regularly thrown away at restaurants because they over-size portions? 

One does think of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus…

And when the wealthy and privileged (aka, much of the Catholic Church in the United States) hear the Pope’s challenges, we become uncomfortable and search for reasons to justify rejecting his message.  I said “we” deliberately because I feel the challenge and I know that he convicts me in my own life-style and lack of commitment to be a brother to the poor.

Where do we start?  One way is to make a pledge to eliminate, insofar as is possible, waste of food in our own lives.  It requires discipline (and time) to do this—to buy only so much fresh food, for example, as can easily be eaten in a day or two.  Italian grandmothers know this instinctively:  they shop every day at the markets, buy what’s fresh, and then prepare and eat it.  How often do we “stock up” and then throw away?

I have seen the level of poverty in which some people live, in Haiti and rural Mexico (and in some parts of rural Alabama).  Can I eliminate it?  No.  But can it motivate me to live more responsibly and generously, so that I waste less and have more to give—to agencies like Catholic Relief Services that work to ease the suffering of the poor?  Yes I can. 

I could probably cut my life-style and annual income in half and still live royally compared with much of the world.  How much do I want to reduce, for the sake of generosity?  And:  can I do this with evangelical Gospel joy?  This is the challenge of the economic portion of Evangelii Gaudium that some folks don’t want to face.

Are we guilty of perpetuating a "throw-away culture," a "culture of waste" while others in our world starve? Here is Pope Francis' prayer:

O God, you entrusted to us the fruits of all creation so that we might care for the earth and be nourished with its bounty.
You sent us your Son to share our very flesh and blood and to teach us your Law of Love.
Through His death and resurrection, we have been formed into one human family.
Jesus showed great concern for those who had no food – even transforming five loaves and two fish into a banquet that served five thousand and many more.
We come before you, O God, conscious of our faults and failures, but full of hope, to share food with all members in this global family.
Through your wisdom, inspire leaders of government and of business, as well as all the world’s citizens, to find just, and charitable solutions to end hunger by assuring that all people enjoy the right to food.

Thus we pray, O God, that when we present ourselves for Divine Judgment, we can proclaim ourselves as “One Human Family” with “Food for All”. Amen.