Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Reflections on the Scandal from Francis of Assisi

This is an article that I wrote for the Franciscan publication, The Cord, back in 2003.  Given all that has been in the news recently about the Church scandals in Ireland and Germany, I thought it might be worth reposting.


By Fr. Tom Washburn, O.F.M.
[The Cord, March/April 2003]

“Priests involved in drunkenness and gambling.” “Priests violate the chaste life.” “Bishops spend night in drunken stupor.” “Priests accused of ordering death sentences.” “Priests accused of misusing Church property, resources.” “Training of seminarians reviewed.” “Bishops accused of extorting the faithful.”

At first glance one might think that these are headlines from the latest edition of The Boston Globe as it continues to cover the sexual abuse scandal rocking the Church. Rather than contemporary news stories, these are the headlines that would have been written were the Globe covering the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The point? As a Church, we’ve been here before. As troubling and downright evil as our current scandal of sexual abuse by priests and bishops and the subsequent cover-up is, the Church has experienced times of great public sin before. And perhaps more importantly, in the past, the Church has stepped up to the plate and named its own sin and put in place the reforms needed to restore dignity, to rebuild trust, to remind all Christians – priests, bishops and laity alike – that our identity lies not in sin, but in overcoming sin and death by following Jesus Christ.

We’ve endured a year of media attention on these scandals. Most conversations among the faithful and others over this last year has also revolved around the scandal. How could priests do these things? How could bishops move these priests around? How could they all get away with it? Barely in the mix has been the reality that the great majority of priests have not committed these heinous acts and instead continue to do the work that God has called them to. During the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto, Canada this past summer, the Holy Father said this, “If you love Jesus, love the Church!...The harm done by some priests and religious to the young and vulnerable fills us all with a deep sense of sadness and shame. But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests and religious whose only wish is to serve and do good!...At difficult moments in the Church's life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.”

Lessons from the 13th Century


As a priest ordained just over two years ago, I find myself and my contemporaries struggling with the question of what it means for us to be priests in the Church today. What will we do in the face of a world that looks upon us with suspicion and presumes distrust? I believe this is where we can actually find some help and guidance from the 13th Century’s reaction to the scandals of their day, and especially from the example of St. Francis of Assisi and his response to these issues.

It appears in the 13th Century that priestly life in many ways had become a life of debauchery. The Council passed canons addressing the abuses of that day forbidding clerics from drunken displays; from pronouncing or executing a death sentence against someone; from holding secular offices or engaging in dishonest pursuits; and clerics were reminded to live chaste and virtuous lives. Clearly, the situation was grim. A sampling of some of the issues the Council addressed:

  • “Many prelates…extort from their subjects more than they pay out, and in trying to extract a profit from their losses they look for booty rather than help in their subjects. We forbid this to happen in the future.” (Canon 34)
  • "To guide souls is a supreme art. We therefore strictly order bishops carefully to prepare those who are to be promoted to the priesthood and to instruct them… if they presume henceforth to ordain the ignorant and unformed…we decree that both the ordainers and those ordained are to be subject to severe punishment. For it is preferable…to have a few good ministers than many bad ones, for if a blind man leads another blind man, both will fall into the pit.” (Canon 27)
  • “All clerics should carefully abstain from gluttony and drunkenness. They should temper the wine to themselves and themselves to the wine. Let no one be urged to drink, since drunkenness obscures the intellect and stirs up lust.” (Canon 15)
  • “Not only…clerics but also some prelates of churches pass almost half the night in unnecessary feasting and forbidden conversation, not to mention other things, and leaving what is left of the night for sleep, they are barely roused at the dawn chorus of the birds and pass away the entire morning in a continuous state of stupor…(and) others who say mass scarcely four times a year and, what is worse, do not even attend mass, and when they are present they are engaged outside in conversation with lay people to escape the silence of the choir; so that, while they readily lend their ears to unbecoming talk, they regard with utter indifference things that are divine. These and all similar things, therefore, we absolutely forbid under penalty of suspension.” (Canon 17)
  • “We decree that prelates of churches should prudently and diligently attend to the correction of their subjects' offences especially of clerics, and to the reform of morals.” (Canon 7)
  • “In order that the morals and conduct of clerics may be reformed for the better, let all of them strive to live in a continent and chaste way…Let them beware of every vice involving lust, especially that on account of which the wrath of God came down from heaven upon the sons of disobedience, so that they may be worthy to minister in the sight of almighty God with a pure heart and an unsullied body…Prelates who dare to support such persons in their wickedness, especially if they do it for money or for some other temporal advantage, are to be subject to like punishment.” (Canon 14)

So, what does all of this have to do with our scandal today? What can St. Francis say about these things? One of the often heard questions in the media today is whether or not the Church can survive this scandal. Many people feel as though this is it for the institutional Church. Perhaps we have too secular a view of institutions and think there is no way to recover. Any historian of the Church – or historian at all – can tell you that this is not the end, this does not mean the Church, its structures, or even the priesthood is done. Instead this can potentially become an opportunity for great reform and pursuit of holiness in the Church.

The 13th Century scandals and ours today share something in common – the actions are especially appalling because they violate the identity of who we say we are as Christians and especially as priests. The ordained have publicly embarked upon a way of life that identifies itself so closely with Christ and made public vows and/or promises to life a life worthy of that call. As we hear during the ordination of deacons, “Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you now are. Believe what you read. Teach what you believe. Practice what you teach.” The scandals witness to a violation of that command.

Francis of Assisi – promoter of reform


St. Francis of Assisi lived in the midst of those scandalous times in the 13th century. It is said that St. Francis saved the Church in the 13th century. St. Bonaventure writes in The Minor Legend of Saint Francis that “In a dream the Roman Pontiff himself saw that the lateran basilica was almost ready to fall down, and a poor little, small and scorned, was propping it up with his own bent back so that it would not fall…he said, ‘Truly, this is he who will hold up Christ’s Church by what he does and what he preaches.’”

Francis did this very simply, but constantly. Francis is believed to have been present at the Fourth Lateran Council. Francis understood the issues clearly and was one of the most important promoters of reform in the Church calling people, and especially priests, to believe, teach and practice the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Francis was known to have said, “You are what you are before God. That and nothing more.” In his writings, Francis repeatedly writes to priests and calls them to remember what they are in the sight of God and live up to that call. It’s all about identity.

Rather than simply cursing the darkness of his time, Francis called priests to walk in the light of their call. In his Letter to the Entire Order Francis warns the clergy, “Remember my brother priests, what has been written concerning the law of Moses, how one transgressing even in corporals things used to die without any pity by the sentence of the Lord. How much greater and more worse are the torments one merits to suffer, who has trampled upon the Son of God and reckoned the Blood of the Testament, in which he has been sanctified, to be defiled, and has insulted the Spirit of grace…And the priests, who do not want to keep this at heart, He in truth condemns saying: ‘I shall curse your blessings’ (Mal 2:2).” But after warning them, Francis encourages priests to pursue holiness, “See your dignity, my brother priests, and be holy, because He himself is Holy. And just as above all others on account of this ministry the Lord God has honored you, in this manner also love, revere, and honor Him above all others…Let the whole man tremble with fear, let the whole world begin to completely quake, and let heaven exult, when upon the altar in the hand of the priest is Christ, the Son of the living God!...Therefore keep nothing of yourselves for yourselves, so that He may receive you whole, He who manifests Himself wholly to you.”

Francis continually encouraged a healthy and holy approach to reform. He at the same time called priests to live up to their call to holiness and reminded the faithful that despite the trying times in which they lived, they still had access to the salvation offered us through the sacraments. Francis upheld the dignity of ordained life in the hopes that those ordained would live up to that dignity and the laity would respect that dignity. He writes in his Letter to the Faithful, “We also ought to frequently visit churches and venerate clerics and revere them, not so much for their own sake, if they be sinners, but on account of their office and administration of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which they sacrifice upon the altar and receive and administer to others.” Francis also wrote letters to the clergy, to the superiors of religious communities, to the rulers of the world, in addition to personal letters. In every letter, without exception, Francis spoke of reform and challenged the people and religious leaders of his time to adopt reform. Francis believed what he read, taught what he believed and practiced what he taught. This is the formula for reform.

Franciscan reform today


We can learn a great deal from the way that Francis and his followers responded to the 13th century scandals. What seems to be missing in the current scandal is that reminder of who we are, what we stand for, what we believe. Instead we seem only to be cursing the darkness. We need to remind ourselves that this situation is scandalous precisely because it is not what we believe. These sins are not who we say we are. If there is to be hope of moving beyond this current darkness, we must not only boldly, clearly, definitively push reforms as did the Lateran Council, but we must also be reminded of who we say we are – especially we who live a public life as priests, bishops and religious – and live up to that tremendous call that God has placed before us.

The pursuit of reform is undeniable if there is to be change in the future. The Church – both corporately and individually – must confess its sin. Likewise, the Church must also make amends in justice for anything it did that was not only morally wrong, but also criminally wrong.

The challenge remains however, to not jump on the bandwagon of what in some parts seems to be a witch hunt. Remember that many – in fact most – priests and religious strive to live up to their call in a worthy manner. Support them. Pray for them in the midst of this trying time.

As a Church, we have to make substantive change to the way we function to both assure that these things never are allowed to happen again and to involve a larger number of the members of the Church – ordained and lay – into appropriate roles of leadership. One of the perhaps lost canons (Canon 24) of the Fourth Lateran Council regarded the democratic election of pastors. There are models in the Church’s past that can provide guidance for the future.

The example of St. Francis of Assisi is striking in its simplicity. Francis reminds us that the solution to the scandals of his time, and of ours, is nothing more than following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who follow the Gospel try to avoid sin. When they sin, they confess and make things right and make every effort to “Go and sin no more.” Gospel followers do not continue in sin, hide the sins of their members, avoid responsibility for their sinful actions. This is not who we are. Following Francis’ example, we must:

1. Confess the sin in our midst;
2. Make just reparation for any wrongs – moral and criminal;
3. Improve training, screening and response in the future;
4. Pray for those victimized;
5. Pray for the Church, for her leaders, for her people;
6. Build ourselves up on the grace of the sacraments which no sin can ever diminish;
7. Remember who we are and what we stand for as followers of Christ;
8. Get the word out preaching these things anywhere and everywhere. The Church has faced great scandal before and come out of it more true to who she says she is. The message of the past, of St. Francis, is that we can once again place ourselves back on a Gospel course if only we have the strength to do what must be done.

As Francis said in his Prayer before the Crucifix: “Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of our hearts and give us true faith, certain hope, and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that we may carry out Your holy and true command.”

40 Ways to make 2010 a better year

Came across this on the net and thought it was worth sharing:


1. Take a 10-30 minute walk every day, and while you walk, smile. It is the ultimate antidepressant.

2. Sit in silence for at least 10 minutes each day. I like to take this 10 minutes (sadly sometime just 5) to think of everything that is going RIGHT and not wrong and to give thanks for what I do have...so many people have it worse.

3. Buy a DVR and record your late night shows and get more sleep.

4. When you wake up in the morning complete the following statement, “My purpose is to _______ today.”

5. Live with the 3 E’s – Energy, Enthusiasm, and Empathy.

6. Play more games and read more books than you did in 2009.

7. Make time to practice meditation and prayer. They provide us with daily fuel for our busy lives.

8. Spend time with people over the age of 70 and under the age of six. There is so much wisdom to learn from people in their 60's, 70's, 80's --take some time to take it all in. As far as kids go...try to remember what it was like to find everything so exciting and so new. We can learn a lot from kids!

9. Dream more while you are awake.

10. Eat more foods that grow on trees and plants. Eat less food that is manufactured in plants!

11. Drink green tea and plenty of water.

12. Try to make at least 3 people smile each day.

13. Clean clutter from your house, your car, your desk, and let new and flowing energy into your life.

14. Don’t waste your precious energy on gossip, or issues of the past, negative thoughts or things you cannot control. Instead invest your energy in the positive present moment.

15. Realize that life is a school and you are here to learn. Problems are simply part of the curriculum that appear and fade away like algebra class but the lessons you learn will last a lifetime.

16. Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a college kid with a maxed out charge card.

17. Smile and laugh more. It will keep the BLUES away.

18. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

19. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

20. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

21. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

22. Make peace with your past so it won’t spoil the present.

23. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

24. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

25. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

26. Forgive everyone for everything.

27. What other people think of you is none of your business.

28. Ask, Believe, Receive.

29. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

30. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

31. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful, or joyful.

32. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

33. The best is yet to come.

34. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up, and show up.

35. Do the right thing!

36. Call your family often.. (Or email them to death!)

37. Each night before you go to bed, complete the following statements: “I am thankful for _________________. Today I accomplished _______________.

38. Remember you are too blessed to be stressed.

39. Enjoy the ride. Remember this is not Disney World and you certainly don’t want a fast pass. You only have one ride through life so make the most of it and enjoy the ride.

40. May your troubles be less, May your blessings be more, May nothing but happiness come through your door! It just doesn't happen though on it's own YOU NEED to stop thinking negative thoughts and focus on wishing good things in your lives and everyone around you!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Fools for Christ

I am currently in Canada for a Vocation Discernment Retreat weekend (keep us in prayer), but here's a homily from the archives.  This was given in 2007. 


HOMILY FOR THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT, Originally delivered March 25, 2007:

Jesus is sitting in the Temple area teaching when a women caught in adultery is brought to him to be stoned for her sins. Looking at the crowd Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” There is silence. Suddenly from the back of the crowd a rock comes hurling through and hits the woman on the head. Jesus looks up and says, “Mom, do you mind? I’m trying to make a point here.”

You’ve probably heard that one before. I like that joke because its humor is in that it shakes up what is a very familiar story to us about the woman caught in adultery. And, shaking things up is I think, exactly what Jesus intended by the way he acted in that encounter. It is one of those Biblical paradoxes where the Godly response is very different from the typical human response. It is reminiscent of the line in Scripture that reminds us that the “wisdom of God is foolishness to humans.” This was also a key insight of St. Francis of Assisi who realized that to follow the Gospel was to be completely different than what the world wants us to be. In fact, if God’s wisdom is what humans would view as foolish, then let’s all be fools. Francis was often called Christ’s fool. It is a very Franciscan way of following our Christian calling. So, the next time you think or say, “Fr. Tom is such a fool,” just remember, I’m only living out my vocation.

So, let’s look at this encounter that is meant to shake us up a bit. Jesus has this powerful encounter with the woman who was caught in adultery. Remember that by every objective standard of her day, this woman should have been put to death. Capital Crime? Capital Punishment, or the Death Penalty. The law on this was clear. From Leviticus, Chapter 20: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Very clear cut. Her actions were clearly in violation of the Law and anyone who was there would not have given this a second thought. Death was required and was even justified under the Law. So, why not just stone her and be done with it?

Instead, Jesus offers another option. “Let the first among you without sin cast the first stone.” And what happens? Suddenly these people see their connectedness as community – even though one in their midst had done wrong. With that simple statement, “Let the first among you without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus instantly brings a halt to a pattern of violence. Had they stoned her, these people would have just gone forward seeking out more wrong doers to bring to so-called justice. But, Jesus stops the cycle of violence that only leads to more violence and instead offers a way that leads to healing, reconciliation and peace. And isn’t that so much better than violence begetting violence – even when that violence seems justified?

And, let’s not underestimate the effects of Jesus actions. Although not named, tradition has often suggested that this woman was Mary Magdalene. Not only did she go on from this moment to be one of Jesus closest disciples, she is one of the most revered saints the world over, and was given the unbelievable honor of being the first at the tomb to proclaim that Jesus had risen. None of this would have happened if vengeance had taken over and she had been stoned to death. The realization is that the death penalty turns humans into false gods lording life and death over one another. More importantly, ”an eye for an eye” only serves to stop the healing, reconciling work that the True God wants to do in the lives of everyone.

Don’t forget either, another Mary likewise should have been killed for her actions. Mary, the mother of Jesus, said YES to God and became pregnant through the Holy Spirit. But in the eyes of her society, she was a pregnant woman out of wedlock – who likewise should have been put to death. Think of the consequences of that action. Were the Blessed Mother executed, there would have been no Jesus and no salvation.

So, what does this have to do with us? Well, this story from the Gospel presents us with a profound question – when will we begin to act as Jesus acts? When will we stop seeking vengeance, the cycle of violence, the culture of death, and begin to be people of reconciliation, healing and hope? And I say begin to act because looking around our world it is clear that as a society, whatever our words are, whatever is in our hearts – our actions are not in support of life. When teenagers in our community last week painted satanic symbols on two churches in town, how many people said, “Someone has to make these kids pay the price!” And how many said, “How can we reconcile this situation?” Luckily, Pastor Gail at St. John’s chose the path of reconciliation discovering that these young men are in very difficult home situations that contributed to this act of vandalism. Does that mean there is no consequence? No, they are being charged with their crime. They are doing restitution at the churches. But, instead of it ending there – Pastor Gail has engaged the situation; engaged these young men; forgiven them; accepted their remorse and sorrow; and is helping them to heal their lives. A much better solution for everyone involved. You know, whenever we are pointing a finger at someone else in judgment, there are three fingers pointing back at us.

Violence begets more violence. Jesus shows the people in today’s Gospel that they are interconnected. When something happens in our community – whether vandalism, or homelessness, or crime, or other types of social failures – we shouldn’t say, “They should do something about this. Why did they let themselves get that way? Why should I care about them?” The key insight into being Christian is this – there is no they; in the Christian community there is only us. A failure of one is a failure of all. When people are caught in cycles of violence and poverty, the response should be – how have we as a community failed these people? And what can we do to bring true and lasting change for their good and our common good?

Ghandi is often quoted as having said, “An eye for an eye eventually leaves everyone blind.” Jesus shows us that we can halt that cycle of violence and work for reconciliation – even in the worst cases. The woman caught in adultery turned her life around, And Jesus on the cross promised the criminal beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The challenge for every Christian is to not just hear these words and say good for Jesus, but not for me; but to make Christ’s words, our words.

I am often aware of the fact that if this were the case, it should be a statistical impossibility that things like the Death Penalty, legal abortions, poverty, homelessness, etc. even exist. If we lived and voted our faith, given our overwhelming numbers in this country, all of these things should be long gone. These are all part of what it means to be Pro-Life.

Vengeance is fueled by anger. We are an angry people. But, anger only hurts us. Anger only ties up our own hearts in knots. Anger only steals our own peace. When will we stop being angry? It is so much easier to be forgiving. It is so much better to chose another way – which is what Jesus offers us. So, too these difficult and challenging situations in life Jesus might say, “Yes, I can understand your anger at this bad situation. You have every reason in the world to hold that grudge, to make them pay. But, don’t. How long is long enough to fill your heart with anger? Follow me. Let it go. Even when justified, offer love and forgiveness and reconciliation instead. You will see that it is not only healing for the one you forgive; it is healing for you as well.”

We must be the people who identify with and exemplify in our families and our community the saving, healing, reconciling actions of Jesus. Otherwise, we are just identifying with the Pharisees who seek to be more concerned with rules and punishment than with the love of God. Being Christian is not easy – it challenges us into places we weren’t prepared to go. But, when we trust in God’s actions, when we try things His way, the results are amazing. Just look at Mary Magdalene. Just look at the Blessed Mother.

The love of God is challenging, but it is not optional. Have you ever wondered where this Kingdom of God is that Jesus talks about? Why it hasn’t arrived yet? We need look no further than ourselves. We all have to be the people who, like Jesus, break the cycle and offer a different way. If it is only the priests preaching about these things and you leave here saying “that Fr. Tom is a fool” then the message will never take hold.

I’ve got news for you – I am a fool, a fool for Christ. The wisdom of Christ seems foolish to the world. But, I can also promise you that if you leave here today and offer the same reconciliation and healing to the angry places, situations and relationships in your life – change will happen. I challenge us all to do that. Let us all be a community of fools for Christ and ultimately a sign to the world of the Kingdom of God in our midst.

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Patrick

Legends about Patrick abound; but truth is best served by our seeing two solid qualities in him: He was humble and he was courageous. The determination to accept suffering and success with equal indifference guided the life of God’s instrument for winning most of Ireland for Christ.

Details of his life are uncertain. Current research places his dates of birth and death a little later than earlier accounts. Patrick may have been born in Dunbarton, Scotland, Cumberland, England, or in northern Wales. He called himself both a Roman and a Briton. At 16, he and a large number of his father’s slaves and vassals were captured by Irish raiders and sold as slaves in Ireland. Forced to work as a shepherd, he suffered greatly from hunger and cold.

After six years, Patrick escaped, probably to France, and later returned to Britain at the age of 22. His captivity had meant spiritual conversion. He may have studied at Lerins, off the French coast; he spent years at Auxerre, France, and was consecrated bishop at the age of 43. His great desire was to proclaim the Good News to the Irish.

In a dream vision it seemed “all the children of Ireland from their mothers’ wombs were stretching out their hands” to him. He understood the vision to be a call to do mission work in pagan Ireland. Despite opposition from those who felt his education had been defective, he was sent to carry out the task. He went to the west and north, where the faith had never been preached, obtained the protection of local kings and made numerous converts.

Because of the island’s pagan background, Patrick was emphatic in encouraging widows to remain chaste and young women to consecrate their virginity to Christ. He ordained many priests, divided the country into dioceses, held Church councils, founded several monasteries and continually urged his people to greater holiness in Christ.

He suffered much opposition from pagan druids, and was criticized in both England and Ireland for the way he conducted his mission.

In a relatively short time the island had experienced deeply the Christian spirit, and was prepared to send out missionaries whose efforts were greatly responsible for Christianizing Europe.

Patrick was a man of action, with little inclination toward learning. He had a rocklike belief in his vocation, in the cause he had espoused.

One of the few certainly authentic writings is his Confessio, above all an act of homage to God for having called Patrick, unworthy sinner, to the apostolate.

There is hope rather than irony in the fact that his burial place is said to be in strife-torn Ulster, in County Down.

COMMENT: What distinguishes Patrick is the durability of his efforts. When one considers the state of Ireland when he began his mission work, the vast extent of his labors (all of Ireland) and how the seeds he planted continued to grow and flourish, one can only admire the kind of man Patrick must have been. The holiness of a person is known only by the fruits of his or her work.

QUOTE: “Christ shield me this day: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me” (from “The Breastplate of St. Patrick”).

From Saint of the Day on www.americancatholic.org

Monday, March 15, 2010

An open letter to those who don't go to church

NOTE: I am at a Vocation Director's Conference in Toronto this week and our main speak has been Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI.  He has been really a wonderful speaker.  The post below is from his website, http://www.ronrolheiser.com


Dear Fellow Pilgrim:

I greet you as someone who is looking for meaning and happiness, as we all are. I know you're sincere or you wouldn't be reading this letter. Know this first of all: We miss you at church. There's not a Sunday goes by when your absence isn't felt. You're missed. Join us.

Yes, I know this isn't a simple thing. The heart has its reasons, Pascal said. Well the church too has its complexities. Perhaps it is precisely one of these complexities that make it difficult for you to walk regularly through a church door. So l won't try to sugarcoat the church. It is a far-from-perfect expression of God's love and mercy and it is a far-from-perfect expression of God's universal salvific will for everyone. Sometimes the church blocks God's love as much as it reveals it. It has been, and remains, a vehicle both of grace and sin. How do we get past its dark side?

Carlo Carretto, the renowned Italian spiritual writer, in his old age, wrote this Ode to the church:



How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you!


You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone.


I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence.


You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.


Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, and yet I have never touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful.


Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face-and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms!


No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.


Then too-where would I go?


To build another church?


But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ's church.


No, I am old enough. I know better!


That's a mature description of the church, expressing both love and realism. It's an honest description too. The church has a long history, both of grace and of sin and we who make up the church on earth don't do God very well. Nobody does. We need to admit that.

I can only guess at your reasons for not coming to church regularly or for not coming to church at all: Perhaps you have been hurt by the church, by the institution itself or by one of its priests or ministers. Perhaps you have been one of those who have experienced it as callous, as insensitive, as denigrating you in some way. Or perhaps you are intellectually disenchanted with the church, unable to square its claims with your own sane grip on life and its mysteries. Or perhaps you have found what you are looking for elsewhere, outside the doors of the church you attended when you were little. Or perhaps you have just drifted away and don't think about church very much at all. Perhaps you don't feel a need for church in your life. Or, perhaps you are convinced that Jesus and his teachings are in fact tainted by the church, that Jesus never wanted to found a church, but wanted only that people take his teachings to heart and live in love and graciousness. There are many reasons why people don't go to church. I can only guess at yours.

But your reason for not going is not important for this letter. I don't want to defend the church here, make some kind of apologetics for it, or argue against any of the reasons that people give for not coming to church. And I don't want to try to show you reasons why, I think, it is important to go to church. This I not an apologetics, but a plea, an invitation:

Come back! Try us again! Or, if you have never belonged to the church, try us!

Maybe this time you will find life in the church and be able to drink in some of its graces. Maybe this time you will find it in you to forgive the church for its faults, see those faults are your own faults, and see why Jesus picked such an imperfect vehicle to carry on his presence. Maybe this time you will be able to see in the church what Jesus saw in it - an imperfect body made up of men and women like you and me, full of sin, full of ourselves, petty, small-hearted, less-than- sincere, miserly, and tainted, but also full of grace, full of Christ, big-hearted, sincere, generous, and pure, a group of men and women worth dying for - and belonging to. Come be with us!

A fellow pilgrim and a flawed church member.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Universal health care tends to cut the abortion rate

I don't agree with everything in this article, but the basic argument is compelling. - FT
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By T.R. Reid
Sunday, March 14, 2010; Washington Post, A19 
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Countless arguments have been advanced for and against the pending bills to increase health-care coverage. Both sides have valid concerns, which makes the battle tight. But one prominent argument is illogical. The contention that opponents of abortion should oppose the current proposals to expand coverage simply doesn't make sense.

Increasing health-care coverage is one of the most powerful tools for reducing the number of abortions -- a fact proved by years of experience in other industrialized nations. All the other advanced, free-market democracies provide health-care coverage for everybody. And all of them have lower rates of abortion than does the United States.

This is not a coincidence. There's a direct connection between greater health coverage and lower abortion rates. To oppose expanded coverage in the name of restricting abortion gets things exactly backward. It's like saying you won't fix the broken furnace in a schoolhouse because you're against pneumonia. Nonsense! Fixing the furnace will reduce the rate of pneumonia. In the same way, expanding health-care coverage will reduce the rate of abortion.

At least, that's the lesson from every other rich democracy.

The latest United Nations comparative statistics, available at http://data.un.org, demonstrate the point clearly. The U.N. data measure the number of abortions for women ages 15 to 44. They show that Canada, for example, has 15.2 abortions per 1,000 women; Denmark, 14.3; Germany, 7.8; Japan, 12.3; Britain, 17.0; and the United States, 20.8. When it comes to abortion rates in the developed world, we're No. 1.

No one could argue that Germans, Japanese, Brits or Canadians have more respect for life or deeper religious convictions than Americans do. So why do they have fewer abortions?

One key reason seems to be that all those countries provide health care for everybody at a reasonable cost. That has a profound effect on women contemplating what to do about an unwanted pregnancy.
The connection was explained to me by a wise and holy man, Cardinal Basil Hume. He was the senior Roman Catholic prelate of England and Wales when I lived in London; as a reporter and a Catholic, I got to know him.

In Britain, only 8 percent of the population is Catholic (compared with 25 percent in the United States). Abortion there is legal. Abortion is free. And yet British women have fewer abortions than Americans do. I asked Cardinal Hume why that is.

The cardinal said that there were several reasons but that one important explanation was Britain's universal health-care system. "If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it's needed," Hume explained, "she's more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn't it obvious?"

A young woman I knew in Britain added another explanation. "If you're [sexually] active," she said, "the way to avoid abortion is to avoid pregnancy. Most of us do that with an IUD or a diaphragm. It means going to the doctor. But that's easy here, because anybody can go to the doctor free."

For various reasons, then, expanding health-care coverage reduces the rate of abortion. All the other industrialized democracies figured that out years ago. The failure to recognize this plain statistical truth may explain why American churches have played such a small role in our national debate on health care. Searching for ways to limit abortions, our faith leaders have managed to overlook a proven approach that's on offer now: expanding health-care coverage.

When I studied health-care systems overseas in research for a book, I asked health ministers, doctors, economists and others in all the rich countries why their nations decided to provide health care for everybody. The answers were medical (universal care saves lives), economic (universal care is cheaper), political (the voters like it), religious (it's what Christ commanded) and moral (it's the right thing to do). And in every country, people told me that universal health-care coverage is desirable because it reduces the rate of abortion.

It's only in the United States that opponents of abortion are fighting against expanded health-care coverage -- a policy step that has been proved around the world to limit abortions.

T.R. Reid, a longtime correspondent for The Post, is the author of "The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

America's first African-American priest one step closer to sainthood

Saw this over on Whispers in the Loggia and thought I should share:


With sin and scandal dominating the headlines these days, seems a good time to recall those who've done things right.


In recent days, movement's been reported on the cause of sainthood on these shores. And in a unique twist, this one has a special import for the nation's African-American Catholics -- a contingent estimated at some 3 million souls.

Chicago officials have begun a push for the beatification of the nation's first Black priest, Fr Augustus Tolton (1854-97), who was ordained for the diocese of Quincy (now Springfield) in 1886...

Father Tolton was born into slavery. His parents, Peter and Martha Tolton, were slaves living in Brush Creek, Mo. They were married in a Catholic ceremony and had three children: Charles, Augustine and Anne. Augustine was born into the Catholic faith. His baptismal records at St. Peter’s Church in Sidney, Mo., read “A colored child born April 1, 1854. Son of Peter Tolton and Martha Chisley, Property of Stephen Eliot,” according to “From Slave to Priest,” a biography of Father Tolton’s life by Sister Caroline Hemesath....

When Augustine was 11, his mother enrolled him in St. Boniface School during the winter months when work at the cigar factory dropped off. His mother pulled him from school after only one month when the parish priest and sisters received harassment and anonymous threats because of Augustine’s presence.

His mother enrolled him in public school. But three years later, the pastor of nearby St. Peter’s Church told Augustine and his mother that the boy could attend St. Peter’s School. Here he became an altar server.

It was during this time that Augustine began to feel he had a vocation to the priesthood. Father Peter McGirr, the pastor at St. Peter’s, approached Augustine about the idea and helped him along this journey, a journey that would be difficult and have many roadblocks.

They wrote to all the seminaries in the United States, according to “From Slave to Priest” and received negative responses. They also tried the Franciscans and Josephites to no avail.

Meanwhile, several of the local priests took to educating and training Augustine for the seminary on the side.

After several years, they appealed to the College of the Propagation of the Faith in Rome, a pontifical college that trained and ordained priests for missionary work around the world. They thought Augustine could become a missionary in Africa.

In February of 1880, Augustine left for Rome. After six years of study, he was ordained on April 24, 1886, at St. John Lateran Basilica in Rome. The day before his ordination, which was Good Friday, there was a change in plans. Augustine would not be ministering in Africa. Instead, officials of the college felt he should be a missionary in his own country. They felt it was time America had its own black priest.

According to reports, this devastated Father Tolton because he knew the climate he was going back to and the amount of racism he would face in America. But he went, uniting his future suffering with Jesus. Father Tolton returned to Quincy and celebrated his first Mass at home on July 18, 1886, at St. Boniface Church. He was assigned pastor of St. Joseph Church, a black parish affiliated with St. Boniface.

Despite fervent efforts to minister to his congregation, racism and anti-Catholicism hindered his ministry. Soon it all intensified and Father Tolton appealed to his superiors to accept an invitation from Archbishop Patrick Feehan in Chicago to minister to black Catholics here. His appeal was finally granted. Father Tolton boarded a train for Chicago in December 1889.

At the time, St. Mary Church at Ninth and Wabash was the hub for black Catholics in Chicago. In 1882 they celebrated their first Mass as a congregation in the church’s basement. It became known as St. Augustine Church after the name of the St. Augustine Society, the black Catholic apostolate in the archdiocese.

Once the apostolate had its own priest, their numbers swelled and they needed a church of their own. Archbishop Feehan granted permission for Father Tolton to open a storefront church in the 2200 block of South Indiana in 1891, which would later be known as St. Monica’s Church.

In the early 1890s, Father Tolton and the now-St. Katharine Drexel corresponded and St. Katharine’s community provided financial support for Father Tolton’s Chicago parish.

Father Tolton worked tirelessly for his congregation in Chicago, to the point of exhaustion, and on July 9, 1897 he died of heat stroke while returning from a priests’ retreat. He was 43. His death shocked the black Catholic community of the city and left a hole at St. Monica’s. Father Tolton’s body was returned to Quincy for burial in St. Peter’s Cemetery, where it remains today.

A simple invitation to turn your life over to God

I'm travelling to Canada this weekend for some vocation work and won't be preaching in a parish.  Here's a homily from the archives.  I delivered this one in 2007:


HOMILY FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT, Laetare Sunday, March 14, 2010:


Murphy, O’Brien and Mitchell were sitting in a bar discussing the words they would like to hear spoken over their coffins at their wakes. Mitchell says, “I would like them to say ‘He was a wonderful family man- he always supported his wife and kids, and they never wanted for anything.’“ O’Brien says, “That’s lovely Mitchell. But I would like to hear them say, ‘He was a great man in the community - he undertook a lot of projects to make his community a better place.’“ Finally, Murphy says, “That’s very nice, O’Brien. But what I would like to hear them say is, ‘Look! He’s moving!’“

A bit of St. Patrick’s humor for you this weekend. I hope everyone will enjoy some corned beef and cabbage and a good, tall Guinness this week!

“Father, I have signed against heaven and against you.” A few years ago, Fr. John Powell wrote a best selling book called Happiness Is An Inside Job. In it, he tells a story about a woman who came from a poor economic background. One day, she met the man of her dreams. He was not only a wonderful person, but he was also a man of considerable wealth. She could not believe her ears when he asked her to marry him. After the wedding, they moved into a beautiful suburban home. There she lived in surroundings that were more wonderful and lavish than anything she had ever known before in her life. It was more than even her wildest dreams could have ever imagined. She thought she had it all.

Then, tragedy struck. One day she began to feel ill, in a way she never had before. To make a long story short, she went to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Here is Fr. Powell’s description of the impact that this news had on her. “She felt a fire of anger ignite inside of her. In her fury, she wanted to tell God off. So, in her hospital gown and robe, she struggled through the corridors on her way to the chapel. It was to be a face-to-face confrontation – her and God. She felt so weak, she had to support herself by bracing against the wall as she moved along. When she entered the chapel, it was dark. No one was there. She proceeded up the center aisle on her way to the altar.

“Through what seemed like an endless journey from her room to the chapel, she had been preparing her speech: ‘Oh God, you are a fraud, a real phony. You have been passing yourself off as ‘love’ for 2,000 years. But every time anyone finds a little happiness, you pull out the rug from under her feet. Well, I just want you to know that I have had it. I see through you.’ In the center aisle and near the front of the chapel, she fell from her weakness. She was so weak, she could hardly see. Her eyes could barely read the words woven into the carpet at the step into the sanctuary. She read and then repeated the words: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’

“Suddenly, all the angry words, all the desire to tell God off was gone. All that was left was, ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Then she put her tired head down over her crossed arms and listened. Deep within herself she heard, ‘All of this is a simple invitation to ask you to turn your life over to me. You have never done that, you know. The doctors here do their best to treat you, but I alone can cure you.’

“In the silence and darkness of that night, she turned her life over to God. She signed her blank check and turned it over to God to fill in the amounts. It was the hour of God. It was the moment of her surrender. Finding her way back to her room in the hospital, she slipped off into a deep sleep.”

Her story had a happy ending. Her illness took a miraculous turn and she was healthy once gain. And, her story is sort of a modern-day version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son we heard today. It is the story of a woman who, like the Prodigal Son, enjoyed great material resources. It is the story of a woman who, like the Prodigal Son, turned against her loving Father when things didn’t work out the way she wanted them to. It is the story of a woman who, again like the Prodigal Son, turned back to her loving Father when she came to her senses. It is the story of someone we can all relate to. For, we have all been at one point or another in our lives a Prodigal Son or Daughter.

And perhaps we are at a very different point than the woman or the Prodigal Son. Maybe our story hasn’t turned out as beautifully as theirs did. Perhaps we are still in a state of anger with God over some misfortune that has befallen us, or tragedy we struggle to understand. Perhaps we are still at the stage where the woman was as she struggled through the hospital corridors on her way to the chapel, preparing our angry speech to God. Or perhaps we are like the Prodigal Son, who had wrecked his life, but had not yet mustered up the courage to return home and ask for his father’s forgiveness.

Regardless of our personal situation, the message in today’s Gospel is the same for each of us as it was for the Prodigal Son and for the woman. The Father says to us all, “Come home, come home, come home! Rejoice and be reconciled to me once again.”

The British poet Francis Thompson expresses that message beautifully in his poem, “The Hound of Heaven.” In the poem, the poet has been fleeing God because he feels that God has been treating him badly. When God finally catches him, as a hound catches a prey, God says to him: “All which I took from thee, I did but take not for thy harm, But just that thou might seek it in My arms. All which thy child’s mistake fancies as lost, I have restored for thee at home. Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

After teaching her Sunday school kids about the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a teacher asked them: "Now tell me: Who suffered the most in the story?" A child raised her hand and answered, "the fatted calf." Absolutely! But more than that, the greatest suffering came when the Prodigal Son was separated from the unity with his Father.

Today, let us “come to our senses” and return once again to our Loving Father. Let us run into the embrace of His welcoming arms. Let us be reunited once again firmly in the family of God.

“Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

May God give you peace.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Homilies should not exceed eight minutes, advises Vatican prelate

Vatican City, Mar 11, 2010 / 11:03 pm (CNA).- In a new book consisting of reflections based on the 2008 Synod on the Word of God, the secretary for the Synod of Bishops, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, writes that homilies should not last more than eight minutes.

In his book, “The Word of God,” the archbishop elaborates on methods priests can use in preparing their Sunday homilies. His first suggestion – taken from Pope Benedict XVI himself – advises that clergy members begin preparing for their Sunday homilies nearly a week in advance.

Archbishop Eterovic explains that each week the Holy Father begins his Sunday homily preparations on the Monday before, so he “has sufficient time to understand the passages from the Sunday readings. The readings become the object of profound meditation, in light of specific events, at personal and community levels.”

“Improvisations must be avoided,” the archbishop continues, “since the homily is too serious of a reality to be delivered to the faithful without adequate planning.”

For the full story: Homilies should not exceed eight minutes, advises Vatican prelate :: Catholic News Agency (CNA)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The courage to say "Here I Am"

HOMILY FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT, March 7, 2010:


“God called out to Moses from the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ God said, ‘Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’” With this incredible moment, Moses’ life would be changed forever. He would go from being a privileged member of the Egyptian royal family to become a prophet and leader of a slave people on their way to freedom – all because of this encounter.

Think for a moment about how extraordinary this encounter is. Moses is going about his normal day-to-day activities of tending the flock, when he sees something that defies explanation – a bush appears to be on fire and yet the bush itself is not being consumed. This initially brought about a curiosity in him to go and investigate this odd situation. And, there, as he approaches, he hears a voice; a voice that he immediately recognizes as the voice of God. Moses hid his face, believing that if he saw God, he would not live. He wasn’t ready to die. But, this would not be the case, instead, Moses was being called by God to a new vocation; one that would last the rest of his lifetime; a vocation so profound that it would leave its mark on all generations to come after him right down to our own time.

There are two important things to remember from this encounter. First, God was very present to Moses. And second, God had mercy on His people and was ready to rescue them with infinite love and patience. That was what Moses learned on that day so long ago; and it is exactly the same for us today. Like Moses, God has a vocation for each of us; and just like the people then, we too are constantly being shown God’s infinite mercy, love and patience. We prayed that in our psalm today, “The Lord is kind and merciful.”

I read a vocation story about a young girl in the 1940s who learned a lesson and received a call. One day at lunch time, the children were told to bring their coats to their desks and get ready to go home for lunch. They could line up as soon as their coats were buttoned and their hats on. They did this quickly because they were eager for lunch. But one little boy couldn’t button his coat, and he was holding the whole class up. This little girl thought to herself, “Boy, even my younger sister and brother can button their coats, what’s wrong with this boy?” And then she looked at her teacher. Sr. Mary was across the room and noticed the boy standing unable to fix his coat. Her eyes met with his and she slowly walked over with a loving smile on her face and compassion in her eyes. Slowly she buttoned his coat while lovingly smiling to him. He beamed back with all the love in his heart. The little girl who started out as judgmental, now stood in awe. She thought to herself, “Sister didn’t even speak a word and she is doing something so good! I want to do that too!” Today, she counts that simple day as the beginning of her own religious vocation. In that moment, she saw the mercy, the love, the presence and the patience of God; and felt God calling her to the same; it changed her life from that day forward.

Now, we could stop right here, but we still have our Gospel passage to deal with which calls us to repentance. Actually, it tells us much more than that. Yes, Jesus is encouraging people to repentance, “If you do not repent, you will all perish,” but He also tells them to be careful about judging, “Do you think that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus gives a resounding “no” before telling the parable of the fig tree – notice that even the fig tree gets a second chance. This is important because God gives us second chances too. God gives us far more than second chances; He gives us infinite chances to repent and return to Him; to listen and hear His call; to be strengthened and follow His vocation for our lives. But that doesn’t mean that we can take advantage of God’s mercy by living in sinful ways and leaving the good life; the holy life until the end of life.

Life is fragile. If someone dies in battle, or in a natural disaster, or from a difficult disease, it does not mean that God is punishing them. Life is fragile. God is not simply waiting to punish us if we fall and sin. God is always waiting to forgive us; to reconcile us; to welcome us back to Him. And God is always calling us. We want to meet God as best we can. Even knowing of God’s infinite love and mercy, God wants us – His beloved sons and daughters – to live good lives, to follow where He leads us. Every day is another gift of mercy, love, and compassion from God.

In just a few moments, God will reveal Himself to us just as powerfully as He did to Moses; this time not in a burning bush, but in the Blessed Sacrament – His true and real presence among us. He will again call us to follow our true vocation as His children. Let us repent once again and listen to the call of God in our lives and follow Him in kindness, mercy, compassion, gentleness, justice and love.

May God give you peace.

Servant of God Sylvester of Assisi (d. 1240)

Sylvester was one of the first 12 followers of St. Francis of Assisi and was the first priest in the Franciscan Order. A descendant of a noble family, Sylvester once sold Francis stones which were to be used to rebuild a church. When, a short while later, he saw Francis and Bernard of Quintavalle distributing Bernard's wealth to the poor, Sylvester complained that he had been poorly paid for the stones and asked for more money.

Though Francis obliged, the handful of money he gave Sylvester soon filled him with guilt. He sold all of his goods, began a life of penance and joined Francis and the others. Sylvester became a holy and prayerful man, and a favorite of Francis—a companion on his journeys, the one Francis went to for advice. It was Sylvester and Clare who answered Francis' query with the response that he should serve God by going out to preach rather than by devoting himself to prayer.

Once in a city where civil war was raging, Sylvester was commanded by Francis to drive the devils out. At the city gate Sylvester cried out: "In the name of almighty God and by virtue of the command of his servant Francis, depart from here, all you evil spirits." The devils departed and peace returned to the city.

Sylvester lived 14 more years after the death of Francis and is buried near him in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.

Comment:  Sylvester probably would have asked a higher price for his stones if he had thought Francis had the money. In today’s world he might have written the difference off on his taxes as a charitable contribution, but that wasn’t an option in his day. Quite understandably, he asked for payment from the money Francis was handing out so freely. So why did he later feel guilty? Perhaps he realized that, like many of us, he placed a higher value on lesser things.

From Saint of the Day: Lives, Lessons and Feast
By Leonard Foley, O.F.M.; revised by Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.