Saturday, May 26, 2012

Let the Word go forth

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That, of course, is a line from one of the most quoted speeches of the 20th century – the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy in 1961; certainly a fitting quote for this Memorial Weekend. It is an incredible speech; and was one that alerted the world that change was in the air; a generational shift. Kennedy stated boldly, “Let the word go forth… that the torch had been passed to a new generation.” Today, on this Pentecost Sunday, those five words could also sum up the meaning of today’s great feast: Let the Word go forth. In the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets of Jerusalem, they had one purpose in mind: to let the Word go forth. And it did. The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Spain and, eventually, in succeeding centuries, even to America.

What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the earth. The word has gone forth in every language and is felt and understood in the hearts of billions upon billions of people. And it all began on this day we celebrate, Pentecost, often called the birthday of the Church.

Birthday is an appropriate image for Pentecost – especially when we look at it in the bigger Scriptural picture. The word “Pentecost”, means 50th and was for the Jewish people a celebration that took place 50 days after the Passover. For them, this was a day to celebrate the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai to Moses. On Mt. Sinai, what were different tribes of Israel entered into covenant with God and with one another and so became the people of God. Pentecost for the Jews celebrated the birth of this new people. We know that the Holy Spirit gives birth to God’s presence in amazing ways. It is through a different kind of Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit descended on Mary – that Jesus was born into our world. And it is through this Pentecost – the Holy Spirit descending upon Mary and the disciples – that the Body of Christ is once again born into the world. And we, too, are sharers in that miracle, called to continue to bring forth the same Body of Christ into our world today.

It is often said that the Church doesn’t have a mission, instead the mission has a Church. Jesus didn’t appear in Rome on the banks of the Tiber and lay a stone for St. Peter’s Basilica in order to establish the Roman Catholic Church. He didn’t come to give us an institution or an organization. Instead, Jesus gave us a task to accomplish. The institution of the Church came about not to serve itself, but to serve that mission; to help organize that opus Dei or work of God.

So what is that work? Jesus tells us Himself, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you;” or in the words of JFK, to “let the word go forth.” The mission that the Father gave to the Son is the very same mission that the Son gives to all of us who follow Him. So just as the Son came as the full Revelation of God to us, His people, we are to continue that Revelation, we are to continue to spread the Good News of God’s love and care for us. Just as the Son came to live the way humanity was called to live as an example to everyone, we too are called to live in that same way as an example of Christian love to our brothers and sisters. Just as the Son was firmly rooted in Scripture and its life-giving Words for us, we too are called to do the same. Just as the Son reached out to those in most need in our world – the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned – we too are called to reach out to those in most need in our world today. In short, we are called to be that presence of Christ, the Body of Christ, in the world today. The Holy Spirit descended upon Mary and God was born in our world; the Holy Spirit descended upon the gathered disciples and the Church was born. Today, the Holy Spirit descends upon the bread and wine on our altar, and the Presence of Christ will be born in them; and, today, the Holy Spirit will come upon each of us in this Holy Mass and will be born within us; that we might give birth to that Presence in our world.

The Ascension of Jesus to Heaven can leave us with a false impression that God is no longer on the scene. The gift of the Holy Spirit is a strong reminder to us that God is still in our midst; that God is still truly present to us. We have not been abandoned by our God, rather, He still dwells among us. The Holy Spirit enjoys the freedom of the wind, and is not limited by space or time; instead He has the freedom of every heart in every generation. Instead of living with some people, as did Jesus; the Spirit lives within all people; in all of time. The Spirit has the world at His fingertips. And so the presence of the Holy Spirit makes good the promise of Jesus, “Know that I am with you always until the end of the world.”

The early Christians knew this. For as long as they lived, the Holy Spirit would stay in their bloodstream. Every decision they would make would be Spirit-shaped: the choice of seven deacons; the admission of Gentiles to the Church; the sending of Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey. And the influence of the Holy Spirit was not confined to this executive level. Everyone who was “in Christ” felt it. There are gifts of the Spirit that were sent for the service of the Church – unusual gifts like healing or prophecy; but there are also ordinary gifts of the Spirit meant to meet the needs of God’s people everywhere – gifts like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness and self-control.

And so as the Holy Spirit of God once again descends upon us in this Mass; on the Church in this Pentecost – let the word go forth that we will be the people who love and praise our God; let the word go forth that we will be members of His Church going forth from this place to be His presence of love and joy and peace; that we will go forth sharing His kindness and goodness and gentleness. That we will go forth to be the gentle and loving presence of God in our world.

“Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful. Enkindle in them the fire of Your love.” And let the Word go forth.

May the Lord give you peace.

(Thank you to The Deacon's Bench for the JFK image.)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

What's in a name?

The Navy Chief noticed a new sailor and asked him, “ What’s your name sailor?”  “John,” the young man replied.  “Look,” said the Chief, “I don’t know what they’re teaching sailors in boot camp nowadays, but I don’t call anyone by his first name. It breeds familiarity, and that leads to a breakdown in authority. I refer to my sailors by their last names only; Smith, Jones, Baker, whatever. And you are to refer to me as ’Chief’. Do I make myself clear?”  “Aye, Aye Chief!” the sailor said.  “Now that we’ve got that straight, what’s your last name?” The man sighed and said, “Darling. My last name is Darling.” Without skipping a beat, the Chief said, “Okay, John, you’re dismissed.”

What’s in a name?  We heard Jesus say something very interesting in our Gospel passage today.  He said, “Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me.”  Keep them in your name.  That phrase brings to mind the famous question pondered by Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”  Our Gospel today asks us much the same question as Jesus prays to the Father to keep His followers in God’s Name. 

So, our Gospel invites us today to ponder that simple question: what’s in a name?  Just think of your family.  One of the outward signs that unites a family are the common names we share.  People often want to know – what are your family names?  Last names and what they mean are important. First names are important.  For myself, every time I find out someone is pregnant, I remind them what a beautiful name Thomas is.  No takers yet.  But, isn’t it a source of pride when the newest member of your family becomes your namesake?

Time Magazine recently had an interesting article about names.  You know, not too long ago, Catholics always gave their children religious names – naming them after Biblical individuals or saints. I think half of the North End is named Anthony or Michael and just think of how many women and girls have some version of Mary or Marie in their names.  Why?  Because a name says something, means something.  It says something about who we are, and it says something about who we hope to be.  This is less the case today. We live in an age where names come from wherever – movies, television, sometimes just made up.  Just to give you an example.  I have two beautiful twin nieces who just celebrated their seventh birthday at the end of April.  Their names are Samantha and Makayla.  I think it took me the first five years of their lives to figure out how to spell Makayla.  Is it Michaela, is it Mikhala, is it Makayla?  It’s the last one by the way.

But, the good news, according to the Time article is that in our post-9/11 world, people are returning to Biblical names for their children.  In the top 10 boys names last year were Jacob, Michael, Noah and Anthony – all good Biblical or saintly names.  Popular girls names are not necessarily Biblical, but definitely spiritual.  Girls are being named things like Destiny, Genesis, Trinity and perhaps the most interesting one Nevaeh.  That’s Heaven spelled backwards.

So, what’s in a name?  Well, our name is reflective of our identity. It tells people who we are, where we come from.  It is attached to our reputation for whatever we have done, good or bad, in the world.  Just think of some names in our history – all you have to do is say the name and it instantly calls up its heritage.  Names like Hitler or Bin Laden or names like John Paul, Mother Teresa and so on, need no further explanation.  The name alone tells a story of the person.  Whether famous or infamous the mere mention of their names brings to mind their deeds and we react with acceptance or rejection.

At the beginning of the Rite of Baptism, the very first question asked of parents is, “What name do you give your child?”  This name is carefully written in the permanent records of the Church and over the years the dates of other important sacraments will also be recorded.  The Church marks with pride the milestones of growth in the Christian faith and practice of each person who enters this family through the waters of Baptism.  It is through this Baptism that we are welcomed into the Christian community as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, and it is through Him that we come to know God as our Father.

In our Gospel today, Jesus prays for us, to the Father and asks that we be kept in God’s Name.  He knows how important a name is and so He gives us the identity of the most important name ever – the name of God. Jesus places us under the protection of God’s Name so that we may share in the joy of God’s eternal kingdom.

We hear in Acts of the Apostles that it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians; a name which means literally “little Christ.”  We are called to be little Christ’s going out into the world witnessing to the One in whose Name we have been claimed. As we sing in the familiar hymn, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  It is up to each of us to claim the name we have been given, the name of the Sons and the Daughters of God, the name Christian.  It is up to us to live up to that name and all that it challenges us to and all that it promises.

So, what is in that name?  Well, in the name of Jesus, the Son of God, since the day of our Baptism, we have been claimed for eternity; named for the Savior, welcomed into the family of God.  In the name of Jesus, in this Church today, bread and wine will become His Body and His Blood.  In the name of Jesus we will be blessed at the end of Mass. In the name of Jesus, sins are forgiven, the sick are healed, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, demons are driven out, the dead are raised.  In the name of Jesus, we can pray for what we need with a confidence that what we ask for in His Holy Name will be granted.  In the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we were welcomed into this community of faith and it is in this same name that we will be commended to the joy of Heaven when our final day comes.

“Holy Father, keep them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one just as we are one.”  Let us allow ourselves to be kept in God’s Name.  Embrace this name that has been given to you.  Live as a son or daughter of God; as a little Christ in the world. Indeed we pray with the whole church today, in the words of the Divine Praises, “Blessed be God, blessed be His Holy Name.”

May the Lord give you peace.

Monday, May 14, 2012

E.J. DIONNE: I’m not quitting the Catholic Church



Fall River native E.J. Dionne is columnist for the Washington Post Writers' Group and a senior fellow in governance studies at The Brookings Institution, a professor at Georgetown University and a NPR commentator.

By E.J. Dionne

Posted May 13, 2012 @ 08:40 PM
Recently, a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post cast as an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headline commanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”
The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you are doing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”
My, my. Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.
I’m sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. They may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.
And on women’s rights, I take as my guide that early feminist, Pope John XXIII. In Pacem in Terris, his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” Pope John spoke of women’s “natural dignity.”
“Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument,” he wrote, “they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”
I’d like the FFRF to learn more about the good Pope John, but I wish our current bishops would think more about him, too. I wonder if the bishops realize how some in their ranks have strengthened the hands of the church’s adversaries (and disheartened many of the faithful) with public statements — including that odious comparison of President Obama to Hitler by a Peoria prelate last month — that threaten to shrink the church into a narrow, conservative sect.
Do the bishops notice how often those of us who regularly defend the church turn to the work of the nuns on behalf of charity and justice to prove Catholicism’s detractors wrong? Why in the world would the Vatican, apparently pushed by right-wing American bishops, think it was a good idea to condemn the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main organization of nuns in the United States?
The Vatican’s statement, issued last month, seemed to be the revenge of conservative bishops against the many nuns who broke with the hierarchy and supported health care reform in 2010. The nuns insisted, correctly, that the health care law did not fund abortion. This didn’t sit well with men unaccustomed to being contradicted, and the Vatican took the LCWR to task for statements that “disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops.”
Oh yes, and the nuns are also scolded for talking a great deal about social justice and not enough about abortion (as if the church doesn’t talk enough about abortion already). But has it occurred to the bishops that less stridency might change more hearts and minds on this very difficult question?

A thoughtful friend recently noted that carrying a child to term is an act of overwhelming generosity. For nine months, a woman gives her body to another life, not to mention the rest of her years. Might the bishops consider that their preaching on abortion would have more credibility if they treated women in the church, including nuns, with the kind of generosity they are asking of potential mothers? They might usefully embrace a similar attitude toward gays and lesbians.

Too many bishops seem in the grip of dark suspicions that our culture is moving at breakneck speed toward a demonic end. Pope John XXIII, by contrast, was more optimistic about the signs of the times.
“Distrustful souls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth,” he once said. “We prefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has not abandoned the world which he redeemed.” The church best answers its critics when it remembers that its mission is to preach hope, not fear.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

Be grafted on the True Vine

There is a Native American story about a young man who found an eagle’s egg and put it into the nest of a prairie chicken. The egg hatched with the brood of prairie chickens and grew up with them. All its life, the misplaced eagle thought it was a prairie chicken and did only what the prairie chickens did. It scratched in the dirt for seeds and insects to eat. And it flew no more than a few feet off the ground with a thrashing of wings like other prairie chickens. Years passed and the unfortunate eagle grew very old. One day, it saw a magnificent bird high above in the cloudless sky. Hanging with graceful majesty on the powerful wind currents, it soared gracefully on its strong golden wings. “What a beautiful bird!” said the unfortunate eagle to another prairie chicken. “That’s an eagle, the chief of the birds,” the friend replied, “But don’t give it a second thought. You could never be like him.” So the poor eagle never gave it a second thought and it died thinking it was a prairie chicken.

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”  The story of the eagle begs the question of where we are rooted, what or who we identify ourselves with. Human beings are like vine branches; we need a vine in which to graft and root ourselves because whatever vine we are connected to will condition the way we see ourselves, the expectations we have of ourselves, and the ceiling of achievement we place on ourselves.
In our world today, vines come in many shapes and colors each soliciting our allegiance. Materialism, pleasure and power are among the most popular vines of our day. Once we identify ourselves with a false vine, it immediately conditions and determines how we see ourselves and what we do with our lives.

The Jews whom Jesus was addressing in today’s gospel knew very well the vine on which they were supposed to be grafted and rooted. Many times in the Old Testament Israel was referred to as the vine which the hand of God had planted. The Maccabees even minted a coin in which a vine was used to represent Israel. So when Jesus claimed that He was now the vine they would understand that as an invitation to shift their primary allegiance from Jewish nationalism to the person and message of Christ. To make sure they get it Jesus makes the claim that he is not just the vine but the true vine. The word “true” signifies that which is real, authentic and valid, as opposed to that which is flawed, imperfect or false. To accept Jesus as the true vine into which our lives are grafted and rooted is to recognize that every other vine which wants our allegiance is flawed, imperfect or false and will lead us the wrong way.

The misguided eagle in our story was like a branch grafted on a false or imperfect vine; and so it remained false and imperfect all its life. If a wise bird had told it the truth about itself it would have shifted its self-identification from prairie chicken to eagle and it would have soared.

Today that word of wisdom is being addressed to us.  We are being called to stop identifying ourselves primarily in terms of nation, race, or social or economic status. We are challenged to see that if those or other things are the primary lens though which we view ourselves, then we’re set up for failure, we will never be what we are called to be.  As Jesus said, “without me you can do nothing.”  With Him, we can do great things. We need to see ourselves in terms of our oneness with Christ just as the vine branch and the vine are one. Then and only then shall we be able to bear good fruit, the same type of fruit that Christ himself bears.

Be grafted onto the True Vine; be rooted in the love of Jesus for you; the love that is present in each and every Eucharist.  The gospel invites us today to know better: to graft and root ourselves as vine branches into the true vine, Jesus Christ

“I am the vine, you are the branches…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you.”

May God give you peace.

Changing the impossible

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