Saturday, November 30, 2013

Stay awake! Jesus is here!


One day, a man received a parrot as a gift, but the parrot had a bad attitude and an even worse vocabulary. Every word out of the bird’s mouth was rude and obnoxious. The man tried and tried to change the bird’s attitude by consistently saying only polite words and even prayers to “clean up” the bird’s vocabulary.  Finally, fed up, he yelled at the parrot. The parrot yelled back. He shook the parrot. It only got angrier and ruder. In desperation, he grabbed the bird and put him in the freezer.  For a few minutes the parrot squawked and kicked and screamed. Then suddenly there was total quiet, not a peep for over a minute. Fearing that he’d hurt the parrot, the man quickly opened the door to the freezer. The Parrot calmly stepped out and said “Sir, I believe I may have offended you with my rude language and actions. I’m sincerely remorseful for my inappropriate transgressions and I fully intend to do everything I can to correct my rude behavior.”  The man was stunned at this change in attitude. As he was about to ask the parrot what had changed his behavior, the bird pointed to the item next to him in the freezer and said, “May I ask what the turkey did wrong?”

A little turkey humor for you on this Thanksgiving weekend.  Or perhaps I should say, Thanksgivukkah.  You may have heard that word, a combination of Thanksgiving and Chanukah, which occur at the same time this year – the first time ever and not again for another 75,000 years.  This is a season of mash-ups.  Christmas has been in the stores for weeks already. The height of mash-ups I think was a few years ago, with the word, Chrismahanukwanzakah – a combination of Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanza.  I think the most ridiculous mash-up I’ve come across I saw on a blog (the Deacon's Bench) this week which was a holiday dessert called Cherpumple.  Have you heard of this?  It’s a dessert that is essentially three different pies – cherry pie, pumpkin pie and apple pie – all stacked one on top of the other all brought together with a sugary frosting.  Guaranteed to put you into a diabetic coma!  Absolutely disgusting.  Not sure what our fascination with these mash-ups is this time of year.  Perhaps there just isn’t enough time to get it all done?

And in the midst of all of that, the Church gives us this beautiful, peaceful, and calming season of Advent.  A spiritual season that I think we are given purposely right smack in the middle of the busiest time of the year.  The Church invites us today to stop, to breathe, to reflect, to take our time, to be renewed and refreshed once again in Jesus. 

We’re invited to pull apart all that the world has tried to mash together for us.  It isn’t Christmas yet.  This, instead, is a season of waiting and watching and enjoying what that kind of anticipation feels like. 

Our readings today have a dominant message: “Stay awake!”  I hope it isn’t reflective of the quality of the homily and its ability to lull you to sleep.  Instead, we are being reminded that something is on the horizon; something is about to happen; something new is around the corner and we don’t want to miss it.  We want to prepare; we want to be ready. Our second reading told us that now “is the hour for you to awake from sleep.”  Jesus was more direct saying simply, “Stay awake!”

What are we waiting for?  What are we meant to be awake for?  Of course, for Jesus.  But, not just to recall Him and His birth on Christmas Day.  But, to be renewed so that we might remember, once again, that He never left; that He is always right here and if we are not awake, we might be in danger of missing that presence in our very midst.

My friends, here we are, all of us, often living in apprehension and anxiety; trying to make sense of our world, coping with our struggles as best we can – sickness, death, disappointment, loneliness and fear.  And in the eternal now that is our God, our Lord comes to join us; to comfort us as only God can comfort us and make us feel loved, as only God can make us feel loved. And, that is the point of Advent – to slow down, to wake up, to see that Jesus is right here.  So, let Him wrap you – wrap your struggles, your anxieties, your fears and disappointments; as well as, your joys, your triumphs, your love and your blessings – in His loving and cradling arms.  He wants to be present to you; to comfort you and share His profound love for you and with you.

The world wants to tempt you with its busyness, with its activity, with its Chrismahanukwanzakah and yes, even with its Cherpumple.  But, resist the temptation and instead enter Advent time where Jesus wants to penetrate that busyness and be made present to us once again; present on this altar as bread and the wine become Body and Blood for us; present in our hearts and in our lives, so that we can become the comfort and love that He wants to extend to everyone we meet.

My friends, let us stay awake so that we may not miss that Presence of Christ in our midst and let that presence of God comfort us, love us, and prepare us to welcome Him with renewed joy at Christmas.

May the Lord give you peace.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Pope's Bold New Vision | James Martin SJ | CNN

NOTE: As always, James Martin, SJ, providing among the best insight into the Pope's new Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel". Read on:

Opinion by the Rev. James Martin, Special to CNN

(CNN) – Pope Francis on Tuesday issued a bold new document – in Vatican parlance an “apostolic exhortation” – called Evangelii Gaudium or “The Joy of the Gospel.”

In this document, he sets out an exciting new vision of how to be a church. In all my years as a Catholic, I cannot remember a papal document that was so thought-provoking, surprising and invigorating. Frankly, reading it thrilled me.

To me, it seems that with each new homily, address, interview, general audience message and letter, Francis is challenging himself – and us – with three questions, each of which flows naturally from the other:

First, why not look at things from a new perspective? Second, why not be open to doing things in a new way? And third, why not have a new vision for the church?

And what is Francis' vision for the church?

It is to be a joyful community of believers completely unafraid of the modern world, completely unafraid of change and completely unafraid of challenges. Not everyone will like this document. Some may find it frightening. For it poses a fierce challenge to the status quo – explicitly: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key seeks to abandon the complacent attitude that says: ‘We have always done it this way,’ ” he writes in a section titled “Ecclesial Renewal.”

The document’s overall message is that Catholics should be unafraid of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel and new ways of thinking about the church. In fact, such new ways are essential if we are to spread the Gospel at all. This may sound like boilerplate talk expected in a document on the “New Evangelization,” but it is not; for in the document Francis identifies areas of petrification in the church, areas where he wants to see real change.

This is not to say that the Evangelii Gaudium seeks to overturn traditional church teachings. Instead it seeks to overturn the way that we have done things, and to be fearless in doing so. For example, while he reaffirms the church’s inability to ordain women as priests, he also invites the church to think about their place in the church in new ways, to imagine “the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life."

Over and over, the Pope takes aim against such longstanding roadblocks to growth as “complacency,” “excessive clericalism,” and even Catholics who act like “sourpusses.” (That’s the official English-language translation.) About that last roadblock, he says that there are Christians whose lives are like “Lent without Easter.”

Nor does the Pope have patience for people who are “tempted to find excuses and complain.” Essentially, he contrasts this dourness and pessimism with the joy of living a life centered in Christ and focused on the hope of the resurrection. It is a hope-filled, positive and energetic view of the church actively engaged with the world.

Evangelii Gaudium is difficult to summarize, so wide-ranging is it. Ironically, something that would at first appear to be a narrow topic – how to spread the Gospel today – offers Francis the latitude to address many topics in his trademark open style. The exhortation moves easily from a discussion on joy as a requirement for evangelization, to how “personal dialogue” is needed for any authentic invitation into the faith, to the difficulty of being a church when Catholics are “warring” against one another, to the need for priests and deacons to give better homilies, to an overriding concern for the poor in the world – the last being a special concern of the Pope.

To that end, some will be surprised that Francis champions an idea that has lately been out of favor: the church’s “preferential option” for the poor. “God’s heart has a special place for the poor,” the Pope says. But it is not enough simply to say that God loves the poor in a special way and leave it at that. We must be also vigilant in our care and advocacy for them. Everyone must do this, says the Pope.

“None of us can think we are exempt from concern for the poor and for social justice.” And in case anyone misses the point, after a critique of the “idolatry of money” and an “economy of exclusion,” the Pope says: “The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

What’s more, this does not mean simply caring for the poor, it means addressing the structures that keep them poor: “The need to resolve the structural causes of poverty cannot be delayed.”

This joy and confidence needed to tackle these challenges – both inside and outside the church – is rooted and grounded in a deep relationship with Jesus Christ. Without that “personal encounter” with Jesus trying to spread the Gospel is useless. We must have what he calls a “constantly renewed experience of savoring Christ’s friendship and his message.”

Most Catholics will, like me, read the letter with enthusiasm. But some Catholics have criticized the Pope for trying to change too much in the church – even though no dogma has been altered. A few Catholics are not only beginning to critique him, but even worse, fear him. Change seems to be something to fear. As one of my Jesuit friends used to say, playfully, “I’m against change; even change for the better!” But the church must change if it is to grow – not in its core beliefs, but in the way that it lives out and shares those beliefs.

My advice to Catholics would be: Read the entire document. Take your time. Be generous with it. Let it excite you. Pray with it. And be open to the Holy Father’s call to “embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by this joy, while pointing out new paths for the Church’s journey in years to come.”

Finally, as Jesus said, “Fear not.” We can change the way we do things in the church– the spread of the Gospel demands it. So be confident in God’s desire for the church to grow and change. Besides, as Francis says, “Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand.”

At one point, Francis uses a famous quote from Pope John XXIII, who noted at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that many doubted things could change for the better. Too many people at the time – 1962 – were predicting doom and disaster for the church and for the world. But John disagreed. “We feel that we must disagree with those prophets of doom who are always forecasting disaster.”

Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ own ringing response to prophets of doom.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, is editor at large of America magazine and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything." This article will also appear on America’s blog “In All Things.”

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel | Pope Francis

Pope Francis issued the first document today that is fully his own (the Encyclical Lumen Fidei was begun by Pope Benedict and completed by Pope Francis).  So, this one bears fully the stamp of this Holy Father and if you've been watching him these last nine months (is there anyone who hasn't), it is clear that he is articulating in a more detailed form what we've seen in vignette over the course of this papacy so far.  Reform begins with us; and the heart of that reform is the joy of the Gospel.  This Apostolic Exhortation is called just that, Evangelii Gaudium: The Joy of the Gospel, and you can read the full text on the Vatican website (click the title).  Here are some highlights from this 51,000 word text from John Thavis:
  • Evangelization today demands an "ecclesial renewal which cannot be deferred." The pope declares: "I dream of a 'missionary option,' that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self- preservation."
  • On the need for joy in evangelizing: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter…. An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral!”
  • On being close to the people: “An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others.”
  • “A church which ‘goes forth’ is a church whose doors are open…. Often it is better simply to slow down, to put aside our eagerness in order to see and listen to others, to stop rushing from one thing to another and to remain with someone who has faltered along the way.”
  • The role of the bishop, Pope Francis says, is to foster communion and “point the way” to the faithful, but at times to “simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence.” And that goes for the pope, too: "It is not advisable for the pope to take the place of local bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound 'decentralization.'"
  • “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.... The papacy and the central structure of the universal church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion.”
  • The pope notes the possibility of a greater role for bishops’ conference, saying: “Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church’s life and her missionary outreach.”
  • The church needs to preach salvation, not doctrine. An imbalance occurs, the pope says, when the church speaks “more about law than about grace, more about the church than about Christ, more about the pope than about God’s word.”
  • Evangelization must be an invitation to respond to God’s love and to seek the good in others, he says.
  • “If this invitation does not radiate forcefully and attractively, the edifice of the church’s moral teaching risks becoming a house of cards, and this is our greatest risk. It would mean that it is not the Gospel which is being preached, but certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options.”
  • On the need to keep the doors to the sacraments open: “The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”
  • “I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best.”
  • The church’s internal “wars” -- the tendency to form groups of “elites,” to impose certain ideas and even to engage in “persecutions which appear as veritable witch hunts” – are all a counter-witness to evangelization. “Whom are we going to evangelize if this is the way we act?”
  • On “excessive clericalism” that keeps lay people away from decision-making in the church: “Lay people are, put simply, the vast majority of the People of God. The minority – ordained ministers – are at their service.”
  • This has implications both for understanding the all-male priesthood and for respecting women’s legitimate rights in the church, the pope says: “The reservation of the priesthood to males … is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general…. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”
  • His other remarks about women will no doubt provoke questions about follow-through -- for example, that "we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the church" taking into account the "feminine genius," and that "pastors and theologians" will have to study "the possible role of women in decision- making in different areas of the church’s life."
  • “Cultural diversity is not a threat to church unity.” Pope Francis, in fact, seems to hint at greater openness to diversity, saying that European culture does not have a monopoly on liturgical and other expressions of the faith. “We cannot demand that peoples of every continent, in expressing their Christian faith, imitate modes of expression which European nations developed at a particular moment of their history, because the faith cannot be constricted to the limits of understanding and expression of any one culture.”
  • On the church’s closeness to the poor: “In all places and circumstances, Christians, with the help of their pastors, are called to hear the cry of the poor.”
  • “Today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? … Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape…. Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. We have created a ‘disposable’ culture which is now spreading.”
  • We can no longer trust in the unseen forces and the invisible hand of the market. Growth in justice requires more than economic growth, while presupposing such growth: it requires decisions, programs, mechanisms and processes specifically geared to a better distribution of income, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality. I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism, but the economy can no longer turn to remedies that are a new poison, such as attempting to increase profits by reducing the work force and thereby adding to the ranks of the excluded.”
  • The pope is not just critiquing an economic system, but its effect on the spiritual lives of the faithful:"The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience."
  • The document strongly defends unborn children, "the most defenseless and innocent among us," and says the church cannot be expected to change its position on the question of abortion: "It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty."
  • The pope’s document lays out the contours for what the church calls “new evangelization,” but the text includes a caution about turning this into a grandiose and impractical program: “How often we dream up vast apostolic projects, meticulously planned, just like defeated generals! But this is to deny our history as a church, which is glorious precisely because it is a history of sacrifice, of hopes and daily struggles, of lives spent in service and fidelity to work…. Instead, we waste time talking about ‘what needs to be done’… We indulge in endless fantasies and we lose contact with the real lives and difficulties of our people.”
  • Evangelization, he says, is primarily about reality, not ideas: “Sometimes we are tempted to be that kind of Christian who keeps the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others. He hopes that we will stop looking for those personal or communal niches which shelter us from the maelstrom of human misfortune and instead enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness. Whenever we do so, our lives become wonderfully complicated and we experience intensely what it is to be a people, to be part of a people.”

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Of Kings and Presidents


"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need [those] who can dream of things that never were and ask why not?" This is among my favorite quotes of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.  I don’t know about you, but I was transfixed this week by the remarkable coverage of the 50th anniversary of his assassination in the news.  His death was a turning point in our nation; one that signaled, I think, the transition from the more halcyon days that preceded it into the decades of turmoil that have followed.

I was thinking of that quote and President Kennedy as I was reflecting on today’s feast.  Today we bring our Church year to an end with the Solemnity of Christ the King.  And, this can initially be an odd feast for us as Americans.  After all, our national identity in so many ways is one that rejects the notion of royalty.  As Americans, we honor the voice of the people above that of the Divine Right of Kings and Queens. Yet, I was thinking of President Kennedy because, of course, the Kennedy family has represented for some a quasi-royalty in this country; and if not today, certainly in those days of Camelot before that fateful moment 50 years ago.

But, if there is a notion of Kingship that we can latch onto, there is perhaps a very American way that we can come to understand it.  There is a story about another president who also met the same fate as that of JFK.  In April 1865, the slain body of President Abraham Lincoln lay in state for a few hours in Cleveland, Ohio on its final journey from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Illinois. In the long line of people filing by to pay respects to the President was a poor black woman and her little son.  When the two reached Lincoln’s body, the woman lifted her son and said to him in a hushed voice, “Son, you take a long, long look at him. That man died for you.”

What was said of Lincoln on that day, can be said in a profoundly deeper and everlasting way about Jesus today and every day.  Perhaps we struggle with a purely earthly notion of royalty whereby someone has power and position simply because they were born into the right family.  We are a nation that believes you can achieve any heights if you just work hard enough.  Now, Jesus is certainly our King simply because of who He is – the Son of God.  But, He is also our King because of what He did – He died for us; He redeemed each and every one of us; His death on the cross reunited each one of us with God.  So, we take a long, long look at Him. Because, that Man died for us.

But, this second notion of Kingship, I think, is one that we can all get behind.  It is a kingship that is not based on power and domination, but one that is based on service and love and compassion.  The ultimate sign of Jesus as our King is not to be found with Him seated high on a throne, but rather to be seen with Him lifted high on the Cross.  It is there that He reigns.  And, isn’t that the image that our Gospel give us today.   “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”  “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

A number of years ago, divers discovered a 400 year old Spanish shipwreck buried in water off the coast of Northern Ireland.  Among the treasures they found on that ship was a man’s gold wedding ring.   Etched into the wide band of the ring was a hand holding a heart and these words: “I have given myself completely to you. I have nothing more to give you.”   Those same words could just as well be the words of Christ our King who united Himself with us on the Cross so that we might be ushered into His Kingdom. “I have given myself to you totally. There is nothing more to give to you.” 

And we remember today, that Jesus is not only our King, but that He wants to be an inspiring one.  He wants us to look at Him; to see how self-less and giving He is and for our natural response to be one of imitation.  We should all want to be like our Great King.  We should all strive to live up to those same words, “I have given myself totally” – given in service to our brothers and sisters; given in love to our family and friends; given in charity to the neediest among us; given in prayer to those who are lonely and neglected.  Let us be like our King. Let us be like Jesus. Let us be defined not by our last name, or where we were born, or simply who we are – let us be defined by these same characteristics of the Kingdom: are we as kind and loving and joyful and compassionate and forgiving as our King? 

A whole generation was inspired by the call to service issued by JFK and so let me end with what would have been words of his.  This is from the speech that he would have given that night in Dallas, but never had the chance to offer: "We ask…that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of ‘peace on earth, good will toward [all].’ That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: ‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

We can achieve this goal of peace on earth, good will toward all – if we simply follow the lead, not of mere earthly leaders, but of our Divine Leader of our Great King, of Jesus Christ our King.
My friends, may Christ always reign in our hearts and in our lives as our King; and let us follow where He leads.

And may God give you peace.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Seeds of reform: the humble and merciful priest

Pope Francis today in his Wednesday General Audience spoke about the beauty of sacramental Confession, even "confessing" to everyone that he receives this Sacrament of Mercy every other week. Here is what he said about Confession, forgiveness and mercy:
The Church, however, is not the master of forgiveness, but its servant.
The Church accompanies us on our journey of conversion for the whole of our lives and calls us to experience reconciliation in its communal and ecclesial dimension. We receive forgiveness through the priest. Through his ministry, God has given us a brother to bring us forgiveness in the name of the Church. Priests, who are the servants of this sacrament, must recognize that they also are in need of forgiveness and healing, and so they must exercise their ministry in humility and mercy. Let us then remember always that God never tires of forgiving us. Let us truly value this sacrament and rejoice in the gift of pardon and healing that comes to us through the ministry of priests.
Simple enough, but a powerful reminder of what we are all called to.  I stress the all because I think once again that we see a note here of how the Holy Father hopes to reform the Church - by first reforming her priests and leaders.  And the way he hopes to reform us is by trying to make those two words be the defining characteristics of priestly service - humility and mercy.

My brother, Dan Horan, OFM, wrote an article over at America Magazine, on the issue of clericalism in the priesthood and that has generated a lot of conversation about the very things that define a priest or priestly character.  You can read his response to the conversation here: Respondeo: On Clericalism.  Perhaps, this is the point that the Holy Father is making. Put away what has defined you before and let humility and mercy define your priesthood - as it defined The One from whom you derive your priesthood, Jesus.

These are the very seeds of reform.  Seem simple?  Well, in many ways it is.  I grew up as a typical Catholic who struggled with the Sacrament of Reconciliation and although there were a variety of reasons, it really came down to this: repeated bad experiences in the confessional. Experiences with functionary priests who didn't seem to take the moment as seriously as I did; experiences of confusion when I didn't really understand how it should work or what I should say; experiences of frustration as priests didn't want to take the time to help me understand my sin or how to work through it to holiness.  Like many, I gave up on it.

Obviously, once into my conversion and the possibility of entering religious life, I re-engaged the Sacrament; and certainly when becoming a priest, I was determined to offer to penitents a better experience than the ones that I had encountered.

I can't tell you how many of that fastest-growing religious group known as "former Catholics" I have met have told me that the reason that they left the Church are reasons exactly like this - the attitudes that they experienced from the leadership of the Church; and far, far too often those attitudes expressed harshly in the most vulnerable of moments - in the confessional.

Catholic doctrine is wonderfully clear; wonderfully black and white.  But, as we all know, life is not.  Life is gray. Life is messy.  And, our message has got to be a bit more nuanced than simply, "Get with the program."  The Pope is calling us - especially priests and those in leadership roles - to engage people where they are at; to engage them in the messiness.  To roll up our sleeves and meet them smack dab in the middle of the challenges of their life and remind them there that "God never tires of forgiving."  Our job is not to simply publish a list of prerequisites that need to be checked off before entrance.  Our job is to welcome people into God's merciful and loving arms.

The Pope said today:
Even I go to Confession every 15 days, because the Pope is also a sinner. And the confessor listens to what I tell him, he advises me and absolves me, because we are all in need of this forgiveness. Penitents have the obligation? No. They have the right! We have the right, all of us, to find in priests, the servants of forgiveness from God.
We are all sinners in need of mercy - penitents, laity, priests and even Popes.  We all need to go to confession and find there God's loving mercy.  This is what it means, I think, to have the "smell of the sheep" as God's ministers. The Pope thinks this is so important, in fact, that he also said today that that the task of forgiving sins is so delicate, that if a priest is not merciful and benevolent, he should avoid being a confessor. 

Humility and mercy need to be the defining characteristics of our life and our ministry. As a friar and as a priest I feel the challenge that the Pope is placing before me every day.  I want to be that priest.  You've probably seen the humorous comic strip that says, "I wish I were the man that my dog thinks I am."  Well, I really want to be the priest that this Pope is not only calling me to be, but is showing me how to be each and every day of his pontificate. 

Imagine what the Church might be like if we all embraced that vision?  If we all embraced those simple words: humble and merciful.

"God never tires of forgiving."  He also never tires of welcoming and hoping and loving us to be the very people He created us to be.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Conceived in Liberty | 150th Anniversary of the Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

On June 1, 1865, Senator Charles Sumner referred to the most famous speech ever given by President Abraham Lincoln. In his eulogy on the slain president, he called the Gettysburg Address a "monumental act." He said Lincoln was mistaken that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Rather, the Bostonian remarked, "The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech."
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation,
conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. 
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The End is Near! .... or not!


One of my favorite comic strips shows a ragged-looking man in tattered robes with a long flowing beard walking down a crowded city street carrying a sign proclaiming doom to everyone who reads it. The sign says simply and ominously, “The end is near.”  And, about five steps behind that man is a second man carrying another sign that simply reads, “The end.”  The end…is near!

Well, my friends, I’m here to tell you today that the end is indeed near!  Actually, there are a lot of endings that are near.  As we embrace the Fall, we know that the warm weather is more-or-less over and cold of winter is just around the corner.  Thanksgiving in a week and a half reminds us that November is almost over.  The Christmas decorations that are out in the stores already, tell us that Christmas will soon be here and that another year is almost over.  As I said, the end is near! 

And here in church today, we enter into the final two weeks of our Church year.  Two Sundays from now, we embrace Advent once again, a new Church year, and so today and during these next two weeks our Scriptures also turn to the same theme that the end is near. The first reading from the prophet Malachi proclaims, “Lo, the day is coming!”  In our Gospel, Jesus gives a prediction about the end of the Temple, “All that you see here--the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”  And He is asked, “When will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?”

I think He is asked these questions because we all have a natural anxiety about “the end.”  We ask, will we be ready?  Will we be among the chosen?  Will we make it to Heaven?  I work with our young people preparing them for Confirmation each year, and I always give them the chance to write down any faith question they’d like answered.  Not surprisingly, they often ask questions about this very topic – they wanted to know about Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – the End.  We see this in our culture periodically.  Just think about the turn of the new millennium. There were lots of articles about the end of time; or just last year those focused on the so-called Mayan prediction that the world would end in 2012 (we’re still here).  If we choose to look at the negative in our world – the financial crisis, the many wars – we can read those as signs of the end.

This is nothing new.  Historically, just about every age has thought it would be the last.  And to all of this, Jesus said, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.”

I don’t know about you, but I find these to be comforting words.  I think Jesus wants to convey basically two things to us today.  The first is this: Do not interpret the crises of the world or even the crises of your life as if they were the end-of-the-world.  We tend to do this far too often, and when we entertain this train of thought, we are not following the word of God.  We are instead simply giving in to our fears and anxieties.   We are letting fear win the day and rule our lives, instead of letting God rule our lives. Our God is not a God of fear and anxiety – He is a God of love.

The second lesson is that there will be many people who will come claiming to be true prophets, saying that they speak in Jesus’ name.  I think of some of the televangelists that you see on TV who tell you exactly when the end is coming.  But, the truth of the matter is that Jesus tells that even He doesn’t know the day or the hour when the end will come.  Those who say otherwise are nothing other than false prophets.  Jesus says clearly today, “Do not follow them.”  The greatest sign of a false prophet is that they attempt to sow fear in the hearts of people. Even the political dialogue in our country seeks to tread upon our fears and anxieties about the future. Our world is too full of fear-mongering, fear-sowing voices.  Again, Jesus says, “Do not follow them.” 

So, what are we to do?  Well, a true prophetic voice is always one that spreads the hope and confidence, the encouragement and peace that comes from the One True God. A true prophetic voice reminds us that we can live through all of the crises of our lives, all the challenges we may ever face with peace in our hearts and with a sense of hope and trust that our God has not – and will not – ever abandon us.  To a world that proclaims, “The end is near,” our God counters, “Be not afraid.”

And this is what Jesus says today; that in the face of challenge and trial, it is the peace in our hearts, it is our hope and trust in God that become the seeds of new life. These seeds of faith help to carry us through all of the difficulties and the joys of life.  Jesus tells us that what truly gets us through life is worship and fidelity to our God; working through challenges with forgiveness; changing the things that can and must be changed; and developing a patient endurance that will consecrate and transform all of our suffering into glory. Jesus’ message dares us to trust that, even in difficulty, God still reaches out to us with love and with hope and new and abundant life bursts forth. “Be not afraid, I go before you always.”

My friends, the end is near….or not.  But, nothing will ever happen that we cannot handle as long as we have the help of God.

May God give you peace.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Cardinal Sean: Pope Francis' new BFF

By Amy Sullivan | November 10, 2013

Stephen Colbert may be—as he bragged in character last month at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner—"America's most famous Catholic." But he has serious competition for the title of most important Catholic in the United States. Until recently that distinction arguably belonged to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the powerful New York Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. When the charismatic Dolan's term wraps up next week at the bishops' annual meeting in Baltimore, however, all eyes will turn to a man in a simple brown cassock with a Santa beard and a direct line to the pope: Boston Cardinal Séan O'Malley.

In the months since Pope Francis's election, it's become clear that O'Malley is the closest thing to a papal BFF. He is the only North American member of the Cabinet that Francis formed to advise him. As the world knows by now, Francis does not hesitate to make full use of his cell-phone plan, making it possible for him to call O'Malley—and O'Malley to call him—without involving aides. But the two also email each other directly, resulting in an unprecedented level of communication and giving American Catholics a voice in this unusually collaborative papacy.

"No other popes have had close relationships with an American at that level," says Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America. Schneck notes that Pope Paul VI had close ties to some lower-ranking Americans, such as now-Cardinal Justin Rigali, who served for a time as his English translator. "But to the best of my knowledge," he says, "there's nothing that compares to the very close relationship that Cardinal O'Malley has with Pope Francis."

One reason O'Malley and the pope have been in such close contact is that they speak the same language—literally. Unlike his predecessors, Francis isn't comfortable communicating in English; his first public use of English as pope didn't come until Oct. 18. This will make it harder for the pope to speak one-on-one with American prelates, as surprisingly few of them are fluent in Spanish or Italian. Even Dolan, who spent more than six years stationed in Rome, lacks real fluency in those languages.

O'Malley, however, not only speaks seven languages, he also has a Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese literature. In each of his posts, he has worked closely with local Hispanic communities, and even launched Washington's first Spanish-language newspaper, El Pregonero, when he headed the Hispanic Catholic Center in the capital. And it's more than just a matter of vocabulary. One of the least-appreciated aspects of the new pope is the extent to which he was formed by Latin America and not by the theologians who have held sway in American and European Catholic circles over the past few decades. O'Malley's first appointment as a bishop was in the Virgin Islands for nine years, and he has at times been closer to his Latin American colleagues than to his peers in the U.S.

Writing last spring about O'Malley's friendship with Francis, Catholic commentator Rocco Palmo noted that when O'Malley was installed as archbishop of Boston in 2003, one of only two cardinals in attendance was Oscar Rodriguez, the Honduran leader who leads the new papal Cabinet. O'Malley, Rodriguez, and Francis are all strongly shaped as well by communio theology—a focus on mercy and caring and reaching out to those in need—that has been embraced with special fervor in the Latin world.

If O'Malley and Francis share a theological affinity, it is matched by their preference for modest living and populist faith. O'Malley is a Franciscan whose preference forwearing his Capuchin habit instead of more ceremonial robes has come in for ribbing from some colleagues. Like the pope, he has chosen simple living quarters, downsizing from the more palatial digs of his predecessors. And in 2006, O'Malley became the first cardinal to have a personal blog:

As a member of the pope's advisory Cabinet, O'Malley will weigh in on and help propose church reforms. But given his papal friendship, the Boston cardinal will also serve as an unofficial adviser on major appointments in the U.S., including the important choice of a replacement for Cardinal Francis George in Chicago. Earlier this fall, O'Malley was a key player in the decision to deal swiftly with a dicey situation in Newark, N.J., where Archbishop John Myers was under fire for his handling of a sexually abusive priest. At O'Malley's urging and with his guidance, the pope chose and appointed a well-regarded successor for Myers in just a matter of weeks.

And while O'Malley should not be viewed as the pope's mouthpiece in the U.S., he has taken on the role of defending Francis in an uncharacteristically public and combative way. In early August, O'Malley gave the keynote address for the annual convention of the Knights of Columbus, using the occasion to push back against criticism of the pope's relative silence on abortion. "I think [the pope] speaks of love and mercy to give people the context for the church's teaching on abortion," O'Malley told the crowd of 2,000 conservative Catholics. "The truth without mercy would be cold, off-putting, and ready to wound. The truth isn't a wet rag that you throw in someone's face."

At the moment, all eyes are on Pope Francis, who continues to captivate Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And that's just how the publicity-averse O'Malley likes it. But as this pope navigates the tricky job of trying to prod a reluctant Roman Curia along the path of reform and takes on the task of shaping the next generation of American Catholic leaders, the cardinal from Boston will be just a smartphone away.

This article appears in the November 9, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as The Pope’s BFF.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

God's love for us - a taste of Heaven


One day, a zealous young preacher came upon a farmer working in his field. Concerned for the farmer’s soul the preacher asked, “Are you laboring in the vineyard of the Lord my good man?”  Not even looking up at the preacher the farmer replied, “No sir, I’m planting wheat.”  “You don’t understand,” said the preacher. “Are you a Christian?”  With the same amount of disinterest, the farmer said, “Nope my name is Jones. You must be lookin’ for Jim Christian. He lives a mile down the road.” The determined preacher tried again asking the farmer, “Are you lost?”  “No sir! I’ve lived here all my life,” answered the farmer.  Frustrated the preacher asked, “Are you prepared for the resurrection?”  Finally, this caught the farmer’s attention and he asked, “When’s it gonna be?”  Thinking he had accomplished something the preacher replied, “It could be today, tomorrow, or the next day.”  Wiping his brow, the farmer remarked, “Well, don’t mention it to my wife. She don’t get out much and she’ll wanna go all three days.”

My friends, our Scriptures today are asking us essentially the same question: are you prepared for the resurrection or, perhaps more simply, what happens to us when we die?  Is there any more profound question?  Is death simply the end, like a candle that burns down to its last?  Or if there is life after death, what is it like?  I’m sure there’s not one among us who hasn’t asked these questions at some point in our lives.  November is a good time to think about these things as the leaves fall, our skies begin to turn gray and we celebrate a month of prayer for our beloved deceased. It is a good time to hear today’s Gospel and Jesus’ own words about what lies beyond earthly life.

There is nothing more central to our faith than the resurrection from the dead that Jesus came to bring us.  “I have come to give life and give it to the full.”  But, many people today think that being a modern Christian includes jettisoning the belief in things that cannot be scientifically proven – things like resurrection.  After all, when was the last time some one you knew rose from the dead and came back to talk about it?  But what people don’t realize is that this questioning of the resurrection is not modern at all. Even at the time of Jesus there were people who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead – namely the Sadducees.  

In today’s gospel, some Sadducees came to Jesus and wanted to prove to Him how absurd it is for any reasonable person to believe in the resurrection. They came up with this story of seven brothers who were all in turn married to the same woman and asked, “In the resurrection whose wife will the woman be?”  Jesus replied that it was impossible to understand life in Heaven in the same way that we understand life on earth.

Notice that the problem of the Sadducees has to do with how things are in the resurrected life, whereas Jesus’ response has to do with the why of the resurrection. There is a resurrection quite simply because our God is God of the living. God has created us from the moment of our conception for life and not for ultimate extinction. God does not breathe life into us like bubbles, here now, gone in a moment. No, God gifts us with life even after our time on earth is complete.

Jesus fundamental point is that our hope of life beyond death is not based on wishful thinking or a fearful understanding of death.  Our belief is based on the very nature of God.  The God who Jesus reveals is not an unknown, unseen, architect of the universe.  Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead, and this God of the living is a loving God who wants only one thing from us – our love and our eternal dwelling with Him.

If there is one belief that the men and women of our world need today it is the belief in the resurrection. Why? Because it is the effective antidote to the infectious disease of materialism that focuses all our energy on the here and now, on the grabbing of things, the destructive nature of power, the accumulating of money, the competition of ownership.  The resurrection looks at that and says, “so what?”  Our God loves us individually. He has counted even the hairs on your head He knows you so well, and He wants you to be with Him forever.

What will heaven look like? We simply don’t know.  Or maybe we do.  It looks like the love that God has for us.  And, I think in this extraordinary moment that we are honored to be living in, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, continually shows us some passing glimpses of this love. Think of the way that he washed the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, or the way that he embraced the young boy with cerebral palsy in April – or so powerfully perhaps you saw this week, the pictures of Pope Francis embracing the man whose body was covered in disfiguring boils, a condition known as neurofibromatosis.  It is an image that has gripped me, and if you’ve seen it, perhaps it has gripped you.  As a Franciscan, it reminds me of the singular moment in the life of St. Francis when in the early stages of his conversion, he embraced a leper in the countryside of Assisi.  He got off his horse, embraced and kissed that leper – the kind of people that he formerly despised  - and after he had done that, the man disappeared.  He later understood that man to have been Christ incarnate. That encounter changed the course of his life, he would later describe it  this way, “What was bitter to me had been changed to sweetness of body and soul.”  And now this new Francis, Pope Francis, does something so similar before the whole world.  And perhaps this profound act of love, God’s love on display for the world to see, is meant to change us again.

In the Pope’s embrace of this disfigured man we see something so powerful.  Fr. Jim Martin, SJ, said that the Pope’s kiss, his embrace, reminds us of God.  Pope Francis is reminding us that this is the way God loves us. He is reminding us that God loves us in all our pain, in all our struggles, in all our humanity.  Few of us suffer the way this man is suffering.   We are not physically disfigured the way he is. But maybe our scars are on the inside.  Maybe there is something in us that makes us feel unworthy of God’s unconditional love. Yet our gracious and loving God wants nothing more than to embrace us as tightly as the Pope embraced that man.

What will heaven look like? What does God’s love look like? Look no further than Jesus. Look no further than our beautiful and loving Pope.  And look no further than the daily opportunities to love in the same way that God places before each and every one of us. Do we embrace them or do we run away?

My friends, resurrection is real.  God’s unconditional love for us – which is the most basic definition of Heaven – is real.  Jesus doesn’t give us the final answers about heaven, but He does give us the way to prepare for our homecoming – through Him, with Him and in Him.  “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to Him all are alive.”  Let us live for God.  Let us have the courage to love others as God loves.   

May God give you peace!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why the Pope's embrace of the disfigured man is so powerful

Opinion by the Rev. James MartinSpecial to CNN 
(CNN)  I could barely look at the photos, but I knew that I must.
Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis met, embraced and kissed a man suffering from a rare disease called neurofibromatosis, a painful and disfiguring skin condition.
Photos of the Pope hugging a man whose face was blanketed with tumors struck a deep chord in people across the world. When I posted them to my public Facebook page, I received almost 300 comments in the space of a day.
Why do these photos speak to so many people so profoundly? Let me suggest three reasons.
For the Christian, the image of the Pope’s embrace calls up memories of the man whose name Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose after his election as Pope: St. Francis of Assisi.
As a young man, riding his horse one day outside of Assisi, Francis came upon a leper, a person suffering from one of the many skin diseases common in the early 13th century.

From childhood Francis had had a horror of lepers. Yet because of an earlier dream in which God had asked Francis to change his life, the formerly dissolute youth saw that something new was being asked of him. He dismounted his horse, pressed a coin into the leper’s hand and kissed him.
When he jumped back on his horse and turned to wave farewell, Francis saw that the leper had disappeared  legend has it that it was Christ.
It was a turning point in the life of Francis of Assisi; from then on he would devote himself to the poor and marginalized. He had embraced, to use Mother Teresa’s famous expression, “Christ in distressing disguise.”
The Pope has done the same; Christians recognize this on a deep level.
More broadly, the Pope’s embrace recalls images of Jesus’ healing of lepers, again a blanket term for a variety of skin diseases common in first-century Judea and Galilee.
In a frequent theme of the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth not only heals but touches people considered “unclean,” dangerous to be around and unworthy of inclusion in society.
In the Gospel of Mark, a leper begs Jesus for healing, by saying, “If you choose, you can make me clean.”
Mark’s Gospel tells what happened next: “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.’ Immediately the leprosy left him and he was made clean.”
But the English translation of this powerful story is weak indeed.
The original Greek word for “moved with pity” is the Greek "splagchnistheis."
This means that Jesus felt compassion in his bowels, the place where the ancients believed that the emotions resided. In other words, Jesus felt it in his guts. This is the kind of compassion we are called to have and to express. This is the kind of compassion we see in the photo of the Pope’s embrace.
Even more broadly, for believers, the Pope’s kiss reminds us of God. This is the way God loves us. God loves us in all our pain, in all our struggles, in all our humanity.
Few of us suffer from such a terrible disease as does the man in the photo; not many of us are physically disfigured. But many of us feel internally disfigured – unworthy of unconditional love. Yet God wants nothing more than to embrace us as tightly as the Pope’s embrace.
In this photo, on a level deeper than we might even be able to recognize, we see an image of God.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus’ tale of a father’s reconciliation with a son, there is a wonderful line. When the wayward son returns home, after squandering his inheritance on a life of debauchery, Jesus says that the father, seeing his son from afar, rushes out to greet him. The original Greek then describes the father doing something wonderful.
The English translation of Luke’s Gospel says that the father “ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Again, a literal translation from the original Greek is more beautiful, and will resonate with anyone who sees the photos. "Kai dramōn epepesen epi ton trachēlon autou kai katephilēsen auton" can be translated as “And running, he fell upon his neck and fervently kissed him.”
Do you ever wonder what God’s love is like? Look at Jesus. Look at St. Francis of Assisi. And look at the Pope.
The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America magazine, and author of "The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything." His book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" will be released in March. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Washington's War on the Poor | New York Times

By  | New York Times | October 31, 2013

John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio, has done some surprising things lately. First, he did an end run around his state’s Legislature — controlled by his own party — to proceed with the federally funded expansion of Medicaid that is an important piece of Obamacare. Then, defending his action, he let loose on his political allies, declaring, “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That, if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy.”
Obviously Mr. Kasich isn’t the first to make this observation. But the fact that it’s coming from a Republican in good standing (although maybe not anymore), indeed someone who used to be known as a conservative firebrand, is telling. Republican hostility toward the poor and unfortunate has now reached such a fever pitch that the party doesn’t really stand for anything else — and only willfully blind observers can fail to see that reality.
The big question is why. But, first, let’s talk a bit more about what’s eating the right.
I still sometimes see pundits claiming that the Tea Party movement is basically driven by concerns about budget deficits. That’s delusional. Read the founding rant by Rick Santelli of CNBC: There’s nary a mention of deficits. Instead, it’s a tirade against the possibility that the government might help “losers” avoid foreclosure. Or read transcripts from Rush Limbaugh or other right-wing talk radio hosts. There’s not much about fiscal responsibility, but there’s a lot about how the government is rewarding the lazy and undeserving.
Republicans in leadership positions try to modulate their language a bit, but it’s a matter more of tone than substance. They’re still clearly passionate about making sure that the poor and unlucky get as little help as possible, that — as Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, put it — the safety net is becoming “a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.” And Mr. Ryan’s budget proposals involve savage cuts in safety-net programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
All of this hostility to the poor has culminated in the truly astonishing refusal of many states to participate in the Medicaid expansion. Bear in mind that the federal government would pay for this expansion, and that the money thus spent would benefit hospitals and the local economy as well as the direct recipients. But a majority of Republican-controlled state governments are, it turns out, willing to pay a large economic and fiscal price in order to ensure that aid doesn’t reach the poor.
The thing is, it wasn’t always this way. Go back for a moment to 1936, when Alf Landon received the Republican nomination for president. In many ways, Landon’s acceptance speech previewed themes taken up by modern conservatives. He lamented the incompleteness of economic recovery and the persistence of high unemployment, and he attributed the economy’s lingering weakness to excessive government intervention and the uncertainty he claimed it created.
But he also said this: “Out of this Depression has come, not only the problem of recovery but also the equally grave problem of caring for the unemployed until recovery is attained. Their relief at all times is a matter of plain duty. We of our Party pledge that this obligation will never be neglected.”
Can you imagine a modern Republican nominee saying such a thing? Not in a party committed to the view that unemployed workers have it too easy, that they’re so coddled by unemployment insurance and food stamps that they have no incentive to go out there and get a job.
So what’s this all about? One reason, the sociologist Daniel Little suggested in a recent essay, is market ideology: If the market is always right, then people who end up poor must deserve to be poor. I’d add that some leading Republicans are, in their minds, acting out adolescent libertarian fantasies. “It’s as if we’re living in an Ayn Rand novel right now,” declared Paul Ryan in 2009.
But there’s also, as Mr. Little says, the stain that won’t go away: race.
In a much-cited recent memo, Democracy Corps, a Democratic-leaning public opinion research organization, reported on the results of focus groups held with members of various Republican factions. They found the Republican base “very conscious of being white in a country that is increasingly minority” — and seeing the social safety net both as something that helps Those People, not people like themselves, and binds the rising nonwhite population to the Democratic Party. And, yes, the Medicaid expansion many states are rejecting would disproportionately have helped poor blacks.
So there is indeed a war on the poor, coinciding with and deepening the pain from a troubled economy. And that war is now the central, defining issue of American politics.

Changing the impossible

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