Saturday, January 25, 2014

Looking for a sign from God

Jim was a God-loving, Church-going man.  One day there was a flood in his town and the whole town began to fill with water.  Jim, however, was not worried. He was certain that God was on his side and would send him a sign to save him. As the water filled the first floor of his house, he went upstairs to his bedroom. Outside his window he saw his friend Fred going by in a rowboat. Fred said, “Hey Jim! Get in my boat and we’ll be safe!”  But, Jim replied, “No Fred, I am waiting for a sign from God!” And Fred rowed away.  The water got higher and Jim had to climb on his roof. Then he hears an approaching helicopter. “Climb up the ladder and get in the helicopter!” said the pilot. “No thanks,” Jim said. “I am waiting for a sign from God.” Well, the water went even higher and took Jim with it.  Jim eventually arrives in heaven and approaches the throne of God.  Jim was not very hapy with God and said to him, “Lord, I’ve been a good man all my life! I prayed every day. Went regularly to Mass.  Treated my fellow brothers and sisters well.  Gave to the poor. I did everything you asked of me.  Why did you let me drown in the flood? Why didn’t you send me a sign?”  And God said, “What are you talking about Jim? I sent you a boat and a helicopter! How many more signs did you want?”

Have you ever felt like Jim and just wanted a sign from God?  I know I have.  When I was discerning my vocation to the priesthood and religious life, I had met other young men who were also hearing God’s call in their lives and some of them shared wonderful experiences – some of them quite spectacular – about the ways that God had given them signs.  I remember going to my Church one day and praying, rather aggravated with God.  “God, I’m ready to give my life to you.  To serve you as a priest! Why can’t you give me a sign like you gave them?”  When I left the church, I turned the corner and there on a billboard, larger than life, it read, “Are you looking for a sign from God?”  Now the rest of it read, “Join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Mormons.”  I didn’t take it to mean that I should become a Mormon, but I did take it to mean that God was gently and humorously reminding me that signs were all around me, if only I took a moment to stop and look and see them.

Our Gospel today begins, “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.” Jesus hears that John has been arrested. He figures that the movement that John started would be need a new leader and no one was better suited to assume leadership than He Himself. That’s it. That is all the sign that Jesus needed. He said farewell to his family and moved on to meet the challenges of His public calling. Unlike Jim in our story, Jesus did not sit and wait for a special supernatural sign from above. Rather, Jesus read the “signs of the times,” He figured things out by being attentive to what’s going on around Him to understand what God might be asking of Him.

Do you want to know what God’s plan is for your life today?  It’s no more complicated than it was for Jesus. So, what needs do you see in the world around you?  Maybe, as you look around, you see the need for more messengers of God’s love and peace and kindness and compassion in our world today? So, how can you be that messenger in your life, where God has planted you? Maybe you see a need for more forgiveness and reconciliation in the people around you – in your family; at work; in school?  So, how can you be the instrument of that healing?  Maybe you pass by the same homeless person, the same hungry person, the same cold and shivering person every day?  What can you do to help them in their need? Because when you do it for them, you do it for Christ.

But, the key is for all of us to stop waiting for the thunder clap; to stop waiting for the miraculous voice from heaven; to stop waiting for the supernatural special sign and to recognize that God is talking to us in the very real moments of every day and every person we meet. “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

In July, speaking on the Feast of St. Thomas, Pope Francis said that we encounter Jesus in these every day moments.  He said, “We find Jesus in carrying out works of mercy, giving to the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked, because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail, because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these, His wounds. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.

My brothers and sisters, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  God’s signs are all around us.  Let us embrace what God asks of us and let us be forever changed by it.

May the Lord give you peace.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"First we must save mothers" | Cardinal Sean

Opening Mass of the Vigil for Life | January 21, 2014
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Almost 200 years ago the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a wonderful story called “The Emperor’s New Suit”.  It is the story of a very proud and vain king who thought so much of new clothes that he spent all of his money on his apparel.  His only ambition was to be the best dressed.  One day two swindlers arrived in the city and convinced the king to buy a new suit made of a magical material that was invisible.  They told the king that those who could not see the cloth were stupid and unfit for office.
The king was quite deceived and paraded through the street of his capital to receive the ovations of his people.  The crowds lined the streets and applauded when the king passed by.  The crowd shouted compliments and congratulated the king on his magnificent clothing.
Suddenly a little child shouted, “But he has nothing on at all.” The king continued on his way.  His chamberlains walked with still greater dignity, as if they were carrying the train of his robe which did not exist.
“The King’s New Clothes” today are called reproduction rights, termination of pregnancy, choice, and many other subterfuges that disguise the reality and the brutality that is abortion.
The crowd applauds the Kings’ New Clothes, people are afraid to question.  Those who do not applaud must be stupid, naïve, obstinate.
The voice of the Church is like the child who declares before the world that the new clothes are a lie, a humbug, a deception.  The Church with the candor of a child must call out the uncomfortable truth.  Abortion is wrong.  Thou shall not kill.
Our first reading is from Deuteronomy.  In this last sermon before he dies on Mt. Nebo, Moses tells God’s people: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life then, that you and your descendants might live, by loving the Lord, obeying His voice, and holding fast to Him.  That will be life for you.
“Choose Life”, that is the message of the Church confronted by the King’s New Clothes.  Choose life.
John Paul II commented on the many declarations of human rights and many initiatives inspired by these ideals that seem to indicate a growing moral sensitivity, more alert to acknowledge the value and dignity of every individual as a human being, without any distinction of race, nationality, religion, political opinion or social class.
Sadly these noble proclamations are contradicted by a tragic repudiation of them in practice.  This denial is still more distressing indeed more scandalous, precisely because it is occurring in a society which makes affirmation and protection of human rights its primary objective and its boast.
The Holy Father John Paul II asked “How can we reconcile these repeated declarations of human rights with the continual increase and widespread justification of attacks on human life?  How can we reconcile these declarations with the refusal to accept those who are weak and needy, or elderly, or those who have just been conceived?”  These attacks go directly against respect for life and they represent a direct threat to the entire culture of human rights.  It jeopardizes the very meaning of democratic coexistence; rather than societies of “people living together’, our cities risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted and oppressed.
When the Church raises a prophetic cry, “Choose Life”, we are performing a great service to all society.  Life is sacred.  Life is a mystery.  Life must be protected, nurtured, respected.  The Gospel of Life is the center piece of the Church’s social teaching.
When the value of life is compromised or diminished, all life is at risk.  When we give the State the power to determine which human beings are worthy of living and which should be eliminated, what we are doing is opening a Pandora’s Box that unleashes every kind of injustice and violation of human dignity.
Life is precious.  The transmission of life, sexuality, and marriage, which is the sanctuary of life, are all sacred.  The Church’s consistent life ethic contrasts with the incoherent proclamation of human rights that fails to protect life when it is most vulnerable.
Human rights, without the right to life, are the Kings New Clothes – it’s a fraud, an exercise in self-deception.
When Roe vs. Wade was handed down 40 years ago, Archibald Cox, the Harvard University expert in constitutional law and Watergate prosecutor stated “This decision (Roe vs. Wade) fails even to consider what I suppose to be the most compelling interest of the State in prohibiting abortion:  the interest in maintaining that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has always been at the center of Western Civilization.”
The Church’s pro-life message is a great service to all society.  The culture of death flows out of the extreme individualism of our age.  The Church’s antidote is community and solidarity.  Pope Francis is always talking about a culture of encounter.
In his stunning Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii GaudiumPope Francis writes: “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us.”  Pope Francis goes on to say: “Frequently, attempts are made to ridicule the Church’s efforts to defend the unborn.  Attempts are made to present the Church’s teaching as ideological, obscurantist and conservative.  Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right.”
The Holy Father laments the fact that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations.
The Good News is that God never gives up on us. He never tires of loving us.  He never tires of forgiving us, never tires of giving us another chance.  The Pro-Life Movement needs to be the merciful face of God to women facing a difficult pregnancy.  Being judgmental or condemnatory is not part of the Gospel of Life.
In pre Revolutionary Cuba a Catholic radio play was broadcast that caused quite a bit of attention at the time.  It was called: Muralla.  It was the story of a middle class Catholic Family, husband, wife and five children.  Each Sunday the whole family went to Mass together.  They all went to communion each Sunday with the exception of the father.  This was a source of great anxiety to the whole family.  The wife and children were always encouraging their Dad to go to confession and join them at the communion rail.  He resisted all their pleading.  The years passed.  The man grew old.  When he was dying, his wife sent for the priest who came and gave him the last sacraments and Extreme Unction – anointing of the sick for the dying.  After making his confession and receiving communion, the man called his wife and children around his death bed and said, before I die, I want to tell you why I did not go to communion for all these years.  When I was a young lawyer, I falsified a Will.  All the money we have really should belong to a distant cousin.  I knew that if I went to confession I would have to make restitution so I have waited until now.  With that the man died, but now it was the wife and children who stopped going to communion because they did not want to make restitution either.
We are often quick to judge people because we have not walked in their moccasins.  Until we find ourselves in the same situation we don’t know, we might do the same thing that we judge others for.
Today’s Gospel is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament.  The Pharisees are determined to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma.  Should the woman caught in adultery be punished by death as the law demanded?  If Jesus said “no” they would accuse him of neglecting to obey the law.  If Jesus said “yes, kill her”, He would turn people against Him for having the woman killed.
The Pharisees brought in the woman almost like a stage prop to use her for their political purposes.  It is interesting to note that her partner has escaped punishment.  It is only the woman who pays the price for their actions.  She is filled with shame and is in fear for her life, with feelings of anger, despair, disappointment and a profound sense of loneliness.
It is curious to note that this is the only place in the Gospel where we see Jesus writing something.  For Jesus, there was no need to publish or perish.  We do not know for sure what Jesus was writing.  Some of the Church’s Fathers speculate that Jesus was writing the sins of those brave men, after telling them that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.  When the men see their sins, the stones fall from their hands and they begin to sneak away beginning with the oldest.  Jesus is left alone with the woman; the crowd with their prurient curiosity and the Pharisees disarmed by Jesus, have slipped off.  St. Augustine describes that Gospel scene as miseria and misericordis.  Misery and mercy meet.
Jesus has come, not for the healthy, but for the sick.  He has come to set up the field hospital.  He is the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep behind to seek out the lost sheep.  That gives Him more joy than the ninety-nine just people who do not need the Good Shepherd.
The feelings of the woman in the Gospel must be like the young woman caught in a crisis situation of an unwanted pregnancy.  She feels overwhelmed, alone, afraid, confused.
We must never allow that woman to perceive the Pro-Life movement as a bunch of angry self righteous Pharisees with stones in their hands, looking down on her and judging her.  We want the woman to experience the merciful love of Christ.  Jesus does not condone the woman’s fall, but He does not condemn her.  He invites her to make a new start, to know that she is forgiven and loved.  Pope Francis urges us to practice “the art of accompaniment” which teaches us to remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other, in this case, the woman in crisis.  This accompaniment must be steady and reassuring, reflecting our closeness and our compassionate gaze which heals, liberates and encourages growth in the Christian Life.  This is precisely what the Sisters of Life, Project Rachel and the Community of Jesus the Living Mercy are doing.
We are all here because we want to save the thousands of innocent children who are being executed by the very people whose mission should be to heal and protect life.  
The truth is that we can save those babies only by saving the mothers.  
When they experience God’s loving mercy then they will become capable of showing mercy to their children.  The Pro Life Movement has to be about saving mothers.  We need to focus on the women to try to understand what they are suffering.
The work of the pregnancy crisis centers has helped countless women to be able to choose Life.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to all the volunteers and workers.
There are millions of women in our country who have had abortions, millions of men who pushed them, encourage them, and drove them to the abortion clinic.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of them could accept John Paul II’s challenge to those who have chosen abortion to commit themselves to life, “whether by accepting the birth of other children, or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them; to become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.”
One person to take up this challenge was Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the founder of NARAL and the Pro Abortion Movement in the U.S.  In the 1970’s Dr. Nathanson ran an abortion clinic in New York City, which operated from 8:00am ‘till midnight.  He performed roughly 100 abortions a day.
But then after having promoted abortion and convincing people of its urgency, Bernard Nathanson, the tailor that produced the King’s New Clothes in the United States, finally heard that child’s voice pointing out the inconvenient truth.  His conscience could no longer allow him to fool himself into believing – it was not a human being.
Dr. Bernard Nathanson became the most eloquent opponent of abortion and the abortion industry.  In 1982 I invited him to come and speak to Black and Hispanic leaders in the Archdiocese of Washington, right here at Caldwell Hall.  A few years later Dr. Nathanson accompanied me to Honduras where he presented his film, The Silent Scream, to the medical faculty, and on National television.  He was very instrumental in getting the laws that legalized abortion in Honduras reversed.  He spent the rest of his life trying to do the same in the United States.
God’s grace turned Saul of Tarsus, the implacable persecutor of the Church, into the Apostle of the Gentiles; and that grace transformed Bernard Nathanson into an apostle of the Gospel of Life.
The antidote of abortion is solidarity; community where people are willing to care for each and for the most vulnerable.
The message of the Gospel of Life is, as Pope Francis tells us in Evangelii Gaudium, a message of Joy.  The Holy Father writes: “to those who feel far from God and the Church, and to all who are fearful or indifferent I would like to say this: the Lord with great respect and love is also calling you to be part of His people.  The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.  The very heart of the Gospel is life in community and engagement with others.”
The challenge Pope Francis places before our young people to be evangelizers.  To evangelize with beauty and joy.  The Holy Father says: “To communicate the moral teachings that promote growth in the Gospel way of life, it is helpful to stress again and again the attractiveness and ideal of a life of wisdom, self fulfillment and enrichment.  In light of that positive message our rejection of the evils which endanger that life can be better understood.  Rather than experts in dire predictions, dour judges bent on rooting out every threat and deviation, we should appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of the goodness and beauty which shines forth in a life of fidelity to the Gospel.”
At Lampedusa Pope Francis cast a wreath into the sea where thousands of poor immigrants lost their lives at sea.  He warned about the globalization of indifference.
We face this in the Pro Life Movement.  Just as with slavery in the past, today many Americans are repulsed by abortion but believe that it is a necessary evil.  Our task is to show them that it is not necessary.  It is an evil but it is not necessary.
Where there are community and solidarity, more humane solutions present themselves when there is a difficult pregnancy.  
When the abortion decision of the Supreme Court was handed down, the logical response of our Pro Life Movement was a resolute call for “Adoption, not abortion”.  The truth is each year there are fewer and fewer adoptions while the number of abortions is over a million.  Many young Americans don’t know anyone who is adopted, and if they do know someone, it is probably someone from China, Russia or Guatemala – giving the impression that entrusting a child to an adoptive family is not something Americans do.
The history of adoption is not always a glorious one.  There is a popular film in the theaters right now portraying some of the worst practices of the past.  Philomena, portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, tells the story of a young girl forced to give up her baby.  It is a tragic history.
We need people to hear the good stories of adoptions of courageous birth mothers and generous adoptive families that have truly provided a loving family for an adopted child.  In Boston we are making adoption part of a pro-life curriculum for our young people.
The majority of women who succumb to abortion are poor.  Poverty is a dehumanizing force that leads people to feel trapped and to make this horrible choice.  The Gospel of Life demands that we work for economic justice in our country and in our world.  
In a society where the rich are getting ever richer and the poor poorer, abortion looms ever larger.  Planned Parenthood was founded to eliminate the poor.
We can rescue unborn babies from abortion by rescuing their mothers from a life of poverty and hopelessness.  Pope Francis challenges our complacency and indifference to the oppressive poverty that spawns so many abortions.
Yes, the Catholic Church’s consistent life ethic is a great service to society.  It is our task to witness to the truth that love, compassion and solidarity can build a just society that will be safer for the poor, the unborn and those on the periphery.
I often share with people the fact that on the island of Martha’s Vineyard there is a beautiful church dedicated to St. Augustine.  There are lovely stain glass windows that depict the seven sacraments.  When the tourists enter the church, the first window they see is one that represents the sacrament of confession with the crossed keys, the priest’s stole and the words: “Go and sin no more”.  But the church is not air conditioned so in the hot days of summer they open all the windows in the church.  Well, the only pane of glass that opens on that window is the part where the words “no” appear.    So tourists enter the church and see the window that says “Go and sin more”.
In my ten years as Bishop there, not one person ever complained about the window.  The irony is that many people think of us Catholics as people of No —– don’t do this, don’t do that.  
In reality we are the people of Yes — yes to God, yes to life, yes to compassion for the poor and suffering, yes to the solidarity and community that make us messengers of joy even in a valley of tears.
The Gospel of Life will always trump the King’s New Clothes.
* The emphasis is mine, reflecting my favorite parts of this incredible homily - FT

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Called to be saints

After attending the Baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny cried all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally, the Johnny replied, “Well, the priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.”

Let me conduct an informal poll this morning.  By a show of hands, how many of you would say that you are a saint?  And yet, in our second reading today St. Paul addresses us as those “who have been sanctified in Jesus Christ, called to be holy.”

Let me tell you about the King Henry III, who was King of Bavaria in the 11th Century. Henry was a God-fearing king but the demands of being a ruler did not leave him much time for his spiritual life. One day he got so tired of being king that he went to the Abbot of the local monastery and asked to be admitted as a monk for the rest of his life. “Your Majesty,” said the Abbot, “do you understand that you must make a vow of obedience as a monk? That will be hard because you have been a king.” “I understand,” said Henry. “But, for the rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.” “Then I will tell you what to do,” said the Abbot. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.” King Henry returned to his throne and he ruled his people in a very holy way, and became a saintly king.

St. Paul reminds us today that we are all “called to be holy.”  Now “saint” is just another word for “holy.”  So if we are all called to be holy, my friends, we are all called to be saints!  Holiness or saintliness is not a call that God places in the lives of just a few.  It is not meant to be rare, but rather the norm.  We have been fortunate to live in an age of great saints – Blessed Mother Teresa comes to mind almost immediately to everyone and in just a few months, Pope Francis will canonize two other saints of our time – Blessed Pope John XXIII and Blessed Pope John Paul II. Both will be made saints of the Church in April.

Did you know, that in addition to the holy life he personally lived, that as Pope, John Paul canonized more saints than all popes before him combined?  And he consciously canonized not just priests and religious, but he made saints of men and women from every state of life; every age group; every occupation; married, widowed, single.  He did this for a reason – so that we might all be reminded when we look at the saints that they are like us and so we are called to be like them.

Like King Henry we sometimes believe that we need to run away from the demands of life and escape to a monastery, a convent or the desert, if we want to become a saint. But, as the Abbot reminded Henry, God expects us to be saints in the concrete situations of our personal, family and business or professional lives.

This is a perfect reflection as we begin Ordinary Time in the Church calendar.  As we begin this period of Ordinary Time, the Church reminds us that holiness is not meant to be extraordinary; it is not meant to be rare.  Holiness is meant to be very ordinary, very common – it is meant to be in the reach of every baptized Christian. Let me ask a different question: by a show of hands, who hopes to get to Heaven? And yet, that is the very same question that I asked before.  Who gets to Heaven? Saints do.  Heaven is full of saints!  We are all meant to be saints!

St. Paul says, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to you who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be holy, with all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Paul makes two great points here. First, Paul addresses “all those everywhere who call upon the name of our Lord”  That includes even us gathered here today to call on the Lord’s name. Secondly, Paul refers to the people he is writing to as men and women “called to be holy” or called to be saints.  Again that includes us. So, while we may not feel like we are saints yet, that is the purpose for which God has called us. We are all called to holiness.

A saint, or someone who has been sanctified, is someone who has been set apart. That God has called us to be “saints” means that God means for us to be special people in the world, not those who simply follow the crowd wherever the current wind blows.  Instead, God simply calls us to be His faithful children in the midst of the trials and challenges of normal life in society.  God want us to participate fully in society in a holy way – in politics, in business, in education, in health-care delivery, and in dispensing justice through making and implementing just laws.  Our world needs holy parents, holy children, holy doctors and nurses, holy teachers, holy garbage collectors, farmers – wherever we find ourselves, whatever we do.

I’ll end with one final story.  Shortly after he converted to Catholicism in the late 1930s, the famous Trappist, Thomas Merton, was walking the streets of New York with his friend, Robert. Robert was Jewish, and he asked Merton what he wanted to be, now that he was Catholic. “I don’t know,” Merton replied, adding simply that he wanted to be a good Catholic. Robert stopped him in his tracks. “What you should say,” he told him, “is that you want to be a saint!” Merton was dumbfounded. “How do you expect me to become a saint?” Merton asked him. His friend said: “All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let him do it? All you have to do is desire it.”

My brothers and sisters, one last question today – how many of us want to be saints?  I hope it is all of us!  Here’s the good news: to be a saint is nothing more complicated than to be ourselves – to be the person God created us to be. God has called us to be saints.  All of us here today are called to be holy.  Let us each desire to live saintly lives and may God consent to make each of us saints.

You may remember that at his funeral Mass, the crowds cried out for Blessed Pope John Paul, "Santo Subito!" or "Make him a saint immediately!"  Let us make that the mission statement of our own lives; let us all pledge to be on the road to holiness, on the road to sainthood today. Santo subito!

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Post-clerical Catholics | America Magazine

NOTE: This is a great article that I encourage you to take the time to read. I particularly resonated with the quote, "'It continues to surprise me,' a recently ordained Carmelite told me. 'If you are real, relatable and make an effort to be relevant to parishioners’ lives, you are a rock star.'"  My most successful aspects of ministry have always been so very simple - smiling, greeting people after Mass, getting to know their names, remembering  if they asked you to pray for someone - in other words, normal human interaction.  Why does this normal people-to-people interaction seem to be so frequently lacking in parishes?  I've always had a simple adage that "Good ministry is easy.  It is bad ministry that takes a lot of work."  It's all about people.  - FT

By Bill McGarvey | America Magazine | January 6-13, 2014
When my fellow columnist Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., stirred up a hornet’s nest with his column on clericalism a few months back, I followed the conversation with great interest. To be fair, my curiosity had little to do with Father Horan’s assertion that there is a cultivated sense of separateness among some young clergy (an observation I agree with). Nor was I particularly focused on the many comments criticizing or defending clerical wardrobe choices, issues of Catholic identity and so on.
What struck me was how disconnected I felt from the entire conversation surrounding clericalism. It felt as if an intramural discussion was taking place in an arena whose attendance numbers continue to dwindle. Who were these people with such passionate, high expectations or bitter disappointments regarding their parish priests? The sad reality for me and countless others I know who remain connected to Catholicism is that, for better or worse, our expectations of the clergy are much more modest. The bar is set pretty low.
In my experience, the issues many Catholics face at the parish level have little to do with whether the preaching is inspired or the liturgies are beautifully executed. They aren’t particularly exercised over clerical attire either. “For my family and friends who want to raise their kids Catholic,” a woman who works in church circles told me, “clericalism isn’t even on their radar. Gen-Xers and millennials don’t have the deference for clergy—or the expectations—our parents did.” She told me her own expectations were low. People feel it’s a nice bonus to have simply a reasonably healthy and balanced priest with some pastoral gifts.
It’s a sad state of affairs that I’ve heard echoed over and over even among young clergy. “It continues to surprise me,” a recently ordained Carmelite told me. “If you are real, relatable and make an effort to be relevant to parishioners’ lives, you are a rock star.” Another priest who has filled in at numerous parishes for 10 years told me, “People seem to be so hungry for something more. If you can offer them anything that connects their personal lives to the Gospel, they are incredibly appreciative.”
To be sure, this is not an ideal situation. Those of us who hope that Pope Francis’ popularity will inspire a younger generation to enter our doors or lapsed Catholics to return would do well to ask ourselves difficult questions: What are we inviting them to? Are we simply welcoming them back to a church that reminds them why they left in the first place?
Given the circumstances, it might appear to church outsiders that those of us still inside are suffering from some form of ecclesiastical Stockholm syndrome. I would argue that we are a sign of hope.
We are still here because we know, at some fundamental level, that we long for something sacred beyond ourselves and our lives. We might not entirely understand that sacredness, but we believe that approaching it in community and participating in it sacramentally is important. We are “remnant Catholics” of a different sort. When, at times, we are faced with clergy who fall short of our expectations, we are forced to be—in a twisted nod to Hazel Motes in “Wise Blood”—a Holy Church in Spite of the Church.
Of course, we need good priests as leaders and pastors. Make no mistake; there are still plenty of priests who are real, relatable and relevant, and our love for them is familial and fierce. In fact, a growing number of us are part of a nascent “pilgrim church” that journeys far outside our local parish boundaries to attend Mass and find spiritual nourishment with them and the communities they lead.
As the pope said regarding clericalism, we need more “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep.” For those who are waiting for these shepherds to arrive, it will be important to remind ourselves that the sheep, ultimately, don’t exist for the sake of the shepherd.
It also helps to remember that this challenge isn’t new. Back in 1959, Flannery O’Connor described an exchange with a relative’s non-Catholic husband, who entered the church after years of attending Mass with his wife. When asked what finally changed his mind, he said, “The sermons were so horrible, [I] knew there must be something else there to make the people come.”
Bill McGarvey, author of The Freshman Survival Guide, owner of and former editor in chief of Busted Halo (2004-10), is a musician and writer.

Cardinal Sean, female Methodist pastor team up on ritual

By Lane Lambert | Patriot-Ledger | January 14, 2014

The Rev. Anne Robertson has baptized more infants and youngsters than she can count in her past years as a United Methodist minister in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida.

But the Plymouth resident and Massachusetts Bible Society director never imagined that she’d get the chance to share a ritual drop of water for a baptism remembrance with a Roman Catholic cardinal.

Until Sunday, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley asked her.

“It was completely unexpected,” the Rev. Robertson said Tuesday, in her first media interview about the encounter. “I’m still blown away by it.”

“What moved me was not so much that I was anointing him,” she said. “It was him being willing to accept that from my hand – to ask me, as a woman in ministry, to do that.”

A Rhode Island native, the Rev. Robertson was the only  female clergy member who assisted at a special 50th anniversary worship service at Sudbury United Methodist Church. Cardinal O’Malley delivered the homily at the ecumenical gathering, which commemorated a groundbreaking appearance by Cardinal Richard Cushing at the church in 1964.

At a time when Catholics and Protestants were still deeply wary of each other, Cardinal Cushing was the first cardinal to speak at a Protestant church.

As part of Sunday’s anniversary service, the 500 who filled Sudbury United Methodist to overflowing were invited to receive a drop of consecrated water on their forehead and be told, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” The ritual resembles the ceremonial receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday, but isn’t a formal United Methodist sacrament.

Cardinal O’Malley and New England United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar led the ritual in the sanctuary. The Rev. Robertson and a Catholic priest were on their way with small bowls of water to a side room, for others watching the service on a large-screen TV.

She paused with the priest at the cardinal’s pew, so they could receive the baptism water from Cardinal O’Malley. The next moment, the cardinal quietly asked the Rev. Robertson to administer the water for him.

“My heart immediately went to my throat,” she said. “To be asked that by the man who might be pope someday – I was stunned. I was choking back tears for hours.”

After the service, she told Cardinal O’Malley how much the gesture meant to her. “He was very gracious,” she said, though she doesn’t remember exactly what he said. She was still caught up in the surprise.

She posted a blog reflection on the encounter, but two days later, she says she’s still pondering “so many little pieces” that made their shared blessing possible.

She was invited because the Sudbury church’s pastor is a longtime friend – and because the Bible Society is ecumenical. Last Sunday was the only day close to the 50th anniversary that Cardinal O’Malley could be there – and Sunday is marked as the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus by Catholics and mainline Protestants, so the Sudbury pastor included the United Methodist “reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant.”

And then there was the seating – Cardinal O’Malley and other Catholics in the pew in front of the pulpit, Protestans on the lectern side. Without that seating arrangement, the Rev. Robertson said she and the priest wouldn’t have walked past Cardinal O’Malley, “and the moment would never have happened.”

Lane Lambert may be reached at or follow him on Twitter @LLambert_Ledger.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Francis Effect | National Catholic Reporter

NOTE: This is from a story yesterday by John Allen Jr. of the National Catholic Reporter (soon to be of the Boston Globe!).  This particular story was towards the end of his article about the "Francis Revolution", but I found it extremely touching.  Let's hope that we keep seeing more of this and that our hearts continue to be formed into the loving tender heart of Christ! - FT

A funeral for a homeless man
In late December, a 63-year-old homeless man named Alessandro died during a particularly cold night in Rome, on a street near the Vatican. In itself there was nothing unusual about it in that the streets around the Vatican attract a high population of homeless, and every year, a few pass away during the winter cold.
What followed, however, amounts to another index of the "Francis effect."
Students at the Urban College, a residence for seminarians from the developing world located on the Janiculum Hill across from the Vatican (and next door to the North American College, where seminarians from the United States reside), heard of Alessandro's death and decided they wanted to do something.
They asked authorities at the university for permission to celebrate a funeral, and the idea landed on the desk of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican's missionary department, which oversees the Urban College. Filoni signed on, and the Vatican official responsible for the pope's personal charitable projects, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, agreed to celebrate the funeral Mass.
On Friday, Filoni, Krajewski, 200 students, and a score of Alessandro's homeless friends in and around the Vatican filed into the chapel at the Urban College to mourn his loss.
Krajewski downplayed his presence: "I'm a bishop of the streets," he said. "It's normal that I would do this."
Still, the press by the students at the Urban College to organize a last gesture of tenderness for a man basically forgotten during life is one indication that the "Francis effect" is reaching down into the next generation of priests and future church leaders.

Pope With the Humble Touch Is Firm in Reshaping the Vatican | New York Times

By JASON HOROWITZ and JIM YARDLEY | JAN. 13, 2014 | New York Times

VATICAN CITY — Less than a year into his papacy, Pope Francis has raised expectations among the world’s one billion Roman Catholics that change is coming. He has already transformed the tone of the papacy, confessing himself a sinner, declaring “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gays, and kneeling to wash the feet of inmates, including Muslims.

Less apparent, if equally significant for the future of the church, is how Francis has taken on a Vatican bureaucracy so plagued by intrigue and inertia that it contributed, numerous church officials now believe, to
the historic resignation of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, last February.

Francis’ reign may not ultimately affect centuries-old church doctrine, but it is already reshaping the way the church is run and who is running it. Francis is steadily subbing moderates for traditionalists as the church
prepares for a debate about the role of far-flung bishops in Vatican decision-making and a broad discussion on the family that could touch on delicate issues such as homosexuality and divorce.

In St. Peter’s Basilica on New Year’s Eve, Francis, dressed in golden robes, hinted at the major changes he had already set in motion. “What happened this year?” he asked. “What is happening, and what will

To some of the scarlet-clad cardinals seated in rows of gilded armchairs at the New Year’s service, the answer was becoming clear. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, one of the highest-ranking Americans in the
Vatican, found his influence diluted. Another conservative, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, was demoted. Among the bishops, Archbishop Guido Pozzo was sidelined.

To some degree, Francis, 77, is simply bringing in his own team and equipping it to carry out his stated mission of creating a more inclusive and relevant church that is more sensitive to the needs of local parishes and the poor. But he is also breaking up the rival blocs of Italians with entrenched influence in the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy that runs the church. He is increasing financial transparency in the murky Vatican Bank and upending the career ladder that many prelates have spent their lives climbing.

On Sunday, Francis made his first mark on the exclusive College of Cardinals that will elect his successor by naming prelates who in many cases hail from developing countries and the Southern Hemisphere. He pointedly instructed the new cardinals not to consider the job a promotion or to waste money with celebratory parties.

“It was an important year,” said Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s second-ranking official and one of only four Vatican officials Francis will make a cardinal in February. Asked in a New Year’s Eve interview about the personnel changes, he replied that it was only natural that the Argentine pope should prefer to have “certain people who are able to advance his policy.”

Interviews with cardinals, bishops, priests, Vatican officials, Italian politicians, diplomats and analysts indicate that the mood inside the Vatican ranges from adulation to uncertainty to deep anxiety, even a touch of paranoia. Several people say they fear Francis is going department by department looking for heads to roll. 

Others whisper about six mysterious Jesuit spies who act as the pope’s eyes and ears on the Vatican grounds. Mostly, once-powerful officials feel out of the loop. 

“It’s awkward,” said one senior Vatican official, who, like manyothers, insisted on anonymity for fear of retribution from Francis. “Many are saying, what are we doing this for?” He said some officials had stopped
showing up for meetings. “It’s like frustrated teenagers closing the door and putting their headphones on.”

Francis remains tricky to define, a doctrinal conservative whose humble style and symbolic gestures have thrilled many liberals. On Christmas, the destitute poured into an ancient church in Rome for a holiday lunch sponsored by a Catholic lay organization. The group’s founder, Andrea Riccardi, once a liaison to the church when he served as an Italian government minister, expressed hopes for change, but also wariness about Vatican officials ignoring the pope’s agenda. 

“You hear people talk about it in the corridors of the church,” Mr. Riccardi said. “The real resistance is to continue business as usual.”

Four days earlier, Francis met with the Curia in the Sala Clementina, the 16th-century reception hall in the Apostolic Palace, to deliver one of the most important papal speeches of the year. Benedict used his last such Christmas address to denounce same-sex marriage. Francis used his first to castigate his own colleagues in the Curia. 

He warned the men in red and purple skullcaps and black cassocks arrayed around him that the Curia risked drifting “downwards towards mediocrity” and becoming “a ponderous, bureaucratic customhouse.” He also called on the prelates to be “conscientious objectors” to gossip. 

Not New to the Battle

It was a pointed rebuke of the poisonous atmosphere that had troubled Benedict’s papacy, and for which the former secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, was often blamed. And it was a reminder that Francis, if a new pope, was not new to the machinations of the Curia, having tangled while in Argentina with a powerful conservative faction.

“He was not an ingénue coming out into the world,” said Elisabetta Piqué, an Argentine journalist who has known Francis for more than two decades and whose recent book, “Francis: Life and Revolution,” documented his past clashes with Rome. “He had had almost a war with this section of the Roman Curia.”

Now Francis talks disparagingly of “airport bishops” who are more interested in their careers than flocks, and warns that priests can become “little monsters” if they are not trained properly as seminarians.

He is dismantling the power circle of Cardinal Bertone, who led a ring of conservatives centered on the city of Genoa. In September, Francis demoted Cardinal Piacenza, a Bertone ally, from his post running the powerful Congregation for the Clergy.

To some it was an indication that the new pope could act with a measure of ruthlessness. Several Vatican officials said that Cardinal Piacenza’s greatest transgression had been undermining his predecessor, a Brazilian prelate close to Francis who appeared with him on the balcony of St. Peter’s after his election.

Francis also removed a top official of the Vatican City government, although arranging a soft landing pad. Others were less fortunate. As a priest, Guido Pozzo led a Vatican commission tasked with bridging the schism between the church and traditionalists critical of the Second Vatican Council. In November 2012, Cardinal Bertone elevated him to the rank of archbishop and Benedict appointed him to run the church’s charity office. Francis, who is much less interested than Benedict was in appealing to the schismatic conservatives, has since sent Archbishop Pozzo back to his former post. 

Another is Cardinal Burke. In 2008, Benedict installed his fellow traditionalist as president of the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, and the next year appointed him to the Congregation for Bishops. The post gave Cardinal Burke tremendous sway in selecting new bishops in the United States.

In December, Francis replaced him with a more moderate cardinal. “He’s looking for places to put his people,” said one official critical of the pope. Another Vatican conservative took offense at Francis’ disdain for elaborate dress. And speculation that Francis might convert the papalvacation home of Castel Gandolfo into a museum or a rehabilitation center has also raised alarms. “If he does that,” said an ally of the old guard, “the cardinals will rebel.”

For now, the resistance is not gaining traction. “The Holy Spirit succeeds also in melting the ice and overcoming any resistance,” Secretary of State Parolin said. “So there will be resistance. But I wouldn’t give too much importance to these things.”

Francis also has empowered a group of eight cardinals representing five continents to spearhead reform of the Curia. He has hired secular consultants and set up a special commission to oversee the Vatican Bank.

And while he has spoken infrequently on clerical sexual abuse, he has formed another commission “for the protection of minors.” He may also delegate some of the powers traditionally held by the office of secretary of state by creating a new papal enforcer, who would wrest power away from Curia bureaucrats.

“This is a very real possibility,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, who replaced Cardinal Burke on the Congregation for Bishops. 

Shunning Italian Politics

For years, Italian politicians have courted the Vatican, and vice versa, as both Pope John Paul II and Benedict encouraged Italy’s prelates to speak out on issues that concerned the church. Francis’ distaste for directly involving the church in politics has now threatened that old link between Italian prelates and Italy’s conservative politicians.

“Today, the Italian bishops are keeping silent,” said Pier Ferdinando Casini, a prominent politician who once met with cardinals and even popes but has yet to meet Francis.

The Vatican remains a disproportionately Italian institution, with Italy boasting the biggest bloc of cardinals even as it now accounts for only 4 percent of the world’s Catholics. Vatican employees are overwhelmingly
Italian, with lifetime job security, sometimes extending for generations. 

Perks abound. On a recent afternoon inside the Vatican’s department store, bargain hunters shopped for tax-free wine, cigarettes, Ferragamo clutches and North Face jackets beneath clocks reading the time in New York, Vatican City and Tokyo.

The Italian problem, as many non-Italian cardinals called it, loomed over the conclave that elected Francis in March. An undue Italian influence was blamed for suspicious accounts and mismanagement of the Vatican Bank and the gossip mongering that fueled an embarrassing scandal centered on leaks of Benedict’s private letters.

“What is necessary is that at this stage that the culture becomes less Italian,” one senior Vatican official said, “particularly as people work towards greater transparency and meritocracy.”

Off the Career Track

Francis, whose father was an Italian immigrant, and whose second language is Italian, does have key Italian allies, including Secretary of State Parolin and two other Curia department prefects he named as cardinals on Sunday. But analysts say his passing over of traditional Italian powerhouses, such as Venice, where the Archbishop is close to Cardinal Bertone, shows that he is trying to break the established career track in the Italian church.

Francis is also tinkering with the once mighty conference of Italian bishops, which he sits atop in his role as bishop of Rome. Popes have traditionally appointed the president of the Italian conference, but Francis may introduce elections, as happens in other bishops’ conferences. 

Under Benedict, the conference’s president, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, jousted for influence in Italian politics with Cardinal Bertone, whom Francis has largely sidelined. But the pope also recently removed Cardinal Bagnasco from the powerful Congregation for Bishops.

In a recent Saturday homily, Francis warned an audience that included Cardinal Bagnasco of the danger of becoming a “smarmy” priest. Succumbing to worldly temptations, he added, made for “priest-wheeler-dealers, priest-tycoons." 

The New Year’s Eve Mass at St. Peter’s ended with a procession of priests escorting Francis out of the basilica, followed by the thousands of the faithful. In the emptied church, the cardinals and bishops rose from
their seats, shookk hands with dignitaries and milled about around St. Peter’s tomb.

Cardinal Piacenza collected his umbrella from a prayer bench. Archbishop Pozzo made his way to the door. Asked about the changes underway in the Curia, he replied, “It’s been a surprising year!”

Not far away, Cardinal Burke blessed a few stragglers and declined to comment without permission from his “superiors.”

Weeks earlier, Cardinal Burke seemed poised to be the most prominent voice of resistance to Francis’ reign, telling a Catholic television network that he was not “exactly sure why” the pope “thinks we’re talking too much about abortion” and other culture war issues. When it came to changes in the Curia, he bemoaned “a kind of unpredictability about life in Rome in these days.”

At roughly the same time, Francis gave an interview to the Italian newspaper La Stampa. The pope spoke again about “tenderness” and opening up the church. But he also added: “Prudence is a virtue of government. So is boldness.”

It was a telling point. On Dec. 15 Cardinal Burke returned to his boyhood parish in Stratford, Wis., to celebrate a special Mass. Dressed in the tall miter cap and traditional pink for the Christmas season, he spoke about his dairy farm roots but disappointed some of his parishioners by making no mention of Francis or the events happening in the Vatican.

“I was hoping he would,” said Marge Pospyhalla, who attended the Mass. “But, no, we did not get that.” His silence said enough. The day after the Mass, Francis took Cardinal Burke off the Congregation for Bishops.

Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on January 14, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition
with the headline: Pope With the Humble Touch Is Firm in Reshaping the Vatican.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Stepping into the place of Christ


With today’s solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord, we bring to an end our Christmas season.  We have spent the last few weeks reflecting upon Jesus’ private life – from His birth through the flight into Egypt and last week’s visit of the Magi.  Today’s celebration marks the beginning of His public ministry, a sort of passing of the torch, to Him from John the Baptist as He seeks out baptism in the Jordan.

Even though we hear such beautiful words in today’s Gospel, the voice of God Himself from Heaven proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son,” it begs a very curious question – why is Jesus being baptized?  Have you ever stopped to think about this?  Baptism, as we know, is for the forgiveness of sins and it welcomes us into the Church; into the family of God.  Jesus doesn’t need this; He doesn’t need baptism.  We know this.  He was untouched by sin – He is “like us in all things, but sin.”  You and I, born in a state of Original Sin, are born in desperate need of this sacrament of grace.  We need these saving waters to wash over us and restore in us what was taken away by Adam and Eve.  But, Jesus?  Why would He need baptism?

This is a perplexing theological question and there are many decent answers. But, the best response to that perplexing question I have ever seen came from Pope Emeritus Benedict in his book, Jesus of Nazareth. It is a wonderful book and one in which the former Holy Father addresses this issue of the reason for Jesus’ baptism. Here’s a bit of what the Pope Emeritus says about the question of Jesus baptism. 

First, the problem. He writes, “The real novelty is the fact that he - Jesus - wants to be baptized, that he blends into the gray mass of sinners waiting on the banks of the Jordan. We have just heard that the confession of sins is a component of Baptism. Baptism itself was a confession of sins and the attempt to put off an old, failed life and to receive a new one. Is that something Jesus could do? How could he confess sins? How could he separate himself from his previous life in order to start a new one?”

Pope Benedict notes that Jesus doesn’t require the newness of life that we all need because of our sin.  So, if the baptism of Jesus isn’t about His own sin, since He has none, who’s sin is it about?  Of course, it is about our sin.  Again, the Pope writes, “The act of descending into the waters of this Baptism implies a confession of guilt and a plea for forgiveness in order to make a new beginning. In a world marked by sin, then, this Yes to the entire will of God also expresses solidarity with men [and women], who have incurred guilt but yearn for righteousness…Looking at the events in light of the Cross and Resurrection, the Christian people realized what happened: Jesus loaded the burden of all [humanity’s] guilt upon his shoulders; he bore it down into the depths of the Jordan. He inaugurated his public activity by stepping into the place of sinners. His inaugural gesture is an anticipation of the Cross…The Baptism is an acceptance of death for the sins of humanity, and the voice that calls out ‘This is my beloved Son’ over the baptismal waters is an anticipatory reference to the Resurrection.”

So, as Jesus begins His public ministry – a ministry that will take Him to the Cross, the grave and to resurrection all for us – He does so by taking on our sins.  It is not on the Cross that Jesus takes on the sins of humanity – it is there that He frees us from them.  It shows us the reality that the road to Calvary didn’t begin at the feet of Pilate, it began here, in the waters of the Jordan.  It is in the waters of the Jordan that Jesus steps into the place of sinners, into our place.  It is here that He takes the weight of our sins upon His shoulders and He will carry them through all of the moments of His public ministry – through the preaching on the hillside, through the healings of the blind, the deaf and the lame, through the multiplication of loaves and fishes, through the raising of others from the dead, all the way to the Last Supper, and yes, from those moments before Pilate and in the incredible moments when they lay the wood of the Cross on His shoulders.

But, it was on that day, in the waters of the Jordan, that Jesus united Himself with us; and in our own personal baptism, we are united again with Him – so that we can be forgiven, we can be healed, we can be saved.  Again, the Pope writes, “To accept the invitation to be baptized now means to go to the place of Jesus' Baptism. It is to go where he identifies himself with us and to receive there our identification with him. The point where he anticipates death has now become the point where we anticipate rising again with him. The Baptism that Jesus' disciples have been administering since he spoke those words is an entrance into the Master's own Baptism… That is the way to become a Christian.”

And so baptism is a branding of sort; it is an identification, an initiation, a welcoming.  In the Jordan River, Jesus identified Himself with us in our sinfulness so that in the waters of our baptism, we might be identified with Him in His holiness. In Jesus’ baptism and in our own, we have been united, one with the other; welcomed into the Family of God as a brother or sister of Christ.  When we are baptized, the priest or deacon says these words, “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ.”  In the Jordan, Jesus was clothed in us, taking our sins onto Himself so that He could redeem us on the Cross.  In the baptismal fonts of our Churches, we are clothed in Him – in the hopes that we will live lives worthy of the call; worthy of the name we bear – sons and daughters of God. 

In the Jordan, Jesus stepped into our place.  Today, through the grace of our own baptism, He asks us to do the same.  We must now be the ones to step into the place of Christ and be His presence in our world.  And we step into the place of Christ whenever we extend the same kind of love, kindness, joy, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us – especially in those places where that love is not expected.  Everytime we are peacemakers, we step into the place of Christ in our world; every time we reach out to the homeless, the hungry, those in need, we step into the place of Christ; every time we engage in simple, loving acts of kindness in our world, we step into the place of Christ.

And the more we step into His place, the more likely we are to hear the Father say of us as He said of His Son, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

May God give you peace.

Changing the impossible

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