Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lord, that I may see!


Join me in song for a moment – you all know this one: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” Thank you. I think we might have some new members for the Choir here.

I was blind, but now I see. Our Scriptures today are full of these opposing images – darkness vs. light; blindness vs. sight. "Surely we are not also blind, are we?" is the surprising question that we hear from the Pharisees and it is a question that is meant to resonate in our hearts today as well. Could it be possible that we, too, are blind?

We have a story of Jesus before us today that is functioning on different levels. On the surface is a spectacular story of the power of Jesus; His power to heal. How amazing it must have been to be present and see this scene. Everyone knew this man to be blind all his life. And, now through this dramatic action of mud and saliva, Jesus restores physical sight to the man. And, all are amazed, but the story quickly shifts away from that level to the deeper level.

It is a level that asks a fundamentally spiritual question – where does real blindness exist? Is it merely in the eyes? Or is real blindness in the heart; in the soul? This could easily direct us to a reflection on our sin and on our need to turn to God for forgiveness – especially the forgiveness that is found so powerfully in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In fact, this should be a part of our regular spiritual practice – especially so during Lent.

Maybe you even saw this earlier in the week as our wonderful Pope continues to surprise us. On Friday, he was leading a Reconciliation Service in Rome and when it came time to hear confessions, he was being lead to his confessional by his Master of Ceremonies, when spontaneously, surprising even his MC, the Pope made a mad-dash for another confessional and there the Pope knelt before the priest and himself went to confession. Confession is good for the soul; confession clears the blindness of our hearts. Even Bishops and Priests; and yes, even Pope, needs those healing waters; and no, we can’t absolve ourselves in a mirror! And, here we have the Pope, once again, walking the walk, showing – not merely telling us – what we are called to do; called to be.

Our Scriptures today about blindness could easily simply be a reflection on that reality of sin and an encouragement to confession, but I think they are also calling us to something more. They are calling us to see. They are challenging us to no longer accept the blindness that exists in our lives, but to open the eyes of our hearts and see!

You may have heard of the author John Howard Griffin. He is well known for his book Black Like Me, which describes his experience of living disguised as a black man in the South in the early 1960s during years of bitter racial turmoil. It was also later made into a movie. What is not widely known about Mr. Griffin, though, is that during World War II, he was blinded in an airplane explosion; and he lived for 12 years completely blind. He could not see anything. Then one day, walking down a street near his parent’s home in Texas, he suddenly began to see what he described as “red sand” and without warning his sight returned. A specialist later told him that he had been suffering from a blockage of blood to an optic nerve that had suddenly cleared. Referring to that experience, Griffin told a news reporter, “You can’t imagine what it is like for a father to see his children for the first time. I had constantly pictured them in my mind and then there they were - so much more beautiful that I had ever imagined.”

Blindness, whether physical or spiritual, is also about what we are failing to see. Did you ever stop to realize that the very first words that God speaks in the Bible are these, “Let there be light.” The very first words of God are to make it possible for our eyes to see the beauty of His creation; to see literally His presence that is all around us. When we are spiritually blind – that is really the heart of the matter – we are blind because we have failed to see God who is right in front of us; all around us; speaking to our hearts; speaking to our lives.

Surely, we’re not blind too, are we? That question is meant to echo in our hearts today. And the answer is yes, we are blind to the degree that we fail to see God around us. Can we see Him here, in this Church? Do we see Him present in His Word and Sacrament; in each other? More importantly, what happens when we walk out of those doors? Do we see Him there? In our husbands and wives; in our sons and daughters; in our friends and family and co-workers? How about in the homeless person, the drug addict, the lost and the forsaken? How about the immigrant, the prisoner, the enemy?

Our blindness has not fully been healed until no matter where we look, we see only God; we see only a brother or a sister; we see only the Kingdom.

There, of course, have been so many powerful moments in this first year of Pope Francis – his washing the feet of prisoners on Holy Thursday, his embrace of the young boy with cerebral palsy on Easter Sunday, and the man with the disfiguring skin condition; his joyful experience with the young boy who would not leave his side; his mad-dash to the confessional on Friday. His eyes are open to the presence of God all around us; and I think each of these actions of his are meant to help open our eyes to that same presence of God in our lives. Let there be light. Let us see the light. Let us be the light.

Surely, we are not blind too, are we? Let us today invite God to shine His light on any blindness in our lives; to heal any blind spots in our hearts; any places where we can’t see Him. And let us hear the words of St. Paul meant for us, “Brothers and sisters: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.”

"Lord that we may see."

Join me again, won’t you? “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.”

May God give you peace!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

"Jesus, You are enough for me."


Murphy and his two brothers would meet at the end of each work day and the local pub to share a pint. This was their tradition. But, then, each of the brothers got great jobs overseas, one moving to Australia, the other to America. But, they made a pact to continue their tradition. Wherever they were in the world, they would go into a local pub and order three pints – one for themselves and one for each of their brothers. Murphy continued this tradition every day for months and years and even became known as Three Pints Murphy. But, then one day, he walked into the pub, sat down at the bar and said, “I’ll have two pints.” Concerned, the bartender leaned in and said, “My gosh, Murph. What’s happened? Has one of your brothers died? You only ordered two pints!” Murphy brushed him aside and said, “Oh, no, my brothers are just fine. It’s just….I’ve given up drinking for Lent.”

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” When I was 16 years old, I spent a summer working on an apple and peach orchard in a neighboring town. I really enjoyed the work - it was an outdoors job, and although hard physical work, it was a lot of fun. But, it got pretty hot after 8-10 hours in the sun in July pruning trees or picking fruit. After a few hours in the sun, I would drink an ice-cold Coke in a few seconds flat. But, it didn’t take many days on that job to start realizing that I would be thirsty very quickly after; in fact, even more thirsty than the first time. The reason of course is all the sodium (salt) in soda that was just absorbing the fluid as quickly as it went in. The soda was not satisfying my thirst in the hot summer sun – it was just leaving me even more thirsty.

We all know what it is like to thirst, but the more important thirsts in life aren’t the physical ones, but the spiritual ones we encounter. Our Scriptures remind us today that we don’t always look to the best source when it comes to satisfying our spiritual thirsts.

We find many references to the spiritual life as a thirst for God in the Old Testament. Psalm 42 says, “As the deer longs for running streams, so my soul thirsts for the living God.” From Isaiah we hear God say, “Come to me, all you who are thirsty.” Jeremiah compared God to “a spring of cool water.” We all feel a thirst for God. It isn’t new. It is the same inner thirst that people have experienced since the beginning of time. The great Church father, St. Augustine explained it this way, “Our hearts are made for God, and they will not rest, until they rest in Him.” Another way of saying this is that we have a God-shaped hole in our hearts that only God can fill.

And this is the dilemma of our times. We spend our time trying to fill that God-shaped hole with things other than God. We try and quench our spiritual thirst for God with things that can never get the job done. The human heart has an intrinsic thirst for God; for spiritual things. But, in our world today, instead of satisfying it with God’s presence, we try and satisfy it with material things. Trying to satisfy the thirst for God with materialism is like trying to satisfy a physical thirst with a can of Coca Cola or a glass of salt water. The more we drink, the thirstier we get.

The point is that worldly success alone, leaves us empty; leaves us thirsty. There is something inside us that cannot be satisfied by material things. St. Augustine called it spiritual restlessness. Others have called it an absence of meaning; or an inner void. But, it all comes down to the same thing. In every human heart there is a thirst no water can quench. There is a restlessness no success can satisfy. There is a void that no material object can ever fill.

And this is the Good News that Jesus shares in today’s Gospel as He encounters the woman at the well. The symbolism in our passage is there to remind us that Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the thirst in our hearts. Numbers are often significant in biblical interpretation. According to the biblical symbolism of numbers, six is a number of imperfection, of lack, of deficiency. The woman in her sixth marriage is, therefore, in a situation of lack and deficiency. Seven, on the other hand, is a number of perfection, completion, finality and sufficiency. Jesus comes to this woman as the seventh man in her life. She opens up to Him and finally experiences the satisfaction of all of her soul's desiring, the full quenching of her spiritual thirst.

Why does Jesus make such a tremendous impact on the woman? Because for the first time in her life she meets a man who really understands her. In her excitement she forgets her water jar and physical thirst and runs back to the village inviting the villagers to come and see “a man who told me everything I have ever done” - probably the first man to know her so well without rejecting her. Before you know it the convert has become the missionary bringing others to Jesus and to the joyful experience of faith.

Isn't this the kind of experience we wish for ourselves during Lent? Jesus offers us the same satisfaction as He does the woman at the well. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.”

Jesus, and Jesus alone, can calm the restlessness of our souls. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can satisfy the thirst in our hearts. Jesus, and Jesus alone, can fill the void in our lives. Jesus is the Son of God, who has come to fill that God-shaped hole in each of us. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, who has come to calm that restlessness of our hearts. Jesus is the water from heaven, who has come to satisfy that spiritual thirst we feel.

Or more succinctly, as St. Francis of Assisi said, “Jesus, You are enough for me.” You are all that I need. Lord Jesus, You are the life-giving water for which we thirst. You are the happiness and success for which we strive. You are the peace and joy for which we search. Lord Jesus, our hearts were made for You, and they will not rest until they rest in You.

Let us turn to Jesus alone to satisfy our thirsty hearts. He is enough for us.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

St. Joseph's Fiat | You can say "yes" too!

We hear in Saint Matthew's Gospel, "Joseph her husband...was a righteous man...When Joseph awoke,he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him."  We don't hear too much about Joseph in the Gospels.  We know he is righteous; often called just.  We know that he was obedient, doing what the Lord commanded him through the angel.  We have these vignettes in the life of St. Joseph that have too often left us with an impression of this great saint that is captured well by the beautiful statues of him that adorn our churches, chapels and homes - stony, old and silent.

And yet, this can't be the totality of this great saint.  After all, St. Joseph is not merely window dressing for the Incarnation.  He not an after-thought of the Revelation of Jesus Christ.  Joseph is as central to the plan of the Incarnation as is Mary; as is Jesus Himself.

Appreciating the fullness of Joseph, I think, begins with shedding the statuary and embracing the man.  I came across the following segment of an article written about St. Joseph by another hero of mine, Venerable Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who himself is getting closer on his road towards canonization.  Somehow, I had never seen this article before, but was enthralled when I saw this shared by someone else online.  Look at the image of the Saint painted by Bishop Sheen:
That brings us to the second interesting question concerning Joseph. Was he old or young? Most of the statues and pictures which we see of Joseph today represent him as an old man with a gray beard, one who took Mary and her vow under his protection with somewhat the same detachment as a doctor would pick up a baby girl in a nursery. We have, of course, no historical evidence whatever concerning the age of Joseph. Some apocryphal accounts picture him as an old man; Fathers of the Church, after the fourth century, followed this legend rather rigidly. The painter, Guido Reni, did so
when he pictured Joseph as an old man with white hair.

But when one searches for the reasons why Christian art should have pictured Joseph as aged, we discover that it was in order better to safeguard the virginity of Mary. Somehow, the assumption had crept in that senility was a better protector of virginity than adolescence. Art thus, unconsciously, made Joseph a spouse, chaste and pure by age, rather than by virtue. But this is like assuming that the best way to show that a man would never steal is to picture him without hands; it also forgets that old men can have unlawful desires, as well as young men. It was the old men in the garden who tempted Susanna. But more than that, to make Joseph out as old portrays for us a man who had little vital energy left, rather than one who, having it, kept it in chains for God’s sake and for His holy purposes. To make Joseph appear pure only because his flesh had aged is like glorifying a mountain stream that has dried. The Church will not ordain a man to his priesthood who has not his vital powers. She wants men who have something to tame, rather than those who are tame because they have no energy to be wild. It should be no different with God. Furthermore, it is reasonable to believe that Our Lord would prefer, for a foster father, someone who had made a sacrifice rather than someone who was forced to it. There is the added historical fact that the Jews frowned on a disproportionate marriage between what Shakespeare calls “crabbed age and youth”; the Talmud admits a disproportionate marriage only for widows or widowers. Finally, it seems hardly possible that God would have attached a young mother, probably about sixteen or seventeen years of age, to an old man. If He did not disdain to give His Mother to a young man, John, at the foot of the Cross, then why should He have given her an old man at the crib? A woman’s love always determines the way a man loves: she is the silent educator of his virile powers. Since Mary is what might be called a “virginizer” of young men as well as women, and the greatest inspiration of Christian purity, should she not logically have begun by inspiring and virginizing the first youth whom she had probably ever met – Joseph, the Just? It was not by diminishing his power to love, but by elevating it, that she would have her first conquest, and in her own spouse, the man who was a man, and not a mere senile watchman!

Joseph was probably a young man, strong, virile, athletic, handsome, chaste, and disciplined; the kind of man one sees sometimes shepherding sheep, or piloting a plane, or working at a carpenter’s bench. Instead of being a man incapable of loving, he must have been on fire with love. Just as we would give very little credit to the Blessed Mother if she had taken her vow of virginity after having been an old maid for fifty years, so neither could we give much credit to a Joseph who became her spouse because he was advanced in years. Young girls in those days, like Mary, took vows to love God uniquely, and so did young men, of whom Joseph was one so preeminent as to be called the “just.” Instead, then, of being dried fruit to be served on the table of the King, he was rather a blossom filled with promise and power. He was not in the evening of life but in its morning, bubbling over with energy, strength, and controlled passion.”
I love this image of Saint Joseph that Bishop Sheen presents.  A man who is strong and virile; who is chaste and displined; who is a model of faith; not a model of silence and diminishment.  After all, although when we focus on the story of the Incarnation, we tend to look at Mary's fiat, at Mary's "yes" to the Angel's request - "Let it be done to me according to Your Word" we can lose sight of the fact that Mary's "yes" wasn't the only "yes."  Joseph said "yes" too.

As Jesus enters the world, He does so because both Mary and Joseph said yes to God's plan for the salvation of the world.  Jesus enters the world through this first domestic church; the domestic church that is the Holy Family of Joseph and Mary that welcomes Jesus; that welcomes God; that welcomes salvation.  And, this doesn't happen on the basis of Mary's "yes" alone; it happens on the basis of the faith and courage of both she and her blessed spouse, Saint Joseph.

Sometimes, we can be tempted to look at the "yes" of the Blessed Mother and it can feel a bit distant to us because we might feel that she had a spiritual advantage that we don't enjoy - we might feel it was easier for her to say yes because she didn't have the weight of Original Sin to contend with as God asked of her this great mission.  Now, I don't want to feed into that line of thought because, Mary's "yes" was not made easier in any way - she knew how difficult the task ahead was and her yes was just as real and powerful and free.  But, it is a matter of our perception.

So for those of us who might have that perception, today we have placed before us Good Saint Joseph, one like us, who did not share in that spiritual grace of an immaculate conception, and yet, still had the courage and the faith to say "yes" to God's plan - no matter how radical that plan might have seemed at the time. Joseph did as the Lord commanded.

We are reminded today, on his day, that this is all that the Lord asks of us.  When the Lord reveals His plan for our lives - whether through the drama of an Angel, or through the more ordinary circumstances of our daily lives - that just like Mary and just like Joseph, we can say "yes" too.  Say "yes" to God's plan, say "yes" to God's call, say "yes" to wherever it is that God leads.  It can change the world - it will change your world.

St. Joseph, patron of the universal church, pray for us!

Dusty shoes and staying close to the "little ones" | A Year of Pope Francis

Last night (March 18), our own Archbishop Sean Patrick Cardinal O'Malley, OFM Cap., spoke to a crowd estimated at 3,000 for a panel symposium celebrating the one year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis at Loyola University in Baltimore.  Cardinal Sean, of course, is the only American prelate to be serving on the Pope's Council of Eight Cardinals and so his reflection is a key insight. This is worth your time. - FT

Friday, March 14, 2014

Called to luminosity!


Moses, Jesus and an old man in a flowing white robe went golfing one day. Moses went first and hit the ball. It landed in the water trap, so Moses parted the water and chipped the ball onto the green. Next, Jesus hit the ball. It also landed in the water trap, so Jesus walked on the water and chipped the ball onto the green. Finally, the old man hit the ball. It also headed for the water trap. But, just before it fell into the water, a fish jumped up and grabbed the ball in its mouth. As the fish fell, an eagle swooped down and grabbed it in its claws. The eagle flew over the green where a lightning bolt shot from the sky, startled it and it dropped the fish. As the fish hit the ground, the ball popped out of its mouth and rolled into the hole for a hole-in-one. Jesus shrugged His shoulders, turned to the old man and said, “Now Dad, if you don't stop showing off, we won't bring you next time.”

We heard in our Gospel today that Jesus “was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” Take a moment to take in that sight. What must it have been like for the disciples to see something so incredible – Jesus is transfigured, glorified, wrapped in the mantle of God’s wonder – all in the sight of three simple fishermen, Peter, James and John? For them, this moment of Transfiguration was a defining moment in their lives. Up until now, they had seen Jesus in normal, everyday ways. He had not yet really revealed His divinity. But, in this moment they saw Jesus in a new and spectacular way; they experienced this miraculous presence of Moses and Elijah. They heard most wondrously the very voice of God echoing from Heaven, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” And, from this moment, everything was different. From this moment, they began to see Jesus in a different light.

And it was an experience they would never forget. We know this from the Second Letter of Peter, where St. Peter writes, “With our own eyes we saw his greatness. We were there when he was given honor and glory by the Father, when the voice came to him from the Supreme Glory, saying, ‘This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased!’ We ourselves heard this voice coming from heaven, when we were with him on the holy mountain.” That letter was written 35 years after the resurrection; shortly before St. Peter would also be crucified. He remembered that moment until the very end.

And, while we may not have had quite the experience that Peter, James and John did; hopefully, we too have had some experience of transfiguration in our own lives. Hopefully, we have also had moments when, even for a split second, we seem to glimpse a reality beyond this one. These are moments when for an instant we see beyond the ordinary to something extraordinary - God’s true presence in our midst.

For me, the Eucharist is this moment of transfiguration par excellence. We gather in this church around this simple table and present mere bread and wine. And just as amazingly as on that mountain, it is transformed in our midst; transfigured into the very living presence of God. We begin with elements that are common, ordinary, mundane. We end up with something heavenly, extraordinary and miraculous. If our hearts and our spirits are well enough attuned; if we listen carefully, we too may hear a heavenly voice say, “This bread and this wine are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

The problem is that too often we don’t believe these experiences are real. Perhaps we close our selves off to the heavenly realm – only allowing ourselves to accept what can be seen, touched and verified. How sad this is. The reality is that Jesus is constantly revealing Himself to us. When our eyes our opened we begin to see that we live in a near constant state of Transfiguration. But, we are usually too busy or otherwise occupied to notice. We have stopped our hearts from hearing Him; seeing Him; allowing ourselves to ascend that mountain.

There is a story in the life of Blessed Mother Teresa when the BBC wanted to film her and her sisters at a shelter that they ran for the dying in the slums of Calcutta. The shelter where they brought the TV crew only had small windows at the top of high walls. It was very poorly lit inside and the crew hadn’t brought any portable lights with them. They thought it would be impossible to get any usable footage, but someone suggested that they film anyway. To everyone’s surprise, the footage turned out to be spectacular. The whole interior of the shelter was bathed in a mysterious warm light. The camera crew said that it was impossible to explain. Writing about this, one journalist said, “Mother Teresa’s shelter is overflowing with love. One senses this immediately on entering. This love is luminous, like the halos artists make visible around the heads of saints. I find it not at all surprising that this luminosity should register on film.”

My friends, this is the heart of transfiguration – a recognition of Jesus and His divinity in our midst. But, it isn’t just Jesus who becomes transformed and transfigured. He invites us to become transfigured too. Jesus is calling us all today to leave this world behind; to ascend the holy mountain. He wants us to leave our earthly distractions that keep us from seeing His presence all around us. He wants to take us up to a high mountain alone with Him as he did with Peter, James and John. He calls us to shed the things that blind us from being witnesses to His miraculous presence all around us – so powerfully in the Eucharist, but also in our families, among our friends, in the faces of the homeless, the poor, the needy – everywhere we look. Jesus is there if only our eyes are opened.

And then, like Moses and Elijah and Jesus Himself on that mountain, like Blessed Mother Teresa and her sisters in that shelter, we are called to be a light in the darkness of our world; we are called to let our faith be luminous. This Lent is a time to stoke once again the flames of our faith so that we might see Jesus more clearly all around us; and reflect what we see more brightly to all we meet.

I can’t end today without mentioning our beloved Pope Francis who celebrated the one year anniversary of his election on Thursday. He, of course, is another powerful example of faithful luminosity. So let me end with a quote from him. He wrote – Tweeted actually – “A Christian is never bored or sad. Rather, the one who loves Christ is full of joy and radiates joy.” Let your love for Christ shine!

May the Lord give you peace.

The quotable Pope Francis

NOTE: As we continue to mark the one year anniversary of Pope Francis, here is a look through some of the signature quotes over this last year.  These are just a sampling, to say the least. - FT

“How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor!”

“Priests must be shepherds with the smell of the sheep.”

“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! Even the atheists. Everyone!”

“We have fallen into a “globalization of indifference.”

“Who am I to judge?”

“I want things messy and stirred up in the church. I want the church to take to the streets!”

“I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.”

“The papal apartment is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight.”

“I see the Church as a field hospital after battle.”

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

“God never tires of forgiving us.”

“The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent.”

“I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life.”

“An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.”

“I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.”

“Mercy is the greatest of all virtues.”

“The confessional must not be a torture chamber.”

“The Church is not a tollhouse.”

“I beg you bishops, avoid the scandal of being airport bishops!”

“We need to promote a culture of encounter.”

“Mary, a woman, is more important than bishops.”

“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?”

At Lampedusa: “The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Happy Anniversary Pope Francis - Ad multos annos!!

In his first year, Pope Francis has been an incredible breath of fresh air to the Church and the world!  He has been the "rock star" Pope on the covers of countless world magazines, notably Time Magazine, Rolling Stone and surprisingly, The Advocate's Man of the Year.

He has captured our hearts through images from the first moments of his papacy as he bowed before the world and asked for our prayers, to his washing the feet of prisoners (some of them non-Catholic, some
of them women) on Holy Thursday, to his embracing the young boy with cerebral palsy in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday to the man with a disfiguring skin condition, to the other young boy who stole his chair and would not leave his side.

And, he has certainly captured our hearts through is words. This is a quotable Pope. I know in my religious community, it has become almost a joke that now a homily isn't a homily unless at some point the preacher says, "Well, you know, I was reading what Pope Francis said this morning about these readings, and..." He is a quotable Pope.

We all know the most famous ones:

  • "Who am I to judge?" 
  • "How I would like a church that is poor and that is for the poor."  
  • "Be shepherds with the 'smell of the sheep'." 
  • "God never tires of forgiving us."
  • "Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven."
  • "That some homeless people freeze to death on the street, that is not news. On the other hand, a drop of 10 points in the stock markets is a tragedy. That is how people are thrown away."
  • "I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds.”
  • We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible...The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently."
These are just to name a very few in a truly spectacular year.  I thought today, as we all mark this important one year anniversary, I would share my favorite quote of our beloved Holy Father.  It comes from a daily homily that he gave on, not surprisingly, the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle back on July 3.  It touched me deeply, but also I think it is one of the best indications of the kind of Church he dreams of, the kind of followers of Christ the Pope prays that we all will be. This is what a "church that is poor and that is for the poor" would look like.  I hope you enjoy it.
Jesus after the Resurrection, appears to the apostles, but Thomas is not there: "He wanted him to wait a week" - said Pope Francis - "The Lord knows why he does such things. And he gives the time he believes best for each of us. He gave Thomas a week. " Jesus reveals himself with his wounds: "His whole body was clean, beautiful, full of light" - said the Pope - "but the wounds were and are still there" and when the Lord comes at the end of the world, "we will see His wounds". In order to believe Thomas wanted to put his fingers in the wounds. 
"He was stubborn. But the Lord wanted exactly that, a stubborn person to make us understand something greater. Thomas saw the Lord, was invited to put his finger into the wounds left by the nails; to put his hand in His side and he did not say, 'It's true: the Lord is risen'. No! He went further. He said: 'God'. The first of the disciples who makes the confession of the divinity of Christ after the Resurrection. And he worshiped Him”. 
"And so" - continued the Pope - "we understand what the Lord’s intention was when he made him wait: he wanted to guide his disbelief, not to an affirmation of the Resurrection, but an affirmation of His Divinity. The path to our encounter with Jesus-God are his wounds. There is no other." 
"In the history of the Church there have been some mistakes made on the path towards God. Some have believed that the Living God, the God of Christians can be found on the path of meditation, indeed that we can reach higher through meditation. That's dangerous! How many are lost on that path, never to return. Yes perhaps they arrive at knowledge of God, but not of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. They do not arrive at that. It is the path of the Gnostics, no? They are good, they work, but it is not the right path. It’s very complicated and does not lead to a safe harbor." 
"Others thought that to arrive at God we must mortify ourselves, we have to be austere and have chosen the path of penance: only penance and fasting. Not even these arrive at the Living God, Jesus Christ. They are the Pelagians, who believe that they can arrive by their own efforts." 
"But Jesus tells us that the path to encountering Him is to find His wounds. We find Jesus’ wounds 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." 
"'Oh, great! Let's set up a foundation to help everyone and do so many good things to help '. That's important, but if we remain on this level, we will only be philanthropic." 
"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, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.
Pope Francis concluded that we do not need to go on a “refresher course” to touch the living God, but to enter into the wounds of Jesus, and for this "all we have to do is go out onto the street. Let us ask St. Thomas for the grace to have the courage to enter into the wounds of Jesus with tenderness and thus we will certainly have the grace to worship the living God. "
Today, on this one year anniversary of his election, the Pope has once again asked for our prayers. His twitter account today asked simply, "Please pray for me." And so we shall.
Lord, source of eternal life and truth,
give to Your shepherd, Pope Francis,
a spirit of courage and right judgement,
a spirit of knowledge and love. 
By governing with fidelity those entrusted to his care
may he, as successor to the apostle Peter and vicar of Christ,
build Your church into a sacrament of
unity, love, and peace for all the world. 
May Saint Ignatius of Loyola and
Saint Francis of Assisi
both inspire and intercede for him. 
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.
May God bless our holy Pope and bless him with many years of health, happiness and holiness as he continues to lead the Church in holiness. Ad multos annos!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Pope in "brown" - Reflections on Year One of the "Franciscan" Papacy

This week, of course, the media is full of reflection on the historic moment that took place on March 13, 2013, a year ago tomorrow, as Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped out onto the balcony of St. Peter's in Vatican City and bowed before the world to ask for our prayers as he began his papacy - this remarkable papacy of Pope Franics. He was, at that moment, a virtual unknown to most of the world - even to most of the Church world.  And, now one day shy of a year later, he is the most famous man in the world.  He has taken the Church and the world by storm.

There have been countless wonderful stories looking back on this incredibly year of Pope Francis and hopeful speculation about the years ahead and what more we can expect.  But, I think it's also helpful for us to take a moment to remember a year ago today or so - another wonderful moment in the Church which was the interregnum between Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis - that incredible moment of expectation.

Pope Francis, by the way, isn't the only one who took the world by storm.  If Pope Francis has stormed the world, just weeks before, on February 28, 2013, Pope Benedict took the world's breath away with the nearly unprecedented news that he would step down from the Chair of Peter; that he would set aside the Petrine ministry and enter into a new service to the Church through a "life dedicated to prayer."  That moment was so new, that all bets were off, opening the door for anything to happen.

So, on this day, a year ago, who were you rooting for?  As the Cardinals entered the Sistine Chapel for another day of Conclave, who did you think would emerge onto that balcony.  I know that I had two hoped-for front runners.  My hopes were on Oscar Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, SDB, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, longtime friend of the poor; and my other prime candidate was a bit closer to home here in Boston, our own Franciscan Sean Patrick Cardinal O'Malley, OFM Cap., Archbishop of Boston.

I even wrote about this on my blog which was picked up by the Jesuit journal America Magazine in a post I called "A Pope in Brown" speculating on what an O'Malley papacy might look like.  Here was some of what I wrote:
"Imagine for a moment what a sign to the Church and to the world, if after those auspicious words are heard ringing out from the balcony of St. Peter's, 'Habemus papam!', 'We have a Pope!'; imagine, as the world waits to see who was elected that, not a man clad uncomfortably in a while outfit that only somewhat fits steps out, but instead a man wearing his simple, worn Franciscan habit stood there instead. Can you imagine what an image and message that would be? Sometimes it is the simplest actions that can change everything. A an unexpected Pope who says, 'Let's call a Council to bring the Fresh Air of the Holy Spirit into the Church.' A Pope who shocks the world by saying, 'I'm 86 years old. I have done what was mine to do. The Church belongs to Christ. It is time for me to resign.' These seemingly simple actions are like a stone dropped on the calm surface of a pond that leave thousands of ripples in their wake. What ripples would be made by a Pope in brown? Not in white. Not wearing Prada. Not draped in gold vestments. Instead in a simple brown habit and sandals and echoing the words of the founder of his Order saying, 'My brothers and sisters, let us begin again.'"
"Imagine the new sense of humility and service that could emanate from a Church whose leader decided to put aside the trappings of royalty and embrace the clothing of a simple, Franciscan friar - as he has done his whole life - and lead from there. Imagine a Pope who smiles and tells jokes and is in his heart a pastor of souls. Imagine what a Pope in brown could do?"
Now, a year later, the Conclave of course didn't choose Cardinal Sean as Pope, but they certainly did choose someone who embodied all that I hoped for. They certainly did choose a man whose heart is the heart of the Holy Man of Assisi himself.  A Pope in a brown habit would have been a wonderful external, but even more we have gotten a Pope who is in his heart-of-hearts connected with the spirit of St. Francis in such a profound way that we are lucky enough to be living in a new Franciscan age; one that invites us into the same profound conversion of life and heart that Il Poverello invited believers into more than eight centuries ago.

A year ago, my heart was full of hope and expectation at what might be.  Today, my heart is full of joy and appreciation for the year that has been and looking forward with excitement to where God may take us together with Him in the days ahead.  Being believers and followers of Christ is exciting and dangerous and wondrous and more amazing than anyone could ever imagine.

Let us pray for Pope Francis and his leadership of our Church and let us ask God to give each of us the same courage, trust and faith to follow the Gospel wherever it may lead.

Many points of praise for pope’s first year | Boston Globe

By John L. Allen Jr. | Boston Globe | March 12, 2014

One year ago Thursday, a relatively obscure prelate from Argentina made his debut as the new leader of the world’s oldest Christian church, stepping out onto the fabled balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square and joking that his brother cardinals had gone to “the end of the earth” to find a pope.

For an institution legendary for taking itself rather seriously, that flash of humor alone communicated that this wasn’t going to be your grandfather’s kind of pontiff.

By taking the name Francis, the new pope awakened images of St. Francis, the beloved poor man of Assisi. He then knelt to ask the crowd to pray for him before imparting his official blessing, seemingly inaugurating a new era of papal humility.

It was, as we know now, only the beginning.

In the year since, Pope Francis has electrified the world with his taste for the improbable: his spurning of the papal apartment, his resolutely informal personal style, his startling words, such as his instantly immortal “Who am I to judge?” line on gays. He’s popular at the Catholic grass roots and may be the most celebrated pontiff ever in non-Catholic venues, and even some secular circles where criticism of the papacy is much more common than praise.

Symbolically, Francis, 77, has changed the narrative about Catholicism. Substantively, he has taken bold steps toward reform and reoriented the church toward the political and cultural center after years of a perceived drift toward ever more hardline stands.

For all those reasons, the full measure of his impact so far runs well beyond the power structure of the Catholic Church.

Despite that point — or, perhaps, precisely because of it — many observers can’t help wondering what the 114 cardinals who thrust this maverick onto the Throne of Peter are thinking today.

It’s a matter of more than historical interest, because it touches on whether Francis will succeed or fail in institutionalizing his vision. If his most senior advisers aren’t on board, the odds get a lot longer.

The Boston Globe spoke to a dozen cardinals from various parts of the world in late February and early March. Based on that unscientific sample, reaction seems a mix of satisfaction and astonishment. While some admit to elevated blood pressure levels, there appears to be little buyer’s remorse — in part because having a popular pope simply makes their lives easier.

Never expected a rock star
Few cardinals anticipated the way in which the new pontiff would capture the imagination of the world, or how quickly he would do it.

Asked if he would have predicted a year ago that the new pope would enjoy astronomic approval ratings and grace the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, vice president of the US bishops’ conference, could scarcely have been more definitive. “No, no, and no,” he told the Globe.

The pope has electrified the world with his informal personal style.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York amplified the point.

“We knew we were electing a man of the poor, and we knew we were electing a good manager,” Dolan said. “We had no idea we were electing a rock star.”

Dolan’s experience is typical of many churchmen. He reports that when he does media interviews today, the questions generally aren’t about pedophile priests, crackdowns on nuns, or bruising political fights inside the Vatican.

Instead, they’re largely adulatory inquiries about the new pontiff.

Cardinals also say that politicians and diplomats are less inclined to be hostile to church interests, because no one wants to be on the wrong side of a popular pope, and that when they mingle at the grass roots, even outside the confines of the church, they generally find delight.

DiNardo said one prominent Evangelical leader in Houston recently told him, “I feel like he’s our pope too.” Dolan said he can’t move in New York’s Jewish circles without hearing, “We love this pope!”

To be sure, not all is a surprise. Much that Francis has done tracks what the cardinals expected of him.

For example, they were familiar with Francis’ reputation in Argentina as a bishop close to the poor, a key quality in a church in which two-thirds of its 1.2 billion followers live in the developing world. They also knew that in terms of nuts-and-bolts administration, Jorge Mario Bergoglio profiled as a leader who gets things done.

“We knew he was a man of the social gospel, and we also knew he was a take-charge person,” said Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, summing up the book the cardinals had on Bergoglio heading into the conclave.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who heads a Vatican office for justice and peace concerns, said he’d met Bergoglio during a trip to Argentina before his election and was struck by how “austerely” the Argentine prelate dressed and how he carried himself without any pomp.

“I couldn’t have anticipated the details of what he’s doing,” Turkson said, “but I can’t say I’m completely surprised.”

Not just a matter of style

Immediately after Francis’ election, the question was whether his impact would turn out to be more in style than substance. Dolan tells a story from those early days that hinted at an answer.

“We were getting ready for Mass the morning after his election, and Francis came in carrying his own alb and just plopped down to get dressed,” Dolan said, referring to a white garment priests wear during services.

Vatican mandarins, Dolan recalled, swarmed around the new pontiff and began issuing instructions about the ceremony. Francis gently, but firmly, swatted them away.

“ ‘That’s okay,’ Dolan quoted the new pope saying, ‘I’ve been saying Mass for fifty years. We’ll be fine.’ The clear message was, ‘I know what I’m doing.’ ”
As a cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio traveled on the subway in Buenos Aires and mingled with the poor.

After twelve months, that flash of gritty self-assurance seems prophetic. On hard matters of policy, Francis has moved farther and faster than even his most enthusiastic backers anticipated.

For instance, Francis recently triggered a Vatican uproar by creating a new Secretariat for the Economy, giving it full power to impose fiscal discipline and to police transparency and accountability.

To run it he named Cardinal George Pell, a tough-as-nails Australian who’s one of the few senior churchmen viewed as having not only the vision but the spine to overhaul deeply entrenched patterns of doing business.

While money management may not have the media appeal of inviting homeless men, as Francis did, to a birthday breakfast, it’s hard to imagine anything a pope could do more challenging to the old guard.

“Nobody could have predicted he would strike such a chord with the world,” Pell told the Globe, “and many Italians probably never anticipated that he would reform the financial system.”

Not a right-winger
For many Princes of the Church, the real revelation about Francis is that he’s not quite the doctrinal conservative they thought they were electing. Outside a small circle of fellow Argentinians who knew Bergoglio well, the sense of the Buenos Aires prelate’s ideological leanings was based largely on two elements of his biography.

First was a falling out within his Jesuit order in the 1970s over liberation theology, a current in Latin American Catholicism that sought to place the church on the side of the poor. Mostly because he feared that it might drive Catholics into endorsing armed rebellion, such as the Montoneros guerrilla movement in Argentina, Bergoglio was ambivalent.

Second, Bergoglio engaged in a high-profile standoff with Argentina’s leftist government under President Cristina Kirchner in 2010 when the country became the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage over the vigorous opposition of the church.

As pope, however, Francis has profiled largely as a moderate, declaring in a September interview that “I’ve never been a right-winger.”

While not, he insists, changing doctrine, he has struck a more merciful stance vis-à-vis the church’s traditional teaching, and has opened the door to debate on matters such as permitting Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment to return to the sacraments.

In a recent interview with the Italian paper Corriere della Sera and the Argentine daily La Nacion, Francis also stopped short of blanket opposition to civil unions for same-sex couples, saying “the different cases have to be evaluated in their diversity.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, admits that there have been times when the pope’s almost casual rhetorical turns and his spirit of openness have created heartburn.

“There have been things which are hard to explain,” Collins said, referring specifically to one of the headlines from an October interview Francis granted to a left-wing Italian paper: “God is not a Catholic.”

Still, Collins said, when he reads the full text of what Francis has said, as opposed to sound bites, he generally finds nothing to worry about.

“You read the whole text and it’s great,” Collins said. “You may have to work a little harder to get the proper context, but it’s always there.”

DiNardo said the new pope’s informality and lack of pretense have taken some getting used to. He told a story of being at a two-day meeting of cardinals with the pope in Rome in late November, and turning around during a crowded coffee break to find Francis standing in line for a cup like everybody else.

“You’re both shocked and embarrassed, but he has told people this is what he wants,” DiNardo said, adding that some of his more traditionally minded brother cardinals find it a bit much.

“Some would say, isn’t it wise that the pope has a certain precedence?” he said. “They miss those signs of affection and respect for the office.”

Still, DiNardo said, Francis’ relaxed style by no means suggests ambivalence about his power or his will to use it.

“I’ve never known a pope, if he really thinks he has to use his universal jurisdiction, who’s been afraid to use it,” DiNardo said. “This guy’s not afraid at all.”

Few anxious to go back
Reading between the lines of these conversations, the impression is that whatever reservations some cardinals may feel, few are anxious to turn back the clock.

Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, for instance, is the primate of Quebec, widely viewed as perhaps the most thoroughly secularized pocket of North America. Yet even there, Lacroix said, Francis is a hit.

“The Quebecois love him,” he said.

Lacroix said he’d recently given an interview to a major newspaper often critical of the church. When he was done, he said, the editor in chief told him, “If your pope continues doing what he’s doing, he’s going to get us,” meaning the paper might warm editorially to the church’s approach.

Asked if he would trade such entrée into secular circles for greater doctrinal precision, Lacroix’s response was unambiguous: “Are you kidding me?”

In a similar vein, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster in the United Kingdom said that Francis’ appeal seems to have reached even into corners of British society most hostile to the church.

“Pope Francis has shifted the perceptions of the Catholic Church,” Nichols said. “He’s done it partly through a very deliberate policy of speaking through actions, and it’s hard to argue with actions,” he said.

Outside the West, the enthusiasm may be even greater.

Chibly Langlois, for instance, was one of nineteen new cardinals created by Francis in a February ceremony, and is the first-ever cardinal from Haiti, the most impoverished nation in the Americas.

“The Haitians are a people that need to be helped, maybe, but more than anything, they need to be heard,” Langlois told the Globe. “Pope Francis is making us heard.”

Turkson, of Ghana, said Francis is playing well across Africa, in part because he’s able to translate the church’s concern for the poor into emotional language that resonates with ordinary people, such as when asked a gathering of seminarians if they’ve ever wept for a poor person.

“Lots of Africans feel this is a pope who cares,” Turkson told the Globe.

Despite Francis’ remarkable opening act, some cardinals believe there’s still a raft of unfinished business, that the glow around Francis may yet be tested by some of the major questions ahead.

O’Malley, for instance, said Francis “is aware of how serious” the child sexual abuse scandals have been for the Catholic Church, but added that “I don’t think he has a plan yet for how to deal with it.”

Overall, however, the judgment seems strikingly positive. Even cardinals who admit to being blindsided by some of the pope’s words and actions seem to regard the new lease on life Francis has given the church as a godsend.

“It confirms what we believe, which is that if you open yourself up, the Holy Spirit’s going to act through you,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C.

“It still works.”

John L. Allen Jr. is a Globe associate editor, covering global Catholicism. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter, @JohnLAllenJr, and Facebook, Inés San Martín contributed to this report.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Habemus Papam! One (amazing!) year of Pope Francis | National Catholic Reporter

Gerard O'Connell | Mar. 8, 2014 | National Catholic Reporter
Analysis Rome

Benedict XVI's troubled pontificate ended with his revolutionary resignation on Feb. 28, 2013. Four days later, 150 cardinals gathered in the Vatican for the pre-conclave assemblies to discuss the dramatic state of the church and the daunting challenges facing the new pope.

In the following week, they spoke frankly, expressing profound concern, dismay, even anger at the quagmire in which the Roman Curia was bogged down due to seemingly endless scandals.

They demanded reform, radical reform of the Roman Curia. They wanted someone "to pick up a brush and spade and clean out the muck," one told me. They were looking for a man with the ability to govern the Roman Curia and a church that seemed adrift on the high seas. Above all, an Asian cardinal confided, they were seeking "a man of deep spirituality" whom the followers of other religions would recognize as "a man of God."

Confounding the pundits and inspired by the Holy Spirit, the cardinals in conclave chose the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, the runner-up in the 2005 conclave and the outstanding spiritual leader of the Latin American church. He was elected on a platform for reform, and he knew it.

One year later, Bergoglio's reform is turning out to be much deeper and wider than most, if not all, of his electors had anticipated. England's Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor put it this way: "We all wanted change and reform, but I don't think any of us expected so much fresh air!"

Like Pope John XXIII, who opened the windows of the Vatican to the fresh air of the Second Vatican Council, so too Francis has reopened those same windows to the winds of the Holy Spirit, with results that continue to surprise and inspire.

Bergoglio signaled that reform was in the air immediately after he was elected pope on March 13, by choosing the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi. The saint heard Jesus telling him from the cross to "Go repair my church." The new pope sees his mission in a similar light. He spelled out what his reform entails on Nov. 24, in the inspiring apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"). This is the road map for his pontificate.

His reform is first and foremost a spiritual one. He aims at a conversion of hearts and minds, a change of attitudes, on the part of all who work in the Vatican and in positions of responsibility in the church. At morning Mass in Casa Santa Marta, the Vatican hostel where he lives, Francis delivers challenging, Scripture-based homilies that are the soul of his spiritual-cultural revolution.

The Jesuit pope is not simply advocating reform by words, he is propelling it forward by the striking example of his own humble, prayerful lifestyle, his preferential option for the poor, his vision of an inclusive church "that is poor and for the poor," his promotion of "a culture of encounter" and "rejection of a culture of confrontation," and his effort to discern what the Spirit is saying to the church.

After visiting him last June, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby described Francis as "a man of extraordinary humanity on fire with the Spirit of Jesus." It is this humanity that touches people's hearts, as they watch him embracing people with all kinds of disabilities and infirmities.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis writes that "the conversion of the papacy" is an essential part of his reforming mission. On taking office, he initiated a new style of papal ministry. Rejecting symbols of pomp and circumstance, he presented himself as "bishop of Rome" -- a significant ecumenical act -- and opted to live at Casa Santa Marta and stay close to people.

In the pre-conclave assemblies, Belgium's Cardinal Godfried Danneels and others argued that the new pope could not carry out the reform alone; he would need a group of cardinals to support him. Four days after his election, on March 17, Francis told Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, of his decision to set up a "Council of Cardinals" (eight cardinals, from all continents and the Vatican) to assist him in governing the universal church and reforming the Roman Curia. Francis asked Rodríguez to be coordinator. He consulted these advisers in October, December and February, and plans to do so regularly.

Indeed, he is moving from a monarchical style of church governance to a more collegial mode. "Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the church's life and her missionary outreach," he wrote inEvangelii Gaudium, calling for a "pastoral conversion" of "the central structures of the universal church."

He has reminded Roman Curia offices that their role is to serve the pope and the bishops, not to act as controllers or managers. Decentralization and subsidiarity are integral elements of this reform, as is his proposal to give episcopal conferences a proper juridical status that "would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority." This proposal marks a significant shift from the stance of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who were not keen to grant such a status and authority to episcopal conferences.

Following the Second Vatican Council, Francis is promoting synodality, by giving a greater role to the Synod of Bishops. He knows the synod has not functioned well, and so appointed a new secretary general, Archbishop Lorenzo Baldisseri, and instructed him to radically revamp its working methods.

Concerned at the crisis of the family, Francis convened the extraordinary Synod of Bishops for October 2014. He approved worldwide consultation to gain an accurate picture of Catholic family life today. Significantly, he has arranged that the discussion on the family will be conducted over two synods -- 2014 and 2015, in a new process that Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, special secretary of the 2014 gathering, said mirrors Vatican II, "where important progress was made between the sessions."

A pope's legacy is often characterized by the bishops he appoints. Francis has clear ideas about the kind of bishops he wants. Last June, addressing the nuncios, he listed the criteria for candidates. In December, he changed the membership of the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, which selects bishops for sees throughout the world. He replaced some well-known conservative cardinals like the Americans Raymond Burke and Justin Rigali, the Italians Mauro Piacenza and Angelo Bagnasco (who is president of the Italian bishops' conference), and Antonio Rouco Varela of Spain with moderates like Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia-Città della Pieve, Italy, and Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England. Now, he wants his criteria to become operative in the congregation, so that it chooses bishops who are prayerful men, close to their people, living a simple lifestyle, concerned for the poor, humble men, not careerists, nor those with "the psychology of princes."

He has chosen such men for key posts in the Roman Curia, including Pietro Parolin (secretary of state), Beniamino Stella (prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy), and Fernando Vérgez (secretary-general of the Governatorate of Vatican City State). And in a move to curb careerism, he abolished the title "monsignor" for priests under 65.

On Jan. 12, he initiated another key reform when he named 19 new cardinals, 16 of whom are eligible to vote for the next pope. His aim is to redress the Italian, European and U.S. imbalance in cardinal electors (so evident in recent conclaves), and ensure that the electors truly reflect the church's universality. He also wants to recognize "the church in the peripheries," in countries stricken by poverty, conflict and natural disaster, and so gave red hats to prelates in Haiti, Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and the Philippines. Significantly, he abandoned the tradition of giving red hats to the heads of Italy's nine main dioceses. The impact of this reform could become evident in about five years.

Early on, Francis intervened in the scandal-hit Institute for the Works of Religion (misnamed "the Vatican bank"). Building on Benedict's effort, he moved with rapid determination to bring transparency to the Institute for the Works of Religion and all other Vatican financial sectors. He established three commissions for this purpose, and engaged leading international auditing and consultancy groups to assist in the reform, which he wants completed this year.

As he stated in Evangelii Gaudium, he wants to shift the Catholic church into a missionary mode. As a young Jesuit, he desired to go to Japan, and now as pope, like Matteo Ricci and Francis Xavier, he is reaching out to the peoples of Asia. He plans to visit Korea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and other countries, and hopes to dialogue with China.

Furthermore, he has given new impetus to the Holy See's diplomatic service, and reserves quality time for nuncios. His peace initiative for Syria opened many doors, and catapulted the Holy See back onto the world stage. Francis is likely to build on that by speaking at the United Nations in 2015, when he visits the United States.

In his first year as pope, Francis has energized and inspired Catholics worldwide, and touched the hearts of many outside the church. He enjoys enormous popularity, and the limited resistance to him that surfaced has been trumped by the overwhelmingly positive response of people worldwide.

It remains to be seen whether that resistance increases as Francis carries out reforms in the Roman Curia and the church; confronts those engaged in human trafficking, the arms trade and corruption; and calls for the elimination of hunger and poverty and for a management of the world's economy that puts the human person, not profit, at the center.

Like many others, Germany's Cardinal Walter Kasper believes Francis "has awakened hopes for a new beginning for the church, just as happened after Vatican II." But he is concerned that people may be "overloading" the new pope with "exaggerated expectations" that cannot be fulfilled. Commenting on this in Argentina's best-selling biography Francis: Life and Revolution by Elisabetta Piqué, Kasper reminded everyone: "A new pope can renew the church, but he cannot invent a new church."

[Gerard O'Connell is an Irish-born journalist living in Rome. He has covered the Vatican for almost 30 years for various news outlets, including Vatican Insider. Twitter: @gerryorome.]

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Commanding stones to give us life

There is an Aesop’s Fable that tells about an argument between the wind and the sun about which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his coat shall be regarded as the stronger. You begin.” So the Sun hid behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more tightly the traveler wrapped his coat round him, until at last the Wind gave up. Then the Sun came out and shone gently; getting warmer and warmer upon the traveler, who soon found it too warm to walk with his coat on and took it off.

I was thinking of this fable because it reminded me of what we hear today taking place with Jesus in the desert today. In our Gospel, the Devil is like the wind trying to prove that he is stronger than God. He tempts Jesus in every way he can imagine – wealth, power, fame. But, as in our fable, the Son is stronger. It wasn’t the might of these worldly temptations that won over Jesus, but the gentle persuasion of prayer and fasting that won the day.

Now, while Jesus faced His temptations in the desert, ours usually have a way of finding us. And, I think the Devil’s first temptation gives us a helpful image for understanding our own temptations. The Devil said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.” Stones. Rocks. These are what the Devil wants Jesus to turn to in order to find happiness in life. My brothers and sisters, stones are dead. The Devil has got it all wrong. He wants Jesus to turn to a dead stone – something that is completely lifeless, completely unable to help Him, completely inadequate in making Him truly happy – in order to find satisfaction. The great insight of Jesus in this moment is that He knows only God can give Him true life; only God can give Him true happiness. The Devil wants Jesus to command the dead stone to become life for Him. It is completely ridiculous when you realize what the Devil is doing.

And isn’t that image a little bit too familiar in our own lives? If you think about it, we all have stones in our own life that we stare at commanding them to give us life; we all have equally dead things that we command to make us happy; commanding them to make us popular or successful or wealthy or powerful. These things will never give us life. Perhaps our stone is pride, or a need to be right all the time even to the harm of relationships with family and friends. Perhaps it is a stone of jealousy, failing to be thankful for the blessings that God has bestowed in our lives and instead only coveting what we don’t have; or wanting what others have. Perhaps we seek life from a stone of materialism, a shop-till-you-drop mentality that causes us to simply want and seek more things, all the while blinding ourselves to the needs of the hungry, the homeless, the poor, the sick and the neglected that are all around us. Maybe we look to a stone of food; instead of eating to survive, we instead turn to food to stuff our feelings or feed our guilt. Perhaps it is drugs or alcohol; using these to number ourselves so that we don’t have to feel. Maybe it’s television or video games or the Internet – do we spend more time staring at the box than we do spending time with our families or just as importantly in prayer with our God?

The point is that all of us have stones that we look at; we stare at; that we command to give us life and happiness – some of them are big; some of them are small. But, my brothers and sisters, these rocks are dead. They will never – ever – give us life. Perhaps you’ve come to this recognition in your life – that the stones you have turned to are not providing what they promised? Perhaps you are seeking something truly life giving; something with real meaning; that gives true and lasting happiness?

As always, Jesus has the answer. As always, Jesus IS the answer. My friends, as find ourselves on this first Sunday of our Lenten journey, right here, right now, today in this church, Jesus is inviting us to do something radical – He is inviting us to put our stones down. He wants us to let go of those things that we falsely think will give us happiness, life and peace. All that these stones are successful at doing is binding us, holding us down, stealing our freedom, making us slaves to sin. Jesus wants us instead to put those stones down and journey with Him to a place of true freedom; true happiness; true peace – the fullness of the life He promised us.

So, let me offer three simple actions we can all do this Lent to help us put down our stones and choose the life that Christ invites us into – one personal, one communal and one universal.

First, the personal. You know that even as I share these words, you know what your stone is. God is putting something on your heart the stone He wants you to leave behind. Whatever it is, you know God is calling you to something specific and personal, something that needs to change if you are going to grow in holiness. Whatever this personal thing is, God invites us to surrender it to Him so that we may grow in His sight.

The second thing is communal. During Lent, find some extra time to gather with the community for prayer – maybe come to daily Mass, or to Stations of the Cross, or seek out God’s healing in Confession. The point is, we navigate our life of faith best when we do it together. None of us should make this Lenten journey alone. Let’s travel together towards Easter joy.

And finally something universal. Growing in holiness should always mean growing in the ways we care for others – especially the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the sick and the needy all around us. Lent should help us to focus on others; so find a chance to contribute our time or treasure to the poor, to local charities, to the Church, to the St. Vincent de Paul. Our small sacrifices can have a big impact on the lives of others.

So, these are the things we can do – something personal, something communal, something universal – all of which help us to leave behind the dead stones that weigh us down and live in the true freedom of God.

May we all have a holy season of Lent and may the Lord give you peace.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pope shares anecdotes, talks to priests about mercy, hearing confession

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Because his cassock doesn't have a breast pocket, Pope Francis said he wears a cloth pouch under his white robes to carry the crucifix he took from a deceased priest.

Meeting March 6 with pastors of Rome parishes, Pope Francis said that while he was vicar general of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires he went to pay his last respects to a Blessed Sacrament priest, an extremely popular confessor, who had died in his 90s.

Pope Francis looks on as priests applaud him during a meeting in Paul VI audience hall at the Vatican March 6. (CNS/L'Osservatore Romano)
In the crypt of the church, the priest's body was lying there, but there were no flowers, he said. "I thought, this man forgave the sins of all the clergy of Buenos Aires, including mine, and not a single flower. So I went out to the florist's."

Then, the pope "confessed" that he "started preparing the coffin with the flowers and I looked at the rosary in his hand. Immediately that robber that is in each of us came out and while I arranged the flowers, I picked up the cross of the rosary and with a little effort, I pulled it off. I looked at him and said, 'Give me half of your mercy.'"

He put the crucifix in his breast pocket and carried it there until his election as pope March 13, 2013. "But a pope's shirts don't have pockets," so now he carries it in a cloth pouch under his cassock. "And when I start having a bad thought about someone, I always put my hand here," he said, showing the priests where the crucifix is.

The pope's annual Lenten meeting with Rome pastors focused on the priest's call to be a minister of mercy. While he followed a prepared text, he added comments and anecdotes from his own life and ministry.

Repeating his frequent call to go out into the world and meet people where they are, Pope Francis told the priests that their ministry of mercy, which reaches its highest point in the sacrament of penance, is especially needed by "people who have left the church because they don't want anyone to see their wounds."

"There are many wounded people, people wounded by material problems, by scandals, including scandals within the church," he said.

Pope Francis urged the pastors to devote time to hearing confessions and to avoid being either very lax or very strict.

"It's normal that different confessors have different styles, but these differences cannot be ones of substance, that is, involving healthy moral doctrine and mercy," he said.

Neither the very lax nor the very strict priest witnesses to Christ, because "neither takes seriously the person in front of him," he said. "The rigorist, in fact, nails the person to the law as understood in a cold and rigid way; the indulgent, on the other hand, only appears merciful, but does not take seriously the problems of that person's conscience, minimizing the sin."

Pope Francis said he has some standard questions he asks priests who come to him for counseling, questions he asks himself "when I am alone with the Lord."

The first, he said, is "Do you cry?" Jesus was moved by people who seemed like "sheep without a shepherd," and those in spiritual or physical pain, he said. A priest must be a "man of mercy, compassion, close to his people and the servant of all."

"Aseptic priests -- those who seem like they are working in a laboratory and are all clean and perfect -- don't help the church," he said. The world is messy and filled with people who have been bloodied by the battles of life. "We priests have to be there, close to the people."

The sick, the aged and children, he said, help priests learn to be merciful. "Do you know how to touch them? Or are you embarrassed," the pope asked.

"At the end of time, those who will be allowed to contemplate the glorified flesh of Christ are only those who were not embarrassed to touch the flesh of their injured and excluded brothers and sisters," he said.

Priests, he said, must have the compassion and the strength to "suffer for and with people, like a father and a mother suffer for their children and worry about them."

Pope Francis spoke about another Buenos Aires priest, one who is a little younger than he is and a very popular confessor, who said that whenever he had scruples about forgiving too many people, "I go into the chapel and I tell (Jesus in) the tabernacle, 'Sorry, it's all your fault because I'm just following your example.'"

"That's a beautiful prayer," the pope said.

The pope also asked the priests if they prayed for their people in front of the tabernacle and pleaded with God to spare their parishioners just like Moses and Abraham argued with God to spare their people. Using the Italian word "pantaloni" -- trousers -- Pope Francis said the two Old Testament patriarchs "had guts," and today's priests must as well.


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Saturday, March 1, 2014

Don't worry - be happy!


Some of you may remember this song from the late 1980s: “Here’s a little song I wrote. You might want to
sing it note for note. But don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble, but when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy. Don’t worry, be happy now. Don’t worry, be happy.” My apologies in advance – that song is going to be in your head for the rest of the day. But, Bobby McFerrin was onto something in this song. Many of us worry about many things. We worry about a roof over our heads, how to pay the rent, the many troubles of life. And the song’s prescription for these worries is of course to instead be happy.

Although it may sound a bit simplistic, it is not all that far off from what we hear in our readings today. We hear the Word of God calling us into much the same reality today. There are a chorus of voices encouraging us to leave our worries behind. Why shouldn’t we worry? Isaiah told us because the Lord “will never forget you.” The Psalm told us that God is “our rock and our salvation.” And Jesus says it boldly and directly, “Do not worry about your lives.” In fact, He says it not once, but four times in this brief passage today.

Today’s Gospel is part of the Sermon on the Mount and we cannot help but be challenged by Jesus’ words. On one hand we hear Him saying ‘don’t worry’ and we’re tempted to say, “Well, easy for you Jesus. You had no wife and no kids to worry about; no office hours to keep and no mortgage to pay. Just a carefree life wandering through the beautiful Galilean countryside where it was a heck of a lot warmer than it is here right now.”

But what about the other side of this argument. Isn’t there something incredibly attractive here today? Jesus is offering us an invitation into a life that is not filled with unnecessary anxiety and fruitless worry. Anyone interested in that?

We worry about so many things. War and terrorism; money and the state of the economy; health and healthcare; paying our bills; global warming; whether or not our job is safe; getting into or out of debt. And if we’re not worrying about big things, we’re probably worrying about small things: which shirt should I wear today? Am I going to be late for church – again? Should I have that difficult conversation that I have been avoiding? Did I lock the door on the way out? Did I leave the iron plugged in? If we’re not worrying about ourselves we’re worrying about our children; or our parents; or our friends and neighbors.

It seems that it is in our very nature to worry. We even worry about worrying. Jesus says, “Don’t worry” and now that’s got me worrying – does my worry demonstrate a lack of faith? A failure to trust in God? Am I going to be judged for this?

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that worry is often misdirected and a waste of time. They say that we worry: 40% on things that will never happen; 30% on things in the past that can’t be changed; 12% on criticism by others, mostly untrue; 10% on health; and only 8% on real problems that can be faced.

You have to admit, the invitation is attractive: don’t worry about your life. So, if we’re not worrying, what are we doing? The answer is: we are trusting. We’re called to trust that God has a plan for our lives and that our job is to put Him front and center in our lives so that we can see that plan more clearly. Why worry when you can trust instead?

The answer is that we are doing. We’re called to do in the moment what God would have us do – being kinder to one another; being a presence of love to one another; offering a smile when one is needed; being that God-like presence to all those around us – instead of being tied up in the knots of worry and anxiety. Why worry when you can do something instead?

The answer is that we are hoping. We are called to be a people who are marked by the quality of our hope in God’s goodness; that even when tempted to worry about the challenging moment in our lives – bills, family, struggles, whatever – that we are a people of hope; who live in the firm hope that all things will work for the good; that God will triumph; that we can overcome the challenges we face or at least learn to face them with God and turn them into opportunities for His glory to shine in us and through us. Why worry when you can hope instead?

And how can we be so confident in the midst of our own anxieties to instead act and trust and hope? We heard the answer in our first reading from Isaiah, “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” Our tender and loving God never – ever – forgets us. He is always right here, by our side, in our hearts, surrounding us with His love, filling each moment – even our difficult moments – with His presence. He will never forget us. That’s His promise to each and every one of us. And it is a promise that we can never lose.

So, my brothers and sisters, accept the liberating invitation that Jesus places before us today, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” Let go of the anxiety that can bring us down, tie us up in knots, keep us from being the people God calls us to be. Let it go. Don’t worry. Why worry when you can act; when you can trust; when you can hope?

May the Lord give you peace.

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