Thursday, August 14, 2014

Prayer for Enemies

We often think that in the “good old days” of the early Church there were no conflicts and disagreements. Wrong!  The saints whom we celebrated on August 13 show that strong divisions were part of the early Church. St. Hippolytus was a theologian whose liturgical prayers became the basis of Eucharistic Prayer II in the Roman Missal.  He considered Pope Callistus “soft” on heresy and had himself declared pope, the first “anti-pope” in history.  He continued to oppose Callistus’ successors, Popes Urban I and Pontian. During a persecution in the year 235 Hippolytus and Pontian were both exiled to the mines of Sardinia where they died from the mistreatment they received and hence are considered martyrs or witnesses to the faith.  Tradition has it that Pontian abdicated so that the Church would not be without a shepherd while he was in exile and that the two were reconciled before they died.

How should we deal with conflicts? Jesus gives instructions in Matthew 18: 15-20. He says that if a brother or sister in Christ sins against you, you should first discuss the matter with that person. If you do not receive a hearing, then bring one or two witnesses with you and confront the person. This is similar to what we call an “intervention” today. If the person still refuses to listen and to accept responsibility, then you are to “tell the Church”—go to a higher authority within the Christian community.  And if that doesn’t work, then Jesus says “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” 

This sounds pretty negative.  But remember how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles like the Roman Centurion? He called a tax collector to follow him and he brought mercy and healing to another one, Zacchaeus. He healed the Centurion’s servant and commended that Roman’s great faith.  Jesus loved tax collectors and Gentiles.  Ultimately, he died for them.

Perhaps the way to interpret these words of Jesus is in light of the entire Gospel message which includes the challenge to love our enemies and to pray for them.

Jesus is Mercy Incarnate. The Good News he brought is that God loves us very much. The Son of God suffered, died, and rose not only to bring mercy but to give us the power to forgive as well.  Conflicts are not new but the power to forgive is ever-new and ever-present through Jesus present in the Sacraments.

How should we treat those with whom we are in conflict? Even if the conflict continues, we should "will" their good and pray for them, for their conversion and salvation.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Sisters of Life


I am half way between New York City and Albany at St. Joseph Camp which the Sisters of Life are using for their retreat. I am with Fr. Christopher Collins, S.J., and Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. and we are directing 17 Sisters in their annual eight day retreat.  The Sisters of Life are a new religious congregation which John Cardinal O’Connor of New York City founded on June 1, 1991. 

In a retreat conference, Cardinal O’Connor spoke of the rationale for this new order: “Over the course of hundreds of years Almighty God has inevitably seemed to raise up religious communities to meet the special needs of the day. I am convinced that the crucial need of our day is to restore to all society a sense of the sacredness of human life. Basic to the worst evils of our day is surely a widespread contempt for human life.”

He went on: “Now it seems time for a religious community to pray each day at some length, by way of the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Divine Office, in contemplation before the Blessed Sacrament, in the holy rosary, in various other forms of prayer.  In addition, the community will engage in active ministries which will be an extension of contemplation.”

These Sisters are certainly prayer warriors in the cause of promoting a culture of life, a civilization of love.  Their annual, individually-directed eight day retreat, of which I am blessed to participate, is a prime example of this. 

On the day of their foundation, the Cardinal told them:  “It is your charism to plead for the protection of all human life at every level, with a special focus on those most helpless and unwanted, and to advance a sense of the sacredness of all human life.” 

Cardinal O’Connor told the first Sisters of Life that their consecration was a witness to sacrifice, the antidote to what St. John Paul II called “the culture of death.”  He said: “It will not be through your human persuasion, it will not be through your writings, it will be through your prayer, through your apostolate, through your example of consecrating yourselves that other women will come to understand and will consecrate themselves. It is imperative that you see the relationship between your laying down your life and your encouraging these women to be willing to sacrifice rather than to destroy or permit to be destroyed, the life of their unborn child. This is true not only for the unborn; it is true for all human life, human life which has come to be held in such contempt. The refugees in the Middle East at this moment are enduring unbelievable suffering, not simply because of the war but because the world has accepted this kind of contempt for human life. The world has accepted bombings and artillery fire which, even if destined only against a military adversary, by its nature is going to kill, to maim, to wound, to leave hungry and homeless hundreds of thousands of human beings created in the image and likeness of God.”

Those words were spoken in 1991, but could have been spoken today. Today there are millions “of human beings created in the image and likeness of God” who have been left “hungry and homeless” by war in the Middle East.  During this month of August Pope Francis has asked us to pray in a special way for them and for all refugees.

While reading Cardinal O’Connor’s remarks at the foundation of the Sisters of Life I discovered that another group of Sisters, to whom I gave a retreat acouple years ago, played a significant role in the early life of this new congregation.  They are the ParishVisitors of Mary Immaculate.  The Cardinal placed the early formation of the Sisters of Life in the hands of the Parish Visitors, saying: “I have known you since I was the Bishop of Scranton and Sister Mary played the same guitar for me that she played today. I have admired you. Your lives are contemplative, missionary. That will be the lives that these women will lead. I cannot, and I say this to you sincerely, I cannot think of a congregation anywhere in the world who will give them a better example, who will better model for them our Blessed Mother, who will give them a greater example of devotion to Our Lord and to the service of His people. They will see you as you pray, they will see you in many of your activities. They will learn from you. They will grow rapidly under your care, as Jesus the Christ Child grew in wisdom and grace under the tutelage of His mother and father.” 

The Sisters of Life. The Parish Visitors. One of the blessings of being the director of the Apostleship of Prayer in the U.S. is praying with these consecrated women who are true Apostles of Prayer and who are devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus as they live the Daily Offering. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Mercy and Sacrifice


There is a story that the disciples of Jesus were criticized by the Pharisees for breaking the sabbath when they picked heads of grain and ate them as they walked through a field (see Matthew 12: 1-8, Mark 2: 23-28, Luke 6: 1-5). Jesus defends them by pointing to similar situations in Israel’s history. He also declares that as “Son of Man”—a title that appears in the book of the prophet Daniel (2: 13-14) and that indicates divine kingship—he is Lord of the sabbath. 

In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus declares that the “sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” The sabbath was instituted by God for the sake of justice: so that the human person could give God the worship that is God’s due. It was instituted by God for the sake of human dignity: so that human beings could have the rest and leisure they require and which imitates God whom Genesis said rested on the seventh day after all the work of creation (2: 3).

Matthew has Jesus quoting a verse from the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6: 6). What is translated here as “mercy” is also the word “love.”  God wants love and mercy and not the empty sacrificial rituals that Hosea inveighed against.  This is the “sacrifice” that God does not want. However, there is another “sacrifice” that is essential to love and mercy.  It is the sacrifice of self, the denial of self-interest, the rejection of retaliation.

The greatest sign of mercy and love is the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. He died not for the righteous but for sinners (Romans 5: 8). He died begging pardon for those who tortured and killed him and even made excuses for them (Luke 23: 34).

July 19 is the anniversary of Fr. Lawrence Jenco’s death in 1996. Fr. Jenco was a Servite priest who was the regional director of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon in 1985. He was kidnapped and spent the next 564 days in captivity as a hostage. He was blindfolded most of the time and transported from place to place in a secret compartment under trucks where he was almost asphyxiated by the noxious diesel fumes. He was beaten. After his release he wrote a book—“Bound to Forgive”—and he began the first chapter with these words of Jesus as recorded by Luke: “But I say to those who listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6: 27-28). This holy priest forgave his captors and tormenters and even asked their forgiveness for the times that he himself had harbored hatred and thoughts of revenge in his heart. (I wrote about this in another blog entry here.)

What gave Fr. Jenco the ability to forgive in this way? The Eucharist. He heard the Word of God and allowed it to enter his heart to transform it from a heart hardened by a righteous anger that had become bitter hatred to a heart of mercy and love. He received the Word of God-Made-Flesh in Holy Communion and allowed the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus to transform his heart. 

Past, current, and, no doubt, future events reveal a world desperately in need of conversion, of mercy and love. That will require sacrifice, a sacrificial mercy that begins here, with my heart and yours. Heart of Jesus, make our hearts like yours!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Venerable Nano Nagle


I have been giving a retreat this week to Nano Nagle’s Sisters in Aberdeen, South Dakota. They are known as the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  But who was Nano?

Honora Nagle was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1718 and was soon called by the affectionate name “Nano.” This was time of persecution for Catholics in Ireland. They were forbidden to teach, open up schools, or travel elsewhere for an education. Some of the Nagle family were merchants who had connections on the continent and Nano was able to travel to Paris to attend school. In 1746, after her father’s death, she returned to Ireland and, in violation of the laws, began teaching. She set up her first school in 1754 and very soon started seven more. She was never arrested and in 1775, with other women who joined her in the work, she founded the Society of Charitable Instruction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which in time became the Sisters of the Presentation. She received the habit on June 29, 1776 and took the name Mother Mary of St. John of God after the 16th Century Portuguese saint who had dedicated his life to the service of the poor and the sick. She died in 1784 and her cause for canonization was approved by Pope Francis in 2013. Today the Presentation Sisters teach and care for the sick in 23 countries around the world.

I’ve resonated with a number of Nano’s sayings. One—“Not words, but deeds”—reminds  me of something that St. Ignatius Loyola wrote in his “Spiritual Exercises,” that love shows itself best in deeds. Love is not so much a feeling or even the words that express a feeling. Love is action.

Her zeal for souls is seen in this quote: “If I could be of any service in saving souls in any part of the world, I would willingly do all in my power.”

Like so many saints from St. Paul through St. Margaret Mary to the present, Nano knew that any good she accomplished was not her doing but God’s.  She wrote: “The Almighty makes use of the weakest means to bring about his work.” We see her great trust in these words: “By degrees, with the assistance of God, we may do a great deal,” and “God is all-sufficient.”

In the Positio or testimonies gathered after her death we read: “Absorbed in wordless prayer, she carried in her heart those in need of compassion.” Her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus made her heart go out to all those who were suffering. She carried them in her heart, prayed for them, and offered her life to help them. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"My Heart Is Overwhelmed"

The book of the prophet Hosea is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t recall ever reading it before I entered the Jesuits at the young age of nineteen and so it made quite an impression on me when our novice master quoted from it as he spoke to us about the overwhelming love of God.

Chapter 11 of Hosea is particularly striking. Speaking through the prophet, God says: “I fostered them like one who raises an infant to his cheeks.” Like a good parent, God is moved by the pain that a child’s rebellion causes both the child and the family. While God is angry with sin and its consequences, there is also deep compassion for the child who will ever be God’s child.  God says: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.”

In 1981 at a Sacred Heart Conference in Toulouse, France, Cardinal Ratzinger spoke about this line. 
That talk can be found in the book “Behold The Pierced One.” According to the future Pope Benedict, the word “overwhelmed” actually means something much stronger.  He writes:

“God’s Heart turns around—here the Bible uses the same words as in the depiction of God’s judgment on the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrha (Gen 19: 25); the word expresses a total collapse: not one stone remains upon another. The same word is applied to the havoc wrought by love in God’s Heart in favor of his people.”

Then, speaking about how the New Testament is the fulfillment of this prophetic word, he writes:

“Here we see the upheaval in the Heart of God as God’s own genuine Passion. It consists in God himself, in the person of his Son, suffering Israel’s rejection. … God takes the destiny of love destroyed upon himself…. According to Hosea 11, the Passion of Jesus is the drama of the divine Heart.  … The pierced Heart of the crucified Son is the literal fulfillment of the prophecy of the Heart of God. … We can only discern the full magnitude of the biblical message of the Heart of God, the Heart of the divine Redeemer, in this continuity and harmony of Old and New Testament.”

We often use the expressions, “my heart is broken” or “my heart breaks for you.”  While that captures more of the sense of what is translated as “overwhelmed,” it too is not as strong as the original meaning of the word that is used to describe what Cardinal Ratzinger calls “the havoc wrought by love in God’s Heart in favor of his people.”

Who would not be moved to want to bring consolation to this Heart that is broken by and for humanity?  This is the ultimate meaning of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Eve of Pilgrimage

Tomorrow I’ll be going with 28 other pilgrims to visit Sacred Heart and Apostleship of Prayer sites in France.  Juan Landa of Mater Dei Tours is leading this pilgrimage that has been in the works for several years. I’ll be the spiritual guide.

I have to admit that today, as I try to tie up loose ends in the office and then go home to pack, I’m a bit stressed.  I tend to like routines and the familiar.  Recently I was asked: “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” And of all the exotic choices possible, I said: “I’d go to our Jesuit villa house on nearby Lake Five.”  With all the traveling I do, it would be nice to just be in one spot in a natural setting.

That being said, I am also looking forward to the pilgrimage to the basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart in Paris, and to the home and convent of St. Therese who enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer when she was twelve. I’m looking forward to visiting the parish of the patron saint of all priests, St. John Vianney, in Ars.  And I’ve heard so much about Lourdes and the Eucharistic and Rosary processions there that I’m anticipating an experience of a lifetime.

Perhaps the highlight will be Paray-le-Monial, where Jesus revealed his Heart to St. Margaret Mary and through her to the world. I’ll celebrate Mass there on June 27, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

As I prepare for the pilgrimage I am also aware of something else.  A pilgrimage is a microcosm of life. I am on a journey to the Lord.  My temptation is to feel that I am in the “driver’s seat” of life, but the reality is that life is more like flying than driving. I am not in control.  I need to learn to surrender and trust.  That isn’t easy, but I know that it’s ultimately the source of interior peace and it prepares me to experience the providence of God in new and wonderful ways. 

And so, in my final hours of preparation for pilgrimage, I return to the slogan that many people in various 12 Step programs have found so helpful.  I let go and let God.  I let go of trying to be in control and let God show me his loving care that will be more than I could hope for. I trust.

The itinerary can be found here. At each holy site I’ll be lifting up in prayer my friends, family, and the Apostleship of Prayer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ordination Anniversary


Today is the 31st anniversary of my ordination. I celebrated Mass for our staff and a group of young mothers who come every month to help us stuff envelopes while Grace, our children’s ministry director, watches their children.  I was grateful for the opportunity to celebrate Mass with this small group today.

In the first reading (1 Kings 17: 7-16) the prophet Elijah asks a widow to bring him something to eat and drink and tells her “”The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry….” God can take a little and make it last. In the hands of Jesus, five loaves and two fish can feed thousands. What’s required is trusting surrender.

In the gospel today (Matthew 5: 13-16) Jesus tells the apostles that they are salt and light. A little salt goes a long way to season a meal, to leaven, and to preserve. Salt is not meant to call attention to itself, but to bring out the best in something else. Similarly, we do not stare at a light.  It is there not for itself but to help people see.    

In light of these readings, I couldn’t help thinking about how God took a little and has used it to do a lot. The little is me.  In high school, college, and my early life in the Jesuits I was shy and self-conscious. I feared being called upon in the classroom because I was very nervous talking in front of a group. In the novitiate I was tongue-tied every time we offered spontaneous prayers together and my novice master challenged me, wondering if I should leave the Jesuits because at the rate I was going I probably wouldn’t be ordained and placed in the position where I would pray with people. 

Now, years later, I speak on the radio and in front of groups all the time.  What happened? Grace.  God’s grace at work in me.  And I’m convinced that this grace was channeled into my life through the prayers and sacrifices of many, many good people who have been praying for me over the years. 

Knowing where I’ve come from and what I used to be like, I am humbled.  I can’t take credit for what I do. As I try to be salt and light for others, all glory goes to God who has made it possible.  As Jesus said in today’s gospel, “your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”