Tuesday, January 10, 2017

On the Streets and in the Cold

While it's very mild (59 degrees F) today in Springfield, IL where I am helping with a retreat for seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, the U.S. has experienced some very cold weather recently.  Perhaps not as cold as Russia where the high temperature the other day was minus 18 F; nevertheless, one member of the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network in Arkansas was not happy as I offered to share Wisconsin's cold with him.  And it's been unseasonably cold in Italy where the temperatures dipped below freezing.

With the cold and how it affects people who are homeless in mind, Pope Francis, in his first urgent monthly prayer intention, asked us to join him in praying for them.  At the end of his Angelus Message on Sunday, January 8, he reminded the world of his monthly prayer intentions and he invited all “to join the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network which spreads, even through social networks, the prayer intentions that I propose every month to the whole Church.”  He said that in this way “we carry on the apostolate of prayer” and foster “communion.”

Then he went on to offer his first urgent intention, saying, “In these days of such great cold I am thinking, and I invite you to think, of all the people living on the streets, hit by the cold and by the indifference of others. Unfortunately, some have not survived. We pray for them and ask the Lord to warm the hearts of others to help them.”

Throughout his service as pope, the Holy Father has confronted "the culture of indifference."  He has challenged all people to open their hearts to suffering humanity everywhere, but especially right in front of us--in our families, in our parishes, and on our streets.

One way that we can keep those who are suffering from the cold in mind and pray for them in a powerful way is to "offer it up."  I thought of this on Sunday when I stopped for gas on my way from Milwaukee to Springfield.  The temperatures were hovering around 20 but the wind made it feel like single digits.  My initial reaction upon leaving the warmth of my car was to complain, but that negative attitude quickly changed when I remembered the Holy Father's urgent intention for this month.  There are some people for whom the cold and wind are not a minor inconvenience or pain but a grave suffering and threat of death.  I allowed my own minor pain to remind me of them and to pray for them.

As Pope Francis reminded us in "The Joy of the Gospel" (#279): "No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted.  All of these encircle our world like a vital force."


Friday, December 30, 2016

Changes in Pope’s Monthly Intentions

Since the late 1800’s the Pope has given a monthly prayer intention to the world through the Apostleship of Prayer, now known as the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.  In 1929 he added a second intention for the missions.  Today these are called his “universal” and “evangelization” intentions.  

The process of soliciting suggestions from Vatican Congregations and from members around the world, then proposing them to the Holy Father, then receiving his final versions and translating them from Italian into various languages, then publicizing them via print—is a long process.  That is why the intentions for 2018 will be chosen and translated in early 2017. 

But a significant change has been made. Pope Francis is returning to the practice of one monthly intention; the twelve intentions for 2017, which alternate between evangelization and universal intentions, have already been published. However, given the speed of communication in the digital age, he is adding a second, urgent prayer intention that he will make known during his Angelus Address on the first Sunday of the month.  As soon as we hear what they are we will be publicizing them on our website and other social media. 

Fr. Frederic Fornos, S.J., the international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, sees this as a way that Pope Francis wants to confront “the culture of indifference” by focusing our prayerful attention on situations that are “more concrete, precise, current, related to actual circumstances.”


Saturday, December 17, 2016

Joseph's Quandary

The First Reading (Isaiah 7: 10-14) and the Gospel (Matthew 1: 18-24) for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, contrast two figures—King Ahaz and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Ahaz was King of Judah from 735-715 BC. He resisted God’s direction as it was proposed to him by the prophet Isaiah and chose, instead, to rely on human ingenuity and power.  He did not want a sign from God and so he hypocritically declared “I will not tempt the Lord!”  But God gave him the sign anyway.  It was that God will send “Emmanuel” and will save his people.  Human resources are powerless.  God alone saves.  Therefore, trust God!

Joseph is an example of this.  He trusts God’s guidance and is open to God’s direction even in the most confusing situations.  Joseph is described as “a righteous man.”  He is “Law-abiding” and committed to doing God’s will. 

God gave the Chosen People a Law to help them on their journey through life.  But the Law did not cover every conceivable situation and so the religious leaders and scribes “fine-tuned” the Law with many additional laws to cover every eventuality, to spell things out in black and white in order to avoid any confusion and to help people faithfully follow God’s Law.

But life is not black and white.  There is a lot of gray.

In Joseph’s case, the laws were clear.  Deuteronomy 22: 20-21 states: “if evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.”  Mary, Joseph’s betrothed,  was to be stoned.

But Joseph cannot do this.  His love for her is greater than this law.  In a quandary, he chooses a middle path: he will not allow the full force of the law to be carried out, but will quietly renounce his relationship with her.

Speaking about this in his Angelus Address of December 22, 2013, Pope Francis said:

“The Gospel does not explain what his thoughts were, but it does tell us the essential: he seeks to do the will of God and is ready for the most radical renunciation. Rather than defending himself and asserting his rights, Joseph chooses what for him is an enormous sacrifice. And the Gospel tells us: ‘Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly’ (1:19).

“This brief sentence reveals a true inner drama if we think about the love that Joseph had for Mary! But even in these circumstances, Joseph intends to do the will of God and decides, surely with great sorrow, to send Mary away quietly. We need to meditate on these words in order to understand the great trial that Joseph had to endure in the days preceding Jesus’ birth.”

Then Pope Francis went on to compare Joseph and Abraham:

“It was a trial similar to the sacrifice of Abraham, when God asked him for his son Isaac (Genesis 22): to give up what was most precious, the person most beloved.

“But as in the case of Abraham, the Lord intervenes: he found the faith he was looking for and he opens up a different path, a path of love and of happiness. ‘Joseph,’ he says, ‘do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20).”

Faith in God who is Love, faith in the Law of Love, wins the day.  Joseph, open to the Word of God that came to him through an angel, follows God’s will. 

Some say that Joseph knew the origin of Mary’s child and chose to break off the engagement because he felt himself unworthy to be the foster father of the Son of God.

Either way, true humility means obedience to God’s will even in the midst of confusion and the disruption of one’s own plans.  Pope Francis continued:

“This Gospel passage reveals to us the greatness of St Joseph’s heart and soul. He was following a good plan for his life, but God was reserving another plan for him, a greater mission. Joseph was a man who always listened to the voice of God, he was deeply sensitive to his secret will, he was a man attentive to the messages that came to him from the depths of his heart and from on high. He did not persist in following his own plan for his life, he did not allow bitterness to poison his soul; rather, he was ready to make himself available to the news that, in a such a bewildering way, was being presented to him. And thus, he was a good man.”

Joseph was the perfect man to be the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.  He had the freedom to surrender to God’s will perfectly and to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction in the midst of life’s complexities. 

“Life father, like son.”  Jesus showed similar freedom in following the Law of Love even when it conflicted with the many laws that were designed to offer black and white answers to life’s complex and morally confusing situations.  He was accused of breaking God’s Law by ignoring purification rituals and working miracles of healing on the Sabbath. 

Life is not easy.  It’s filled with competing “goods” that create confusion.  But if we focus on God’s Word, discern the movements of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately trust in God rather than in ourselves and our ability to figure everything out, then, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Gaudete Sunday 2016

The Gospel for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (Matthew 11: 2-11), is curious.  John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah.  Jesus tells them to report to John what they have heard and seen: that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, and even the dead are returned to life.  Moreover, the poor have received the “good news” of God’s love for them. curious.  John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah.  Jesus tells them to report to John what they have heard and seen: that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, and even the dead are returned to life.  Moreover, the poor have received the “good news” of God’s love for them. 

Why did John send his disciples to question Jesus?  He baptized Jesus.  He should know who he is.  Perhaps he had doubts or his disciples had doubts about the identity of Jesus.  He wasn’t acting like the promised Messiah was supposed to act.  He didn’t come with military power and glory to liberate Israel from its oppressors. 

Jesus teaches that he is not that kind of Messiah.  Rather, he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (First Reading, Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10).  His actions reveal that the Messiah came not to punish and destroy but to forgive and save.  He is a merciful Messiah who brings “divine recompense.”  To “make recompense” is to pay for something.  Jesus is the Divine Messiah who pays for the sins of the world.  On the cross he reconciled humanity to God and to one another by taking upon himself the sins of the world. 

Jesus praises John, calling him the greatest human being of his time.  But then he says “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  That’s you and I.  Jesus says we are greater than John the Baptist.  How?  Why?

John never saw the greatest act of love the world has ever known—the cross.  He was not baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  At the time of the Gospel, he was not joined to the Body of Christ.  Nor did he receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  We, however, know about the cross, have been baptized and joined to Christ’s Body, and have received him, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. 

As the actions of Jesus provided evidence of his identity, so must ours.   We must show that we are joined to Christ and are members of his Body.  This is where our Second Reading (James 5: 7-10) comes in.  James tells his readers to be patient and to not complain “about one another.”  True Christians are like Christ—patient and merciful with sinners. 

Patience is a virtue.  I like to call virtues “spiritual muscles.”  Just as our physical muscles only grow and develop through nourishment and exercise, so too our spiritual muscles.  Patience does not appear out of the blue.  It grows through exercise.  Every time we find ourselves feeling impatient, we are being given an opportunity to exercise patience.  This thought can be especially helpful during the holiday season which is often filled with stress of one kind or another.  Exercise patience and mercy and they will grow, helping you to be more true to your deepest identity—a Christian in deed and not just in name.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent Thoughts

Advent began this year with a beautiful reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (2: 1-5).  Isaiah presents us with a picture of the world at peace, writing: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”  

This is a vision that all people of good will share.  It is a hope that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, came to fulfill.  Jesus is God in the flesh who came to enlighten us with wisdom, to show us the way that leads to peace, and to empower us to follow that way. 

Advent—a word that means “coming”—is our preparation time for the celebration of the fact that the Son of God came to live among us, to share our suffering and death so that we could one day share his risen life. That was his first coming.

But we are reminded this time of year that there will be a second coming.  Jesus will come again to establish his kingdom of peace once and for all.  Sin and death will be destroyed forever. 

Between these two “comings” there are others.  Today Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. He is the Bread of Life who feeds our hunger for true love.  As the Jewish people longed with deep hunger for the Messiah to come and save them, so we hunger for Christ.  This hunger can help us “stay awake” for Christ’s second coming.  And if that second coming does not occur in our lifetime, then our hunger for Christ can help us “be prepared” for the day that he will come for us when our life on earth will end.

The coming of Jesus in the Eucharist also prepares us for another “coming” between the first and second.  St. Teresa of Kolkata understood this “coming” well.  She once said that when we look at a crucifix we see how much Jesus loved us and when we look at a tabernacle or monstrance we see how much Jesus loves us now.  Time spent in Eucharistic adoration helps us see Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Time spent seeing Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine helps us recognize him in the “distressing disguise” of the person in front of us who needs our attention, care, and love.  Jesus comes to us every day in one another.

In his Apostolic Letter for the close of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of the encounter with others.”  This, he said, “can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives.” 

This is the only revolution that will change the world and make Isaiah’s vision of peace attainable.  Political changes will never change the world.  Only a revolution of the heart will bring about true change.  It begins one heart at a time.  It begins with your heart and mine.

Unfortunately Advent is such a busy time that there is a tendency to forget the various “comings” of Jesus—the real meaning of Christmas, the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world or the end of our life, the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and the way he comes to us in one another, especially those most forgotten or in need.  It’s a good idea to slow down by spending some time in Eucharistic adoration this Advent.  This will help us to be alert to meet Christ when and where he comes to us.  

Monday, November 21, 2016

A New Carmelite Vocation


Today is the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary. According to tradition, Mary, at a very early age, was brought to the Temple and dedicated to God.  Today is also Pro Orantibus (“For Those Who Pray”) Day, also known as the World Day of Cloistered Life. It’s a day when we pray for those who pray for us, those who have dedicated themselves to a life of full-time prayer for the Church and the world. 

It’s also a very special day for the Schumaker family of Boltenville, WI.  Rick Schumaker was a high school classmate of mine and his eldest daughter Mara is entering the Carmelite Monastery of theHoly Name of Jesus in Denmark, WI. 

At a farewell party for her, she gave out a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the back were two quotes:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12: 49).

“I now realize that we are trying to fight the whole world, to turn the tide of the whole time we live in, to resist everything that seems irresistible” (G. K. Chesterton).

There was also this prayer which she wrote:

O most Beloved Jesus, I beg You to bless my family and friends. May we always meet and be united within Your Heart, which we have pierced and crowned with thorns and yet which still is burning with unquenchable love for each of us.  Give us the strength and love of Your Heart that we may never turn from You.  May we always fight boldly and tirelessly for Your kingdom so that when our earthly battle is complete, we may be united with You where You live and reign forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 


Friday, November 18, 2016

Tears from the Heart of Jesus

Yesterday I finished leading a retreat for 75 women at the White House 
Jesuit Retreat House on the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis.  Here is my closing homily, based on the readings of the day—Revelation 5: 1-10 and Luke 19: 41-44.

Both of our readings contain tears.  John’s vision, in which no one can be found to open the scroll which will reveal God’s plan, leads him to weep.  In the Gospel, Jesus, as he approaches the city of Jerusalem, weeps over it.  He predicts the city’s destruction and cries.  Its future could have been one of peace, but in rejecting Jesus, the people rejected the one who came to show the way to that justice which alone is the basis for peace.

On July 8, 2013, Pope Francis visited an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—Lampedusa.  He went there after many men, women, and children had drowned as they tried to get from Libya, North Africa, to Italy.  He asked:

“Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

If we have hearts like the Heart of Jesus, we will be moved to weep for such suffering and death.  Our prayers will be accompanied by tears. 

We weep but we do not despair.  As John’s vision continues in the first reading, he sees one who is able to open the scroll—the “lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David”—Jesus.  He is the Lamb of God who was slain.  He perfectly fulfilled God’s plan for creation and in doing so became the victor over sin and death.  The vision ends with worship and hope.  Jesus has triumphed.  He has purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”  He has “made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”

We, the baptized, are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2: 9).  We are royalty not as the world thinks of it but as Jesus does. At the Last Supper he said that the kings of this world “lord it over” their subjects but it must not be so among his followers. “Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Luke 22: 25-26). 

We share in Christ’s priesthood by offering prayers and sacrifices.  The Sacred Chrism used to consecrate the walls and altars of new churches and the hands of newly ordained priests and everyone at their baptisms and confirmations—this sacred oil consecrates each of us for the sacred purpose of offering worship to God.  We do that at the Eucharist and in our daily lives. 

Moved, as the Heart of Jesus is, at the suffering in our world, we offer ourselves as He did for its ultimate salvation and peace.