Tuesday, January 26, 2010


I am in Cleveland, Ohio for a couple events. Yesterday I met with local members of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps. According to their mission statement, IVC "is a national community service organization of volunteers and for volunteers, and is affiliated with the Society of Jesus. IVC works to meet the most urgent needs of people who are poor through the experienced service of mature men and women--Ignatian Volunteers." While the Jesuit Volunteer Corps consists of young people who have recently graduated from college, IVC consists of people over 50 who, as they say in their brochure, share "their skills, talents, and life experiences with organizations that directly assist people who are poor, or address issues related to poverty." Their slogan is: "Your most important work may begin after you retire." There are 16 such groups scattered around the country.

Realizing that being active isn't enough, the IVC encourages its members to "grow deeper in Christian faith by reflecting and praying in the Ignatian tradition." This is what brought me to meet with the group in Cleveland. I led their "Winter's Day of Reflection," and the theme was "Thirsting for a More Compassionate Heart."

In my first talk I went through the three key words of the theme. "Compassion" is more than giving help; it involves a sharing and actual identification with the suffering of another. The "Heart" is more than a sentimental symbol that inundates card shops and candy stores every winter in preparation for Valentine's Day. In the Scriptures the heart symbolized the deepest center of a person; it is the place of wisdom. "Thirsting" describes our relationship with God. The Psalms often speak of the human person longing and thirsting for God. This is because we are made in God's image and likeness; we are made by Love Himself, and for love. We are made for union with God and nothing earthly can satisfy this thirst. As St. Augustine put it: "You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You."

Ultimately the "More Compassionate Heart" for which we are "Thirsting" is the Heart of Jesus. Only His love, symbolized in the Sacred Heart all on fire with love for humanity and for each individual, can fill the thirst with which we are created. As the love of this Heart fills us and our emptiness, it flows through us to others. Like the Jordan River which begins in the mountains of Syria and flows into the Sea of Galilee and then into the Dead Sea where it ends and stagnates, so the love of God must flow through us. When it does, we are fresh and beautiful like the Sea of Galilee. When love does not flow through us but when we grasp at it and try to possess it for ourselves, then we become like the Dead Sea.

How do we grow in union with this "Compassionate Heart" of Jesus? The Mass, with its two parts, gives us the answer.

The Liturgy of the Word puts us in touch with Jesus, the Living Word who speaks to us in the proclamation of the Gospel. The Church has traditionally taught a way of praying with the Gospel called "Lectio Divina." Employing this method, we prayerfully read the Gospel passage, noting which words or phrases strike us or move us. We ask ourselves, "what is God telling me through this passage?"

St. Ignatius Loyola took "Lection Divina" a step further by inviting the person praying to enter into the scene by means of the imagination. By becoming one of the characters in the scene, and imagining what the people are saying and doing, and even fantasizing our own involvement in the scene, we enter more deeply into the Gospel. Jesus, the Living Word, speaks to us on a deeper level.

But we can go even deeper. We can try to imagine what was going on in the mind and heart of Jesus. What was He thinking and feeling? What was He experiencing in His interior? How was He being moved? In this way we can begin to enter more deeply into Jesus' Heart and take on His attitudes and values, His thoughts and feelings. We can feel, with Him, the compassion He felt for all the crowds and individuals who came to Him. Our own hearts can become more compassionate, like the Heart of Jesus. In the words of the U-2 song, our "Two Hearts Beat as One."

That's the Liturgy of the Word, entering more deeply into the Heart of Jesus by praying with His thoughts and feelings as they come to us through the Gospel. But what about the second part of Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist?

This is where our "Thirsting for a More Compassionate Heart" is really satisfied. We believe that Jesus is truly present, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist. When we receive Holy Communion we receive Him. He unites Himself to us, even giving us His Heart to transform our hearts. In the Eucharist the great prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled: "I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you, taking from your bodies your stony hearts and giving you natural hearts" (36: 26). The Heart of Jesus, present in the Holy Eucharist, transforms our hearts, making them more and more like His own.

In this way our hearts become more compassionate. We don't just feel sorry for others, but we are willing, as Jesus did, to share their burdens and sufferings with them.

That's a summary of the two talks I gave and our Day of Reflection ended with the celebration of the Mass on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This was a good reminder for us that "conversion" is not a once-and-for-all event. Conversion is ongoing. Though Paul had a life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, this conversion didn't make him perfect. He still struggled, as evidenced in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 7: "What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. ... The willing is ready at hand, but the doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. ... Miserable one that I am! Who will deliever me...? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." The transformation of our hearts isn't complete. We are still on the way and, one day at a time, Jesus who is present in Word and Sacrament is changing us.

Tonight I will be speaking at Gesu, the Jesuit parish next to John Carroll University. As part of their Adult Enrichment program, I'll be saying more about the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dead Sea Squirrels

I celebrated Mass today at Clare Hall, a convent of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, in whose former high school building the Apostleship of Prayer has its offices. The readings were from Nehemiah, Chapter 8; Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12; and Luke's Gospel, the first four verses and then Chapter 4, verses 14 to 21. Here is basically what I said in my homily.

On Fridays a woman named Leanne comes in to clean our Apostleship of Prayer offices. Last Friday she told me about her daughter who is in grade school and who got very excited when Leanne asked her if she wanted to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit that just opened at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Leanne was happy to know that her young daughter was interested in going; she even started telling her classmates about the upcoming trip to the museum. Then one day this week Leanne saw her daughter drawing something and asked her what it was. "Dead Sea Squirrels!" was the reply. Leanne then explained that they were going to see "scrolls" not "squirrels." She explained what "scrolls" and at this her daughter's excitement turned to disappointment.

I think our Mass readings today show a similar dynamic: misunderstanding and disappointment. Our tendency is to not really understand who we are and the result is disappointment.

We tend to think of ourselves as isolated individuals and the reality is that we are members of a body, the Body of Christ. We think of the Church as an institution and the reality is that it is a communion, the Body of Christ consisting of many parts who are connected to one another. As Paul makes it clear in our second reading, "you are Christ's body, and individually parts of it." The implications are clear: "If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy."

This is the reality that we so often misunderstand and forget. At the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne Pope Benedict spoke in his closing homily about this reality in words that make clear how we are to understand the Church and ourselves. He said: "The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ, His own Flesh and Blood." Have you ever thought of yourself as Jesus' very flesh and blood? The reality is that you are. We truly are the Body of Christ, His presence in the world today.

The English author C. S. Lewis wrote about this in his essay "The Weight of Glory": "There are no ordinary people. You have never seen a mere mortal." The implications of this are challenging. Lewis goes on: "And our charity must be real and costly love.... Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses."

This is the reason behind what could be called "Jesus' Inaugual Address" in the Gospel. Jesus stands up to preach and uses words from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. He says that He is anointed for a purpose. The Holy Spirit fills Him so that He can free people and give them hope. We too were anointed at our Baptism and we have been given the Holy Spirit to empower us to do what Jesus did. We are called to reverence the image of God in ourselves and in one another. When we do this, we give true worship to God. We give glory to God.

But we so often forget and misunderstand this. It's really a question of focus. In the First Reading Ezra told the people to shift their focus. They had just heard a reading of the Word of God, the Law of God, and they broke into weeping because they realized how they had not been following it. They were filled with disappointment and discouragement. Ezra told them not to look backwards, not to focus on their sins and failures. He told them to focus on the present not the past. He said: "Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep.... Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!"

So too for us. Don't look to the past. Focus on the present and understand the reality of who you are. Don't live in misunderstanding and disappointment. Today's Gospel ends with these words of Jesus: "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Today God's Word about who we truly are--the Body of Christ--is fulfilled. Don't look to the past, but to the present, and live out the reality of who you really are, one day at a time.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Pope's Prayer Group

The March 17, 1991 issue of the periodical "Catholic Twin Circle" had an article written by Fr. Herbert Smith, S.J. It was entitled "The Pope's Own Prayer Group." It told the history of the Apostleship of Prayer and the annual process by which the Pope gives to the Church and the world two very specific monthly intentions. Given the fact that the Apostleship of Prayer has prayed for these monthly intentions of the Holy Father for over a century, the name, "The Pope's Prayer Group," is fitting.

Recently Fr. Claudio Barriga, S.J., our international leader, had a new idea. Since the monthly intentions are chosen well in advance of the actual month, how about encouraging people to join the Holy Father in praying for his urgent prayer intentions that periodically come up? It seemed like a good idea to us and so last fall we began to publish Pope Benedict's urgent prayer requests on the home page of our web site. Last week, when the earthquake struck Haiti, we immediately went into action.

The quake hit on Tuesday. On Wednesday, in his weekly General Audience, Pope Benedict asked the world to join him in special prayers for the people of Haiti. That same day I received an email message from a friend in California whose husband is a member of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services. Her message included an internal brief from Catholic Relief Services that included information as well as a prayer. On Thursday we sent out an email to our members and we posted on our web site Pope Benedict's urgent prayer request for Haiti as well as news, quotes from the Holy Father, and an adapted version of the CRS prayer. Our posting was picked up almost immediately by Fr. Jim Martin, S.J., an associate editor at "America" magazine, who added the prayer to his blog. Another blog called "The Deacon's Bench" picked the prayer up from there and the Facebook site for the Society of Jesus also posted the prayer. Then the influential blog "Whispers in the Loggia" posted the prayer.

I've been deeply consoled to be a part of this new dimension of "The Pope's Prayer Group." As we continue to connect people with the Holy Father's concerns and the needs of the world, I am praying that people will not only pray for Haiti but that their prayer will lead them to do something to help. That's why we posted information about donating to Catholic Relief Services as well as their beautiful prayer.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Retreating to Oshkosh

This afternoon I'll be driving up to the Jesuit Retreat House on Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh. The retreat for about 50 men will start this evening and end around noon on Sunday. The "January thaw" that we're experiencing in Wisconsin should make for a pleasant weekend weather-wise. And spiritually-speaking, well, as the saying goes, "God will not be outdone in generosity," and so we can expect a very blessed time. If we give God the time, we won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Papal Intentions 2011

That's right! It's that time of year when we begin work on next year's monthly intentions from the Holy Father. On December 31 Pope Benedict met with Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the General Superior of the Jesuits and General Director of the Apostleship of Prayer. The Holy Father gave him 24 intentions for next year, 2011. They were written in Italian and in the past they were translated into English and other languages by the Vatican Information Service. Unfortunately the translations, not having been done by native English speakers, sounded odd at times. We asked Fr. Nicolas' International Secretary for the Apostleship, Fr. Claudio Barriga, S.J., if we could translate the intentions in order to make sure that they sounded good to English speakers and to ensure that there was one English version that everyone could use. Happily, the Vatican agreed to our proposal and today we sent our English translation of the 2011 intentions to our international office in Rome which in turn forwarded it to the Vatican. Dr. Douglas Leonard, the director of operations of the Apostleship of Prayer in the U.S., and I used an initial translation from the original Italian which Fr. John Belmonte, S.J., did for us. Fr. Belmonte studied in Rome and continues to serve the Italian communities of Milwaukee and Chicago. He is currently the principal of Marquette University High School in Milwaukee and next week I'll be taking him out to dinner. Italian, of course!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House

The snow storm that hit Milwaukee yesterday has passed and I'm heading south--to Barrington, Illinois. Not too far south so no one needs to get envious. Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House where I'll be giving a retreat was started in 1946 and is 35 miles north of Chicago. Eighty men are scheduled to make the "Spiritual Exercises." We begin this evening and end at noon on Sunday. It's a short retreat, really a glorified day of recollection, but a great way to start the new year.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Archbishop Listecki

Trade secret for a priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: since Monday it's been easier to pray the Eucharistic Prayer. Before then, after praying for Pope Benedict, we had a tongue-twister. We prayed for "Jerome our Archbishop Designate and William our Apostolic Administrator." Or was it supposed to be "our Archdiocesan Administrator?" At any rate, now we can simply and happily say "our Bishop Jerome." On Monday Most Reverend Jerome Listecki, the first Archbishop of Polish descent in Milwaukee, was installed.

I was able to listen to the homily as I watched the installation on television and a couple of lines really impressed me. Archbishop Listecki said:

"Adherence to the Church’s teaching is not always easy. However, one must sacrifice for the truth. In this sacrifice we demonstrate our love. It is interesting to note that John Paul II was applauded by the Western societies when he critiqued the godless communism of the east for their lack of individual rights and freedoms, yet those very same western societies turned a deaf ear to his warnings of the destructiveness of radical individualism, consumerism, materialism and relativism.

"Given our situation today perhaps we should have paid more attention. The truth is at times difficult but the Church does not follow the Lord’s request to tend his sheep if it fails to teach the truth with love."

These words resonate with me and make me eager to hear more.

One other interesting note: the newscast I watched had a line that appeared on the screen throughout their coverage. It was "New Shepherd for Milwaukee." I was surprised that they didn't say "New Shepherd for Milwaukee Catholics." The universal message that the television station chose is actually more accurate and I was happy to see it. Archbishop Jerome Listecki, following in the path of the Good Shepherd Himself, and those whom He appointed to "tend His sheep," is a Shepherd--a Guide and Defender--of all the people of southeastern Wisconsin.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

All Night Vigil

For the 533rd time, a group of Catholics in the Milwaukee area gathered for what they call an "All Night Eucharistic Vigil of Reparation and Prayer." Going from church to church throughout the archdiocese, they begin with Mass at 8 PM on the First Friday of each month and end with Mass at 5 AM on First Saturday. During the night they listen to talks, pray the four sets of mysteries of the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, offer prayers of consecration and reparation, and make the Stations of the Cross. I joined them for about an hour last night, leading a procession with the Blessed Sacrament and giving a brief talk on "Mary, Queen of Peace." Preparing for the talk helped me further process my recent pilgrimage to Fatima. Here's basically what I said...

The All Night Vigil began as a response to Our Lady's call at Fatima to pray, do penance, and show devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. For 45 years this group has gathered to pray and sacrifice some of their sleep for the cause of peace.

In 1916, before the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared in Fatima, a celestial being named the Angel of Peace appeared to three children to prepare them. A year later, on six succesive months, Mary herself appeared. Since its official approval in 1930, every pope has called Fatima "a reaffirmation of the Gospel." Why? Because when Jesus began His public ministry He did so calling for conversion. This was Mary's message at Fatima.

There will be no peace in the world without the conversion that begins in each human heart.

Last December 7 to 14 I went on a pilgrimage to Fatima. This pilgrimage affected me more than my 2006 pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The Cova da Iria, where Mary appeared in 1917, is a place of tangible peace. All 26 of us pilgrims felt that the first evening that we walked on to the grounds of the shrine. After I returned to the U.S. I met with the superior of the Carmelite monastery in Denmark, WI and she told me "What Lourdes is for the body, Fatima is for the soul." I experienced Fatima as a place of deep healing and of peace. And I had to wonder: why did it affect me more than the Holy Land?

Was it because this is the very place where Mary appeared with a message of peace less than 1oo years ago? Was it because this is the place where the 3 shepherds who saw her are buried? Was it because of the faith of all the people who come there with votive offerings of candles and wax images representing their needs, who come to adore our Eucharistic Lord at the perpetual adoration chapel, who come for the Sacrament of Reconciliation which is available in various languages throughout the day, who walk on their knees in petition and sacrifice down the length of the plaza?

Peace seems like an impossible dream today, but miracles are possible. I saw the results of two miracles at Fatima. One was the huge chunk of the Berlin Wall that is on display there. When I was growing up I never thought I would see the end of Communism in the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet it happened, the result of prayer and sacrifice. The other miracle I saw was a bullet in a crown. After the attempt on his life, Pope John Paul II said, "One finger pulled the trigger; another finger guided the bullet." That bullet should have killed him but it didn't and in gratitude for Mary's protection on that day, May 13, 1981, the anniversary of Mary's first appearance at Fatima, Pope John Paul went to Fatima and made an offering of the bullet that almost killed him. It is in a gold crown that, on special occasions, is placed on the statue of Our Lady of Fatima that sits on the very spot where she appeared. I wondered where the bullet would be located. How could it be artistically added to the crown without destroying its symmetry and beauty? It is in the very middle, under the top, in a spot where it fit so perfectly that the crown needed no adjustment to accomodate the bullet.

Before he was elected pope, when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the Church's interpretation of the "Third Secret" of Fatima which Pope John Paul had allowed to be released. Lucia had always said that it was not within her capacity to interpret the vision she had; this was the Church's task, not hers. Thus the Church's interpretation of the Third Secret--the vision the children had of a bishop in white being struck down as he climbed a hill--is that this was a prophetic vision of what could have happened but which was avoided because of prayer. As the future Pope Benedict wrote: "When, after the attempted assassination on 13 May 1981, the Holy Father had the text of the third part of the 'secret' brought to him, was it not inevitable that he should see in it his own fate? He had been very close to death, and he himself explained his survival in the following words: '...it was a mother's hand that guided the bullet's path and in his throes the Pope halted at the threshold of death' (13 May 1994). That here 'a mother's hand' had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies."

Miracles are possible. Peace is possible. How? Through the Blessed Virgin Mary's "Peace Plan."
It's really very simple and the All Night Vigil has been implementing it for 45 years. It consists of 1) prayer, especially the rosary; 2) penance, acts of sacrifice for the conversion of sinners and to make reparation for the way in which humanity has treated the Hearts of Jesus and Mary; 3) devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, especially honoring her on the First Saturday of each month.

Such devotion to the Heart of Mary is more than a prayer that is said and then forgotten. To be devoted to Mary's Heart is to desire to have a heart like hers. This is what the three children at Fatima had.

Whenever Mary appeared to them, Lucia first asked one question--"What do you want of me?" She didn't begin by asking something for herself. She didn't ask "What can you do for me?" She sought not her will but the will of the heavenly visitor. Lucia had a heart like Mary's which sought and totally accepted God's will for her.

Francisco had a heart like Mary's because he was willing to have his heart pierced by sacrifices. Mary sacrificed so much to be the Mother of God and she consoled Jesus by standing under His cross sharing in His sufferings. After Our Lady's visits, Francisco gave himself to offering sacrifices to console Jesus who had been rejected by so many in the world. He spent hours in the church where he and the other children had been baptized so that he could console the One whom he called "The Hidden Jesus."

Jacinta showed that she had a heart like Mary's through her special concern for the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Father. After the July appearance, when the three children were playing in a field, and Lucia and Francisco had gone off to look for some wild honey, Jacinta had a vision of the Pope. When her brother and cousin returned she described it this way: "I don't know how it happened. I saw the Holy Father in a very big house. He was kneeling before a table, holding his face in his hands and he was crying. Outside, there were many people; some were throwing stones at him, others were swearing at him and saying many ugly words to him. How pitiful it was! We must pray a lot for him." I can't help thinking of how Pope Benedict must suffer as he looks out over the world. And how he was grabbed and pulled down at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Perhaps our prayers protected him from injury that night. This is something--prayer for the Holy Father and his intentions--that is a big part of what we try to promote in the Apostleship of Prayer.

So I say to you tonight: be strong, be confident, persevere in your monthly vigil. Encourage others to join you. Miracles are not over. Conversions can happen. Peace is possible. The Queen of Peace promised it, but as her subjects on earth, we must pray and sacrifice for peace. It will begin in our own hearts and from there it will spread into the world.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Motherhood of Mary

Happy and Blessed New Year! On this first day of the calendar year we celebrate a Solemnity in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. We are celebrating her motherhood. The Responsory in the Office of Readings today says it all:

O pure and holy Virgin,
how can I find words to praise your beauty?
The highest heavens cannot contain God whom you carried in your womb.

Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
The highest heavens cannot contain God whom you carried in your womb.

Mary is the Mother of God. Because Jesus is truly God and truly human we can truthfully call Mary the Mother of God.

Mary is the Mother of Christ. She gave flesh to the Messiah, God's Anointed One.

Mary is the Mother of the Body of Christ, the Church. In Baptism each of the faithful are joined to Christ and become members of His Body. We can truthfully say that Mary is the Mother of the Church and we can say that Mary is the Mother of each member of the Church. She is, in a very real and personal way, my Mother and your Mother.

In 1969 I went on a two week camping trip that changed my life. I and five of my high school classmates and Fr. John Eagan, a Jesuit who taught and mentored us, drove around Lake Superior. From the first morning to the last, when we got into the station wagon to head out, we began the day's journey with a rosary. This was not something we were excited about. We vied for the very back of the station wagon where, behind all the knap sacks, sleeping bags, and tents we wouldn't have to participate in reciting the rosary. But by the end of the trip something had happened to me. It was my turn to be in the back and be free of the obligation to pray the rosary and I opted out. I gave my turn to a classmate and chose to sit up front in order to participate in the recitation of the rosary. I can't help thinking that in a quiet and gentle way Mary heard the reluctant prayers of this youth going into his last year of high school and claimed him as a special son.

I entered into my senior year of high school a different person with a more positive attitude toward myself and toward life. And I began to think: maybe I should do for other young people what Fr. Eagan had done for me. Maybe I should become a Jesuit. The seed of my Jesuit vocation had been planted, but I decided to go off to college first and to experience more of life. I commuted to a small Catholic college a half hour from where I lived. Every day as I drove to school I first prayed a rosary. Sometimes I prayed it very fast in order to get through it as soon as possible so that I could then turn on the radio and listen to the Top 40.

I can't help thinking that this, in a way, is what Blessed Francisco of Fatima did as well. Before Our Lady appeared to him and to his sister Jacinta and his cousin Lucia, they would pray the rosary while tending sheep. But he wanted to play and so he suggested that they shorten their prayers and instead of praying the entire Hail Mary they simply pray the words "Hail Mary." Perhaps this is why when Mary first appeared to the children Francisco could not see her and she told Lucia that he would only be able to if he prayed the rosary. Before he finished the first decade he could see her.

"Hail Mary!" the children shouted. "Hail Mary...." I recited quickly as I drove to school. And Mary answered. She appeared to the children at Fatima and somehow she nurtured the seed that had been planted in my heart. After a few months of college I decided to apply to the Jesuits and was accepted.

Mary, Mother of God. Mother of Christ. Mother of the Church. Mary, my Mother. And that's why I add another title to this little litany: Mary, Mother of my vocation.