Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Christmas Dog

While the Scriptures do not mention a dog at the first Christmas, it makes sense that there was one there. The shepherds probably had a dog or two to help them guard their sheep and the dog would have naturally followed them to Bethlehem. Yet, few Nativity scenes show a dog.

This year, at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, Msgr. Robert Ritchie added a dog modeled after his own dog "Lexington." In fact, Demetz Art Studio in Ortisei, Italy, the same studio that carved the other figures in the Cathedral's Creche, created the Christmas dog as well.

One of my favorite places in the Holy Land is the church at Shepherd's Field. The paintings in the corners of the rounded ceilings show the various scenes of Luke 2: 8-20 where an angel appears to shepherds as they were tending their flocks and they go to Bethlehem to see the child about whom the angel had spoken. In each of the scenes there is a dog, barking at the angel

when it appears, racing off with the shepherds, and then adoring the Christ Child with them.

Here's a poem I ran across recently in a 1952 book edited by F. J. Sheed, The Book of the Saviour. It's by Sister Maris Stella and it's entitled "Christmas Carol for the Dog."

This is a carol for the dog
that long ago in Bethlehem
saw shepherds running towards the town
and followed them.

He trotted stiffly at their heels;
he sniffed the lambs that they were bringing;
he heard the herald angels sing,
yet did not know what they were singing.

With tail erect and tilted ears
he trotted through the stable door.
He saw the shepherds kneeling low
upon the floor.

He found St. Joseph watching by
Our Lady with her newborn Boy,
and being only dog, he wagged
his tail for joy.

There stationed by the Baby's crib
he kept good guard through the long night,
with ears thrown back and muzzle high
and both eyes bright.

When the three tall kings came at last
he barked a warning to each one,
then took his stand beside the Child,
his duty done.

Down into Egypt went the dog
when Herod slew the innocents.
He was not wise. He did not know
why, whither, nor whence,

but only, being dog, he knew
to follow where the Family led
to Egypt or to Nazareth.
And no one said

a word about the sharp-nosed dog
who stuck close to the Family then.
And yet, there must have been a dog.
This is a song for him. Amen.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Pope Benedict's Three Christmas Wishes

On December 7 Pope Benedict used a tablet computer to light the world's largest "Christmas Tree" stretching more than 2,000 feet up the slope of Mount Ingino near Gubbio, Italy. As he did so, he shared with the world his three Christmas wishes. As we approach the birthday of our Savior, let's make these three wishes our own as well.

Before lighting the tree, I would like to express three wishes. … Looking at it, our gaze is naturally drawn upwards, toward heaven, toward the world of God. My first wish, therefore, is that our gaze, that of our minds and our hearts, not rest only on the horizon of this world, on material things, but that in some way, like this tree that tends upward, it be directed toward God. God never forgets us but he also asks that we don’t forget him. The Gospel recounts that, on the holy night of Christ’s birth, a light enveloped the shepherds, announcing a great joy to them: the birth of Jesus, the one who brings us light, or better, the one who is the true light that illuminates all. …

My second wish is that this reminds us that we also need light to illumine the path of our lives and to give us hope, especially in this time in which we feel so greatly the weight of difficulties, of problems, of suffering, and a veil of darkness seems to surround us. But what light can truly illuminate our hearts and give us a firm and sure hope? It is the child whom we contemplate on holy Christmas, in a poor and simple manger, because he is the Lord who draws near to each of us and asks that we receive him anew in our lives, ask us to want him, to trust in him, to feel that he is present, that he is accompanying us, sustaining us and helping us.

But this great tree is made up of many lights. The final wish I’d like to make is that each of us carry a little bit of light into the environments in which we live: our families, our jobs, our neighborhoods, towns and cities. May each of us be a light for those who are at our sides; may we leave aside the selfishness that so often closes hearts and leads one to think only of oneself; may we pay a little greater attention to others, give them a little more love. Each small gesture of goodness is like one of the lights of this great tree: Together with the other lights it is able to illuminate the darkness of the night, even the darkest ones.

And from the Apostleship of Prayer in the United States: A Blessed and Happy Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More Magis Reflections

Here are the last three of the daily reflections that I wrote for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

We are made for union with God. We are made for a spousal relationship with God. In the Song of Songs and the Prophets of the Old Testament, we find this truth in vivid terms like the following verse from Isaiah 54: 5: “For he who has become your husband is your Maker; his name is the Lord of hosts….”

This goal of human existence begins to find its realization in the Eucharist. It is there that the union between each individual and the Lord is most closely attained on this side of eternity. There the Church is formed. St. Paul, writing to the Ephesians, taught about marriage by quoting from the book of Genesis: “For this reason a man shall leave father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then Paul goes on to say, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (5: 31-32). Marriage is sacred because it reveals something of the intimate union that Christ has with the Church and with each of her members. It is a union that transforms. As Pope Benedict said in his final homily at World Youth Day 2005: “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.” The two—Christ and each one who receives him in the Eucharist—become one flesh.

This is another way of viewing the “First Principle and Foundation” in the Spiritual Exercises and it is what answers a question that arises from today’s Gospel (Luke 7: 24-30): how can it be that “the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than” John the Baptist? John, the great Forerunner and Martyr-Witness to the Messiah, did not have the privilege of the union that we have every time we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Can we ever be sufficiently grateful for this privilege?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Jesus called John the Baptist “a burning and shining lamp” (John 5:35). The Lord calls you to be like John, to be a lamp that “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5: 16).

You are called to burn with the love of the Sacred Heart which Jesus revealed to St. Margaret Mary, saying: “My divine Heart is so passionately fond of the human race, and of you in particular, that it cannot keep back the pent-up flames of its burning charity any longer. They must burst out through you.” To be on fire with the burning love of God requires you to draw near to the Heart of Jesus. It means being a “burning” lamp that is fed by the oil of the Holy Spirit who prays with you and within you. It means especially becoming one with the Sacred Heart that is given to you in the Eucharist.

You are also called to shine. Jesus called himself “the Light of the world” (John 8:12) and as he unites himself to you he calls you to be light as well (Matthew 5: 14). The light of a “shining lamp” is very humble. You don’t light a lamp and then stare at it. A lamp is lit not to draw attention to itself but to help people find their way. So it is with you. You are to be the light of the world in order to show people the way to the final destination for which God created the human race—heaven.

According to St. Ignatius, the goal of his Spiritual Exercises, and indeed the goal of all prayer, is to help us seek and find “the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul” (#1). It is God’s will that you be one with him forever in the Kingdom of Heaven. Through prayer you are united one day at time with this loving will of God that fills you with warmth and light, that makes you “a burning and shining lamp” that will guide others to the Lord just as St. John the Baptist did.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

We begin today the final days of preparation for Christmas with the “O Antiphons” (found in antiphon for Mary’s Magnificat at Vespers and in the Alleluia verse at Mass). We also have the Genealogy of Jesus according the Matthew. Besides giving us the human origins of the Messiah, it reminds us of the Providence of God which, in St. Paul’s words, can “make all things work for good for those who love God” (Romans 8: 28).

The Genealogy does not paint a pretty picture. It includes a number of kings who led Israel away from God to the worship of idols. It also includes the names of four women, an unusual addition in the genealogies of the time. The childless and widowed Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute in order to have intercourse with her father-in-law Judah. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a foreigner. And Bathesheba was the unfortunate recipient of King David’s attention, leading to his committing adultery with her and orchestrating her husband’s death.

The Genealogy or Family Tree of Jesus included sinners in need of mercy and healing. This shouldn’t be surprising since it was to save sinners that Jesus took flesh and came into the world. Or, as St. Ignatius puts it in his contemplation on the incarnation, the “Three Divine Persons look down upon the whole expanse or circuit of all the earth, filled with human beings. Since They see that all are going down to hell, They decree in Their eternity that the Second Person should become man to save the human race” (#102).

In this final of Advent, imagine the Blessed Trinity looking out over the world. Out of love for lost humanity, God sent the Son to live and die and rise for your salvation. He wants you to be filled with “an intimate knowledge” of His love so that you may “love Him more and follow Him more closely” (#105) and in this way to continue the work of salvation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Magis Reflections

Here are some more reflections, for today and tomorrow, that I did for the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality. While I was able to put in a word for St. Lucy today, I regret that I didn't say anything about one of my favorite Carmelite saints, St. John of the Cross, whom we celebrate tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Several years ago a radio station took a survey and asked listeners to call and answer the question: “Is love a feeling or a decision?” Almost 90% called to say that love is a feeling.

St. Ignatius would say that love is more than a feeling and it’s more than a decision. The second son in today’s Gospel (Matthew 21: 28-32) decided to work in his father’s vineyard and said he would do so, but didn’t actually go. The first son decided not to go and said so but in the end changed his mind and went. Who fulfilled the will of the father? Clearly the first son. Who, can it be said, loved the father more? While both would perhaps declare their love for the father it was the first son who proved that love by his deeds. As St. Ignatius wrote in the Spiritual Exercises, at the beginning of the “Contemplation to Attain the Love of God”: “love ought to manifest itself in deeds rather than in words.”

This is the way God, whom St. John wrote is Love (see 1 John 4: 8 and 16), operates. God, as St. Paul wrote, “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8). The Son of God took flesh and offered his flesh on the cross for the salvation of the world. The Light of the world entered into its darkness and calls each of us to be one with him, sharing in the light and being light for the world (see Matthew 5: 14-16).

Today we honor a virgin-martyr of the early Church, St. Lucy, whose very name means Light. Like Lucy we must be lights for our world of darkness, but we are only able to be such in so far as we grow in union with the Light, in so far as we love God and our neighbor in deed and not just in words or feelings.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The disciples of John the Baptist approached Jesus and asked him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” In other words, “Who are you?” Jesus answered by telling them to report what they had “seen and heard,” what they had experienced. What about you? How do you answer the question, “Who is Jesus?” Do you rely on what others have said or taught, or can you report what you have “seen and heard” of Jesus in your own experience? This is the goal of Ignatian contemplation: to not just think about Jesus as you read the Gospel stories but to meet and experience him there. Imagining the Gospel scenes and putting yourself into the scene, conversing with the various figures, can help you to know the Lord in a deeper way so that you can answer the question “Who is Jesus?” from personal experience rather than from what others have said.

Pope Benedict made a similar distinction in his Wednesday Audience of October 8, 2008. He said:

Only with the heart does one truly know a person. Indeed, the Pharisees and the Sadducees were externally acquainted with Jesus, they learned his teaching and knew many details about him but they did not know him in his truth. … On the other hand, the Twelve, thanks to the friendship that calls the heart into question, have at least understood in substance and begun to discover who Jesus is. This different manner of knowing still exists today: there are learned people who know many details about Jesus and simple people who have no knowledge of these details but have known him in his truth: "Heart speaks to heart".

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Old St. Joseph's Church

I've been having a busy Advent. On the First Sunday of Advent I was still in Rome for the meeting of the International Advisory Council of the Apostleship of Prayer. Last weekend I was in Alhambra, California at Sacred Heart Retreat House for their annual Advent Retreat. And this weekend I'm preaching at all the Masses at Old St. Joseph's Church in Philadelphia. I'm here to lead a parish mission which begins this evening.

Today, at 5 P.M., we'll celebrate Vespers for this Gaudete Sunday. My talk is entitled "Heart Calls to Heart: Deepening Our Personal Relationship with Jesus." Tomorrow evening at 7:15, in the context of an Advent Reconciliation Service, I'll talk about "Meeting the Merciful Heart of Jesus." On Tuesday we will close the mission with Exposition and Benediction and a talk entitled "Take, Lord, Receive: Living a Eucharistic Life."

Old St. Joseph's Church is the Jesuit church in Philadelphia and its oldest Catholic church. It was built in an alleyway at a time in U.S. history when most of the original 13 colonies did not allow Catholics to practice their faith.

Periodically the Magis Center for Catholic Spirituality asks me to write a daily reflection for their subscribers. Below I've included my brief reflections for today and tomorrow.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

“Pray without ceasing.” Thus wrote St. Paul and over the centuries people have tried to figure out how to do this. For some, primarily in the Eastern Churches, it has meant praying “The Jesus Prayer”: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” uniting each phrase with one’s breath.

The Apostleship of Prayer encourages another approach—the Morning Offering. Here’s how the great Jesuit Fr. Walter Ciszek, whose cause for beatification has been opened, described this prayer in the account of his imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag and exile, He Leadeth Me:

In my opinion the Morning Offering is still one of the best practices of prayer—no matter how old-fashioned some may think it. For in it, at the beginning of each day, we accept from God and offer back to him all the prayers, works, and sufferings of the day, and so serve to remind ourselves once again of his providence and his kingdom. If we could only remember to spend the day in his presence, in doing his will, what a difference it would make in our own lives and the lives of those around us! We cannot pray always, in the sense of those contemplatives who have dedicated their whole lives to prayer and penance. Nor can we go around abstracted all day, thinking only of God and ignoring our duties to those around us, to family and friends and to those for whom we are responsible. But we can pray always by making each action and work and suffering of the day a prayer insofar as it has been offered and promised to God.

The Morning Offering, combined with an Examen or Evening Review of the day we have offered, can help us to seek and find God in all things, in all the people and events of our daily lives. In this way we better able to “pray without ceasing.”

Monday, December 12, 2011

Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe! Viva! Today we honor our Blessed Mother under her title “Our Lady of Guadalupe” and we remember how in December, 1531 she appeared to a humble Indian, St. Juan Diego, and gave him a miraculous image of herself as proof for the bishop of her appearance. The image, on material that should have disintegrated long ago, can be seen today in Mexico City.

When she appeared to Juan, she affectionately called him “Juanito” or “Johnny,” and said:

Know for certain, smallest of my children, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God through whom everything lives, the Lord of all things near and far, the Master of heaven and earth. I am your merciful Mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all humanity, of all those who love me. Hear and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little one. Let nothing discourage you, nothing depress you. Let nothing alter your heart, or your face. Am I not here who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle? In the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else that you need? Do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain.

St. Ignatius had a deep love for the Blessed Virgin Mary and he often turned to her when he needed special help. He recommends the same to us during key meditations in the Spiritual Exercises. As Jesus could not refuse his mother’s request at Cana (see John 2: 1-11), so, St. Ignatius was convinced, that if we go to Jesus with his mother and then with Jesus and Mary to the Father, we will receive what we need.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Fire with the Love of God

The prayers at today's Mass in honor of the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier speak of fire and zeal and longing. The Collect or Opening Prayer asks that "the hearts of the faithful may burn with the same zeal for the faith" that burned in the heart of Francis Xavier. The Prayer over the Offerings reminds us that this missionary "journeyed to distant lands out of longing for the salvation of souls." Finally, the Prayer after Communion asks that the mysteries just celebrated may "kindle in us that fire of charity with which Saint Francis Xavier burned for the salvation of souls."

What was the source of this ardent zeal and longing for the salvation of every soul, every person? It was Francis Xavier's awareness of God's love for him and for all. It was the love of God revealed in Jesus whose heart, as we hear in today's Gospel from Matthew, "was moved with pity" for the crowds who followed him. Through the "Spiritual Exercises" of his closest friend, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis was captured by the love of God. His heart was set on fire and he could not keep the fire within but had to spread it to India, the Islands of the East, and Japan. On this day in 1552, on an island just off the coast of China where he hoped to spread the Gospel, Francis died.

Through Baptism we are called to be missionaries as well. We may not be called to leave home to evangelize people who have never heard of Jesus. We are certainly called to pray and offer sacrifices for the work of evangelization in the manner of St. Francis Xavier's co-patron of the missions, St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. We can only do this if we, like St. Francis Xavier and St. Therese, are so captured by the love of God that we cannot keep the knowledge of this love to ourselves. With hearts on fire with the longing of the Heart of Jesus for the salvation of all people, we offer ourselves one day at a time for the salvation of souls.

On this day in 1844, a group of Jesuit seminarians who were on fire with the desire to be missionaries, were challenged to follow that call immediately by making an offering of themselves and their day for the spread of the Gospel. This was the beginning of the Apostleship of Prayer. Happy Feast and Happy Anniversary!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Last Night in Rome

In an hour I'll be meeting a Jesuit who is one of the spiritual directors at the North American College, the place where U.S. seminarians live as they study here in Rome. It will be my first visit there and we'll celebrate Vespers with the community and have supper.

My meetings this week with the Advisory Council of the Apostleship of Prayer went well and were clearly guided by the Holy Spirit. From beginning to end I sensed the prayer support of many people from around the world. We basically began working on a strategic plan for the Apostleship. We were able to work on a mission statement, some objectives, and some practical ways that we will work to realize those objectives. One of the things that makes this a difficult task is the diversity of the Apostleship. In Latin America it takes the form of a more traditional membership model, something that is also true in the Philippines where members wear a special Sacred Heart scapular for meetings and when they attend Mass in their parishes. It is also very visible and growing tremendously in Africa. In Europe and the U.S. it seems to have taken on a form that is modeled less on societies with membership lists and more on groups that are connected via the internet. The beginning of the mission statement that we worked on captures both of these realities: "The Apostleship of Prayer, entrusted by the Holy See to the Society of Jesus, is a worldwide network of prayer that helps people find hope and meaning in their lives by leading them to a deep, personal and trusting relationship with the risen Christ."

Last Monday, before our meetings began, I was able to visit St. Peter's Basilica and the tomb of Blessed John Paul II, as well as to buy some souvenirs. I had "Pranzo," the large midday meal, with Cardinal Raymond Burke, a great friend of the Apostleship of Prayer who always includes our annual leaflet in his Christmas cards. Our meetings began on Tuesday and I was busy with those through Saturday when we met with Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, the General of the Jesuits and Director General of the Apostleship. On Saturday night we went to a place that figures into Jesuit history--La Storta--where St. Ignatius had a vision of the Father placing him with the Son who was carrying His cross. He heard the words, "I will be propitious to you in Rome." As we celebrated Mass in this tiny chapel, we offered our work to the Father with the Son, praying that the Holy Spirit would continue to guide us and the Apostleship of Prayer around the world. We were grateful that God had been so "propitious" to us during our meetings.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Touring Rome

I arrived in Rome yesterday and spent the afternoon touring some of the places that I wasn't able to visit on my first trip here in February, 2010. It was a long walk from the Jesuit Curia, which is right next to St. Peter's Square, to the first church I visited--the Basilica of Saint Mary Major or Santa Maria Maggiore. This church figures into Jesuit history because St. Ignatius, when he wasn't able to get to the Holy Land to celebrate his first Mass, came to this church for that celebration because there is a relic of the manger of Jesus here.

On the way to the next Church I wanted to see--the Basilica of St. John Lateran--I stopped at the Church of St. Alphonsus Liguori where the original icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help is venerated. St. John Lateran is the Pope's church, his cathedral where his "chair" or "cathedra" is located. I also discovered that it is the largest church in Rome. Perhaps you're thinking--but what about St. Peter's Basilica? Yes, that's larger but, strictly speaking, it's located in Vatican City, not in the city of Rome.

Lastly, I walked to the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem or Santa Croce. There are numerous relics of Christ's Passion there: pieces of the Cross of Jesus, one of the nails, two of the thorns, the board which Pilate had placed on the Cross declaring Jesus' crime, and a large piece of the cross on which the Good Thief hung. There is also the bone of the index finger of St. Thomas the Apostle who touched the wounds of Jesus with this finger and came to believe in the resurrection.

But after seeing these relics, a great surprise awaited me. In Santa Croce there is also the tomb of little Nennolina, a six year old Italian girl whose cause for canonization was opened a few years ago. I'd heard about her and so coming upon her resting place was a good surprise. This heroic girl was diagnosed with bone cancer when she was five and in time had to have a leg amputated. She made an offering of her sufferings and wrote letters to Jesus that are quite remarkable. Coming upon her tomb was the highlight of my day. It's one thing to visit churches, the beautiful buildings filled with history. It's another thing to come upon a holy "living stone" who is a special part of the Church, the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


I got back yesterday afternoon from my annual eight-day retreat which I spent alone in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin. I basically had no interaction with people and was able to walk on the trails of Peninsula State Park. I also immersed myself in the Gospels. I felt called to focus my retreat this year on the life and teaching of Jesus and my spiritual director affirmed that before I left for my retreat.

As supplementary reading to the Gospels, I picked up parts of the first volume of Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" where I found some interesting observations about prayer. Chapter 5 is a reflection on the prayer of Jesus, the Our Father. In the preface to his reflections on the actual parts of the Our Father, Pope Benedict writes:

God addresses every individual by a name that no one else knows, as Scripture tells us (cf. Rev 2: 17). God's love for each individual is totally personal and includes this mystery of a uniqueness that cannot be divulged to other human beings.

In other words, each of us is a unique individual and though we share a common human nature we relate to God in unique and very personal or individual ways. I like to put it these two ways: 1) there's a place in God's Heart made just for you and just for me; 2) each of us gives God a delight or pleasure that no other human being can give God.

Pope Benedict goes on to say:

We are all familiar with the danger of reciting habitual formulas while our mind is somewhere else entirely.

So often people ask me how to get over distractions in prayer. I usually respond with "Welcome to the club!" Isn't it consoling to know that the Holy Father writes about being familiar with distractions?

Then he goes on to talk about prayer as relationship and as the foundation of life.

Most importantly, though, our relationship with God ... should be present as the bedrock of our soul. In order for that to happen, this relation has to be constantly revived and the affairs of our everyday lives have to be constantly related back to it. The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating, and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." ... This is what prayer really is--being in silent inward communion with God. it requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images, or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers.

In these words I find two approaches to prayer. One is the necessity of spending some quality time with God. This is what a retreat is; it's what a daily period of personal prayer is. This is the "nourishment" that our relationship, our communion with God requires. But we also need a time of prayer in which "the affairs of our everyday lives" are related back to God. This is the Examen or Evening Review or Examination of Consciousness. Through this prayerful review of the day we look back at what we said we were going to offer to God when we began the day with our Morning Offering. We look not only at what we offered to God but what God offered to us--how God was present in the events and people of our day; how God was speaking to us throughout our day. We can in this way "pray without ceasing" because God is present in every moment of our day. The more attuned we become to God's presence there in the moments of our day, the better we will be able to listen and the deeper we will grow in our relationship with God.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

God's GPS

I happened to read a passage from Deuteronomy today and thought of a GPS. Since getting a Garmin GPS to help me in my travels last year, I've been pretty impressed. It certainly was very helpful to me when I had to maneuver around the freeway system of Los Angeles. Here's the passage from Deuteronomy 30: 11-14:

For this command which I enjoin on you today is not too mysterious and remote for you. It is not up in the sky, that you should say, "Who will go up in the sky to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?" Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?" No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.

One way of thinking of "this command" in the passage is as the conscience which is part of every human person. Every person has an innate sense of right and wrong, of fairness. One boy hits another on the playground and the one who has been struck demands the opportunity to hit back to make it all "even-steven." There is an innate sense of the need for balance. Or if either sex is shown favoritism by a teacher in grade school, the other sex cries out that it is "unfair." These are not lessons that they learned from adults but a basic sense of fair play. It comes from their conscience.

St. Paul recognizes this as well in his Letter to the Romans, Chapter 2. In verse 14 he recognizes that Gentiles can "observe the prescriptions" of God's law "even though they do not have the law," even though they have never been taught the law. "They show the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them..." (verse 15).

Our conscience is an internal GPS guiding us in the right direction. But, as Paul indicates, our thoughts and desires can come into conflict with our conscience. We can then choose a path different from the one this God-given GPS indicates. Our conscience, if it is well formed, will protest "Recalculating!" It will try to get us back on track, going in the right direction. Tired of listening to our conscience, we might choose to turn it off.

Besides this spiritual GPS, God gives us two other helps for our journey through life to the goal of eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven. One is the Son, Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (see John 14: 6). He is the Truth about what it means to be a human being and the Way that leads to Life. He is the map that lays out the best path to follow to God's desired destination for us--heaven. We not only follow his teachings which guide us on our journey but we have him present with us in the Eucharist. He unites himself to us so that together we will take the best path.

The other help that we have is the Holy Spirit whose name, Paraclete (see John 14: 16), has many meanings including Guide. With such divine help, we have even more than a spiritual GPS. We have a power that not only points us in the right direction but also, as it were, takes the wheel with us. United to Jesus in Holy Communion and filled with the Holy Spirit, we do not drive alone but God is holding the wheel steady and helping us drive when we feel lost or too tired to continue.

Our conscience. Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit. God is doing everything possible to make sure we don't get off track on our journey through life. We just have to be humble enough to accept the help.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

International Meeting and Renewal Process

I'm scrambling to get ahead in my work of web and radio reflections because I have a couple long trips this month. From November 8 to 15 I will be away from the office making my annual retreat. After giving many retreats throughout the year it's time to make my own retreat.

Then, from November 20 to 28 I'll be in Rome for a meeting of an international advisory council of the Apostleship of Prayer that was formed a few years ago. The General Superior of the Jesuits, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, is the Director General of the Apostleship but he has a delegate who coordinates our work, Fr. Claudio Barriga. I am joined on his advisory council by the following Jesuits: Fr. Frederic Fornos (national secretary/director for France and coordinator of European directors); Fr. Rigobert Kyungu (secretary/director for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and coordinator of African directors); and Fr. Juan Antonio Medina (secretary/director for Uruguay and coordinator of Latin American directors).

In anticipation of the meeting, Fr. Barriga has asked us to invite people to pray a special prayer for both the meeting and our ongoing work of the renewal of the Apostleship of Prayer throughout the world. Here is that prayer:

Prayer for the Renewal of the Apostleship of Prayer

Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
about 160 years ago
you started a fire
in the hearts of men and women
that has spread all over the world.

They burned to tell your Good News,
to spread your gospel of love to all humanity.
Touching their hearts to the Heart of your Son,
you made them Apostles through Prayer.
You gave them to serve
the mission of your Church
in the heart of the world.

Today we men and women
of the Apostleship of Prayer
are still on fire with your love.
We still long to respond to the thirst
of our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Take, Lord, and receive our lives.
Blaze up in us again,
make us docile to your Spirit.
May the worldwide mission of prayer
you have entrusted to us
bring your loving presence
today as yesterday
deep into the heart of humanity.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Spirit of Jeanne Jugan

I'm finishing my retreat with the Little Sisters of the Poor whose foundress was canonized in 2009. St. Jeanne Jugan, also known as Sister Mary of the Cross, was born in France in 1792. We celebrated her birthday yesterday with special prayers at Mass and a birthday cake for dinner. Her spirituality includes the Sacred Heart and Immaculate Heart devotion of St. John Eudes whose congregation for lay women--the Third Order of the Admirable Mother--she joined. She was also deeply influenced by the Brothers of St. John of God who cared for the sick and took a vow of hospitality in addition to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. After caring for a homeless elderly woman, even going so far as to giving up her own bed, she was joined by others who wanted to help and by 1847 they had started four houses for the elderly poor. By 1851 there were 300 Sisters serving more than 1,500 people in 15 houses. Blessed Pius IX approved them as a religious congregation in 1854. Today the Little Sisters of the Poor keep the spirit of their foundress alive in 32 countries on 5 continents.

When the canonization of Jeanne Jugan was announced, Francis Cardinal George, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said: "As the Church anticipates the canonization of Jeanne Jugan ... we might recall the words of Pope John Paul II at her beatification: 'God could glorify no more humble a servant than she!' The quiet but eloquent radiance of her life continues to shine out in the lives of the Little Sisters of the Poor today.... These residences are icons of mercy where Christ is welcomed and served in the elderly poor with the utmost respect for their dignity."

Last Sunday, Saints John and Paul Parish in Larchmont, NY blessed an icon of St. Jeanne Jugan and began a new ministry called "Family Jeanne Jugan." I've always thought that our local parishes should be places where people care for one another's needs. When people find themselves in need the first place that they should think of looking for help should be their parish. This would give tremendous witness to the world: "See how they love one another." Taking their inspiration from St. Jeanne Jugan, who gave up her own room and bed to help a poor woman, this Larchmont parish has committed itself in the following way:

"We will identify the elderly among us who are most in need. These individuals will then be matched with three volunteer families who will coordinate assisting with doctor visits, weekly errands and attendance at Mass, or Communion in the home. Together, these families and seniors will form a small community rooted in Trinitarian Love."

May this new initiative bear good fruit and inspire many others to follow the example of this parish and the Little Sisters as they reverence the dignity of people whom society at large is increasingly viewing as burdens.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Apostle of Prayer Canonized

Blessed Luigi Guanella is being canonized in Rome today. When he was a seminarian he enrolled in the Apostleship of Prayer which he saw as the perfect way to live out his devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Mass readings for today, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are perfect for this great event. In the Gospel (Matthew 22: 34-40), Jesus gives the Great Commandment: "You shall love the Lord, your God, will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Jesus tells us to love as God has loved us--completely. God has not only given us everything--our life and health, our talents and gifts--he has also given us his very self in giving us his Son Jesus who shared our life with its joys and sorrows. Jesus gave his life for us on the cross, offering everything for our salvation. This offering becomes present in every celebration of Mass where Jesus gives us everything of himself--his body and blood, soul and divinity, and his heart. Knowing this, our response is to love as God has loved us--totally, loving with our heart, soul, and mind, with our entire self.

Loving God so totally means that we will love what God loves. And what God loves is humanity, all his children, our brothers and sisters. Having received the heart of Jesus in Holy Communion, our hearts are moved as the heart of Jesus was moved when he saw those in need.

Matthew's Gospel speaks of the heart of Jesus being moved several times:

Matthew 9: 36 "At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd."

Matthew 14: 14 "When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick."

Matthew 15: 32 "Jesus summoned his disciples and said, 'My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, for they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, for fear they may collapse on the way.'"

As the heart of Jesus was moved with pity for the crowds of people--poor, hungry, abandoned, troubled, disabled--so was the heart of Fr. Luigi Guanella. That makes sense. Totally in love with God, he shared God's love for those who were most abandoned by their families and society. The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence and the Servants of Charity now carry on Fr. Guanella's work.

Congratulations to them on the occasion of their founder's canonization! The Apostleship of Prayer shares the joy that one of its own has attained this glory. The recognition of Fr. Luigi's holiness and his powerful intercession inspires us to follow his example.

For more about St. Luigi Guanella, see this earlier post.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Fire of God

In today's Gospel (Luke 12: 49-53) Jesus, the Prince of Peace, says he has come not to bring peace but division. How are we to understand this paradox? In light of what Jesus said right before this: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!"

When God appeared to Moses (Exodus 3: 1-10) it was as fire, in the form of a bush that was on fire but not consumed. Yet, the fire of God does consume. According to Hebrews 12: 29, "our God is a consuming fire." What does God consume? Sin. All that is not worthy of him. All that is not holy. The fire of God is a consuming and purifying fire. We see this as well in 1 Corinthians 3: 10-17. Paul declares that we must build our lives on the one foundation--Jesus Christ. But the "stuff" of our lives, the materials with which we make our lives, have different qualities. Some of what we make of our lives is lasting and some of it is not worthy of God. At the end of our lives the fire of God's love will reveal what we've made of our lives and will purify them. As Paul puts it: "It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one's work. ... But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire."

This is the fire Jesus came to cast on the earth--the fire of God's love. It is a fiery love that, in the words of Peter Kreeft, philosophy professor and popular author, "forgives sinners and destroys sins." For this reason, it is a love that divides, separating sinners from their sins and those who cling to their sins from those who seek to rid themselves of sin and seek God's mercy.

Ultimately, this fire is the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Thief

I've heard that the earliest known image of Jesus depicts him as the Good Shepherd. Today's Gospel (Luke 12: 39-48) gives a very different image of Jesus. After warning his disciples that "if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into," he goes on to talk about the Son of Man coming "at an hour you do not expect." Like many of the parables which are designed to startle us into deeper reflection, so this comparison which Jesus makes is shocking.

Yet many people do think of God as a thief. There is a tendency to think of our lives as our own, not God's. Our gifts and talents and hard-earned possessions are our own, not God's. We see death as God stealing what is rightfully ours. The reality is that everything we are and have belongs to God. This was the meaning of last Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 22: 15-21). Jesus says to give the Roman coin back to the one whose image is on it and to give "to God what belongs to God." We who are made in the image and likeness of God and bear that image belong to God, not ourselves.

Our lives are a series of exercises in letting go. We practice surrender, preparing for the ultimate surrender when God will ask of us our very lives. Our practice of making a daily offering can help us. What also helps is the example of saints, like the North American Jesuit Martyrs whom we honor today, or St. Jeanne Jugan.

I'm giving a retreat to 17 Little Sisters of the Poor at their retreat house and summer vacation facility for seniors in Flemington, NJ. St. Jeanne Jugan, their foundress, was canonized by Pope Benedict in 2009. When Blessed John Paul II beatified her in 1982, he said: "Jeanne invites all of us, and I quote here from the Rule of the Little Sisters, to share personally in the beatitude of spiritual poverty, leading to that complete dispossession which commits a soul to God."

"Complete dispossession." This is not something we like to hear. In our "super-sizing" age where "more is better", St. Jeanne Jugan, like the Gospel, is counter-cultural. We tend to fool ourselves, thinking that we are in control. The reality is that God is God and we are not. We are God's creatures and beloved children. We and all we have belong to God.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Autumn Thoughts

The weather in Milwaukee has been spectacular the past week, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70’s. Yesterday I had the chance to get out and enjoy the beauty of Autumn. I’m always thrilled to see the colors of the leaves made even more brilliant by the sun and silhouetted against a clear and deep blue sky.

There’s a paradox in all this. What makes us appreciate the beauty of these days is that it won’t last. The splendor these days is passing as Winter lurks around the corner.

You have to wonder: would we appreciate the beauty of an Autumn day if every day were sunny and every tree painted in these brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds? I don’t think so.

There’s a song by Warren Barfield, a contemporary Christian artist, which captures this truth. It’s called “Beautiful Broken World” and it begins with this verse:

Wonderfully arrayed on a bright autumn day
The leaves set the trees ablaze
I’m sitting here beneath
This decaying canopy
Sunlight sifting through the shade
It won’t be long
Until they’re gone away
That’s the price we pay

Then the chorus goes like this:

In this beautiful broken world
We laugh and then we cry
There’s a wonderful pain and joy
In death and in life

What makes life and its beauties so precious and something to be valued is the fact that it isn’t forever. As the bridge of the song goes:

Would the day still be as sweet
If it had no end

And the answer is “no.” It wouldn’t. Life in this “beautiful broken world” is precious and sweet because it doesn’t last forever.

As the trees let go of their leaves, so each one of us, in different ways and at different times, must let go of one thing or person after another until finally we let go of life itself.

We let go in order to be given more than we could hope for or imagine. In heaven we won’t have to let go and yet it won’t be boring. There, we believe, everything is more beautiful that the most beautiful Autumn day. Though it will be eternal, Heaven won’t be boring because it will be eternal not as a succession of one day after another, each one just like the last; rather the eternity of heaven will be an eternal “now,” a moment that lasts forever. We can’t imagine that because we time-bound creatures cannot conceive of life outside of time. The closest we can come is to savor the present moment—the “bright autumn day” with “the trees ablaze”—and remember… this is an hors d’oeuvre of the Heaven Banquet.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

No Limits to God's Mercy

Today is the feast day of St. Faustina, the Apostle of Divine Mercy. When Jesus appeared to her in the 1930's, he told her that his greatest attribute was mercy. His mercy, like his love, is infinite. The only limit to it is the one we place on it. In other words, God is always ready to forgive and even sends graces to move our hearts to return to him. We limit God's mercy in our own lives and in those of others by our refusal to receive mercy and to give mercy.

The Mass readings today underscore this. The Prophet Jonah is angry that God has forgiven his enemies after he fulfilled God's command to warn them that their sins were leading them to destruction. God shows Jonah that he wants to forgive and not destroy, that he is "concerned" over the more than 120,000 people "who cannot distinguish their right hand from their left." In other words: people who were never taught right from wrong, or who were taught it but really did not understand. They were like those who crucified Jesus and for whom he prayed: "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing."

In the Gospel (Luke 11: 1-4) Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, calling upon God as Jesus himself did: "Father". God is the one Father whose human children made in his own image and likeness must forgive one another as their Father forgives them.

Jesus directed St. Faustina to write a diary that contained her thoughts, prayers, and the words of Jesus to her. In one passage (#723) Jesus said: "The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy." "Right"? That's not a word we would think of in this context, but Jesus declares that because he came to forgive sinners, they are the ones who have the most claim on his mercy.

Another passage (#1183) is a prayer that St. Faustina wrote. It sounds very much like the "one day at a time" spirituality of the Morning Offering:

"O Jesus, I want to live in the present moment, to live as if this were the last day of my life. I want to use every moment scrupulously for the greater glory of God, to use every circumstance for the benefit of my soul. I want to look upon everything, from the point of view that nothing happens without the will of God."

In another passage (#1582) St. Faustina sounds just like St. Therese of the Child Jesus who said that she would spend her heaven doing good on earth. St. Faustina felt that she would be so filled with God's love and mercy in heaven that she would be an even better channel for God's overflowing mercy to reach the world. She wrote:

"O my Jesus, I now embrace the whole world and ask You for mercy for it. ... Poor earth, I will not forget you. Although I feel that I will be immediately drowned in God as in an ocean of happiness, that will not be an obstacle to my returning to earth to encourage souls and incite them to trust in God's mercy. Indeed, this immersion in God will give me the possibility of boundless action."

Thus, St. Faustina is a great friend and intercessor. May we all become channels and instruments of God's mercy as well.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Becoming Little

Today's the feast of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, the co-patron of the Apostleship of Prayer. As Providence would have it, the Gospel for Saturday of the 26th Week in Ordinary Time (Luke 10: 17-24) is perfect for this saint.

72 of Jesus' disciples have just returned from a mission trip. They're filled with joy and tell Jesus: "Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name." Jesus shares their joy but then cautions them that they should not be so thrilled in the power they have nor in their accomplishments and success in ministry. He says: "Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven." He tells them to find their security not in what they do but in who they are. They are to exalt not because they have accomplished great things (that can feed their pride) but because they are children of the Father. This is where their identity is to be grounded, not in anything external.

Then Jesus goes on to pray: "I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike." This is Therese who never went to college and who lived, from the age of 15 until her death at 24, in a cloistered Carmelite convent. In 1997 Blessed John Paul II named her a Doctor of the Church. Clearly her wisdom came not from books (except for the Scriptures) and classes but from God who reveals heavenly things to the childlike.

When Therese looked at the great saints--ascetics and apostles, martyrs and theologians--she did not see herself among them. She felt that she could not follow their way to perfection. So God inspired in her a new way. She wrote: "I wish to find the way to go to heaven by a very straight, short, completely new little way." Then, reflecting on all the new inventions of the 19th Century, she decided to seek an elevator that could take her to heaven. She wrote: "I too would like to find an elevator to lift me up to Jesus, for I am too little to climb the rough stairway of perfection." What could serve as her elevator to Jesus? His own arms: "The elevator which must raise me to the heavens is your arms, O Jesus! For that I do not need to grow; on the contrary, I must necessarily remain small, become smaller."

Centuries earlier another saint, the cousin of Jesus, put it another way: "He must increase; I must decrease" (John 3: 30). This goes absolutely against the grain of a world that wants to "super-size" everything, including the human ego. St. Therese reminds us that smaller is better.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Having a Heart Like Jesus

I'm in San Diego these days with about 180 priests, giving presentations at their annual convocation. The focus of my talks is "Having a Priestly Heart Like the Heart of Jesus." At dinner last night I had the pleasure of sitting next to Bishop Robert Brom who told me a story that was sparked by something I said in my first talk.

I talked about God's love for us and how each of us, because we are completely unique, have a place in God's Heart that no one else can fill. In our uniqueness we give to God a pleasure that no other human being who ever lived or who is living or who will live can give to God. I used a quote from Blessed John Paul II: "Each person is unique, precious, and unrepeatable."

It was this quote that sparked a memory that Bishop Brom had of Pope John Paul. During the Second Vatican Council, Bishop Brom was studying at the North American College in Rome. He and a number of other seminarians were standing outside the Vatican one day when various bishops and cardinals walked past. One of them was the future Pope John Paul who stopped to greet the seminarians. Bishop Brom's Slavic name caught Bishop Woytila's attention. Years later, on his first "ad limina" visit to meet the Holy Father, Bishop Brom introduced himself at the beginning of their meeting. Pope John Paul remarked how they had already met. Bishop Brom tried to correct him, informing him that he was a new bishop and that this was the first time he was meeting His Holiness. Pope John Paul stopped him and reminded him of that day so many years before when he was a 25 year old seminarian studying in Rome.

Last night Bishop Brom told me that this was a particular gift of Blessed John Paul II. He met people and did not forget them. He truly had a heart like the Heart of Jesus which saw every person as "unique, precious, unrepeatable," and, we might add now, unforgettable.

Friday, September 23, 2011

"Take Courage"

Today's first reading at Mass comes from the Prophet Haggai (2: 1-9). The Israelites have returned from exile and are back in the Promised Land, re-building the Temple in Jerusalem. They compare it to Solomon's Temple and get discouraged. It doesn't come near to the grandeur of that Temple which was built during the height of Israel's power. God addresses their discouragement through the Prophet Haggai.

He says "take courage" three times. He says "do not fear" and he says "work!" These are helpful words for all of us.

First, "do not fear." Fear and anxiety are feelings. The devil loves to use them to agitate us and get us off balance. When we are off balance we are more susceptible to his other suggestions and temptations. So, when we feel fear or discouragement, we must not give in to the feeling. We must reject it.

But we do not live in a vacuum so it's important to replace the feeling of fear with something positive--courage. It's common to think of fear and courage as mutually exclusive; to think that if you have courage then you never feel fear. The opposite is true. A World War I general once said that any soldier who told him he's never been afraid going into battle has either never been in battle or is a liar. The natural feeling to have going into battle is fear, and courage is to not let that feeling determine our action. Courage is a decision. It's an act of the will that rejects fear. It doesn't let the feeling determine the action.

That's where the third word of Haggai comes in: "work!" Having decided to reject fear and be courageous, we act. We put away the fearful thoughts and get to work. We don't worry about the results but we leave those in God's hands.

Padre Pio, whom we honor today, once wrote: "if any thought agitates you, this agitation never comes from God, who gives you peace, being the Spirit of Peace, but from the devil." When we feel fear or discouragement, we need to smell the sulphur behind it. Then we can reject it and "take courage."

The root of that word "courage" is "cor" or "heart." Another way of saying "take courage" is to say "take heart." The best heart we can take is the Heart of Jesus who readily gives his Heart to us in the Eucharist where he is present, body and blood, soul and divinity, including his Sacred Heart. The Eucharist gives us the courage of the Heart of Jesus, a Heart that accepted struggle, suffering, and finally death on the cross, trusting that in this way God the Father would take away the sins of the world and triumph over death.

Take courage! Live in union with the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Martyrs of Korea

Today is the feast day of the Martyrs of Korea, faithful Catholics who died for the faith in the Nineteenth Century and who were canonized in 1984 when Blessed John Paul II visited their native land. I visited there two years before and I couldn't help thinking about that trip today.

It was the summer of 1982, a few months before I was ordained a transitional deacon, and I went to Korea with a Jesuit friend, Fr. Larry Gillick. For the six weeks that we were there I served as his eyes and he served as my mentor in giving retreats around the country. You see, Fr. Gillick has been blind since an accident that took his eyesight when he was only seven.

We spent much of our thirteen hour flight from Seattle to Seoul worrying and fretting. What if the Jesuits who were supposed to meet us there didn't show up? How would we communicate with people and find our way to the Jesuit University of Sogang? What if they wouldn't let Fr. Gillick's big green tape player through Customs? What if we got sick from the food? What if we caught a strange Asian disease? And, one of the scariest thoughts, how were we ever going to manage the Korean toilets which we had heard were holes in concrete slabs and not Western-style "thrones?" It was one thing for me to consider this but it certainly caused more panic in my blind friend.

As we approached Kimpo Airport we finally did what we should have been doing instead of worrying. We prayed. Instead of surrendering to the anxiety, we surrendered to God and asked Him to get us safely through the coming six weeks.

Every night we sat down and wrote about the adventures of the day and God's goodness to us. We ended up calling this Journal "Kam-sa-ham-nida" which means "Thank you." For God answered our prayer as we had hoped and took great care of us.

I couldn't help thinking of our anxiety in contrast to the courage of the Korean Martyrs. We visited their shrine which is located on a high hill overlooking the Han River where many of them were thrown over the cliff to their deaths below. In the shrine was a museum with many of the gruesome instruments of torture that were used to elicit their denial of the faith. Surely some of them, especially those who were mere children, must have been afraid. But their faith and courage prevailed. God took care of them too, though not in a way that added to their time on earth. He took them to Himself in heaven and we are able to celebrate them today.

The fear that Fr. Gillick and I experienced as we flew across the Pacific Ocean seems so foolish now in light of what those Martyrs faced. Yet, we shouldn't compare. We all have fears and anxieties that at the time can seem pretty major. In facing them and not letting them control us the trick is the same one that those Korean Martyrs employed, the same one that we two traveling and fearful Jesuits employed. Prayer.

This is what St. Paul prescribed against anxiety as well:

"Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4: 6-7).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

St. Patrick's in Tolono

I'm giving a parish mission this week at St. Patrick Church in Tolono, IL. Fr. John Cyr was kind enough to record my Sunday homily and to post it on their web site. They also have a Facebook page with some photos from the mission including this one.

When I travel to different parts of the country for parish missions, I like to spread the message of the Apostleship of Prayer wherever I can. Yesterday morning after visiting a few shut-ins, Fr. Cyr was kind enough to take me to St. John's Newman Center at the University of Illinois where I met some of the staff and left some of our materials. According to a Wikipedia article, this Newman Center is the largest in the United States. They even have a residence hall for 600 students and while we had lunch there I had the opportunity to meet with Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the director, as well as some of the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionaries who work there. In fact I had a "small world" experience as one of the young FOCUS missionaries turned out to be friends with some good friends of mine, Pat and Fran Coy, a deacon couple from Hill City, South Dakota. Today I'll be helping to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with students from St. Thomas More High School of Champaign who are on retreat.

After being around the home office in Milwaukee for most of August, it's nice to be on the road again and experiencing how the Lord is at work in different parts of the country.

Monday, September 12, 2011

More on Forgiveness

Confession time: I received a thoughtful comment from "Do Not Be Anxious" who follows this blog and after writing my own comment in reply, I could not figure out how to post it. I've posted comments before but for some reason couldn't do so with this one and didn't have the time to play around with it. So, I decided to create another post responding to the comment.

"Do Not Be Anxious" wrote: "I subscribed to Touchstone magazine for a year, and the first issue had an article explaining how you could not forgive someone unless he asked for forgiveness --- ala the sacrament of Penance. I wrote a comment that Matthew 5 and 18 call us to reconcile with others, whether we have sinned against them (5) or they against us (18) --- and they have the same obligation. However, in 18 it says that if they do not seek forgiveness, we are to shake the dust from our shoes and move on. But, as I commented, nowhere does it say in the bible that we cannot forgive someone, even if they do not seek forgiveness. I've had many discussions about this, forgiving others even if they do not seek forgiveness. It seems to be an open question in Catholic teachings, never specifically addressed. Perhaps it gets down to a definition of forgiveness: is it a two-person thing, a reconciliation between people which requires both to participate (as confession implies) or is it merely a cleansing of one's feelings?"

My response: I would make a distinction between "forgiveness" and "reconciliation." I think every Christian is called to be ready to forgive. We are called to be like Jesus who prayed for those crucifying him and who therefore weren't seeking his forgiveness. He asked the Father to forgive them. We must have a heart like the Heart of Jesus that is always ready to forgive rather than condemn. When Jesus tells Peter to forgive 77 times--a symbolic number representing "always"--he wasn't asking Peter to do something that he was not ready to do himself.

But, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, while we must always be ready to forgive, that forgiveness may not be accepted. And until it is accepted, reconciliation has not happened. I may say to people who have hurt me, "I forgive you," and they, denying that they did anything to me, may reject my offer of forgiveness. I have forgiven but it has not been accepted and reconciliation has not occured. That person who rejects my forgiveness continues to be "bound" by denial and by the sin against me. This could be one way of looking at Matthew 18: 18 "Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven." Our binding is simply allowing the person to hold on to the denial and sin that they have chosen instead of our forgiveness.

If someone does not seek or accept our offer of forgiveness, we can, as "Do Not Be Anxious" points out, follow Matthew 18: 15-17. We can bring others and the Church with us. If they refuse even in the face of this, Jesus says: "treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector." That isn't quite shaking the dust from our feet, an image that is used in other places with regards to the apostles' preaching being rejected by a particular town. I've always found this line ambiguous because while the good Jew of Jesus' time--the Pharisee--would reject the tax collectors as sinners and would view the Gentiles as doomed--Jesus reaches out to them. Are we, in treating them like Gentiles and tax collectors, to continue reaching out to them with love and forgiveness? I think we could say that in doing so we would be following Jesus' example.

But I think there comes a time when, while we might be always ready to forgive, it doesn't help the process of reconciliation to keep confronting people who deny they've done wrong with their sin. Then it's best to pray quietly and constantly for them. This prayer keeps our hearts from becoming resentful.

"Do Not Be Anxious" also wrote: "Perhaps it also comes down to a question of the benefits of forgiveness. Does God benefit by my seeking forgiveness --- He is God, what can he gain? I can understand that I might gain something in a renewed relationship with someone if we reconcile together, but what do I gain if I unilaterally forgive him? Does he gain anything?"

What does God gain from our forgiveness? God desires reconciliation and peace for his children. We are helping to realize God's plan for humanity when we are ready to forgive and praying for it. Our prayers, we have to believe, can play a role in the conversion of the person who has hurt us. If heaven rejoices over one sinner who repents (see Luke 15), it must also be true that God rejoices over his children who have not let resentment take root in their hearts. God rejoices in his children whose hearts have become more like the Heart of his Son. Our desire to forgive, even when it is rejected, gives joy to God. Even if reconciliation does not occur, I gain because I have not allowed my heart to become hardened, and the offending party gains--my prayers and my love, even though they are at that particular time rejected.

"Do Not Be Anxious" ended the comment with: "Much to be thought on, on this thing called forgiveness." So very true. Thank you for the opportunity to continue the reflection.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


These are challenging times and today's Mass readings are challenging. It's the 10th anniversary of what has come to be known simply as "9-11" and the readings are all about forgiveness.

The First Reading (Sirach 27: 30 - 28: 7) begins: "Wrath and anger are hateful things." They may be "hateful" but they are common. In the reconciliation room or confessional I hear sins of anger confessed frequently. Yet, is anger really a sin? Jesus got angry. Jesus, the sinless one, the all-holy Son of God, became so angry that he made a whip to drive animals out of the temple and turned over the tables of money-changers, scattering their coins. Anger itself isn't a sin. What we do with it can be. In fact, anger, as we see with Jesus, is the appropriate response to something that is wrong, to an injustice, to evil. We ought to get angry at some of the situations in our world.

Anger becomes sinful when we nurse it into bitterness and resentment, when we allow it to make our hearts hard, cold, and unforgiving. The best definition of resentment that I've heard is this: "Resentment is like taking a bottle of poison, drinking it, and hoping that the other person dies." Resentment really doesn't hurt the person who hurts us. It hurts and poisons us. It leads to alienation from other people and from God.

This is why some other words from Sirach are very important to hear: "Remember your last days, set enmity aside; remember death and decay, and cease from sin!" We don't have forever. Actually, we don't have forever in this world to let go of resentments, but we will have forever in the next life to be poisoned and forever alienated from God. Thus we must let go of resentments and forgive now.

In 1995 the Federal Building in Oklahoma City was bombed. Today, in the plaza where the building stood, there are 168 concrete chairs representing the people whose lives were snuffed out that day. Timothy McVeigh was apprehended, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. In prison, awaiting his execution, he was visited by a Catholic priest, Fr. Charles Smith, who came to lead him to remorse and reconciliation. McVeigh was a baptized Catholic but had not been practicing the faith. The first visit did not go well. In a Catholic News Service story, Fr. Smith is quoted as saying: "I went to him and he threw his feces on me and called me all types of names and said, 'You can't be a priest because I've never seen a you-know-what as a priest.'" You see, Fr. Smith is African-American. McVeigh, poisoned by his racism and bitterness, rejected Fr. Smith. But Fr. Smith persisted and in time McVeigh sought God's mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. On June 11, 2001, Fr. Smith and Timothy McVeigh walked together down the corridor to the execution room where McVeigh was given a lethal injection.

It was reported that the reaction on the part of some people who had lost family members was: "That was too easy! He should have suffered more!" Having nursed their anger into a bitterness, McVeigh's death was not enough. They wanted his suffering.

Imagine for a moment those people passing from this life to the next and seeing Timothy McVeigh, who had sought mercy from God, forgiven and with the Lord in heaven. It's conceivable that having held on to their resentment for years they would say: "What's he doing here? How could you have forgiven him? You may have forgiven him but I will never forgive him for what he did to my family!" And conceivably they would choose to be separated from God rather than to forgive.

How do we forgive? It isn't easy and it's not once-and-for-all. We don't "forgive and forget" unless we have amnesia. Painful memories do not go away. They come back to haunt us and tempt us. Perhaps this is why in the Gospel (Matthew 18: 21-35) Jesus tells Peter he must forgive 77 times. On any given day the painful memory may return and the temptation to allow it to become a resentment might come back innumerable times. Each time we are challenged to forgive. Forgiveness, like love, is not a feeling but a decision, an act of the will. When the painful memory of how we've been hurt returns, we must forgive and pray for the ones who hurt us. We pray for their conversion and for their ultimate good. We don't want an ongoing resentment to keep us from the Communion of Saints in heaven.

Where do we get the power to forgive? From Jesus. From the Eucharist where Jesus speaks to us and gives his Heart to us so that we might be transformed and empowered to do what he did. At every Mass we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus in a miraculous way that actually makes these saving events present to us right now. The past event--Calvary--is made present and we hear Jesus once again pray: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do."

Nine years ago I was working at the Jesuit Retreat House in Lake Elmo, Minnesota. I had just finished talking about the events of September 11, 2001, and a man followed me into a tiny individual conference room. He introduced himself as Vince Fahnlander and said that he was Tom Burnett's college roommate. I couldn't quite remember who Tom Burnett was but I surmised he had some connection with 9-11. Vince explained that Tom was on the plane that crashed into the field in Pennsylvania. After graduation Tom moved to California and got a job with a medical technology firm and Vince stayed in Minnesota. They lost contact with each other.

When Vince heard that there was going to be a memorial service for Tom at his home parish in Bloomington, Minnesota, he went. He almost thought that he was at the wrong place because the man whom the priest described didn't sound like the Tom Burnett he knew. Tom had quit practicing the faith in college and the priest described a man who went to Mass every day.

After the service Vince went up to Deena, Tom's widow, introduced himself and asked about what had happened in the intervening years. Deena explained that Tom had always been a hard worker and when he stopped coming home for lunch in 1997, she figured he was putting in extra hours at work. Six months before his death he revealed to her that he had been going to a 12:10 PM Mass every day instead of driving the short distance home for lunch.

In an article that Vince sent me, Deena explained: "He told me that he felt God was telling him he was going to do something. Something big. But he didn't understand what it was." Feeling God calling him to something, Tom thought that if he prayed more he would find the answer. Deena continued: "He knew that what he was going to do would impact a lot of people. And he knew one other thing: It had something to do with the White House."

Just imagine this average guy, much like you or I, having an intuition that God had a plan for him. That God was calling him to something else. He senses, as he prays, that this call has something to do with the White House and he thinks: "What does my life have to do with the White House?! I have any plans or desires to go into politics!"

On September 11, 2001, thousands of feet above the earth, Tom Burnett knew what his life had to do with the White House. He knew where the plane that had been hijacked was heading and he and others on that plane decided that at all costs they had to prevent a greater tragedy from happening. They acted and the plane crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.

Where did Tom get the insight and courage to do what he did? I believe it was the Eucharist where every day he experienced a sacrifice that saved the world. There he found the strength that would one day help him to sacrifice himself.

Tom Burnett and the others are called heroes. We may feel that we are not heroes, but each of us is called to love heroically. We do that when we sacrifice ourselves for others--for spouse and for family, for our city and for our country, for our Church. The power to love in a sacrificial way comes from the Eucharist. The power to sacrifice our hurts and resentments, forgiving and praying for our enemies, comes from the Eucharist. In Holy Communion Jesus gives us himself, his Body and Blood, his Pierced Heart. In the Eucharist our hearts become more and more like the Heart of Jesus who did not pray for vengeance on his enemies but for their forgiveness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Prayer of Jesus and Ours

At the Marquette University Jesuit Community where I live, we all come together once a week to celebrate Mass. This last Tuesday I presided and preached and here's what I said....

A favorite theme of the Gospel of Luke is Jesus at prayer. Today's Gospel (Luke 6: 12-19) begins with one of those scenes: "Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God." What was the prayer of Jesus like?

I imagine much of it was a time of loving communion with the Father in which he experienced himself as the Beloved Son. Knowing the Father as not only his own "Abba" but also the Father of all humanity made in the image and likeness of God, Jesus experienced in his prayer time the reality that other people were his brothers and sisters, beloved children of the Father. And today's Gospel shows us another aspect of Jesus' prayer. In his prayer he reflected on the decisions he faced and discerned the direction he was to take.

When Jesus came down the mountain he chose 12 apostles from his band of followers. Looking at these men it's obvious that this decision was not the result of human ingenuity and wisdom. It was obviously the result of God's direction in his life for God's ways are not human ways.

Just look at the weak and flawed people Jesus chose to be his closest friends and collaborators. Could you really trust Simon Peter to build your Church upon? He blew hot and cold. One day he might tell you that he was willing to face death with you and the next day he would deny that he even knew you. James and John were opportunists and climbers. They were the kind of people who would send their own mother to finagle getting positions of power and glory next to you.

My favorite examples, though, are Matthew and "Simon who was called a Zealot." According to Josephus, the Jewish historian of the time, Zealots were "Assassins." The Romans called them "Stabbers" because they carried small knives with which they would quickly dispatch the occupying soldiers or those who would collaborate with the hated Roman army. They were terrorists. Jesus calls one of them and Matthew, a tax-collector for the Romans, and expects them to live and work together with him. I can just imagine Jesus, in his infinite sense of humor, getting ready to send the apostles out two-by-two and calling Matthew and Simon the Zealot forward to be sent together.

Jesus called earthen vessels and enemies to be with him and work with him. Humanly speaking, nothing could have kept them together. Only Jesus could. And that's where our First Reading (Colossians 2: 6-15) comes into play. St. Paul tells the Colossians to focus on Jesus. He calls on them to be "rooted in him and built upon him and established in the faith." Pope Benedict likes to remind us that our faith is not so much in a set of beliefs as it is in a person--Jesus. Only Jesus could have kept those 12 apostles together. Rooted in and built upon Jesus, they could be the 12 pillars of the New Israel, the Church. He was the source of their union of minds and hearts.

The same is true for us and for the entire Church. But how are we rooted in and built upon Jesus? Through prayer. First and foremost, through the Eucharist where we are in a very real way rooted in Christ, joined to Christ and transformed. But secondly, our personal prayer, like the prayer of Jesus on the mountain, roots us in Jesus. In that prayer we, like Jesus, come to know ourselves as beloved sons of Abba. In that prayer we experience others as our true brothers and sisters. In that prayer we come to know the direction God would have us take.

We are called to a deeper relationship than that of followers. We are called to be one with Christ, rooted in him and built upon him. As we grow in this union, our decisions and actions will follow.

Friday, September 2, 2011


Tonight I'll be speaking at the monthly All-Night Vigil in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The theme is "Humility and Obedience" and the topic I've been given is "Humility."

In Matthew 23: 12 Jesus says: "Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted." This is a paradox that once again shows us God's ways are not ours. Humility leads to exaltation? Becoming low leads to being raised up? This is clearly not the way of the world.

Humility is about truth, about accepting the truth that I am a creature. The root of humility is the Latin word "humus" or earth. I am of the earth. Without God, I am nothing. This is reality.

But we, like our ancestral parents, tend to avoid and deny reality. The Original Sin and in fact every sin is a denial of the fact that we are creatures. As Adam and Eve chose to be "like gods" who choose for themselves what is good and what is bad (Genesis 3: 5), so do we, when we sin, try to do things our way rather than God's way. We grasp, as our first parents did, at equality with God.

The result was immediate: "the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized that they were naked" (Genesis 3: 7). They became self-conscious, self-centered. Their focus became "ME - ME - ME." Just count the number of times Adam refers to himself in the short response to God's question "Where are you?" He said: "I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid myself."

The antidote to this self-centeredness is humility. The best definition of humility that I've heard is this: Humility is not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. It's not putting yourself down and beating yourself up but getting yourself out of your self-conscious spotlight.

Jesus, who said "I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11: 29), is the best example of this. He was not self-centered. Philippians 2: 6-9 says that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness, ... he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him...."

Jesus emptied himself of himself, of any self-consciousness. He was so other-conscious--conscious of both the Father and his brothers and sisters--that there was no internal spotlight focused on himself. What made him so unself-conscious? His relationship with the Father. He was so firm in his identity as the Beloved Son that he had nothing to prove. As a result, people flocked to him and wanted to know the secret of his happiness and peace.

We are called to be like Jesus. Every Lent we enter into a period designed to lead us through a process of conversion in which we die to ourselves in order to live more like Jesus. We begin Lent by getting in touch with reality. Ashes are put on our heads and we are told that we are dust, "humus," earth, nothing really. We are dust that is alive for a while but that will return to dust once again.

But remember where Lent ends--with Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. We are precious dust. To God, we are precious enough to die for, precious enough to be given the very Body and Blood of the Son, precious enough to be raised up as Jesus himself was. In God's eyes we are special, we are important.

Thus there is no need to "grasp at equality with God" like our ancestral parents. There is no need to exalt ourselves. Firm in our identity as Jesus was, we know there is nothing we need to prove, there is no need to exalt ourselves, no need to look good in front of others. We can get the spotlight off ourselves and focus all our attention on our God and our neighbors and in doing so we will find true happiness and peace.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


I know that the first reading at Mass today (Jeremiah 20: 7-9) is a favorite of many, including my friend and fellow-blogger Anne Bender, whose blog "Imprisoned In My Bones" takes its name from this passage. The first lines ring true for most of us: "You have duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped." Sometimes I think of my vocation story in light of that line.

My parents grew up in the 1930's, a time of economic crisis known as "The Great Depression." In rearing their children they emphasized education as a way to get ahead or at least guard against economic difficulties. This was especially true for their only son whom they encouraged to get what in their eyes was the best Catholic education in the city of Milwaukee--at Marquette University High School--even though this meant economic sacrifices on their part. Thus I made my way from the south side of Milwaukee, across the Menominee River Valley, to a Jesuit high school, having never met nor heard of Jesuits. One of them played an important role in helping me negotiate the trials of adolescence and so when the time came to consider what I was going to do when I "grew up," I began to think about being a Jesuit priest. I wanted to do for others what he had done for me. And so, forty years ago I entered the Jesuit novitiate with the dream of working in an urban Jesuit high school just like the one from which I had graduated a year earlier. How much time have I spent doing that? Zero. Nada. No time. Not even during our novitiate apostolic experience when I worked at a non-Jesuit high school and parish grade school in the inner city of Omaha.

Am I disappointed? Do I feel that my dream has gone unfulfilled? No, not at all. God may have used the desire to teach in an urban Jesuit high school to lead me into the Jesuits, but what I've done since has been better than I imagined. God's ways are not ours. If I had known what I ended up doing or if I had known the challenges I faced in my Jesuit formation and life, I would probably have never applied. I would have been afraid. Yet now, in retrospect, I am grateful because God's plan was indeed much better than mine.

In today's Gospel (Matthew 16: 21-27) Peter, out of love, tells Jesus, who has just informed him and the others that he was going to suffer and be killed: "God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you." Peter loved Jesus and wanted to save him from pain and death. Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking in human ways, even though they arose out of love, rather than in God's way--the way of perfect love. Jesus loved Peter and all people and wanted to save them from ultimate pain--separation from God--and eternal death. His own suffering and death would accomplish that and he tells Peter not to stand in his way. He challenges Peter to pick up his own cross of sacrificial love and join him in the work of salvation.

This is the life of every Christian. It is the "simple and profound" spirituality of the Apostleship of Prayer. We often quote today's second reading (Romans 12: 1-2): "Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice." We do that by praying the Morning Offering, then striving to live the offering we've made throughout the day, and then reviewing the offering we've made at the end of the day. It's a "living" offering that needs to be constantly renewed because it can be easily taken back.

Blessed John Paul II often said that to love is to make a gift of yourself. We have been loved by God who proved that love my sending the Son to suffer and die. We return love for love now by making a total gift of ourselves, by offering to God the most precious thing we have--time--the seconds, minutes, and hours of every day, one day at a time.

When I entered the Jesuits I didn't plan on doing what I've ended up doing these past forty years, but I'm glad my plan didn't work out. God's plan was better even though it involved challenges and pain that I would have avoided had I known they were going to be part of the plan. But I wouldn't change any of that plan. Through it I've received more of God's love than I ever imagined. Through it I've been touched by God's love through my neighbor in ways that I never imagined.

In the end the story of God's dealings with us is all about love. That's why I prefer a different translation for the first reading. Where the New American Bible has the prophet saying that he has been "duped," the Jerusalem Bible has a different word that I think captures better my own experience: "You have seduced me, O Lord, and I have let myself be seduced."