Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Mary, Model of Womanhood

That was the theme of the retreat I gave last weekend to 90 women at the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in Alhambra, California. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon we prayed together and I gave five talks and two homilies.

The talks were entitled: "Listen Like Mary," "A Woman and a Snake," "The Genius of Woman," "Mary our Model," and "St. Therese, a Child of Mary." To help me prepare I used the following resources: "Mulieris Dignitatem," Pope John Paul's 1988 Apostolic Letter to Women; Pope John Paul's 1995 Letter to Women, on the occasion of the United Nations Conference in Beijing; the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's 2004 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World;" and Alice von Hildebrand's little book "The Privilege of Being a Woman."

This is a topic that has interested me for a while. In the 1960's Dr. Karl Stern, a Jewish Freudian psychiatrist who became a Catholic, wrote a book entitled "The Flight from Woman." Part of the back cover's description goes like this: "The scientific revolution of the last 300 years has yielded, in Dr. Stern's view, a de-feminization and de-humanization of society, in the sense that it is a rejection of the kind of wisdom, called sophia, that man comprehends intuitively. 'If we equate the one-sidedly rational and technical with the masculine,' he states, 'there arises the ghastly spectre of a world impoverished of womanly values.'"

More recently, Pope Benedict spoke about the need for the complementarity of the sexes. In an address that he gave in Luanda, Angola on March 22, 2009, he said:

Man and woman are both called to live in profound communion through a reciprocal recognition of one another and the mutual gift of themselves, working together for the common good through the complementary aspects of masculinity and femininity. Who today can fail to recognize the need to make more room for the “reasons of the heart”? In a world like ours, dominated by technology, we feel the need for this feminine complementarity, so that the human race can live in the world without completely losing its humanity. Think of all the places afflicted by great poverty or devastated by war, and of all the tragic situations resulting from migrations, forced or otherwise. It is almost always women who manage to preserve human dignity, to defend the family and to protect cultural and religious values.

I enjoyed the retreat very much and hope to return to Alhambra to give the retreat again in the Fall. Truly I was "blessed among women!"

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eucharistic Devotions with Children

Today, as part of the 40 Hours Devotion and Parish Mission at St. Peter's Church in West Brandywine, PA, I met with each of the grades of the school. Each of the grades, except for one, had three classes each, so there were quite a few young people with whom I met. At 9:30 it was 3rd graders and at 10:00 it was 4th graders. The 1st graders came at 10:30, the 8th graders at 11:00, and the 7th graders at 11:30. I had to make quite an adjustment going from speaking to 1st graders to speaking to the 8th graders. At 1:00 it was the 5th grade, at 1:30 the 6th grade, and lastly, at 2:00, I had the 2nd graders who are preparing for First Holy Communion. Later this afternoon I'll have the PREP kids--Parish Religious Education Program.

Each class came quietly and reverently into the church where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed on the altar. I was impressed with their knowledge. The 2nd graders knew what the tabernacle was and they were able to name the monstrance. The 5th and 6th graders were able to say that the word "monstrance" comes from a Latin word, but they weren't able to say what it meant, though one came close, saying "display." It comes from the word for "to show" and I told the students that Jesus, who was normally hidden in the tabernacle, was showing himself to us on the altar. Therefore this was a special opportunity for us to pray.

I led the singing of "O Sacrament Most Holy" and an opening prayer and then asked them if they knew what the "Last Supper" was. Each class, from 1st to 8th grade, was able to answer that one. Then I read Luke's account of the Last Supper and asked them to listen for words that we hear many times even when we're not reading the Gospel. They were able to immediately recognize those words--"This is my Body"--and to place them in the Mass.

I told them that when the priest says those words at Mass he isn't talking about himself; rather, Jesus is speaking those words through the priest and changing the bread and wine into his Body and Blood. Then with each class I went through something that St. Thomas Aquinas says: that when we come to the Holy Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, we can trust only one of our five senses. Even the 1st graders knew the five senses. I asked: which of those five senses is the only one that St. Thomas says we can trust when we approach the Eucharist? It took most of the classes a little thought and a few wrong answers, but eventually I was able to help them see that the one sense that can be trusted is our hearing. When we see, taste, touch, or smell the Eucharist it will appear to be bread and wine. Many Catholics and most other Christians rely on those senses and conclude that the Eucharist is a symbol for the Body and Blood of Christ. But relying on the sense of hearing, we believe differently. We hear the words "This is my Body ... This is my Blood" and we believe what we hear because Jesus said it. I think this teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas spoke across the intervening seven centuries to the hearts of the young Catholics with whom I met today.

Making an act of faith in Jesus' presence in the monstrance, we knelt down and prayed silently, telling Jesus what was in our hearts--what we were grateful for or sorry for; how we or people we know need his help. After leading a prayer that included a "spiritual communion," I asked them to stand and we prayed together for various needs of the Church and the world. After they sat down I asked if any of them would be willing to share what they prayed for when we prayed silently to our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. Every child I called upon shared that he or she had prayed for someone else; they didn't mention themselves.

I encouraged them to pray for their pastor, Fr. Mike Fitzpatrick, and their bishop, Archbishop Charles Chaput, and then asked if they knew the name of the other bishop for whom we pray at every Mass. With a little coaching they were able to name Pope Benedict. I asked them: if the Pope, who is the leader of all Catholics around the world, asked them to pray for something, would they? As they nodded "yes" I told them that every month the Pope asks us to pray for two very specific and special intentions and I told them about the February intentions. I gave the teachers leaflets with the whole year's papal intentions and told the students about the Apostleship of Prayer's web site with a Kid's Page that explains the intentions and provides an activity to help children remember them.

It has been a full day and it isn't over yet. It's also been a very blessed day. I wish everyone could have the opportunity to share Eucharistic devotions with out little brothers and sisters.

Monday, February 20, 2012

God Does Something New

These days I'm in West Brandywine, Pennsylvania giving a parish mission in conjunction with the 40 Hours of Eucharistic devotion that St. Peter's Church has right before Lent. I had actually been here a couple years ago when the Sisters of St. Mary of Providence, who run a nearby retreat house, drove by to show me the new church and the Pope John Paul II Elementary School. Over the weekend I've met all sorts of people who have a connection to Wisconsin, as well as Joseph who once worked in Cherry Creek, South Dakota, not far from the Sioux Spiritual Center where I worked from 1989-1995.

At the Sunday Masses this weekend, I pretty much said the following:

In the first reading from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, God made a great promise: "See, I am doing something new!" Why did God do something new? Because what God had been doing to deal with sin and evil was not working. God had sent a flood to cleanse the earth of evil, but saving Noah and his family and various creatures in an ark. Then humanity turned again to sin. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah became notoriously sinful and God sent fire to purify the earth of the evil that was in them. Sin continued. So God inspired the Jewish people to offer animal and grain sacrifices as a prayer that would bring down God's mercy. Yet sin continued and increased. Something new had to be done. A deeper healing of the human heart was necessary.

Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, said "Yes" to God's plan to forgive sins and heal the human heart. In saying "Yes" to the Father, Jesus said "Yes" to humanity. Where the first humans said "No" to God, to God's plan, and to their humanity--striving to be gods, denying their humanity--Jesus said "Yes" to God's plan and to humanity. He embraced humanity to heal it. He became one with humanity, sharing its sorrows and joys.

Think for a moment about the joys of Jesus when he walked this earth. What gave him the greatest pleasure and joy? I think it was healing others. In last Sunday's gospel from the end of the first chapter of Mark, we see Jesus reaching into the isolation of a leper, touching him, and cleansing him of his disease. Imagine what that man experienced when his dead skin could suddenly feel that touch of Jesus. His face must have lit up with a big smile and he jumped to his feet. Jesus shared his joy with a smile bigger than the world. Healing people gave Jesus great pleasure.

But there was another kind of healing, a deeper healing, that gave Jesus even greater pleasure. We see that in today's gospel from the beginning of the second chapter of Mark. Jesus sees the faith of the persistent friends of a paralyzed man and says to that man: "Child, your sins are forgiven." No doubt the man was disappointed at these words. He probably didn't care too much about sins. He wanted to walk! But Jesus shows us his priorities, healing his soul first and then his body. For physical healings are temporary. The healed skin of the leper would one day turn to dust, as we will soon hear on Ash Wednesday. The limbs of the paralyzed man would one day become rigid in death. So it was more important for Jesus to heal the immortal part of people--their souls--than to heal their bodies, and this brought him, I think, the greatest pleasure.

It was for this that he came--to live our lives, share our sorrows and joys, suffer, die, and rise. In doing this, he said "Yes" to God's plan. He did something new. He forgave the sins of the world.

His sacrifice on the Cross now replaces all the animal and grain sacrifices (see Hebrews chapters 9 and 10). His sacrifice brought the deep healing that humanity needed. From the Cross, Jesus sent a new flood, not one that destroyed, but one that healed. This flood was the water and blood that St. John said gushed forth from the pierced side of Jesus (John 19:34).

The water represented Baptism which washes away sin. The blood represented the Eucharist which unites us to Christ and brings about the deep healing we need. During Eucharist devotions like 40 Hours we reflect on the great and, in Blessed John Paul II's words, "amazing" gift of the Eucharist. In every Mass Jesus makes present once again the new sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world. In Holy Communion we receive the food for eternal life, the very Body and Blood of Christ. He plants the seeds of eternity within us so that after we die, at the resurrection of the body, those seeds will bring forth new life. Truly God has done something new, something we could never have imagined.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Broken Bread

I'm at Cardinal Stritch Retreat House these days, giving a retreat to 25 priests and one auxiliary bishop of Chicago. Here's what I said about today's readings: James 1: 12-18 and Mark 8: 14-21.

According to James, God "tempts no one." But God does allow temptation. The Father allowed His own Son to be tempted as we hear every year in the Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent. The Letter to the Hebrews also states, referring to Jesus, "because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (2: 18) and that he "has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin" (4: 15). Temptations are really occasions or opportunities for us to exercise virtues and grow in God's gifts.

The greatest gift or virtue, according to St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 13: 13) is love or charity. Today, Valentine's Day, is a celebration of love and we see hearts everywhere we go. But the love that is declared with the heart symbol on T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers is often the opposite of love. That symbol declares: I love something because it makes me feel good or gives me pleasure. And when the feeling disappears, so does the love. It's really all about "ME". Real love, on the contrary, is about the "OTHER." In his encyclical God is Love, Pope Benedict writes that "our definition of love must begin" "by contemplating the pierced side of Christ," that opening to the Heart that symbolizes the truest and deepest love the world has ever known.

Love is not so much about getting but giving. The greatest love entails a total gift of oneself to the other. Jesus did this on the Cross and anticipated His total offering or gift of Himself on the night before He died when He took bread and broke it, saying "This is my body, which will be given up for you" (Luke 22: 19).

In another place at another time Jesus had declared "I am the bread of life. ... I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (John 6: 48, 51). We eat the Bread of Life and become bread ourselves.

Today's Gospel speaks of "the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." Leaven can be considered as "motivation." Jesus talks about what motivates or makes the Pharisees and Herod grow. What is their leaven? Not love. Ultimately it is their SELF. They are leavened or motivated by self-interest. They are full of themselves and unable to love. Herod is full of pride and power and possessions. The Pharisees are also full of pride, seeing themselves as the perfect followers of the Law and above everyone else. They are not able to be bread for others because their leaven of self-interest has corrupted them.

Jesus, on the other hand, is true and life-giving bread because He is not full of Himself but filled with love--the love of the Father and of the Father's love for all of His human children.

We are called to be bread. At a Diocesan Conference in Rome on June 15, 2010, Pope Benedict spoke eloquently of this reality:

The Eucharist celebrated obliges us, and at the same time enables us, to become in our turn, bread broken for our brothers and sisters, meeting their needs and giving ourselves. For this reason a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to meeting people where they live, work and suffer, in order to bring them God's love, does not express the truth it contains. In order to be faithful to the mystery that is celebrated on the altars we must, as the Apostle Paul exhorts us, offer our bodies, ourselves, as a spiritual sacrifice pleasing to God (Romans 12: 1) in those circumstances that ask us to make our "I" die and that constitute our daily "altar."

Along these lines, I will always remember something that Sister Dorothy, my field education supervisor told me during my theology studies:

If we are not bread for one another, it's all baloney!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sister Genevieve

Sister Genevieve Glen is a Benedictine Sister who is the prioress of the Abbey of St. Walburga in Virginia Dale, Colorado. I've never met her but I've been following her writing for several years. I subscribe to "Magnificat" and Sister's very original and moving hymns often show up there. I was moved by her hymn that appears in the Morning Prayer today. The Gospel for this Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B, is Mark 1: 40-45, the story of how Jesus healed a leper and one of my favorites. Sister Genevieve's hymn was the perfect poem to use in reflecting upon this Gospel and here it is:

When love has been forgotten,
When clouds have darkened sight,
When faith has lost the pathway,
Lord, touch our hearts with light
That we may rediscover
The mercy you have shown
To lame and blind and leper
Whom you have made your own.

When prayer grows weak and falters,
When questions drown our plea,
When wav'ring faith betrays us,
Lord, grant that we may see
Your hand outstretched in power
To drive away all ill
In answer to our whisper,
"You can, if you but will."

Part of the beauty of Sister's hymns is that they can be sung to familiar melodies. This particular hymn goes with "O Sacred Head Surrounded."

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Desolation and Discernment

Last Sunday I was at Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House in Barrington, IL and I had the opportunity to preach. The first reading from the seventh chapter of Job made me think about St. Ignatius' Rules for the Discernment of Spirits and his advice about what to do during a time of desolation.

Job says: "Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? ... I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights are allotted to me. If in bed I say, 'When shall I arise?' then the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn. My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle; they come to an end without hope. Remember that my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again."

Now here's how St. Ignatius describes spiritual desolation: "I call desolation ... darkness of soul, turmoil of spirit, inclination to what is low and earthly, restlessness rising from many disturbances and temptations which lead to want of faith, want of hope, want of love. The soul is wholly slothful, tepid, sad, and separated, as it were, from its Creator and Lord." Doesn't that sound like what Job was going through?

Then St. Ignatius gives very practical advice on how to deal with desolation.

First, he says that "in time of desolation we should never make any change, but remain firm and constant in the resolution and decision which guided us the day before the desolation, or in the decision we adhered in the preceding consolation." When we experience desolation our temptation is to change course or to do everything we can to escape from it. The problem is that it is the evil spirit which is behind the desolation and not the Holy Spirit. Thus, as Fr. Thomas Green, S.J., once said, if you want the evil spirit as your spiritual director then listen to the thoughts that arise during desolation.

The second piece of advice is a bit of a caveat. Though we are not to make a significant change in our decisions, we can make some changes in our prayer. Thus, Ignatius writes: "Though in desolation we must never change our former resolutions, it will be very advantageous to intensify our activity against the desolation. We can insist more upon prayer, upon meditation, and on much examination of ourselves." This is because desolation tempts us to give up on prayer. We fight the temptation by going in its opposite direction.

Then St. Ignatius says that desolation is an opportunity to grow in humility. During times of consolation a person can become puffed up, thinking that one is really close to God and quite the holy person. Desolation reminds us that without God's grace, we are nothing. Ignatius writes: "When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. He can resist with the help of God, which always remains, though he may not clearly perceive it. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation."

Trials and temptations are opportunities to grow in particular virtues which are like spiritual muscles that develop through exercise. In desolation one is tempted to despair and give up hope; the opportunity is to exercise hope by making acts of hope and faith. Desolation is also an opportunity to exercise patience. St. Ignatius writes; "When one is in desolation, he should strive to persevere in patience. This reacts against the vexations that have overtaken him."

Finally, St. Ignatius gives advice that is also a slogan in Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 Step Recovery Programs: This too shall pass. As he puts it: "Let him consider, too, that consolation will soon return, and in the meantime, he must diligently use the means" that are given above--prayer, meditation, and self-examination.

Desolation is never any fun and does not come from Holy Spirit, but God allows it and can even use it to help us grow in prayer and the virtues.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Made in God's Image

It’s the first Wednesday of the month. The volunteers are in the office to stuff envelopes with the monthly leaflets that go out in the thousands around the country and across the ocean. We always begin our work with Mass and I said the following about today’s readings, the story of King David’s sin in having a census taken (2 Samuel 24: 2, 9-17) and the rejection of Jesus by his neighbors (Mark 6: 1-6).

David sins by having a census taken. What’s the sin? Israel was always tempted (as we are) to rely on themselves, on human power rather than divine. Thus, at the time of the Judges, God told Gideon to send some of his army away, saying: “You have too many soldiers with you for me to deliver Midian into their power, lest Israel vaunt itself against me and say, ‘My own power brought me the victory’” (Judges 7: 2). King David, as a youth, experienced the same lesson when God chose him to fight Goliath. David, forgetting God and the call to trust in divine and not human power, took a census in order to find out how strong he and his people were.

As a result, punishment came upon the nation. This might seem unfair, and David himself admitted that he, the shepherd of the nation, had sinned; the people should not have to suffer for his wrong-doing. But the sins of an individual, especially when that person is the leader and head of a nation, affect everyone. There is no individual sin. People who sin and say “I’m only hurting myself” are wrong.

Why? Because human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. What is the nature of God? Love. God is a Communion of Persons known as the Most Blessed Trinity. God is a Trinitarian Communion, not three separate individuals. Human beings are made in the image of this great mystery. We are not isolated individuals but on a very deep level inter-related and connected.

This is especially true in the Body of Christ, the Church, where each member is like a cell. The health of the Body depends upon the health of the cells. All it takes is one cancer cell to rebel against a physical body and start multiplying. All it takes is one cell, one person, to sicken the Body of Christ with the cancer of sin.

This is why, when Jesus was rejected at the synagogue of “his native place,” he “was not able to perform any mighty deed there…. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” It seems strange that Jesus, who is God, was not able to do something. But he was hamstrung by the sin, the lack of faith of the people who rejected him. God does not act as an individual, but works with people. Those who open themselves in faith to the power of God, bring health to the Body of Christ and to the human race made in the image of God. Those who close themselves off to the power of God by sinning, bring sickness to the Body of Christ and to the human race.

As we join with millions of people around the world and pray for the Pope’s monthly intentions, we open ourselves, our Church, our world to God’s power. We may seem small and our prayers may seem inadequate to counter sin and bring healing to the world. But as the Lord told St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9).