Thursday, June 30, 2011

Dying for Christ

Since the first sin, and Adam's attempt to blame Eve, people have search for scapegoats, others whom they could blame for their mistakes. Such was the case of the emperor Nero, after the great fire in Rome.

We do not know the exact number, or the names, of all the Christians who died during the persecution. We do know that some were set ablaze as human torches, others were crucified, or faced some other equally excruciating death. These are the ones we celebrate today as the First Martyrs (protomartyrs) of Rome.

What Nero could not see was that the deaths of the martyrs, rather than scaring people away from the Christian faith, drew people to it. As only God can do, a horrible event was transformed into one that gave life to the church. If God can transform this, can he not also transform any negative event in our own lives?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What is a Pallium?

I can still remember well, not long after completing my J.C.L. at the gregorian in Rome in June of 2000, attending the mass at st. Peter's Square when the Holy Father gave each recently named Archbishop his pallium. Each year on this day, June 29, the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, newly named archbishops from around the world gather in heat of the Roman summer to receive the one vestments that distinguishes a bishop from and archbishop.

The modern western Catholic pallium is a simple three-fingers wide band of wool that is worn around the neck with a short piece that hangs down in back and front. Last night they would have been placed at the tomb of Peter under the basilica. They are worn by the archbishops as a sign of unity with the Church the Supreme Pontiff, the Pope. The wool recalls the image of the good shepherd carrying the lost sheep home on his shoulders.

For those who find the structure of the church confusing We start by recalling that God wills the salvation of all, and the command at the end of Matthew's gospel to go and teach all nations. That mission is then shared with smaller groups of the faithful with a particular title for the leader

The universal church has as it's leader the supreme pontiff, the pope.
The world is then divided into provinces, each with an Archbishop. Provinces are made up of two or more dioceses, each with a bishop.
Each diocese is is then divided into parishes, each with a pastor.

For every person on earth their is some person who is their pastor, someone who is their bishop or Archbishop. A person living near me would be said to live in St. Patrick's parish, in the Diocese of Richmond, in the Province of Baltimore. A Pastor or Bishop is charged with the pastoral care of every person living within their parish, even the non-Catholics.

The American Model in which each person chooses their parish family by shopping around and then registering with the one that best suits their taste has no basis in our law or theology. And the idea that a pastor and his parish is only responsible to care for those who are properly registered and contribute ignores our call to evangelization of those who have yet to receive and accept the good news and our mission to retrieve the lost sheep.

Today's mass reminds us of the call to reach out to the ends of the earth with all the means at our disposal and bring all peoples into the one flock of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. As i have told the people of my two parishes, we can sit back and rest when every person living within the bounds of our parish is in some way an active member of that parish, until then we have work to do.

As the archbishops today have that piece of wool placed around their neck, I would ask you to pray for them and for all of us who are called to shepherd, to pastor, our small portion of the people of God, the Church.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Intercession and Infamy

We continue to read the story of Abraham in the book of Genesis. Today our attention is focused on probably the most infamous town in the Old Testament, Sodom. The reading is, however, only indirectly about their sin.
Instead, it is meant to be another moment when Abraham serves a a model.

As the story goes, Abraham hears what the Lord is about to do and his first response is not to pile on. Instead, his first response is to look for some little bit of good that might be there, and to ensure justice.
He begins by asking for the two cities not to be destroyed if there are 50 just people, a tiny fraction of the population of two cities. And God agrees.

Then Abraham begins the negotiation. Normally, it is not good to negotiate with God but here it is meant to demonstrate Abraham's concern for even a few. Abraham then starts the classic haggle. Being both deferential and persistent, he works he way down to the number 10. And God, being a God of justice, agrees that if there are even 10 innocent people, he will not destroy the city.

On one level Abraham does not yet understand God. He does not understand that God is a just God, and would not punish the innocent. But more important is what Abraham models for us.

First, he looks for the good that is there no matter how small. Are we people how look for the good in every situation or do we focus on the negative?

Secondly, he understands the power of intercessory prayer. Not because it guarantees that we will get what we want, but because even when we don't get what we want we get something we need.

Thirdly, he seeks justice for every single soul. He does not judge people in groups. Nor does he believe in acceptable collateral damage. Already at this earliest phase of the story he models our believe in the dignity of every human person and their right to justice.

Today can we see every individual around us, treat them with the dignity they deserve, and pray for those in need.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Good or just good enough

How good do we really want to be?

In the office of Readings for today, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, "Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods."

That is his goal to truly transform us, to make us like Christ, to make us part of Christ. Toward that end he gave us the Eucharist, where the Church gathers, and Christ become truly present through simple food of bread and wine. At communion that real presence of Christ goes from the altar to each of us so that "he might make us gods."

But do we really want to be like Christ? To truly be transformed in this way means that we would surrender ourselves, "thy will be done." Our free will would at every moment be directed toward doing the will of the father.

What I suspect most of really want is to hold on to our earthly self, our will, our desires, and have god make us just good enough to get into heaven, not truly and completely good. That way we can still have fun and in the end have eternal life, the best of both worlds. Or so we think.

What our feeble minds fail to grasp is the paradox of Christianity. The only path to real freedom is when I surrender my will to the will of God. The only way I can find my true self is to lose myself in Christ.

After 50 years of Catholics drifting away from faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it seems the tide is turning and younger Catholics are returning to faith in the real presence and expression of that faith such as prayer before the blessed sacrament. That is a good first step.

The next and even more critical question is: Are they, are we, ready on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ to take the next step, to truly open our entire being, our entire life, to the transforming power of Christ in the Eucharist?

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Holy Trinty

If you were to look for an icon of the Holy Trinity, surprisingly the most famous one takes its inspiration from the Old Testament, from today's first reading (Gn. 18). In this reading Abraham gives us the perfect model of Hospitality.

When we think of virtues we think of things like patience, or the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love. In the OT one of the most important virtues is that of hospitality. As a somewhat nomadic culture, they understood that it was necessary for survival. We understand it as an aspect of love.

In the story three men are coming down the road. They do not approach Abraham and ask for help. It is Abraham, as the good host, who goes out and invites them, begs them, to do him the favor of stopping. He then goes on to offer them the best that he has.

After they have eaten they tell him that this time next year he will have a son. And we get the famous moment when Sarah laughes.

Later Christian iconographers, like Andrei Rublev, will use these three men as the image of the Holy Trinity.

It is worth noting that at the time Abraham offered the hospitality to the strangers, he had no idea that they were any thing more than travelers. Abraham saw three men traveling on a hot road and felt compassion. His compassion gave rise to his hospitality.

Most of us would like to think that we are compassionate. The real measure, it would seem, is whether or not our compassion moves us to action. If not, are we truly compassionate, or is our compassion merely an abstract idea in our minds?

Like all virtues, the only way we grow in them is by practice.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The often forgotten Hagar

Today we turn to what happens when Abram and Sarai become impatient and loose hope in the promise God made them. When they turn from trust in God, sin comes quickly.

While many of our English translations use the word maid, the reality is that Hagar is a slave. Sarai give her to her husband who rapes her and when she discovers she is pregnant, she is rightly angry.

Some commentaries try to justify the slavery and rape by saying that it was accepted custom in the land from which Abram came. This ignores the fact that slavery, adultery, and rape, are all contrary to the law of God, regardless of what human law might accept them. It is important for us to cast this in stark clarity because it was precisely our human capacity to rationalize sin, that lead Abram and Sarai into such sin.

God made a promise. He did not fulfill it in what they saw as a reasonable time, and so they decided to take matters into their own hands. The fundamental dignity of every human person, the fundamental dignity of Hagar, was lost in their desire to have a child, NOW.

This would seem to be a story from the ancient past but for the fact that slavery, or human trafficking as we politely called it, still exists in the world and in the U.S. It doesn't get much attention but is very real. As we remember the tragic story of Hagar, let us pray for the thousands who live in slavery today.

Click here for More information from Catholic Relief Services

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Nature, Nurture, or something else

In today's gospel we hear the famous metaphor of the fruit tree, and how you can judge a tree by it's fruit. For as true as this may be, there is one striking difference between humans and trees. No matter how I raise an apple tree, I cannot get it to bear oranges. I tree cannot change the kind of fruit it bears.

Growing up in the 60's in Danville, my parents were foster parents to an enormous number of children, mostly newborns. Including the three of us whom they adopted, I believe there were more than 100 total. I got an up close look at how human personality takes shape.

In those days there was a great shift occurring. An older generation saw humans much like other animals. For them it was a matter of breeding. You would hear them use expressions like "bad blood", convinced that people were doomed to turn out like their parents. We then shifted to a model that wanted to believe that they all came into the world the same, it was all about how they were raised, the nurture camp.

Happily we seemed to have come to recognize that it is not an either or, but a complex of both. Watching those babies, what science now acknowledges was clear. There are certain aspects that we are born with. There are also other aspects that are the result of how a child is raised.

What the debate seems to forget is the third part of the equation, and for my money the most important part, will. Will is the part that truly sets us apart and makes us human.

More and more we discover that part of who we are is hard-wired into us, it is indeed part of the genetic code. There are other aspects that are clearly the result of the family and culture in which we were raised. But over and above both these is how we choose to respond to both our traits by nature and traits by nurture that distinguishes us. What separates us from the trees is that we can choose how we respond to our inclinations, our urges, our cultural bias. We have the freedom to decide on a daily basis what kind of fruit we will bear. On a minute by minute basis we choose.

Working with mental health patients for a number of years I saw those patients who would choose to take their medicine and those who would not, knowing the results that would follow. Only those with the most extreme forms of mental illness or developmental disability can be said to lack this ability. For the rest of us it is a choice.

It may be that you have a tendency to be short tempered. It may be that you have a tendency to be stubborn, or judgmental. But you can choose whether or not to express that in your words and actions. We are nature, nurture, and free will.

Peaches or persimmons which will you bear today.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The easy road

One of my favorite books is C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letter. Lewis writes the book from the reverse, as a series of correspondence between a senior level demon, and his nephew who is only a junior tempter. The book gives instructions on how to lure humans away from the enemy, God, and into their Father's House, hell.

In today's first reading we see a similar style in the character of Lot. While in Genesis we can count on Abram to do what is right, we can also count on Lot to do the wrong thing. Lot symbolizes the bad tendencies in us.

It is worth noting that both these men are quite rich. People tend to think of Abram as a man who walked off with nothing but the clothes on his back. This does not square with the story.

In today's reading, the two families are quarreling so much that Abram asked that they separate and give Lot the choice. Lot, of course, chooses the area that looks the best, the land that appears to be most fertile. Abram contents himself with what is left. In Lot part is the city of Sodom.

Lot thinks he is smart, taking what look best, pitching his tents near the city. We of course know what really happens.

Before we judge Lot too quickly perhaps we need to use Lot as the mirror in which we judge ourselves. How often do we like Lot judge by appearance? How often do we keep the best for ourselves and our kinsmen and give what's left to others? How often do we choose what appears at the time to be the easiest path?

How many of us, in a similar situation, would have really followed the example of Abram, and been willing to step down in a fight, been willing to let the other person choose, been willing to content ourselves with the leftovers?

In today's gospel Jesus addresses these choices using the image of two gates, wide gate and the narrow gate. While our natural inclination would be to use the wide gate that is easy to get through, Jesus tells us to choose the narrow gate.

Today let us look for those opportunities to put someone ahead of ourselves, let someone go first, do the thing that makes a little more work for ourselves but in the long run is better for our environment. Have the courage to choose the narrow gate.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Beginning

We think of the beginning of the bible as the story of creation. We now know that the creation stories are not the oldest part of Genesis.
Today's first reading really takes us to the beginning of the story of the people of Israel, the call of Abram (not yet Abraham.)

75 years old the story tells us, a sign of dependence on God. Not by his own strength and prowess will he do what he does.

God calls his, tells him to leave his homeland, and does not tell him where he is going, he simply made a list of promises to him.

Abram trusted God's promised, packed up, and left. The German translation captures the Hebrew better than the English. (Da zog Abram weg)The English says merely he left. The German makes clear that this wasn't just leaving one home to move to another, this was leaving like a nomad to wander, with no clear sense of the destination. This was the first great leap of faith in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

No matter how many times I read this passage I am always left with the same question, do I trust God that much? Do I have that much faith?

Faith here is not assent to a list of beliefs. Faith here is an absolute trust, an absolute confidence that the promises made by God will be fulfilled. For us as Christians it's promises like
I am with you always until the end of the earth
the one who lives and believes in me will never die

Do I have the absolute confidence of Abram? Am I willing to follow Jesus even when I don't see the exact destination of a particular journey? Can I simply follow him today, and trust that he will be there to lead me tomorrow?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When do we have enough?

In today's reading St. Paul continues to boast about his weakness and particularly the famous thorn in the flesh. No one knows what this particular problem was . What we do know fro, St. Paul is that he begged God to take it away and God did not.
God simply tells him, "My grace is sufficient for you."
The word used here carries the sense of someone who has enough, someone who is content. Imagine if we could each say that from the heart.

God's grace is enough for me.

Paul clearly did not come to this understanding in an instant. One has only to read his letters to know the struggle in his own life. In our own moments of discontent can we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to us those same words, "My grace is sufficient for you." Can we meditate on these words as we receive this grace in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, allow the grace to fill us, and be content with what we have received.

Friday, June 17, 2011


If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

So ends the first reading today. But how many of us are really willing to follow the example of St. Paul. Instead, we attempt to declare our weakness a medical condition. We feel the need to give every child a prize so that they never know what it feels like to lose. We call our senior groups things like "young at heart" to avoid the reality of aging. And I'm sure each of us can find many other example of how we flee from our own weakness and human frailty.

St. Paul follows Jesus in teaching us that it is only when we can face our weakness head on, name it, and embrace it, that Christ can begin to truly heal. It. Sometimes that healing means taking it away, and some times it does not.

I have Cerebral Palsy. I am disabled. I am handicapped. I have never felt the need to call myself "differently abled." But which of us does not have some handicap in this life. The CP just happens to have been visible from day one. Some could argue that makes it easier. Was I ever angry at God? Did I ever cry "Why me?" Did I ever wish it would go away? Sure.

In the end we learn that Paul is right. The path to happiness lies in embracing our weaknesses, visible and invisibles, and commending them to God so that they may be transformed into sources to strength, as Christ transformed the Cross into a sign of life and hope.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


In the first reading today we hear the famous passage in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians where he addresses the matter of the so-called "superapostles." Here he is not using the term as a term of honor. While we do not know precisely who he was talking about we can deduce from the text that they were other preachers, probably much more eloquent than Paul who came preaching something different from what Paul preached and began to divide the church.

Paul understands the human condition and how easily we can be seduced by the way a person looks, or how eloquently they speak, or how much they tell us what we want to hear, or want to believe is true.

Listening to all favors of political discourse, I have come to the conclusion that we define:

"wasteful government spending" as money that goes to other people, foreign or domestic.

"essential services" are those that benefit me, my family and my friends.

We all want to cut the money that goes to someone we don't know personally.

None of us wants to hear words like sacrifice or pain.

Paul was man who spoke the truth and it is clear from reading his letters that the truth he spoke often did not sit well with the communities to whom he spoke it.

While it is sometimes difficult to discern the truth in our modern world. Paul reminds us that as Christians we must be committed to seeking it, to speaking it, and hearing it, which is perhaps the most difficult.

What are the truths that we do not want to hear? What are the truths that we know but try to ignore?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Can he really ask that?

Today's gospel ends with the command to be perfect. Can Jesus really expect that from us? The answer is a simple yes.

Perfect here means more that just moral rectitude. It is rooted in an older meaning of the word. It mean to be whole or complete. These may at first seem like different definitions but beneath the surface they are linked.
If we look at any of sins, we look behind any of our sins, especially the ones we tend to repeat, what we will find is our own brokenness. If we dig down inside ourselves to look for the root of a sin we find some emptiness, some wound, some hole, we are trying to fill up. Scratch the surface of the cockiest person at work, and you will find an insecure soul. Envy, greed, lust are all attempts to fill a void.

Avoiding sin is not simply a matter of forcing yourself to overcome temptation by shear will power. To truly avoid sin we must acknowledge whatever is incomplete, imperfect, in us and we must allow God's grace to fill in the fissures. We use the image of a wound to talk about sin, not just because sin creates wound in our relationship with God and others, but because sin rises out of wounds.

In the sacrament of reconciliation we must name our sins. But can we also name the brokenness in which they are rooted, and allow God's grace to fill those spaces so that we can be whole, be complete, be perfect.

Monday, June 13, 2011

St. Anthony

Today we transition back to Ordinary Time and we pick up in week 11. In the readings, we pick up our reading of the 2nd Letter to the Corinthians and chapter 5 of the Gospel Matthew.

Today being June 13 we also celebrate the memorial of St. Anthony. To the Italians he's St. Anthony of Padua, to the Portuguese(the place of his birth) he is St. Anthony of Lisbon.

His is the story of a man who came from wealth, a man who was so physically frail they did not want to accept into religious life. He would not let that deter him. He knew what God had called him to be just not exactly where. He began his religious life at an Augustinian Abbey but it was later, as a Franciscan, he was discovered to be a most eloquent preacher of the gospel.

He died at age 36, and was probably the quickest saint in the history of the church, less than a year from death to canonization. In 1946, he was given the additional title Doctor of the Church.

His was not a simple or easy road but ultimately he discovered what God had called him to do and did it.

May each of us seek to do God's will and find our peace in doing it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Twenty-three pentecosts ago, I celebrated my first mass. Vestments made by one parishioner, vessels made by another, at St. Joan of Arc in Yorktown. As much as that first mass meant to me as a priest, celebrating mass in my two parishes today, and attending the confirmation of 17 young people from the parish means even more.

A lot has happened in the Church and in the world since then. In 1989 there were no parish clusters, we weren't on the verge of 25% of our priests being international priests. We didn't even have the term in our vocabulary. There was talk of a shortage of priests but it was off in the distant future. Pedofilia wasn't even talked about and mass in Spanish was a once a month novelty item in the diocese.

By now you're probably thinking, "Those two paragraphs don't seem to go together." But they do. In times of struggle we can react one of two ways, we can run away, or we can hunker down. I chose the latter. As the demands placed on us as priests have increased, I have come to truly understand the gift that priesthood is and the importance of prayer and the spiritual life. I look back now and realize that the 28 year old priest celebrated his first mass at Yorktown had only a superficial understanding of the priesthood and the Eucharist. I could recite all the theology, but only then regular celebration of sacraments and ministering to the people of God has moved that understanding from my head the center of my heart.

Over these two decades many Catholics have chosen the other path, to run away from the church. On this day when we celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit, for those of us who remain both clergy and laity, it is time for us to dig deep and remember why God gave us the gifts of the spirit, to build up his church. We no longer have the luxury of thinking that evangelization is something the Protestants do.

"As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Celebration in Cyprus

Today we celebrate the Memorial of St. Barnabas, considered an Apostle. He was born to a Jewish family of some means on the island of Cyprus, and later accompanied Paul on his work. Stoned to death in 61 for his success at preaching the gospel, his body was said to have been secretly interred by John Mark.

In 478 he is said to have appeared in a dream to the Archbishop and reveled to him the place of the grave. The remains were found with a copy of the gospel of Matthew. The copy of the gospel was presented to the Emperor of Constantinople, and in return special privileges were granted to the Archbishop, which gave rise to the Church of Cyprus, making them a self-governing church within what we now know as the Orthodox Churches.

While one may choose to doubt much of the legend that surrounds his life, death, and tomb, one cannot doubt the impact his work with Paul had on the initial spread of the gospel and his courage. As we prepare to celebrate tomorrow the birth of the church at Pentecost, let us pray for a rebirth of the passion that drove Barnabas and the other early preachers of the gospel.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Last Days

We are three days from the end of Easter, and the readings are winding down as well.

In the first reading we have Jesus telling Paul that he has born witness to him and must bear witness to him in Rome. This all seems pretty innocuous until you realize that the Greek word for witness is martyr.

This then makes the responsorial psalm "Keep me safe, O Lord" seem ironical if not ridiculous. unless,of course, we remember that we are Christians and heaven is the safest place you can be. In that sense the Lord did indeed keep him safe.

The gospel of course is also a last. It is the great final prayer of Jesus in John's gospel, and at the center of the prayer is one petition: that they may be one.

Reflecting on this petition one could ask, where do we begin? The answer is that this oneness has to begin in the heart of each of us. Recently, we have once more seen a politician living two lives, a public one and a private one and the collision of the two ended in destruction. It always does, because we only have one life, one hopefully eternal life. Prayer, meditation the sacraments, especially reconciliation, are all tools to help us attain that fundamental unity to which we are called, unity within ourself, unity with God. Then that unity must radiate out to our families, our co-workers, and to our church and our world. But has to start in the heart.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Never alone

Behold, the hour is coming and has arrived when each of you will be scattered to his own home and you will leave me alone.
But I am not alone, because the Father is with me.

Today's gospel follows on yesterday's reading from Matthew, the last words of Christ before the ascension. How carefully Jesus must have chosen those words, "I am with you always until the end of the world."

I am a great fan of Sci-Fi, and Star Wars, but the biggest error in the Jedi vocabulary is "Trust your feelings." Our feelings are often the result of merely physical stressors and biochemical activity in the brain. They are not to be trusted unreflectively. And know that here I am excluding real love, which for Christians is much more than a feeling. (see The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis)

We may many times in life feel alone. This feeling, however, is never real. From the moment of our baptism, the promise of Jesus is fulfilled. Even when we try to walk away, he remains with us. It is simply not possible for a person who has been baptized to ever be alone.