Monday, September 28, 2015

My Fellow Americans

With the historic moment of the Pope in the US, I could not imagine blogging.  I am still prayerfully reading through his words. Judging by the commentary, both inside and outside the Church, many people need to do the same. Too many of us are falling into the trap of locking onto the words or phrases that we immediately either like or dislike the most.

That is fine for a first step.  We should begin with those words which touch our hearts. Step two will requure  that we playfully embrace the truths he dared to speak that challenge our ways of thinking.

The overriding message of this Pope seems to be "Be who you are" If you are a Bishop, remember what it means to be a Bishop. The same for Priests, and Religious, Mothers and Fathers, Husbands and Wives, even just Human Beings. Over and over on this trip he took the time to remind us of our own American History, so that we could return to those foundational truths that made our country a great nation. He reminded us what it means to be American.

I have been reading him in Spanish because clearly that is the language in which his words are most his own. At Madison Square Garden he referred to "cociudadanos." Most would simply translate that as "fellow citizens" and move on, but there is a deeper point being made.

He was speaking of life in a city, the pros and the cons. In Spanish city is "ciudad." The Spanish word ciudadano like the English word citizen originally meant simply a person living in (denizen of) a particular city. We tend to think of citizen as a privileged position one who have rights that others do not. Our big obsession now appears to be dividing the city between the citizens and those who are not.

The Pope reminded us that it is easy for an individual's identity to get lost in a big city. He reminded us that we must go back to the most basic truths of our faith. That we are all created in the image and likeness of God, and endowed from the moment of our conception with an intrinsic dignity. Therefore, as we look at the faces of the others in each of our cities we must see not nameless strangers but "cocuidadanos."

Actually the English words have the same history. from city to citizen to fellow citizen. Remember of course that a fellow is a partner. Can we see every person around us as a partner in the life of our city, a  "cociudadano."

I know this word will make me look at people differently  as I drive through my new neighborhood. And even for those who live in outside the cities, it raises the question do you even know your neighbors. Can you name the people who live right around you?

How can we hope to be a great nation if we remain disconnected from those right around us?

The great city of which we are all called to be "cociudadanos" is of course the City of God. But perhaps even now we can make our earthly cities better places by uniting one person at a time.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Since the release of the Pope's new motu proprio many have struggled with the translation of the title

Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus

The last three words are easy "Judge Lord Jesus." It's the adjective that is problematic, mitis. Some are going with "clement" a word rarely ever used and therefore innocuous. But if you go looking for mitis in the Vulgate, the official Latin version of the Bible, you find it in one very well known passage from Matthew's gospel, Mt. 11:29

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, quia mitis sum...

Spending on the English tranlastion you are using mitis is either translated gentle or meek.

In today's reading from the 6th chapter of the First Letter to Timothy, Paul refers to him as "man of God."

Paul also explains what it means to be a man of God. Instead of seeking after worldly riches one is to seek six things:

  • Equity/ Justice
  • Godliness/piety
  • Faith
  • Love (agape)
  • Patient endurance
  • Meekness (a form of the same word Jesus uses)

These are the things that make the Man of God.

Are these really the things for which we are ambitious? Are these the qualities we look for in others?

Pope Francis is sending a clear signal regarding the attitude with which those of us who serve as Judges in tribunals are suppose to approach our ministry. St. Paul however is addressing every woman and man who wishes to be a true follower of Christ.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Two Sufferings

Today's gospel reminds us that there are two distinct forms of suffering in life. The first is that suffering over which we have no control: the death of a loved one, physical illness, chronic conditions etc. St. Paul deals with this type and explains how they can be transformed when we unite them to the sufferings of Christ. But this is not the suffering in today's gospel.

Today's gospel reminds us that the death of Christ was as our Eucharistic Prayer says, a "death he freely accepted" In the gospel today we are told that we to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. We must not only carry it but we must freely choose to take it up.

It is the difference by sympathy and compassion. Sympathy comes when I feel for you in your pain. Compassion requires that I literally "suffer with (passio cum)" you. How many of us want to be thought of as compassionate people? How many of us want to suffer?

In many of our churches people bring in food on Sunday morning for the food pantry. It is a good thing to do. But there is no real compassion in it. It's extra food. When we give clothes to the clothing closet, we give the extra, what we don't want, or can't fit into any more. There is no pain involved in that. To reach true compassion means literally giving until it hurts.

Right now we watch the countries of Europe sturggling with the tension between the basic human instinct for self-preservation and compassion, a willingness to suffer to save others. Jesus tells us that before we can take up the cross we must deny ourselves. The word he uses here means literally to disown. To disown myself is to hand myself over completely. I no longer belong to me my life belongs to God. And truly following Christ means a willingness to sacrifice myself, suffer, to save people I don't even know.

Why would I do something so crazy? Because it's what Jesus did. He willingly suffered and died on the cross so that we might live. How are we as individuals and as a nation called to imitate Christ.? How much self-denial and suffering am I willing to experience for someone I don't even know?

Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.

How am I ready to lose my life?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

How far will we go?

In today's reading from the First Letter to Timothy, we hear

This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost.

And truth be told we have no idea what St. Paul means by that. We have no idea what sins he committed. Sometimes we act as if after his conversion experience he never sinned again but that would make him unique among those of us born with original sin.

The saying "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" sounds like the kind of thing to which we would respond, "Duh!" And yet, we all need to be reminded of it. We need to be reminded that it is unqualified. It doesn't say, Christ came to save those who commit any sin but the following. If we are honest do we not all have a list of sinners we would not like to set next to in Church? Think about it.

And yet, St. Paul reminds us that it is precisely for those people that Jesus came.

Where sin abounded, grace abounded even more Rim 5:20

I have been shocked by the response of some who first got upset over the Pope's new instructions regarding abortion, and now the response to the Pope's new procedural law regarding annulment. Some want to suggest that he is condoning abortion and divorce. Nothing could be further from the truth. He has simply identified these as two areas where we could do a better job in reaching out to people and reconciling them to the Church.

As he often reminds us, the Church is a hospital. It is a place for people in need of healing, it is the refuge of sinners.

How far are we willing to go in really welcoming ALL people into our churches?


Friday, September 11, 2015

A wish for Timothy

To we begin reading the first Letter to Timothy, and it would be easy for us to skip past the greeting as we do in most letters. In this case we would miss a great deal. St. Paul wishes three things for Timothy, and these three things are at the center of our faith:

Χάρις (charis- grace) St. Paul takes a rather ordinary Greek word used in greeting, and transforms it. One could, and in many ways, St. Augustine did, spent his whole life delving into the depths of this single word. At it's core it is nothing less than God dwelling in each believer. The word appears about 150 times in the New Testament.

Έλεος (eleos- mercy) The word can also be translated compassion. It comes from a word referring to being poured out. Each time we begin mass at the end of the Penitential Rite we sing Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison. Even when mass is in Latin this remains in Greek. We tend to think of the word as referring to forgiveness, but that is really a secondary meaning. It's primary meaning is compassionate love. The forgiveness flows from the love. The compassionate love of God that is captured in this single word is difficult to translate into any other language.

The final thing that St. Paul wishes for Timothy is

Ειρήνη (eirene- peace) It is the state of being that results from the first two, the grace and mercy of God. The word comes from the verb to unite/join. It denotes oneness, wholeness, stillness. It is the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew Shalom.

As Chrsitians we should strive to live each day in this state of being. St. Paul reminds us that the only way to acheive this state is through the first two gifts of God, grace and compassionate loving mercy.

Today is Friday, a penitential day in our calendar, and the grace and mercy of God is always available to us in the sacraments, and today perhaps in the Sacrament of Penance.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Suffering in unison

Today we reach on of the most debated verses in the Bible, Col 1:24. The sticky part is where Paul claims:

I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his Body, which is the Church,

The idea that there was something lacking in the suffering of Christ goes against everything thing we believe. At the center of Christian theology is the belief that the Passion of Jesus Christ was suffered once for all.

The key to understanding this verse is that St. Paul is focused on the Church, the Body of Christ. This new Body of Christ unlike his singular earthly body is just at the beginning of its formation when St. Paulnis writing. While the suffering, death and ressurection of Jesus was on one level the fulfillment, God's plan for the world must unfold over centuries. The plan will not be complete until the second coming of Christ.

In the meantime, this new Body, the Church, must slowly be filled up with new members. And this new Body, the Church will still have to suffer, just as the earthly physical body of Jesus suffered. Paul is very bluntly warning his people that the suffering is not over, it is not yet finished. There is still suffering yet to come. In that sense the suffering of the Body of Christ, is still lacking, incomplete.

When we suffer, we never suffer alone. We suffer as members of the body of Christ, the Church. The head of that body, Jesus suffers with us. So deep is his love for us. The word compassion means" to suffer with" and so the suffering of Christ,the passion of Christ continues as long as even one member of the body suffers, because he is compassion itself.

The good news is, just as our suffering is his suffering, his strength is our strength. He shares in our suffering; we share his strength. We share in his passion and his ressurection. No matter what pain we feel we must know that we are never along in our suffering, Jesus is right there with us. In fact, his entire body, the Church, suffers with us. We suffer as one.

We should never be afraid to allow our brothers and sisters to share in our moments of suffering. We should never fall into the trap of believing that our suffering is ours alone or that hiding our suffering is a sign of strength. Pretending not to suffer is mere hubris.

Paul warn us that as Christ suffer so the Church will suffer. But also provides the certain hope that just as Christ conquered, so too there is no suffering that we cannot conquer together.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The first Icon

I remember one day sitting in a theater and when a person in the movie brought out a religious icon the child in front of me said to his friend "the church is using computer language" not realizing that the church had icons long before there were computers. But if you were to ask the question how far back do icons go in Christianity, the answer would be St. Paul's letter to the Collosians.

In Chapter 1 St. Paul describes Jesus as the image (icon in Greek) of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible,...

In the Old Testament they were forbidden from making any image of God, because God had not yet made himself visible. With the Incarnation, the invisible God reveals himself, true God and true man. The icon (image) is not like a photograph, drawing, or painting. Jesus is the true icon, God made visible, tangible.

It is from St. Paul's use of the word icon that the tradition of iconography developed particularly in the east. The iconographer was more than an artist. Iconographers were men of prayer. They were expected to live a life consonant with their vocation. The process of creating an icon involved not only painting but long periods of prayer. Just as Christ the icon revealed the thereto fore invisible God, so any icon is meant to reveal more than the physical likeness but also reflect the presence of the Holy Spirit that, as St. Paul also tells us,dwells in all the saints. As a matter of fact the physical likeness of an icon to the person (Jesus, Mary, or one of the patriarchs, prophets or saints) is of a secondary importance. The role of the icon is to connect us to the spiritual reality.

Unfortunately many of us have only ever seen the mass produced icons easily available. If you have a chance visit an Orthodox Church and spend some time in prayer mediating before an icon hand painted by a true iconographer. My first such experience was more than 30 years ago in a monastery in Russia, and I will never forget it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Abandonment as virtue

Today's gospel ends with the words,

Leaving everything they followed him.

It seems so simple in our imaginations and it looks simple in all of the movies. But remember these men were no different from you and I they had families, friends, and stuff. They were no less attached to their families, friends, and stuff. And yet as they gospel says, they abandoned everything.

It seems to me this gospel places before us two questions. Firstly, what or who is there in my life that I could not walk away from? Secondly, are there things or even people in my life that I need to walk away from?

We know that we are to love God above all things and yet each of us can develop either habits or relationships that are not good for us. Abandoning a relationship may seem heartless and yet did not the apostles abandon everything? This is not simply running away from responsibility in the name of religion. Many people have used religion as an excuse. This is the fruit of prayerful reflection and spiritual direction that can challenge us to look at everything and everyone in our life and be truly willing to abandon any or all of it for the sake of the kingdom.

What do I still need to abandon in order to be a true follower of Jesus?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The abortion "news"

Yesterday the news was filled with another supposed change "priests can now forgive abortion" is often how it read.

To understand what did and did not happen yesterday, let's start with

Can. 1398 A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

Why a penalty for abortion and not other murders, because others forms of murder are punished through the civil law. A similar penalty exists for a person who violates the seal of confession, which again would not be punished in the civil law.

As for the remission of the penalty, the law reserve it normally to the "ordinary" which contrary to the news media is not just the bishop. In every diocese there is a vicar general, and in most dioceses a variety of Episcopal Vicars who are also ordinaries. More importantly be bishop can grant the ability to remit the penalty in confession, and in many dioceses in the U.S., they have done this already. As a priest of the Diocese of Richmond, I have had it for all 26 years of my priesthood.

I am glad the news media is pointed to the mercy expressed by the Pope. I simply wish it would stop trying to paint the Church as some heartless institution. They never stop and ask what the purpose of the penalty is to begin with.

Unlike the penal systems in most states, the penal system in the Church exists not simply to punish a person, but more important to encourage conversion, reconciliation, and healing.

The penalty of excommunication imposed on the person who procurs an abortion is imposed to encourage the person to go to confession. In the confessional they talk about it. Twenty-six years as a priest has taught me that often there is a great deal of emotional pain experienced by the woman who has the abortion. The confessor has an opportunity to absolve the sin, remit the penalty, and provide pastoral care.

The Pope has made no change in the teaching of the church nor any major change in the pastoral practice. For the Jubilee Year he is in a variety of ways simply attempting to underscore the boundless quality of God's mercy. In his words,

The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Home builders for Jesus

It's the little things in St. Paul that can be the most profound. Today we begin with 1 Th 5:1 in which Paul writes regarding the question of when Jesus will come back,

you have no need for anything to be written to you.

Really? If we look at the history of Chrsitianity, it seems that in every age someone is trying to predict the moment of the second coming. When I was a child I remember preachers trying to align the Soviet Union with the Book of Revelation, and who can forget all the fuss around the year 2000. Even today I'm sure you could go online and there would be someone cherry picking Bible verses to line them up with the events of today to prove that we are living in the end times.

And yet, St. Paul tells us not only can we not know, but more importantly, we have no need to know. Why? Because if we live as Christians, we live each day as if it were the one. And if we live each day as if it were the one, then we can be at peace, not worrying about the second coming, or more specifically, the final judgement.

They reading ends my commanding us to do two things to one another

-parakleite- comfort

Oikodomeite- build up ( it should be noted that the word refers specifically to building a home (oikos)

If each day we console one another and build up one another into the household of God, then Paul is correct. We have no need to know we Jesus is returning.