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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Be an angel

Angels have three basic functions or roles in the Catholic tradition. They protect, guide and announce good news, all of which are rooted in God and God’s will for humankind. The archangels who we celebrate today, the only ones named in Scripture, remind us of these three roles. Michael symbolizes protection, Raphael guides and Gabriel announces good news. All three, like all the manifestations of God’s love for the world, are given to us to be imitated.

Today, I was thinking how important it is to protect the good name of others from slander and detraction. To be sure, if we refuse to gossip, we are like angels for those who are often talked about, even in the public arena, and our silence becomes very loud. I had a classmate in grammar school who was well schooled in this kind of angelic behavior. Whenever we began to talk about others in a negative way, especially our parents or teachers, he would get very quiet, and the frozen smile on his face reminded us to be more careful in speech.

Secondly, we have all had guides, some of whom may have tried to get us to risk, to think outside the box, in order to proclaim good news. My friend, Fr. Bill Quirk (RIP) an angel for me many times over, once reminded me that I had no business preaching if I did not have at least three Epiphanies a day. When Bill first spoke of epiphanies to me, I thought he was teasing, but he was very serious. Again, his face gave him away. We were playing golf and I was getting angrier and angrier at my clubs, the golf balls, and the golf course itself without accepting any responsibility for my poor play. With an awkward smile, Bill told me it was all right to get upset, but that I wasting a perfectly beautiful day by not paying attention to the glory of creation all around me. Lesson learned, at least for the day!

Finally, we need to be grateful for all those whose lives announce good news. Capuchin friars often call these people “fratach”, brothers who always think of the community first, who pick up after others, who empty the dish washer, who make a special dessert when they notice that the friars are a bit glum. Our Jewish friends use the Yiddish word “mensch” to praise those who are full of integrity, simplicity and goodness. These angels in our life remind us every day that God is among us, thinking of us first, forgiving us and encouraging us to start each day with a fresh spirit of hope.

Today, be an angel for someone in need. Try not to use words.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Nehemiah, Model Leader

“How could I not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been eaten out by fire?" (Neh 2:3)

The book of Nehemiah offers us a wonderful map for leadership even today. The prophet’s first task was to face the reality of Jerusalem’s destruction in the context of prayer. After acknowledging his pain and desire to help, he approaches King Artaxerxes, who he was serving as cup bearer, to ask for a “leave of absence” so he can return to Jerusalem and help the people rebuild the holy city. More, after Artaxerxes grants his request, he asks for letters of protection on his journey to Jerusalem which the King also grants. Finally, on arriving in Jerusalem, he quietly surveys the damage to the city and realizes he cannot address the devastation by himself. Consequently, he organizes the people already there and assures them that if they work together they can both rebuild the city and protect themselves from their enemies. Miraculously, Nehemiah and all his compatriots rebuild Jerusalem in 52 days.

Nehemiah’s steps as a leader are clear. Pray, reflect, assess and discern what can be done, organize those most affected, and act together. For those of you experienced in community organizing, these steps are self evident, but they have not always been followed carefully in our church and nation. While I do not think we can impose prayer on our civil leaders, surely it must be the foundation of church leadership. Only with prayer can we come to terms honestly and openly with the struggles our church is experiencing in the United States today. Without prayer, which can free us of the strangling fear that makes new initiatives die on the vine, we will be using old models and paradigms which are overly hierarchical and clerical to address the needs of our church in the 21st century. The Second Vatican Council was clear when it urged bishops and pastors to seek out qualified lay women and men, who are called by baptism to serve the entire church, (Lumen Gentium, Chapter 4, #31) to take their rightful place alongside the hierarchy in leading the church. (1)

My own experience in leadership inside the Capuchin community makes this abundantly clear.  Without the marvelous men and women who have joined our efforts at renewal and used their considerable skills and resources to energize us, we could not have faced the issues of declining numbers and diminishing monies with openness and creativity.  With them we have hope.  When we pray, face the reality of our situation, discern carefully what can be done and work together, we build God's reign in powerful new ways.

Today ask Nehemiah for honest hearts with which to face our problems as a church and work together to address them.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Love the Poor

"It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them." St Vincent de Paul (1)

St Vincent de Paul has always been one of my favorite saints. His words are clear, direct and uncompromising. Two of his more noteworthy sayings are: “Extend mercy towards others, so that there can be no one in need whom you meet without helping. For what hope is there for us if God should withdraw His mercy from us?” And, "Make it a practice to judge persons and things in the most favorable light at all times and under all circumstances." These days I often revisit Vincent's wisdom when I need to forgive myself and remember that God always judges us in the most favorable light. The image of the Forgiving Father seeing his prodigal son returning home after years of infidelity never fails to comfort me. It also challenges me to offer the same mercy to others that God has given me so many times.

But no saying of Vincent has impacted me more than his demand that we love the poor, not just feed them. In truth, one can only know the power of this directive by experiencing it. Of all the ministries to which I have been called, it is my encounters with the poor that have been most life changing.

For many years I offered mass on Sunday’s at the Shattuck hospital in Boston. The Shattuck welcomes Boston’s street people, many of whom remain in the hospital for years. One fellow, I’ll call him “Charlie,” had been a police officer for many years. Unfortunately, his own life unraveled with drug and alcohol abuse and he found himself homeless and living on the streets of a small city north of Boston. By the time he arrived at the Shattuck his diabetes had taken away one of his legs, but his spirit had been transformed by a return to his faith, and he became an advocate for many of the patients whose lack of education or social anxiety made it impossible to voice their own concerns and needs.

“Charlie” loved the men and women with whom he spent his final days and his last effort was to agitate the administration of the hospital to put a handicapped ramp to the smoking gazebo outside the hospital, the only place where patients were allowed to smoke. Although not a smoker himself, Charlie realized that most of the disabled at the Shattuck had very few pleasures of any kind, and because he loved them he wanted them to have access to the place where others socialized and enjoyed themselves. Though St Vincent de Paul may have preferred that "Charlie" advocate for something other than smoking privileges, I am sure he would have been proud of him.

Today, ask God for the grace of merciful eyes and a forgiving heart.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Coming Home

“Old men and old women, each with staff in hand because of old age, shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem. The city shall be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets.” (Zec. 8:4-5)

Many years ago on a trip to Honduras I had the privilege of visiting the Mesa Grande refugee camp where more than 30,000 Salvadorans were encamped. Despite being in a virtual prison the people were filled with joy as they built a community of faith and solidarity. Their faith kept them together, and when they finally began to be repatriated marvelous stories emerged. Though in terrible danger as they prepared to flee Salvador, one community took their church bell from its tower and buried it, promising to ring it again only when they returned from exile. Imagine the joy of the people as they exited the buses that returned them to Salvador when they saw men from their village rush into the forest, dig up the bell, hoist it to the tower and ring it calling everyone to a homecoming Eucharist.

Today’s text from Zechariah reminds me of the stories I heard in Honduras. The elders of the Hebrew community who have been in exile for more than seventy years are finally home to sleep in their own beds and can ”sit in the streets” of Jerusalem, the promised land, the gift of God, the city of peace. Imagine the effort and creativity it took for the elders to keep alive the stories, rituals and life they knew in Jerusalem. Like the refugees of Honduras, they wrote songs of lament and plays for the children to act out in the hope that the little ones might experience something of the glory of God’s love for them. Most of all they had what we call an oral tradition that allowed the stories of God’s fidelity to be passed from generation to generation.

Today we are invited to pray with the 40 million refugees in the world, more than 10 million of whom are in great need. These wandering people have been cut off from their culture and language, their families and homes, and the foods and music that remind them of who they are. We are also challenged to be grateful for the great gift of the Eucharist, the bread of life, in which we find the Christ and remember that no matter where we wander, he will always be waiting to welcome us into his heart, our true home.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Changing our Minds for God's sake

When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him. (Mt 21:32)

Changing our minds is hard work, something that most of us do only reluctantly. Even when the truth stares us in the face, we resist. Perhaps we are afraid of losing something with which we are comfortable. Or we think that changing our minds might be interpreted as disloyalty to someone in power or a friend. Whatever the reason for our resistance, letting go and changing our minds in order to follow the Lord more closely and build his reign is a clear mandate in the gospel.

Today’s gospel portrays a community of Jewish leaders unwilling to change, even after seeing and experiencing the honesty and integrity of John the Baptist. When Jesus suggests that prostitutes and tax collectors are more willing to change than them, their resistance only deepens. To be compared to people at the bottom of the social ladder is an insult which they will not accept. Not only do they refuse to look at Jesus with open eyes and hearts, they begin to plot against him, not because of his ideas but because their power and standing in the community are threatened.

I must admit I have some sympathy for the chief priests and elders. After all, they had carved out a kind of treaty with the Romans that allowed them full access to the temple and the right to their own currency. Though conditions weren’t perfect, they could be much worse. But Jesus will hear of no excuses. While the resistance of the Jewish elders is understandable, it is unacceptable.

The same is true for us. All of us have reasons not to change. We have lived faithful catholic lives. We have followed the commandments and tried to live the beatitudes, but the Lord often demands more. Perhaps we have been hurt by a colleague, a friend, even a spouse and we refuse to believe that they can and have changed. We avoid them, speak dismissively of their good works or smirk at their efforts to change. The problem is ours, not theirs, especially if they have discovered a way to follow Christ which we are resisting, not because their ideas lack value, but because we do not trust them as persons.

The question all must ask is simple but difficult. What must we do to advance the message of salvation? How can we be instruments of peace so that others can discover the face of Christ? In today’s second reading Paul tells us how Jesus did this. “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness;… he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Perhaps we could all do with a dose of humility and obedience, a willingness to change our minds for the sake of God’s reign.