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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Anniversaries

"Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life." Rom 16:3-4

Today I am thinking about and praying in gratitude for all the people who "risked their necks for me." They are too numerous to mention, thank God, but I cannot even begin to write without pausing in thanksgiving for everything my parents gave me, and I want to pause today especially because, if they had lived, it would have been their 75th wedding anniversary.

My parents were givers. Though we had little as children, we were never hungry, always clean and nicely dressed and were raised with a sense of our own dignity. Every Sunday afternoon when we were not visiting an aunt or an uncle, we sat together for a family meal and though the napkin rings, the china and glassware were chipped and never matched, the table was set perfectly. We were a family, my mother insisted ritually, and would eat like one. It was not the things around us that mattered, but how we treated one another as sisters and brothers.

My parents also risked their necks for their siblings. My Aunt Katy, a spinster, visited once a week and brought our family little treats. I especially remember the lemon drops, and Aunt Katy would also give each of us children a dime. Once, when I wanted to go out with my friends, I asked my mother to borrow a dime. How will you repay me, she asked? Aunt Katy is coming tomorrow, I said, but before the words were out of my mouth my mother slapped me across the mouth. Presumption was a sin and taking for granted anothers generosity was unacceptable behavior for a Catholic boy.

Uncle Joe also came every week and would fall asleep on the couch with the radio on. I had only to turn the radio off to wake him up and he would invariably ask what I wanted to do. Because my dad traveled by public transportation into New York City every day, a two hour trip each way, he was rarely home before 7 or 7:30 pm, and could not spend much time with us, but Uncle Joe could. He also would buy his nieces and nephews sneakers and other sports equipment that our parents could not afford.

My parents also risked their necks for my sisters and brother more times than any of us can count. Today I feel like St. Paul taking time to thank all those who helped him in his missionary effots. I have had a wonderful life because of all those people who risked their lives for me. My siblings have loving children and deep faith. They have these gifts primarily because our parents and their generation risked their necks for all of us.

If you have a moment today read the 16th chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans, especially the first 16 verses, and as you read replace the names of the people Paul is thanking with all the people who have helped you in life and faith.

Today pause to remember all those who have "risked their necks for you."

Friday, November 4, 2011

St Charles Borremeo

"In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast in what pertains to God." Rom 15:17

Named Archbishop of Milan when he was 25yrs old, Charles Borremeo was hugely influential at the Council of Trent. For many years he was a church careerist, working to assure himself and his family a comfortable life, but when his elder brother died during the Council, everything changed. Aware that life was short, Charles became an avid church reformer who lived a very simple personal life and gave most of his income to the poor. More important, he insisted that everyone named bishop in his provincial council be an example to the faithful of men committed to the gospel, and be well trained in Scripture for their ministries. In fact, the education of the clergy became so important to him that he started the seminary system which continues, even today, to train priests all over the world.

Today’s selection from St Paul’s letter to the Romans sounds like Charles could have written it. Concerned that some of his disciples and converts were taking credit for their own good works, Paul first praises them but then reminds them that without Christ nothing of ultimate value can happen. The apostle writes, “I have reason to boast in what pertains to God. For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me.” Any distraction from the works of God in Christ fails to advance the cause of the gospel.

Charles Borremeo knew this well. When he came to power, the church was still reeling from the Protestant Reformation. The clergy had been disgraced. There was little trust in the institutional church but Charles did not shrink from the work of reform that had to be done. No doubt the saint was asked to act more discreetly in the world, to remember the prominent family from which he came, and not to offend those who might be helpful in civil affairs. But Charles, like Paul, would have none of it. He was determined to move forward for the sake of Christ and the gospel, and while some of his decisions strike modern hearers as unnecessarily harsh, because Charles was afraid the church was about to collapse from within, he was committed to a sweeping reform.

Both St. Charles and St Paul warn us today to be vigilant and not take for granted what God has done in us. When we acknowledge how needy we are, God can do God’s work.

Today, thank God for everything and ask for the grace to reform your life.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

St. Martin de Porres

"Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep." Lk 15:6

St. Martin de Porres never forgot who he was. The illegitimate child of a Spanish father and a black/native American slave, Martin's entire life was given to the care of the poor and slaves who he treated with great tenderness. Martin knew he was like one of the "lost sheep" in today's gospel and he was always yearning to care for the forgotten and to be found by the Lord.

Sheep are interesting animals. Naturally communal, if the lead sheep does not eat from feed put out for the flock, none of the sheep will eat it. More, if one wanders off too from the flock, after a while it will lie down and stop eating and drinking, waiting to be found. No wonder sheep are such a powerful image for Jesus in the gospel. While at first it might seem strange that a shepherd would leave the ninety nine in search of the one sheep that was lost, it makes perfect sense when one realizes that without a worried shepherd searching for the lost sheep, the sheep is likely to die.

Shepherds themselves, moreover, to whom the Christ is first announced in Luke's gospel, were the underclass of the society. Illiterate and often dismissed as mere functionaries in the society of their time, they had one task: to watch and protect the sheep. At night, they would often lie down in front of the opening of the sheep pen to ward off animals that might harm the sheep.

I have little doubt that Martin de Porres realized all of this. He wanted to lay his life down for the lost slaves like Christ, and he thought he was unworthy even of entering the Dominicans so at first he asked only to be lay helper in the priory. However, after many years, the other friars, recognizing Martin's dedication and care for the friars and the poor, invited him to make religious profession. Nevertheless, although a professed member of the Dominicans, Martin never forgot who he was. Once, when the priory was struggling financially, Martin begged the friars to sell him, a slave, a poor, lost sheep, so that the others might live.

Today, remember who you are: a child and disciple of the Lord. No one can strip your baptismal dignity from you.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Souls

Grieving is hard work. Today I am spending time thinking about all the people I know who died this past year and the list is long. For many of my friends who have lost spouses the grieving process is even more difficult. The paradox of a happy, long and caring marriage is that when death comes to one spouse, the other hurts even more deeply. While everyone realizes that this is natural and a testament to the love shared, it does not make it easier.

There are no easy answers, but there is a simple response, and it is the Danish mystic and former secretary general of the United Nations writing in his now famous journal, Markings, who says it best for me, "Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible - not to have run away." Not to run away is always the challenge we face when life becomes difficult, painful and confusing. To stay in the moment, to learn to welcome what comes our way, is the task of every believer and it is possible because our faith promises that Christ is always near and did not run away from his own misery and suffering. The memory of his suffering and death becomes the ground upon which we build our hope.

Jesus is also very gentle when it comes to suffering, death and the loss people feel after death. “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened," he says, "and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Mt 11: 28-30) The nearer we allow the Lord to be to our suffering and loss, the more he can help make our heavy burdens light.

All Souls day is a time of sweet sorrow. Because we have made and been blessed with good friends, we are grateful, but we miss them all the more when they die and that fills us with sorrow. We can't talk with them, see them or depend upon them in the same way we have in the past. In a very real sense, we are lost, even frantic, like a child in a mall who has lost of her parents. Even more frightening, a certain level of depression is natural and necessary to grieve fully because it is only in appreciating how much we have lost that we begin to sense the light for the next part of our journey.

Today is a good time to be grateful for all those, now dead, with whom you have walked in life, and to pray for the faith that allows us to remember that they are with us still. In the words of the Preface for the Mass of Christian death: "Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended."

Today, don't run away from death. Hold it gently with Christ.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

All Saints

“He went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.” Mt 5:1

Every year on the feast of all Saints we read about Jesus, the new Moses, who goes up the mountain to proclaim the fullness of the commandments. Something very new and very old is happening. While not abrogating the commandments as we know them, Jesus offers his followers a new way to fulfill them. Blessed are the poor, he commands, and those who mourn, who are meek and merciful, and are peacemakers. While it will always be important to honor the one God, to keep the Sabbath, to honor our parents, and not to covet another’s wife or goods, how we live these values becomes central to the Christian life. No longer can we honor only those from our tribe or the keepers of the covenant. Now we have to be alert to those whose lives have been heavy with sorrow and grief, but who continue to remember not to exalt themselves, and live simply for the sake of God's reign.

St. John says it clearly. We cannot say we love God and hate our neighbor. (1 John 4:20) Furthermore, everyone is our neighbor, including those who have hurt us or ignored God's law. And St. Luke will echo a parallel value. If we only invite our friends and family to banquets, we don’t fulfill the new law. We must also make room for the poor, the crippled, and the lame.

These new demands of Jesus are important. We know this because Jesus sits down on the mountain top. Rabbis, just like the Pope speaking from the chair of Peter, sat down when they wanted to speak authoritatively. Jesus' hearers would have known this, and although scholars suggest that the beatitudes are a compilation of Jesus’ sermons and were probably not spoken at one time, the gospel scribes put them together to emphasize their importance. More important, if these wonderful reminders of the Christian life are a compilation then we can be sure that Jesus spoke them at different times and we have only to pick one of the beatitudes today and live it well. While eventually, it might be important to live them all over the course of our lives, today we are honoring all those people, many of whom we knew, who lived one of them heroically each day. They are the saints of God whom we honor today.

Today is a good day to think about the simple gestures we might use to live the gospel. We might sit down when someone wants to speak with us, and even find a quiet, private place for the conversation. While our sitting down might not have the power of Jesus’ gesture, those who benefit from our willingness to stop and listen will appreciate our attentiveness. If we live the Gospel transparently, we can leave the rest to God.

Today, ask God to make you a saint and to live simply and openly the good news of Jesus Christ.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Entering God's Love more deeply

"Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways!" Rom 11:33

Often, when I was involved in community organizing in Boston, we would say that we had a broad influence in the community and had developed leaders in many churches and congregations, but we did not have sufficient depth. In other words, we could have influence in a particular issue but probably did not have the kind of power that would last. Those with power were not likely to ask our opinion or be concerned with our position. They would not have to worry about us unless we put down deeper roots and became a more integral part of the community’s consciousness.

St Paul reminds us that God’s love is deep, not just broad. God does not just love us as his children, but as Bernard Lonergan, the great Canadian theologian reminds us, God is in love with us. God’s love is active, powerful and transforming. God’s love is total, complete, everlasting and gratuitous. We cannot earn God’s love. God is in love with us as we are and calls us to love others as he loves us. Being in love with someone means that you have not settled for a good companion in life but are seeking to make the love you experience the foundation of everything you are and do.

Moreover, a love that is active grows. When we come together regularly as God's people to deepen our appreciation for the great mysteries of faith through study, reflection and celebration, we naturally go out in service of those most in need. Christians, despite our differences, have been spending the love of God in this manner for 2000 years. We cannot do otherwise. The love that God has for us is so deep that we are not afraid to give it away.

Like a well of pure water whose fullness has not even been plumbed, God’s love sustains and renews us and calls us to be life giving waters for others. If Jesus can multiply the loaves and fish so that everyone eats and there is plenty left over for tomorrow, we need not fear at all. The love of God is not just deep in us; it is the ground of our existence. We have only to remember this love, to keep it alive and to offer it as a pure gift to everyone to make the world a very different place. We will not have to talk about justice and peace as future goals because, as we grow more deeply in love with God and allow God to direct our every action, they will become a way of life that is natural, organic and full.

Today, ask God to draw you more deeply into the mysteries of faith and make you agents of lasting change in our church and world.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Leadership

"Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,but do not follow their example." Mt 23:3

Leadership in an individualistic society like the United States is very different from leadership in a communal society like Japan or Korea. It is important to reflect on this in light of today's scriptures. The society into which Jesus was born was communal like Japan. The word Wa in Japanese means peace, harmony and balance and one must never disturb the Wa of a family, town or country. Each person in a communal society works naturally for the common good, and more easily lets go of his or her individual wants and needs for the sake of the community.

Leadership in this context is intuitive.  A leader protects, reminds and calls the family, village or nation to Wa, to harmony and balance.  On the other hand, in individualistic societies leadership emphasizes the hero, the person(s) whose personality strengths are such that they can push, pull, coax and manipulate those they lead in a particular direction.  Leadership is not simply about reminding others of the values a country or company espouses as much as convincing others that a particular course of action is best for all, and is dependent on the political capital that a leader has earned, begged, borrowed or stolen.

When one reads the scripture, written primarily from and for a communal society, leadership is about reminding people of the values of the society. The Pharisees, who are too often denigrated and despised, try to impose their will on the community, but Jesus is adamant that this is not the role of leaders.  Today his words about the Pharisees are overwhelming. 
Do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.
Leadership in a gospel context is relational. A leader's primary task is to call people to a union with one another that builds up the society and allows each one to contribute to the common good. Jesus prays for this as he nears death.
I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.
Unity with one another is the primary sign that we are of God and from God. As Christian leaders, we must work for unity among all peoples and find ways to put aside the divisions that unnecessarily separate us and often cause scandal for those who expect more from believers in Jesus. (1)

Today, ask God to make you a sign of unity in the world and the church.