Saturday, November 12, 2011

St Josaphat

"Pray always without becoming weary." Lk 18:1

In the 17th chapter of St. John's gospel, Jesus prays that his disciples may be one, but even a cursory glance at the history of the church reminds us that unity is not uniformity. There are 13 rites, many of which have multiple subdivisions, in the Roman Catholic Church and each of these rites, "possess their own hierarchy, differ in liturgical and ecclesiastical discipline, and possess their own spiritual heritage." l In other words, while the liturgy, language, law and spirituality may differ markedly, the Christ who is their center is the same. It is this unity that St. Josaphat, whose feast we celebrate today, worked so hard to attain.

Josaphat, working 500 years after the Great Schism between Eastern and Western churches of 1054, spent his entire life in pursuit of the unity for which Jesus prayed. Now almost 1000 years old, the task of unity, not uniformity, remains a vital goal of the church. At Vatican II, the Council fathers made it clear Christian unity was one of it's principal concerns,2 and though elusive, the unity among the churches as a sign of Christ's unbroken love, remains remains a goal of the 21st century church.

How very important then to listen to Jesus' command to pray always without becoming weary. No matter how difficult life in the churches might become, we must continue to pray and trust that God will bring us to a new unity as Christians, but we should not be naive. From the very beginning Christians were divided about how best to proclaim the Good News. When Paul returned from his missionary journeys to Rome, Greece and Antioch, he was met with a stern group of believers who demanded that those wanting to become Christians first observe the entirety of the Torah. Men must be circumcised and the strict dietary laws of Kosher must remain in force. Paul would have none of it, insisting that people could come to belief in Jesus without first converting to Judaism. Unfortunately, similar divisions continue to plague the church today.

In a world and country that is drowning in debt making it almost impossible for the very poor to even hope for a better life, rather than gathering up our resources as Christians for the good of all, there are those who continue to battle about the liturgy in ways that are scandalous to outsiders.  How these arguments help God's people seek the unity for which Jesus prayed is beyond me. Reading St Josaphat's life makes me believe that he was faced with similar struggles 500 years ago. Accused of going "latin", code language for being willing to use both Greek and Latin in the liturgy as a sign of the church's unity,  Josaphat's efforts at reuniting the churches of East and West were struck down, not for honest theological reasons, but for political posturing. Unless we find ways to negotiate an end to the  tensions that we hold onto as churches, we will be unable to fulfill Jesus prayer that we might "all be one."

Today, quietly examine the issues that divide your family and/or your parish and ask God for a path of unity and peace.

Friday, November 11, 2011

St. Martin of Tours

Two incidents in the life of St Martin of Tours, both recorded by his disciple and biographer, Sulpicius Severus, capture our attention. In the first, Martin meets an almost naked beggar outside the city of Amiens in present day France. Moved by the man's desperate need, Martin cuts his own cloak in half and gives it to the beggar. That night, in a dream, Martin sees Jesus dressed in the cloak he had given the beggar and hears Jesus say: "This is Martin, the unbaptized one, who has clad me." Sulpicius says that after the dream Martin "rushed to be baptized."

The second story is about Martin's "conscientious objection." Conscripted into the Roman army against his will at 15 , Martin was discharged 8 years later after refusing a bonus given to soldiers on the eve of battle. Severus quotes Martin's response to his commanding officer. "I have served you as a soldier; now let me serve Christ. Give the bounty to those who are going to fight. But I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight."(1) Imprisoned for his refusal to take up arms, Martin offers to stand unarmed at the front of the troops as they ready themselves for battle, but when the two armies forged a peace, his gesture was never needed and Martin was discharged from the army. These stories were so compelling in the early church that Martin became and remains one of our church's most popular saints.

Like Jesus in today's gospel who reminds us, "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it," Martin challenges us not to cling even to that which we have earned. How many coats, unworn for years, hang in our closets? How much food sits in our pantries or cupboards unused for months? While most of us will not be asked to lay down our lives for the sake of the gospel, we need to pray regularly to be ready for whatever the Lord does ask.

Today, let go of a worn out thought that troubles you. Let go of resentment against someone long dead. Let go.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

St Leo the Great

"In Wisdom is a spirit intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, agile, clear, unstained, certain," Wis 7:22

A few years ago I was asked to fill in for a while as a pastor. I readily agreed but it was soon clear that there was too much on my plate. I could not continue my primary work as director of formation for our younger brothers and function as pastor. For the first time in my life, I had to go the Provincial and say that although I wanted to help, I couldn't. The energy and skill to do several things at once was not there. Although I was embarrassed, it was a good decision, a wise one. Such was not always my style.

When I was younger and became agitated or anxious with too many things to do at the same time, I would panic and do whatever was directly in front of me. I would wash a dish, clean a floor, anything to get away from the feeling of helplessness. This was not a good practice but it happens to most of us at least occasionally, and when it does we are very far from the ideal of wisdom spoken of in today's first reading. We do not act intelligently, clearly, certainly. When we need to stop, breathe, pray and seek help and guidance, we rush to do tasks that are not a priority and often wind up making a bad situation worse.

St. Leo, Pope and Doctor, received the title great because he didn't panic, didn't act rashly, but somehow kept his focus at a time in the church's life that would have been overwhelming for most of us. With the Pelagian and Manichean heresies gathering steam and attracting followers and Attila the Hun threatening to overrun Rome, Leo did not panic. Rather, he became an ambassador. He wrote direct but kind and inviting letters to those proposing heresy and met with Attila directly to dissuade him from plundering Rome. More important, in a Christmas sermon, he spoke not with the arrogance that can sometimes accompany power, but with the humility that insists we are equal as sinners. Only humility, Leo reminded his listeners, allows us to search for ways to work together for the good of the entire church.

Today pray for the faith to slow down no matter how heavy the burdens you are asked to carry.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

St John Lateran

"Do this in memory of me." Lk 22:19

One of the most important words in the Catholic tradition is remember, and today, on the feast of the Dedication of the Church of St. John Lateran, is a good time to reflect upon it. When we pause to remember the Dedication of a church, we do so, not first to admire the building, no matter how beautiful, but to offer a prayer of gratitude for all the people who gathered there over the centuries. We remember the people who put brick upon brick; we remember the joy generations of people felt to be free enough to gather in faith for small and great feasts and, in the case of St. John Lateran, we remember that it is the parish of the Pope, the community to which the Holy Father belongs, the people given to him as pastor so that he might be renewed in his own faith.

Each day for many of us at the Eucharist, and at least once a week for all of us, we are called together to remember our baptism, that we are church. We gather for the celebration of the "breaking of the bread" with other believers as members of Christ's body knowing that when we are together in Christ, faith comes alive in a visual way. We gather to be re-membered, bonded to one another in hope. Some of us are hands, others feet, but all have a role and function in the living body of Christ.

The first action of the church, moreover, when we gather is to take a moment to reflect on our lives and ask pardon for those times when we forgot who we were, when we ignored the gospel, when we failed to be Christ's body for others. Then we listen and ask God that the scriptures themselves will help us remember the saving love of God for his people and Jesus' handing himself over to God as servant. More, we remember that though the church struggled early in its life to be good news, she never forgot that Christ was her center and the one to whom she would always return for nourishment and strength.

When we enter the liturgy of the Eucharist we intentionally remember and repeat the Eucharistic words of Jesus: This is my body; this is my blood, given up for you and for all. Remembering that Jesus is the bread of life given for our nourishment and renewal in faith helps us remember that we must be bread for others. In this way, we prepare ourselves to be sent into the world so that others can find in us the love of God in Christ and be lifted up in hope.

Today, thank God for anyone who helps you remember who you are in Christ.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Unprofitable Servants

"When you have done all you have been commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.'" Lk 17:10

Attitude is everything and nothing gets in the way of having an authentic Christian attitude more than a sense of entitlement. When we begin to think that we have earned everything we have, even if we have worked hard all our lives, we forget how blessed we have been. I grew up in a Catholic neighborhood. People shared freely the little they had. Our parents did everything they could to send us to Catholic schools and colleges where we would have an opportunity for a better life. They did not expect much from us in return. They were happy to give us everything they had, but they did demand that we work hard, and that we be grateful, and never take for granted what came to us because of the generosity of others.

This is especially true of faith. Our attitude about faith, about what we can contribute to the building up of the body of Christ, about others who think differently than us must be one of gratitude. In fact, our faith reminds us continually that all is gift. Life is gift, creation is gift, friendship is gift, prayer is gift, and all are gifts to be given away. When Jesus sends the disciples out to proclaim good news he is clear: "Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give."(Mt 10:8)

The story in today's gospel is a great challenge. Jesus reminds us that we must see ourselves as "unprofitable servants." We must be ready not simply to do what is expected, but to stretch our generosity to include everyone in need. When we remember that everything we have is gift and that we sometimes take God's gifts for granted, our attitude towards those most in need will shift. We will see the poor not as objects of our charity but as people like us in need of the face, the hands and the love of God which we can provide them graciously, simply and joyfully just as God has done for us.

Today, check your attitude. Do feel entitled? Are you grateful for all you have?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Growing in Faith

"Increase our faith." Lk 17:5

Faith is a strange and wonderful gift. While many of us spend our lives teaching about it, faith's mystery always remains. Faith can never be quantified or measured, only treasured. How strange then to hear the apostles in today’s gospel say, "increase our faith," almost as if it were like turning up the volume on the TV.

I’m smiling as I write about "volume." I remember telling my mother in the first years after ordination that I often worried about my preaching. Was I making sense? Were people able to follow me? Was I clear enough? Mom listened to my concerns and told me to do what other priests seemed to do: If you are not sure of what to say next, say it louder. I must admit I have used her advice more than once, but always knew what was happening. When I arrived at a point in my own thinking or a homily where a leap of faith was required to let God do God’s work, I doubted. Rather than allow the word to do its work, to let faith, the size of a mustard seed, take root and grow in God's time, I spoke more forcefully when a pause or even silence was needed.

That faith requires a leap has always been a helpful notion to me, and I think the great Franciscan Doctor of the Church, St Bonaventure would agree. In his classic work, The Mind’s Journey to God, Bonaventure insists that while it is possible to uncover the “traces” of God’s work in creation using observation, logic, and reflection, eventually we must submit ourselves to the mercy of God who leads us beyond logic into the heart of the mystery itself. Only when we let go of our own powers of reason can God open to us the wonders of the gift that God gives freely, completely and gratuitously. We cannot earn the gift of faith; we can only treasure it and give it away in compassion and justice.

Today, join the apostles and ask for an increase of faith for yourself and those closest to you.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Gift of Wisdom

"She (wisdom) hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire; Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed." Wis 6 12-13

Wisdom is not something one usually acquires. Rather, it comes with age, experience and the willingness to slog along muddy roads and navigate across roaring streams in company with other searchers. Wisdom is a gift who presents herself to everyone willing to listen, to move slowly, to ask for help. As the scripture says, Wisdom wants to live within us and among us, but we have to be on the alert for her each day and befriend her when she arrives. This is not always easy.

Several years ago I met an elderly, wise priest who had spent almost forty years as missionary in South America. Returning home to Boston he was troubled by the the waste he experienced in the United States, and was even more disturbed by the variety of so many simple items he saw in our supermarkets. Toothpaste drove him crazy. Why we needed twenty kinds of toothpaste was beyond him. Still, he said nothing, because he thought it was the gospel path to listen first to the experience of his family and his priest friends who had spent their entire lives in the U.S. He was using, he told me, the same values he had learned as a missionary. Presume nothing. Listen hard and long. Let your quiet presence and willingness to learn guide you. This priest honestly believed that everyone had something to teach him, even if it was what not to do!

Listening to this man at many priest gatherings only made me admire him more. He rarely made blanket statements about anything, and preferred to ask questions, even about toothpaste. One evening I was having supper with him and six or seven other priests and someone asked him how he was readjusting to life in the United States. Fine, he said, but I am not sure I will be able to sample all the different toothpastes before I die. Everyone began to laugh, some a little uneasily. It is a little crazy one priest admitted. It seems that way to me, the old missionary answered, but perhaps you see it differently.

Listening, I knew I was in the presence of Wisdom. Asking questions, probing, using humor, listening more than talking, made all of us anxious to hear his insights about us. Had he simply lashed out at the U.S. as a selfish place and people, we would have politely ignored him. That he took time to listen to us and seek our insight made a difficult discussion about crossing cultures not only possible, but fruitful. We all left that gathering determined to look at our daily practices and consumption and do something about our wasteful habits. The missionary never asked us to do this, but his willingness to suspend judgment about us made it possible for us to look at ourselves.

Today ask yourself whether you listen openly to those with whom you live everyday. Pray, too, for the grace to live with what you need, not with what you want.