"The Faithful Servant and Perfect Friend" of Jesus

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While he’s not on the U.S. Church calendar of saints with memorials, obligatory or optional, he is important to me as a Jesuit and director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network (Apostleship of Prayer). Today we are celebrating the feast of St. Claude la Colombiere.  He was the Jesuit spiritual director of St. Margaret Mary, the Visitation nun to whom Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart on fire with love for humanity. 

I’ve always enjoyed the fact that he died and is celebrated on the day after Valentine’s Day. All those Valentine hearts are nice expressions of love but the deepest and truest love the world has ever known is found in another heart—the Heart of Jesus. 

Recently I gave a mission at three clustered parishes in the Brawley, California area—St. Joseph in Westmorland and, in Brawley, St. Margaret Mary and Sacred Heart where there is a statue of the visionary to the left of the sanctuary and a painting in the parish hall. 

When Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary, he told her that he was going to send his “faithful servant and perfect friend,” Fr. Colombiere to confirm the apparitions and to help her spread devotion to his Sacred Heart. 

When St. Margaret Mary protested that she was “a wretched creature, a poor sinner whose very unworthiness would be capable even of preventing of accomplishment” of his desire, he told her:

“Ah, poor innocent that you are, don’t you know that I make use of the weakest subjects to confound the strong, that it is ordinarily the smallest and the poor in spirit to whom I make my power visible with greater brilliance, so that they will not attribute anything to themselves?”

St. Claude wrote those words down in his spiritual journal.  He continued with these words to St. Margaret Mary in which Jesus refers to St. Claude, designated by “N”:

“It was then that He told me: ‘Turn to my servant N. and tell him from Me to do all he can to establish this devotion and to give this pleasure to My divine heart. Tell him not to be discouraged by the difficulties he will meet with, for they will not be lacking.  But he must learn that he is all-powerful who completely distrusts himself to place his trust in Me alone.’”

May we follow the example of these two saints and place all our trust in the Sacred Heart of Jesus!

"All Life is Sacred"

Last Sunday was Pro-Life Day in Italy.  With that in mind, Pope Francis chose for his February “Urgent Prayer Intention” that the sacredness of human life be recognized.  At the end of his Angelus Address he asked that “we pray for the children who are in danger of the interruption of pregnancy, as well as for persons who are at the end of life — every life is sacred! — so that no one is left alone and that love may defend the meaning of life.”  

From the beginning of his papacy Pope Francis has expressed his concern that all human life—from the womb to a natural death—be protected and honored.  In his first Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote:  

 “Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless and innocent among us. Nowadays efforts are made to deny them their human dignity and to do with them whatever one pleases, taking their lives and passing laws preventing anyone from standing in the way of this.”

He went on to link the unborn child’s right to life with all human rights, saying: 

 “Frequently, as a way of ridiculing the Church’s effort to defend their lives, attempts are made to present her position as ideological, obscurantist and conservative. Yet this defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems.”

In his Encyclical on creation Pope Francis also wrote: 

 “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?”

The theme for Italy’s Pro-Life Day this year was “Pro-Life Women and Men in the Wake of Saint Teresa of Calcutta.”  Mother Teresa frequently said that if the basic right to life of unborn children was not safeguarded, all human rights were at risk.  In her acceptance speech for the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa connected world peace to ending abortion, saying:

 “And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other? … I ask His Majesties here before you all who come from different countries, let us all pray that we have the courage to stand by the unborn child, and give the child an opportunity to love and to be loved, and I think with God's grace we will be able to bring peace in the world.” 

As we pray with Pope Francis this month that all human life be recognized as sacred, we ask for hearts like the Heart of Jesus which saw each person as precious and died for all.

Jesus' Secret of Happiness

What was Jesus’ reaction when he saw the crowds that followed and gathered around him?  According to Matthew 9: 36, “at the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”  We have to imagine that Jesus had the same reaction before he preached the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 1-12a): “When he saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him.  He began to teach them….”   He teaches them the Beatitudes.  Jesus, whose heart is moved by the sight of the crowds, teaches his followers the secret of true happiness.

Pope Francis called the Beatitudes the “guide for the journey that leads us to the Kingdom of God” (see his daily meditation for June 6, 2016).  They are “the ticket, the guide sheet for our life so as to avoid getting lost and losing ourselves.”  Another translation of the word “blessed,” which introduces each of the Beatitudes, is “happy.”  They are the “guide” and “ticket” to happiness, to the ultimate joy of heaven. 

The Beatitudes are counter-cultural.  The world has a very different plan for happiness and it leads to the opposite, to the loss of self.  The world says you will find yourself and find happiness by making a name for yourself, rather than being “poor in spirit.”  It says your happiness depends upon using other people for sexual pleasure, rather than being “clean of heart.”  It says that if you are meek and merciful, people will step all over you. 

While Pope Francis was reluctant to say that there was a “key” Beatitude, he did emphasize one in particular.  It was “Blessed are the meek.”  He said: “Meekness is a way of being that brings us very close to Jesus.”  Why?  Because after inviting people “who labor and are burdened” to come to him for rest, Jesus said: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11: 28-29).  Our hearts are closest to the Sacred Heart of Jesus when they are meek and humble. 

The world thinks of meekness as weakness.  The reality is that meekness comes from great inner strength.  The meek and humble are secure in their identity and do not need to boast or to prove themselves. 

In 1 Corinthians 1: 26-31, St. Paul writes against self-promotion and boasting.  These really come from insecurity.  People who promote themselves in front of others aren’t really sure of themselves and so they have to tell others that they are worthy of admiration and praise. 

Jesus shows us a different approach.  It’s humility.  Humility isn’t self-depredation, putting oneself down.  Sometimes people do this simply to elicit praise from others.  Humility is truthful.  It recognizes the truth that no one is a “self-made” person.  Everything we are and have is the result of God’s goodness to us.  We would be nothing had God not brought us into existence and given us the health and talents that have allowed us to acquire the possessions and relationships we have.  God is the source of our life and gifts.  All praise ought to go to God, not to ourselves.  We can graciously acknowledge compliments but not rely on them for our sense of self-worth.  Deep inside we know that all praise ultimately echoes to God’s glory. 

Focusing on yourself leads to unhappiness.  True humility is not thinking less of yourself (having a negative opinion of yourself, putting yourself down, beating yourself up), but rather, it is thinking of yourself less.  As long as you are the center of your world and attention, you are not humble.  When you put the focus on God and your neighbor, then happiness has breathing space in your life.  The world says happiness is found in “getting.”  The Peace Prayer, attributed to St. Francis, says that “it is in giving that we receive.”

When you focus on yourself your heart fills up with anxiety.  You are either locked into the past, which cannot be changed, or anxious about the future.  You look at the past with regret or sorrow or shame and you develop a negative attitude.  Boasting about present success is like whistling in the dark to distract yourself from the fear that in the future you may not be so successful.  And as you encounter weakness and even failure, your image of yourself plummets.  You feel worthless and unappreciated. 

Jesus reveals the secret of happiness.  He was secure in the knowledge that he was the Beloved Son of God the Father who loved him with an infinite love.  He had nothing to prove and no fear of the Father ever not loving him.  He was secure in his identity and did not depend on what others thought of him.  He had no need to impress people with his possessions or talents.  This gave him great freedom and peace.  It attracted crowds of people who followed him not only because he fed them with a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish and not only because he healed them.  They wanted to know the secret of his joy and vitality. 

The “Spiritual Exercises” of St. Ignatius are designed to help us grow in the knowledge that we too are beloved sons and daughters of God the Father who loves us with an infinite love, as though each one of us were “the only one,” the sole focus of God’s attention.  Knowing this love, we naturally want to love in return.  As God has given all, we return all.  Thus the “Exercises” culminate in St. Ignatius’ prayer known as the “Suscipe” in which we offer to God all we are and have, our memory and understanding and entire will.  All that we ask is for God’s grace and love.  With these we are rich enough and want nothing more. 

 St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans 8: 38-39, shows that he understood the Beatitudes, the secret to true happiness.  He wrote: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Jesus concluded his teaching about what makes for true happiness by saying that even insults and persecution are not cause for sadness.  Knowing God’s deep and intimate love for us frees us from being concerned about the opinions of others and their rejection.  The only opinion that matters is not public opinion or even self-opinion but God’s opinion.  And nothing can change that. Not even sin, for “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5: 8). 

I Will Make You Fishers of Men and Women

Last Saturday, in Summerville, SC, I spoke at St. Theresa Church’s first Eucharistic Conference.  Over 200 people from around the area came to this parish which has a 24-7 Eucharistic Adoration chapel.  On Sunday I preached at one of the Masses and the following is what I said:

According to today’s Gospel (Matthew 4: 12-23), Jesus called fishermen to be the first among his twelve apostles.  He called ordinary people, not scholars or rabbis.  He called them in their workplace, not in the synagogue.  Jesus calls us too—ordinary people.  He calls us in the midst of our daily work.

I’m not a fisherman, but I know enough about fishing to know that it’s a perfect occupation for those called to evangelize.  What is it about fishing that can help us share the Gospel with others and reach out to those who have wandered away from the Church?

First, those who fish know that you have to have good timing.  Not every hour is the best time to go fishing.  In the same way, talking to people about our faith—especially to people who have left the Church and the practice of the faith—requires good timing.  Our desires for them to return may lead us to choose the wrong time to approach them.  God’s timing is not ours and so we should first approach God and ask for help in knowing the right time to approach others.

Secondly, and connected to timing, is patience.  Those who fish know that you have to be patient.  Getting impatient won’t bring the fish to you. 

Thirdly, you have to be gentle and quiet.  Yelling at the fish won’t get them into the net or the boat.  Nagging at those whom we want to bring to Christ will only scare them off. 

Lastly, and most importantly, you have to use the right bait.  What’s the bait we use in fishing for souls?  Ourselves.  We are the bait that God uses to attract people to himself.  As Pope Francis often says, joy is what attracts people.  Our goodness, our peace and strength in the midst of adversity and trials—these will lead people to wonder what’s our secret?  How can we, in the midst of troubles, maintain an attitude of serenity and strength, even joy?  People will see our faith—expressed in our worship and our daily lives—and they will want what we have.

This is true for individual Christians and for the Church as a whole. 

But there is one big problem.  The Church is divided.  This is not a new problem.  In our second reading (1 Corinthians 1: 10-13, 17) St. Paul writes about the rivalries and divisions that he found at Corinth.  He challenged the Church there to come together and be united not under one preacher or another but under Jesus Christ. 

The world is in darkness (see the first reading, Isaiah 8: 23—9: 3) and looks for light. It wonders if peace is possible.  It looks at the darkness of divided churches, of parish communities with cliques and divisions, of Christians who are not united but who, at times in history, have even killed one another, and it says: “If the followers of Jesus can’t be united and at peace, how can the world ever be?”

In fact, the Second Vatican Council even said that one of the causes of atheism is Christians.  In “Gaudium et Spes” (The Church in the Modern World), we read: “Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion” (#19). 

Every year, from January 18-25 we have a period of special prayer, fasting, and activities to promote unity among Christians.  We are called to pray and work together to make sure that as individuals and as a whole we “reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” We are called to be a light that reveals God rather than obscures God.  For we must be Christian in deed and not just in name. 

What gives us the power to do this?  The Eucharist.  As the grains of wheat come together to form the host, so we individual Christians are joined together into one in the Body of Christ.  People who spend time in Eucharistic Adoration grow in an awareness of this.  They bring their family and friends, their neighbors and enemies, their parish community, their city, their nation, and the world to Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament.  They bring their joys and sorrows, their challenges and trials, to Jesus and he gives them peace and strength to carry on. 

The Eucharist is the source of our unity and our peace.  Praise God for such a gift!

 

On the Streets and in the Cold

 

While it's very mild (59 degrees F) today in Springfield, IL where I am helping with a retreat for seminarians from Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis, the U.S. has experienced some very cold weather recently.  Perhaps not as cold as Russia where the high temperature the other day was minus 18 F; nevertheless, one member of the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network in Arkansas was not happy as I offered to share Wisconsin's cold with him.  And it's been unseasonably cold in Italy where the temperatures dipped below freezing.

With the cold and how it affects people who are homeless in mind, Pope Francis, in his first urgent monthly prayer intention, asked us to join him in praying for them.  At the end of his Angelus Message on Sunday, January 8, he reminded the world of his monthly prayer intentions and he invited all “to join the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network which spreads, even through social networks, the prayer intentions that I propose every month to the whole Church.”  He said that in this way “we carry on the apostolate of prayer” and foster “communion.”

Then he went on to offer his first urgent intention, saying, “In these days of such great cold I am thinking, and I invite you to think, of all the people living on the streets, hit by the cold and by the indifference of others. Unfortunately, some have not survived. We pray for them and ask the Lord to warm the hearts of others to help them.”

Throughout his service as pope, the Holy Father has confronted "the culture of indifference."  He has challenged all people to open their hearts to suffering humanity everywhere, but especially right in front of us--in our families, in our parishes, and on our streets. 

One way that we can keep those who are suffering from the cold in mind and pray for them in a powerful way is to "offer it up."  I thought of this on Sunday when I stopped for gas on my way from Milwaukee to Springfield.  The temperatures were hovering around 20 but the wind made it feel like single digits.  My initial reaction upon leaving the warmth of my car was to complain, but that negative attitude quickly changed when I remembered the Holy Father's urgent intention for this month.  There are some people for whom the cold and wind are not a minor inconvenience or pain but a grave suffering and threat of death.  I allowed my own minor pain to remind me of them and to pray for them. 

As Pope Francis reminded us in "The Joy of the Gospel" (#279): "No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted.  All of these encircle our world like a vital force." 

Changes in Pope's Monthly Intentions

Since the late 1800’s the Pope has given a monthly prayer intention to the world through the Apostleship of Prayer, now known as the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network.  In 1929 he added a second intention for the missions.  Today these are called his “universal” and “evangelization” intentions. 

The process of soliciting suggestions from Vatican Congregations and from members around the world, then proposing them to the Holy Father, then receiving his final versions and translating them from Italian into various languages, then publicizing them via print—is a long process.  That is why the intentions for 2018 will be chosen and translated in early 2017. 

But a significant change has been made. Pope Francis is returning to the practice of one monthly intention; the twelve intentions for 2017, which alternate between evangelization and universal intentions, have already been published. However, given the speed of communication in the digital age, he is adding a second, urgent prayer intention that he will make known during his Angelus Address on the first Sunday of the month.  As soon as we hear what they are we will be publicizing them on our website and other social media. 

Fr. Frederic Fornos, S.J., the international director of the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network, sees this as a way that Pope Francis wants to confront “the culture of indifference” by focusing our prayerful attention on situations that are “more concrete, precise, current, related to actual circumstances.”

St. Joseph

The First Reading (Isaiah 7: 10-14) and the Gospel (Matthew 1: 18-24) for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Cycle A, contrast two figures—King Ahaz and Joseph, the husband of Mary.

Ahaz was King of Judah from 735-715 BC. He resisted God’s direction as it was proposed to him by the prophet Isaiah and chose, instead, to rely on human ingenuity and power.  He did not want a sign from God and so he hypocritically declared “I will not tempt the Lord!”  But God gave him the sign anyway.  It was that God will send “Emmanuel” and will save his people.  Human resources are powerless.  God alone saves.  Therefore, trust God!

Joseph is an example of this.  He trusts God’s guidance and is open to God’s direction even in the most confusing situations.  Joseph is described as “a righteous man.”  He is “Law-abiding” and committed to doing God’s will. 

God gave the Chosen People a Law to help them on their journey through life.  But the Law did not cover every conceivable situation and so the religious leaders and scribes “fine-tuned” the Law with many additional laws to cover every eventuality, to spell things out in black and white in order to avoid any confusion and to help people faithfully follow God’s Law.

But life is not black and white.  There is a lot of gray.

In Joseph’s case, the laws were clear.  Deuteronomy 22: 20-21 states: “if evidence of the girl’s virginity is not found, they shall bring the girl to the entrance of her father’s house and there her townsmen shall stone her to death because she committed a crime against Israel by her unchasteness in her father’s house. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst.”  Mary, Joseph’s betrothed,  was to be stoned.

But Joseph cannot do this.  His love for her is greater than this law.  In a quandary, he chooses a middle path: he will not allow the full force of the law to be carried out, but will quietly renounce his relationship with her.

Speaking about this in his Angelus Address of December 22, 2013, Pope Francis said:

“The Gospel does not explain what his thoughts were, but it does tell us the essential: he seeks to do the will of God and is ready for the most radical renunciation. Rather than defending himself and asserting his rights, Joseph chooses what for him is an enormous sacrifice. And the Gospel tells us: ‘Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to send her away quietly’ (1:19).

“This brief sentence reveals a true inner drama if we think about the love that Joseph had for Mary! But even in these circumstances, Joseph intends to do the will of God and decides, surely with great sorrow, to send Mary away quietly. We need to meditate on these words in order to understand the great trial that Joseph had to endure in the days preceding Jesus’ birth.”

Then Pope Francis went on to compare Joseph and Abraham:

“It was a trial similar to the sacrifice of Abraham, when God asked him for his son Isaac (Genesis 22): to give up what was most precious, the person most beloved.

“But as in the case of Abraham, the Lord intervenes: he found the faith he was looking for and he opens up a different path, a path of love and of happiness. ‘Joseph,’ he says, ‘do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 1:20).”

Faith in God who is Love, faith in the Law of Love, wins the day.  Joseph, open to the Word of God that came to him through an angel, follows God’s will. 

Some say that Joseph knew the origin of Mary’s child and chose to break off the engagement because he felt himself unworthy to be the foster father of the Son of God.

Either way, true humility means obedience to God’s will even in the midst of confusion and the disruption of one’s own plans.  Pope Francis continued:

“This Gospel passage reveals to us the greatness of St Joseph’s heart and soul. He was following a good plan for his life, but God was reserving another plan for him, a greater mission. Joseph was a man who always listened to the voice of God, he was deeply sensitive to his secret will, he was a man attentive to the messages that came to him from the depths of his heart and from on high. He did not persist in following his own plan for his life, he did not allow bitterness to poison his soul; rather, he was ready to make himself available to the news that, in a such a bewildering way, was being presented to him. And thus, he was a good man.”

Joseph was the perfect man to be the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.  He had the freedom to surrender to God’s will perfectly and to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction in the midst of life’s complexities. 

“Life father, like son.”  Jesus showed similar freedom in following the Law of Love even when it conflicted with the many laws that were designed to offer black and white answers to life’s complex and morally confusing situations.  He was accused of breaking God’s Law by ignoring purification rituals and working miracles of healing on the Sabbath. 

Life is not easy.  It’s filled with competing “goods” that create confusion.  But if we focus on God’s Word, discern the movements of the Holy Spirit, and ultimately trust in God rather than in ourselves and our ability to figure everything out, then, in the words of St. Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

 

Gaudete Sunday

The Gospel for Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle A (Matthew 11: 2-11), is curious.  John the Baptist is in prison.  He sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the Messiah.  Jesus tells them to report to John what they have heard and seen: that the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are healed, and even the dead are returned to life.  Moreover, the poor have received the “good news” of God’s love for them. 

Why did John send his disciples to question Jesus?  He baptized Jesus.  He should know who he is.  Perhaps he had doubts or his disciples had doubts about the identity of Jesus.  He wasn’t acting like the promised Messiah was supposed to act.  He didn’t come with military power and glory to liberate Israel from its oppressors. 

Jesus teaches that he is not that kind of Messiah.  Rather, he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy (First Reading, Isaiah 35: 1-6a, 10).  His actions reveal that the Messiah came not to punish and destroy but to forgive and save.  He is a merciful Messiah who brings “divine recompense.”  To “make recompense” is to pay for something.  Jesus is the Divine Messiah who pays for the sins of the world.  On the cross he reconciled humanity to God and to one another by taking upon himself the sins of the world. 

Jesus praises John, calling him the greatest human being of his time.  But then he says “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  That’s you and I.  Jesus says we are greater than John the Baptist.  How?  Why?

John never saw the greatest act of love the world has ever known—the cross.  He was not baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  At the time of the Gospel, he was not joined to the Body of Christ.  Nor did he receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist.  We, however, know about the cross, have been baptized and joined to Christ’s Body, and have received him, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. 

As the actions of Jesus provided evidence of his identity, so must ours.   We must show that we are joined to Christ and are members of his Body.  This is where our Second Reading (James 5: 7-10) comes in.  James tells his readers to be patient and to not complain “about one another.”  True Christians are like Christ—patient and merciful with sinners. 

Patience is a virtue.  I like to call virtues “spiritual muscles.”  Just as our physical muscles only grow and develop through nourishment and exercise, so too our spiritual muscles.  Patience does not appear out of the blue.  It grows through exercise.  Every time we find ourselves feeling impatient, we are being given an opportunity to exercise patience.  This thought can be especially helpful during the holiday season which is often filled with stress of one kind or another.  Exercise patience and mercy and they will grow, helping you to be more true to your deepest identity—a Christian in deed and not just in name.

Advent Thoughts

Advent began this year with a beautiful reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (2: 1-5).  Isaiah presents us with a picture of the world at peace, writing: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”

This is a vision that all people of good will share.  It is a hope that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, came to fulfill.  Jesus is God in the flesh who came to enlighten us with wisdom, to show us the way that leads to peace, and to empower us to follow that way. 

Advent—a word that means “coming”—is our preparation time for the celebration of the fact that the Son of God came to live among us, to share our suffering and death so that we could one day share his risen life. That was his first coming.

But we are reminded this time of year that there will be a second coming.  Jesus will come again to establish his kingdom of peace once and for all.  Sin and death will be destroyed forever. 

Between these two “comings” there are others.  Today Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist. He is the Bread of Life who feeds our hunger for true love.  As the Jewish people longed with deep hunger for the Messiah to come and save them, so we hunger for Christ.  This hunger can help us “stay awake” for Christ’s second coming.  And if that second coming does not occur in our lifetime, then our hunger for Christ can help us “be prepared” for the day that he will come for us when our life on earth will end.

The coming of Jesus in the Eucharist also prepares us for another “coming” between the first and second.  St. Teresa of Kolkata understood this “coming” well.  She once said that when we look at a crucifix we see how much Jesus loved us and when we look at a tabernacle or monstrance we see how much Jesus loves us now.  Time spent in Eucharistic adoration helps us see Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Time spent seeing Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine helps us recognize him in the “distressing disguise” of the person in front of us who needs our attention, care, and love.  Jesus comes to us every day in one another.

In his Apostolic Letter for the close of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote: “We are called to promote a culture of mercy based on the rediscovery of the encounter with others.”  This, he said, “can set in motion a real cultural revolution, beginning with simple gestures capable of reaching body and spirit, people’s very lives.” 

This is the only revolution that will change the world and make Isaiah’s vision of peace attainable.  Political changes will never change the world.  Only a revolution of the heart will bring about true change.  It begins one heart at a time.  It begins with your heart and mine.

Unfortunately Advent is such a busy time that there is a tendency to forget the various “comings” of Jesus—the real meaning of Christmas, the second coming of Jesus at the end of the world or the end of our life, the way Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist, and the way he comes to us in one another, especially those most forgotten or in need.  It’s a good idea to slow down by spending some time in Eucharistic adoration this Advent.  This will help us to be alert to meet Christ when and where he comes to us.  

A New Carmelite Vocation

Today is the Memorial of the Presentation of Mary. According to tradition, Mary, at a very early age, was brought to the Temple and dedicated to God.  Today is also Pro Orantibus (“For Those Who Pray”) Day, also known as the World Day of Cloistered Life. It’s a day when we pray for those who pray for us, those who have dedicated themselves to a life of full-time prayer for the Church and the world. 

It’s also a very special day for the Schumaker family of Boltenville, WI.  Rick Schumaker was a high school classmate of mine and his eldest daughter Mara is entering the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in Denmark, WI. 

At a farewell party for her, she gave out a holy card of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On the back were two quotes:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12: 49).

“I now realize that we are trying to fight the whole world, to turn the tide of the whole time we live in, to resist everything that seems irresistible” (G. K. Chesterton).

There was also this prayer which she wrote:

O most Beloved Jesus, I beg You to bless my family and friends. May we always meet and be united within Your Heart, which we have pierced and crowned with thorns and yet which still is burning with unquenchable love for each of us.  Give us the strength and love of Your Heart that we may never turn from You.  May we always fight boldly and tirelessly for Your kingdom so that when our earthly battle is complete, we may be united with You where You live and reign forever with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

Tears from the Heart of Jesus

Yesterday I finished leading a retreat for 75 women at the White House Jesuit Retreat House on the Mississippi River just south of St. Louis.  Here is my closing homily, based on the readings of the day—Revelation 5: 1-10 and Luke 19: 41-44.

Both of our readings contain tears.  John’s vision, in which no one can be found to open the scroll which will reveal God’s plan, leads him to weep.  In the Gospel, Jesus, as he approaches the city of Jerusalem, weeps over it.  He predicts the city’s destruction and cries.  Its future could have been one of peace, but in rejecting Jesus, the people rejected the one who came to show the way to that justice which alone is the basis for peace.

On July 8, 2013, Pope Francis visited an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—Lampedusa.  He went there after many men, women, and children had drowned as they tried to get from Libya, North Africa, to Italy.  He asked:

“Has any one of us grieved for the death of these brothers and sisters? Has any one of us wept for these persons who were on the boat? For the young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were looking for a means of supporting their families? We are a society which has forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion – ‘suffering with’ others: the globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

If we have hearts like the Heart of Jesus, we will be moved to weep for such suffering and death.  Our prayers will be accompanied by tears.  

We weep but we do not despair.  As John’s vision continues in the first reading, he sees one who is able to open the scroll—the “lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David”—Jesus.  He is the Lamb of God who was slain.  He perfectly fulfilled God’s plan for creation and in doing so became the victor over sin and death.  The vision ends with worship and hope.  Jesus has triumphed.  He has purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue, people and nation.”  He has “made them a kingdom and priests for our God, and they will reign on earth.”

We, the baptized, are now a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2: 9).  We are royalty not as the world thinks of it but as Jesus does. At the Last Supper he said that the kings of this world “lord it over” their subjects but it must not be so among his followers. “Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Luke 22: 25-26).  

We share in Christ’s priesthood by offering prayers and sacrifices.  The Sacred Chrism used to consecrate the walls and altars of new churches and the hands of newly ordained priests and everyone at their baptisms and confirmations—this sacred oil consecrates each of us for the sacred purpose of offering worship to God.  We do that at the Eucharist and in our daily lives.  

Moved, as the Heart of Jesus is, at the suffering in our world, we offer ourselves as He did for its ultimate salvation and peace.  

Bl. Rupert Mayer, S.J.

November 3 is the feast of St. Martin de Porres but it is also the day when many Catholics remember the Jesuit priest, Blessed Rupert Mayer.  He was born in Germany in 1876 and entered the Society of Jesus in 1900, one year after his ordination.  He served as a chaplain in the German army during World War I and was the first chaplain to be awarded the Iron Cross for bravery.  His service in the military ended when his left leg was shattered in a grenade attack and had to be amputated.

After the war Fr. Mayer went to Munich where he served the poor and started two Sunday Masses for travelers at the main railroad terminal.  When Hitler rose to power Fr. Mayer spoke out against Nazism and in 1937 was ordered by the Gestapo to stop speaking in public.  He continued preaching in church and was arrested three times.  In 1939 he was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentation camp near Berlin.

As the health of the popular sixty-three year old Jesuit war hero began to deteriorate the camp officials, afraid that he would die and be declared a martyr, sent him to a Benedictine monastery.  When World War II ended he returned to Munich and his pastoral work.  

On November 1, 1945, while celebrating Mass and in the middle of his homily about how Christians are called to imitate the saints, Fr. Mayer collapsed and died.  Pope St. John Paul II beatified him in 1983.

Blessed Rupert Mayer is an example of one who lived a daily offering of himself out of love for God and his brothers and sisters.  His favorite prayer has been made into a song by the Catholic Filipino group Bukas Palad.  The lyrics are: 

 

 

Lord, what You will let it be so
Where You will there we will go
What is Your will help us to know 

Lord, when You will the time is right
In You there's joy in strife
For Your will I'll give my life

To ease Your burden brings no pain
To forego all for You is gain
As long as I in You remain

REFRAIN:
Because You will it, it is best
Because You will it, we are blest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest
Till in Your hands our hearts find rest

Prayer Pierces the Heavens

The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C continue the theme of prayer.  In the first reading (Sirach 35: 12-14, 16-18) we read: “The one who serves God willingly is heard; his petition reaches the heavens. The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal, nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds….”

From time to time I’ve been asked, “What’s the point of praying? If God know everything and even knows what is in our hearts before we put words to our concerns and desires, what’s the point of praying? 

Our world is obsessed with action.  We tend to think of prayer as a last resort.  When practical action appears to be impossible we say, “Well, I guess I’ll just pray.”  “Just!?”  Is prayer a last resort rather than the first?

There is a line attributed to both St. Augustine and to St. Ignatius Loyola.  While the former may have written it, the latter, I’m told by the Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, did not.  In fact, St. Ignatius probably reversed the order of the saying.

The saying goes: “Pray as though everything depends on God and work as though everything depends on you.” 

It is good to recognize when we pray that the Holy Spirit is the one who prays within us (see Romans 8: 26-27).  And it is good to work hard.  But the reverse of the saying—“Pray as though everything depended on you and work as though everything depended on God”—makes more sense. 

In other words, we should put time, effort, and energy into our prayer, praying as though it’s up to us but knowing that grace is always a gift.  And we should work in such a way that we leave the results to God rather than thinking that our sheer effort will accomplish things. 

This is where the Gospel (Luke: 18: 9-14) comes in.  The Pharisee congratulates himself on his works and goes away unjustified, while the tax collector prays with humility and is said to go away justified.  The key, as we’ve heard in previous Sundays’ Gospels, is humility.

The word comes from “humus”—dust or earth.  Humility recognizes that I am not God, not in control, and cannot overcome every obstacle by my own effort and hard work. 

Humble or lowly prayer surrenders to God who created us to share in the love of the Trinity and the communion of all saints.  When we pray fervently and persistently, our prayer pierces the heavens and opens a channel for God’s grace and mercy to enter the world.  Like parents who show respect and love to their children, inviting them to work alongside of them though they do not need their help in assembling a toy or cooking a meal, God respects and loves us by including us in the work of caring for creation and the human family. 

Prayer is not so much changing God’s mind as opening ourselves up to Trinitarian Love and allowing God to transform us and work through us to transform the world.  

Pray Always and Don't Give Up!

The readings at Mass today (Twenty-ninth Sunday Ordinary Time Cycle C) challenge us to pray with persistence.  In the Gospel (Luke 18: 1-8) Jesus tells "a parable about the necessity to pray always without becoming weary."  It's about a widow and a judge who refuses to take her case, but finally does because her persistence is wearing him out.  If uncaring people respond to persistence how much more will our caring God? 

But we've all had experiences of praying and not receiving the good things for which we pray--like the health of loved ones.  A few years ago I prayed and prayed for Fr. Will Prospero, S.J. and he died of cancer at the age of 49.  My administrative assistant, Stephanie, died of leukemia at the age of 31.  Last April my good friend Fr. Ray Gawronski, S.J., 65 years old, died one month after he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. But one of my most painful losses was my sister Judy for whom I prayed fervently for years as she struggled with depression; she died of suicide two days before Christmas in 2003. 

When we pray and nothing happens we ask: "Where are you, God?  Why don't you hear my prayers? Why don't you answer them?" 

The truth is that God hears every prayer and knows what is in our hearts before we even put words to our desires and concerns.  Moreover, God answers every prayer.  Sometimes the answer is the one that Jesus received from his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane--"No." 

"Why?" we ask.  We don't know why God answers some prayers in this way.  It challenges our faith that God is there and loves us. 

Jesus ended his teaching in today's Gospel asking, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

What's the point of praying for specific intentions if God knows our desires and concerns even before we articulate them?  God does not want to act alone or apart from us and our cooperation.  God's love always respects our freedom. 

We see that in the First Reading (Exodus 17: 8-13).  God chose to work through Moses and his prayer, symbolized by his upraised hands.  But he grew tired.  He needed others to help him pray. God shows us that when we grow weary in our prayer we have a community of believers to rely upon.  Prayer builds community. 

The Apostleship of Prayer, now also known as the Pope's Worldwide Prayer Network, is a community of millions of people around the world who pray each month for specific and important needs of the world and the Church.  There is power in this prayer, but it requires faith.  It requires persistence even when nothing seems to change or when things only get worse. 

Pope Francis wrote about having the faith that empowers our prayer in his Apostolic Exhortation "The Joy of the Gospel" (#278-9):
 

"Faith also means believing in God, believing that he truly loves us, that he is alive, that he is mysteriously capable of intervening, that he does not abandon us and that he brings good out of evil by his power and his infinite creativity. … Because we do not always see these seeds growing, we need an interior certainty, a conviction that God is able to act in every situation…. We may be sure that none of our acts of love will be lost, nor any of our acts of sincere concern for others. No single act of love for God will be lost, no generous effort is meaningless, no painful endurance is wasted. All of these encircle our world like a vital force.  It may be that the Lord uses our sacrifices to shower blessings in another part of the world which we will never visit."

 

Through the daily offering of our lives--every prayer, work, joy, and suffering--we can "pray always and not grow weary."  

Faith, Prayer, and Humility

The first reading from Sunday’s Mass (Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C) is from the Prophet Habakkuk. As you read the words with which it begins, what scene comes to mind? 

“How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord.”

What comes to my mind is Aleppo, Syria.  If you watch the news or read the paper with any compassion a prayer must well up: “How long, O Lord?  Why?”  We want God to intervene in this hopeless situation of the Syrian civil war. 

But God will not intervene except through us.  God won’t force his plan or his will on humanity. God won’t take human freedom away. 

God wants human cooperation to fulfill his plan.  When Jesus walked this earth his hands were tied by people’s lack of faith.  According to Matthew 13: 58, when Jesus returned to his native town of Nazareth, “he did not work many mighty deeds there because of their lack of faith.” 

The reading from Habakkuk ends with a vision of justice and peace.  Through the prophet God tells us to be patient and to have faith. 

In the Gospel (Luke 17: 5-10), the apostles ask Jesus: “Increase our faith.”  Jesus responds with an image of impossibility—that faith the size of a small seed can uproot a tree and send it into the sea.  Isn’t peace just as or more impossible?  But faith and prayer can do the impossible. God and the human person working together can bring about miracles no less impossible as the displacement of trees. 

One such miracle was the survival of several Jesuits who were in Hiroshima at ground zero when the first atomic bomb was dropped.  (See my blog post of August 6, 2016.)  Not only did they survive the initial blast but subsequently none of them experienced the effects of radiation.  How was this possible?  Fr. Hubert Schiffer, S.J. said it was because they prayed the rosary and lived the message of Fatima.

If you go to Fatima today you will see the results of another miracle.  There is a large piece of the Berlin Wall on display.  Why?  It tells us that faith-filled prayer brought down that wall and the Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that it represented.  Faith and prayer can bring down walls and change governments.  It can transform hardened hearts.

But in the second part of the Gospel Jesus tells us that something else needs to accompany faith.  Perhaps it is an essential ingredient of real faith.  Humility.  Humility recognizes one’s true condition.  We are not masters of ourselves but servants of God.  We cannot trust in ourselves but only in God.  Humility is a foundational virtue because all the others—even charity, which St. Paul called the greatest (1 Corinthians 13: 13)—can become a source of pride that ultimately leads us to think that we are all-powerful and in control. 

Jesus shows us the way of humility, “taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2: 7), bending down and washing feet (John 13: 1-16), and offering himself on a cross for our salvation.  His focus is not on himself but on God the Father and God’s other human children.  In the Eucharist he continues to humble himself, making present his life-saving death and resurrection and then giving himself to us under the humble appearances of bread and wine.  In the Eucharist he invites us to sit and dine while he serves us!

The vision of peace is possible but its realization requires faith-filled prayer.  The greatest prayer is the Eucharist where Jesus gives himself to us to transform us.  Here we receive the Body and Blood, soul and divinity, including the Sacred Heart, to tear down the walls that separate us and to transform our hearts.  

St. Francis' Stigmata and the Year of Mercy

On September 17 I offered a spiritual workshop to the Sisters of the Third Order of St.Francis at their motherhouse in Peoria, IL.  While the universal Church remembers the Jesuit St. Robert Bellarmine in the liturgy that day, Franciscans celebrate a feast in remembrance of their holy founder’s receiving the stigmata.  However, there is an interesting connection which Fr. John Hardon, S.J.has noted:

“St. Robert Bellarmine had a great devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and was especially devoted to honoring Francis' stigmata. Bellarmine urged that there be a special feast in honor of the five stigmata of St. Francis. Bellarmine had an important position in the Vatican and he made sure that the feast was introduced in the Church, despite strong opposition. As Providence arranged, Robert Bellarmine died on the feast of the stigmata of St. Francis, September 17.”

The readings for the Franciscan feast are Galatians 6: 14-18 and Luke 9: 23-26 and the following is the homily that I offered to the Sisters.

As Providence would have it, today, as we reflect on the Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are celebrating a feast in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata, a gift that he received in the year 1224. The Year of Mercy and St. Francis’ stigmata go together quite well.  For if mercy is the greatest expression and embodiment of God’s love, and if the Church is the Body of Christ, then we are to embody God’s mercy and show it to the world in a visible way.  The greatest act of mercy is the Passion—the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In his Message for the 2015 World Mission Day, Pope Francis wrote:  “Mission is a passion for Jesus and at the same time a passion for his people. When we pray before Jesus crucified, we see the depth of his love which gives us dignity and sustains us. At the same time, we realize that the love flowing from Jesus’ pierced heart expands to embrace the People of God and all humanity. We realize once more that he wants to make use of us to draw closer to his beloved people and all those who seek him with a sincere heart.”

Isn’t this what St. Francis did?  He prayed before Jesus crucified and experienced the depth of his love.  He shared Jesus’ passionate love for his people so much that he received the wounds of Jesus into his body. He embodied the Passion, the mercy of God.

On October 4, 1673, several months before Jesus appeared and revealed his Sacred Heart to her, St. Margaret Mary had a vision.  Here is how she described it: “On the feast of St. Francis, our Lord let me see in prayer this great saint, clad in a garment of light and unspeakable brilliance. He had been raised above the other saints to an extraordinarily high degree of glory, because his life was so like that of the suffering Redeemer who is the life of our souls and the love of our hearts. His glory was the reward of his great love for the Passion of our Lord, a love which rendered him worthy of the sacred stigmata and made him one of the great favorites of Jesus’ heart.”

In our first reading, St. Paul wrote that the world had been crucified to him and he to the world.  What does this mean?  I think it means that he shared Christ’s passionate desire for the salvation of the world.  This also describes St. Francis who took up the cross of poverty and labored for the salvation of souls.  He even risked his life in 1219 by going to Egypt to speak with the Sultan about Jesus.  Christian Crusaders were attacking the Sultan’s city and Francis was concerned as well for them because of their immoral life style.  Francis shared Christ’s passionate concern that no one be lost. 

The ultimate meaning of St. Francis’ stigmata is that he shared the desires and concerns of Jesus’ Heart so much that his body revealed the merciful wounds of Christ.  He was so configured to Christ that he embodied the mercy of God in a visible way.  

We too are called to be configured to Christ.  When we share his concern for the world and labor with him for the salvation of all, we embody the mercy of God.

We do so, always, with joy.  St. Francis once said: “It is not right for a servant of God to show a sad or gloomy face to anyone.”  More recently, in “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis said that Christians cannot be “sourpusses.”  The mercy which we embody is joyful.  Being “merciful like the Father,” as the motto for this Extraordinary Jubilee Year tells us, means sharing God’s joy in being merciful.  In the parables of Luke 15, Jesus tells us that there is great joy in heaven when the lost are found, when sinners repent and receive the mercy that God always has in store for them.  May our celebration of this feast and our ongoing Jubilee celebration help us to embody the joyful mercy of God.

 

World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

Today is the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.  In 1989 the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Dimitrios I initiated this special day of prayer for September 1 because on this day the Orthodox liturgical year begins with a reading and commemoration of God’s creation of the world.  In 2015 Pope Francis asked that the Catholic Church join in this special day of prayer.

In 2007 a proposal was made and accepted at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly to foster a greater awareness of the need to care for creation during a special five week period from September 1 to October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. 

This fits in very well with Pope Francis’ Universal Prayer Intention for the month of September.  We are praying that each person “may contribute to the common good and to the building of a society that places the human person at the center.”  Some may think that by focusing on the care of creation we are making the earth more important than human beings.  That is clearly not the case.

The earth, creation, is the home of the entire human family. It provides what we need to live.  Protecting the earth is necessary for the health and well-being of the human person.  And this means every human person, for all are made in the image and likeness of God.

This is what is meant by “the common good,”  which refers to the good of all people. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” #1907 states that “the common good presupposes respect for the person as such.” 

Concern for the common good of every human being counteracts the exaggerated individualism of modern culture.  In his encyclical “Laudato Si” #204 Pope Francis wrote: “When people become self-centered and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume.”

Concern for the common home in which we live is an essential part of reverencing human life in all its stages.  Pope Francis clearly stated: “”Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion. How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (#120). 

 

On this annual World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation we join billions of Christians and other people of good will in committing ourselves to pray and work for the care of God’s gift, creation—not just one day or five weeks, but always!

The Power of Prayer

Is God all-powerful?  When he walked this earth was Jesus God?  Was Jesus all-powerful?  Most Christians would answer “yes” to these questions, and yet we have a scene in the Gospels where Jesus appears to have limited power.

Mark 6: 1-6 tells of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth where he is rejected.  The neighbors take “offense” at Jesus because he is too familiar to them.  He can’t be a prophet or a wonder-worker.  “Is he not the carpenter?”  As a result, “he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them.  He was amazed at their lack of faith.” 

It seems that Jesus’ power was limited by people’s lack of faith.  This makes sense.  God created humanity so that we—God and us—would work together tending the earth and caring for God’s human family. Being all-powerful, God could have done everything by himself.  But love involves sharing and so God created humanity to share in the work.  Children experience the love of their parents when they are invited to help them in the work that adults do.  They feel special and included.  And so it is with God.

Mary—whom the poet William Wordsworth called “our tainted nature’s solitary boast”—is the model for humanity.  She cooperated completely with God’s grace and became the “Mediatrix of Grace,” the means by which the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became human.  She was a perfect channel for God’s grace to flow into the world.

Sin and lack of faith block grace’s flow.  Thus Jesus’ powerful love was blocked by his townspeople’s lack of faith.  Conversely, faith-filled prayer and action open channels for God’s powerful grace to enter the world.

When he met with Polish Bishops recently, Pope Francis told them: “We can all have an open heart and think of spending one hour in the parishes, an hour a week, of adoration and prayer. Prayer moves mountains!”  Open hearts, like the Immaculate Heart of Mary, allow the power that created the universe to enter the world. 

The message that Mary gave to three children in Portugal in 1917 was “prayer and penance.”  Mary said that if people prayed, especially a daily Rosary, and offered sacrificial actions like fasting, a greater war than the one that was currently going on could be avoided.  People did not listen and the world endured a second “world war.”

But many people did listen. They prayed and did penance.  In 1989 something happened that those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and ‘60’s never expected.  The Berlin Wall came down. A large portion of it is now on display at Our Lady’s shrine in Fatima.  Then, two years later, the Soviet Union broke up as the Communists lost power. 

But before that, as though to prepare the stage for what many thought was unthinkable—the end of the Soviet Union—prayer wrought another miracle.  On May 13, 1981 Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square.  By all accounts he should have died.  He didn’t and afterwards he attributed his survival to Our Blessed Mother.  He said that while one finger pulled the trigger, another finger guided the bullet millimeters away from certain death.  That bullet now rests in a crown used to honor Our Lady of Fatima.  In the millennial year 2000, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “That here ‘a mother’s hand’ had deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.”

Perhaps an even greater example of the power of faith-filled prayer is a little known story within a larger event that occurred seventy-one years ago today.  On this day in 1945, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.  Eight blocks from where the bomb went off was the Church of Our Lady’s Assumption. Next door was the rectory where eight Jesuit missionaries resided.  One of them was Fr. Pedro Arrupe who later served as the General of the Jesuits from 1965 to 1983. Another was Fr. Hubert Schiffer who had just finished celebrating Mass and was sitting down to breakfast when the blast occurred. He wrote: “Suddenly, a terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunder stroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me, whirled me ‘round and round’ like a leaf in a gust of autumn wind.” 

All around there was devastation, but, while damaged, the church and rectory stood and became a makeshift hospital for those who survived the blast. Dr. Stephen Rinehart who worked for the U.S. Department of Defense testified: 

No way any human could have survived nor should anything have been standing at 1 kilometer.  I think there were a few badly burned survivors at ten to fifteen kilometers (all—except the Jesuits—died within fifteen years of some form of cancer). There are no physical laws to explain why the Jesuits were untouched in the Hiroshima air blast. There is no other actual or test data where a structure such as this was not totally destroyed at this standoff distance by an atomic weapon. All who were at this range from the epicenter should have received enough radiation to be dead within at most a matter of minutes if nothing else happened to them.  There is no known way to design a uranium-235 atomic    bomb, which could leave such a large discrete area intact while destroying everything around it immediately outside the fireball (by shaping the plasma). From a scientific viewpoint, what happened to those Jesuits at Hiroshima still defies all human logic from the laws of physics as understood today (or at any time in the future). It must be concluded that some other (external) force was present whose power and/or capability to transform energy and matter as it relates to humans is beyond current comprehension.

Fr. Schiffer, who died in 1982, said: “We believe that we survived because we were living the Message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the Rosary daily in that home.” 

The ways of God are mysterious.  The Rosary is not magic.  Somehow God wanted to give a sign of the power of faith-filled prayer and the special protection of Mother Mary, Our Lady of Fatima. 

The question is: do I take faith and prayer seriously?  Events in our lives, in our nation, and in our world test our faith.  It’s easy to get discouraged and give up.  But if prayer can move bullets, bring down the Berlin Wall, and protect eight Jesuits from the atomic bomb, shouldn’t I trust in its power to continue to work wonders?    

18th Sunday and St. Ignatius

I celebrated Mass this morning for the Sisters of St. Francis at Clare Hall in St. Francis, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee.  I told them that I couldn’t stay for brunch because my Jesuit community would be celebrating the Solemnity of our founder, St. Ignatius.  I also told them about the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius Loyola.  Here is more of my homily:

It’s nice to be able to celebrate Mass today with Franciscan Sisters because, as I always like to remind people, there would be no St. Ignatius without St. Francis.  Reading about St. Francis while he was convalescing from a war wound, Ignatius was inspired to leave his worldly aspirations and follow St. Francis’ example of total dedication to Christ. 

St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” begin with a meditation called “The First Principle and Foundation.”  In it, he reflects on the meaning and purpose of life.  Humans are created to give praise, reverence, and service to God here on earth and forever in heaven.  We’re created for love.  The things of earth are given in order to help us attain this goal. If they get in the way, then we are to avoid them; if they help us attain the goal for which we are created, then we hold on to them. 

Then, after reflecting on the love of God revealed in Jesus, St. Ignatius concludes the “Exercises” with a reflection on all God’s blessings, including the gift of God’s very self.  Aware of such love, we will naturally want to return love by making a total gift of ourselves.  And here is where Ignatius’ famous “Suscipe” prayer comes in:  “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and Your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”

Today’s readings (Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11; and Luke 12: 13-21) offer us a way to further reflect on this. 

Ecclesiastes begins with the famous words, “Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.”  Another way of putting it today would be “Absurdities of absurdities.  All is absurd.”  Why?  The author says that humans, like animals, are born, they live, and then die.  But for humans, life is absurd because all that we work so hard for must be left behind.  No hearse ever had a U-Haul trailer behind it!  Thus it seems best to eat, drink, and be merry now for tomorrow we die.  Or, as the beer commercial says: “You only go around once in life so you gotta grab for all the gusto you can.”  

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the rich man who builds bigger barns to accommodate his wealth that he is a fool.  He will die and all that he worked so hard for will go to another. But what makes him especially foolish is that he thinks this life is the only life.  He has not used the things of this earth to prepare for treasure in heaven.  It’s been said that the only thing we take with us when we die is all that we have given away. 

With this in mind, Paul tells us to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”  Thinking about our goal, we will try to use the things of this world to prepare for the world to come.  Our earthly life is fleeting, but the next life is eternal.

This is what the vow of poverty is designed to do.  The vows that consecrated persons take are “eschatological signs” that point beyond this world to the next.  They witness to the entire world that this life is not the only one and so we ought to live in such a way that we are prepared at any given moment for passage to the next life. The vow of poverty witnesses to reality, to what is most important.  All people are called to live in the spirit of poverty.

In the 1980’s I lived and worked at our Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul.  Every year a conflict arose.  Some novices declared that the community was not living poverty because it had a cookie jar.  Of course no one was forced to eat the cookies and it often happened that those who complained about cookies were the first to defend having a cable television.  It’s always good to ask questions about how we can live in the spirit of poverty more faithfully, how we can live a more simple life in which we hold everything in common, like the early Church communities.  But ultimately poverty is something deeper.  It touches upon the human condition.

The truly poor do not have choices. 

Peter Maurin was a French immigrant who died in 1949.  He taught Dorothy Day that she did not have be a communist to work for social justice.  The Catholic Church has a great tradition and great examples to guide us toward justice.  Peter was committed to living in solidarity with the poor.  But it was always a choice and he only truly became poor near the end of his life when he had no choice and lost what was most precious to him.

In his book “Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century,” Marc Ellis wrote:  “Dorothy reflected on Maurin’s life and his poverty, which, in her view, had now become absolute.  Maurin’s mind was no longer keen and Dorothy thought the decline significant. After all, the only thing he had retained in his poverty had been his mind. But the last years had seen the deterioration of the interior senses, the memory and the will. … Incontinent and bedridden, he began his last days separated from the work and the people he loved” (161-2). 

Ultimately each of us is poor.  We are not in control and the day will come when we will have to let go of everything.  We do so with the assurance of faith, that as our lives are emptied of everything we will receive everything and more than we can imagine. 

And so, in the spirit of the poverty that St. Francis and St. Ignatius lived, we say:

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”