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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Halloween & All Saints

with Father James Martin, S.J.

courtesy of

Note to Saint Joseph: He was only kidding!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fourth & Walnut

Last week's readings reminded me of Thomas Merton's experience on the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisvile, 50 years ago. So, I incorporated it into my homily. While looking for the quote, I found his original diary entry, which differs a bit from the version that was eventually published. Both are worth reflecting on. Here's the diary excerpt:

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut, suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or, could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream—the dream of separateness, of the “special” vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me is a special category except artificially, juridically. I am still a member of the human race—and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!
Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are—as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth.

The next part, a reflection on chastity, was new to me:

It is not a question of proving to myself that I either dislike or like the women one sees on the street. The fact of having a vow of chastity does not oblige one to argument on this point—no special question arises. I am keenly conscious, not of their beauty (I hardly think I saw anyone really beautiful by special standards) but of their humanity, their woman-ness. But what incomprehensible beauty is there, what secret beauty that would perhaps be inaccessible to me if I were not dedicated to a different way of life. It as though by chastity I had come to be married to what is most pure in all the women of the world and to taste and sense the secret beauty of their girl’s hearts as they walked in the sunlight—each one secret and good and lovely in the sight of God—never touched by anyone, nor by me, nor by anyone, as good as and even more beautiful than the light itself. For the woman-ness that is in each of them is a once original and inexhaustibly fruitful bringing the image of God into the world. In this each one is Wisdom and Sophia and Our Lady—(my delights are to be with the children of men!).

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Can a Priest Speak Publicly As a Private Citizen?

Can a priest speak publicly as a private citizen? My inclination is to say "no." As a priest, you speak as a representative of the Church whether you like it or not, right? At least that's what I thought. Now, sincerely, I'm not so sure. Archbishop Chaput in a highly publicized statement (even if it was addressed to a small group) seems to have muddied the waters a bit.

In a previous post, I reflected a bit on my responsibility as a priest as regards my political views. I did this in light of Archbishop Chaput's instruction to his priests and deacons that they should not publicly endorse or affiliate themselves with any political candidate. I have found it incumbent upon myself, in a similar vein of thinking, to be somewhat circumspect in sharing with others who I might or intend to vote for. I tend instead to share with others the range of issues that I am concerned with. For example, having noticed the almost complete absence of any mention of the poor in the current presidential campaign, I have come to the conclusion that advocacy on behalf of the poor is something we have to be especially concerned with in the coming years, no matter who wins the election. I also share with people my concern for the full range of life issues. In the spirit of Cardinal Bernardin, I am a "seamless garment" pro-life advocate. These issues, too, will continue to be of concern no matter who wins the election.

All that said, Archbishop Chaput this week left me a little confused as to the stance he encouraged, and which I have been taking. After make very specific statements in public about a political candidate, he made the distinction that he was speaking as a private citizen and not as a representative of the Archdiocese of Denver. But my question is: Was he speaking as a priest, or not?

I ask this not because I necessarily agree or disagree with what he said (and I will not say, in the spirit of what I've just been saying). I ask it because it has implications for the question of whether or not priests can responsibly make public statements in favor of, or in opposition to, specific candidates. Speaking from my perspective as a priest, I doubt that it would be enough for my superiors or my local bishop for me to simply say, after making public statements in favor of a particular candidate, that I was doing so as a private citizen. But this is what some might take Archbishop Chaput's statement to suggest.

Just this past year, Archbishop Burke of St. Louis suggested that it was irresponsible on the part of the basketball coach at St. Louis University to take part in a rally for Hilary Clinton, because he was a representative of a Catholic University. Archbishop Burke didn't seem to think it was enough for him to say that he was doing so as a private citizen.

This all leaves me, and I think many others, confused as to how we as priests are to engage political questions. It will be interesting to see in the coming weeks if we get some further clarification on this matter.

Preaching to Children

I consider myself a pretty good preacher, at least when it comes to preaching to adults. And, anyone over 13 or so for that matter. I also feel that I'm pretty good with grade schoolers in CCD class or in just casual interaction. But, for some reason, when it comes to preaching to the little ones, I feel hopeless. I've never had an instance of doing it after which I felt it went well. As long as I'm asking questions, I have their attention, but the minute I start trying to simply tell them something, I lose them. Their attention starts to wander, and I want to send them back to their seats and say, "OK, I'm going to talk to the adults now" (come to think of it, that may not be such a bad idea. Hmmm . . .) And it's hard for me to refocus on the mass when I'm thinking about what a disaster that was.

And so it went last Sunday when I had the family mass at a local parish. Yet, surprisingly, after mass a number of people told me that I had done a good job preaching to the kids. I think they were just trying to be nice. But, still, there may be a chance that I'm not as hopeless at it as I think. Time will tell.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Wild Grapes

This past Sunday was my first opportunity to celebrate mass at the parish where I served as a deacon. It also had, as I mentioned in the last post, somewhat challenging readings. I got a request to post my homily, so here it is:

I’ve spent a lot of time here in the last few years, teaching the children, helping with RCIA, and serving last year as a deacon. So, it is with great joy that I have the opportunity to come and celebrate mass with you today. This is a special moment for me, returning this fall as a newly ordained priest to the city and the people with whom I’ve lived and worshipped for the last three years. So, I would have hoped that the readings for today would have been a little more, well, celebratory. Really, as I set to preparing myself for this homily, taking into account the occasion, I couldn’t help but think: Now I’ve only been a priest for three and a half months, so I might be missing something: But are these really the readings for “Respect Life Sunday”? How exactly might I approach this? Point to the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel and say, “Hey, look at them. Don’t do that.” We’ve got vineyards being torn down because the grapes have gone wild, and we’ve got people driven by greed, beating, stoning and killing others. It would seem that the only way to go at the life theme is by way of a negative example.

But then I thought about “Sideways,” the surprise hit movie of a few years ago about the misadventures of a group of wine enthusiasts. It too, wasn’t the most uplifting story, but what intrigued people about it was its passionate, even beautiful dialogue about wine. At one point, for example, the pathetic and depressed Merlot-hating main character is asked about his passion for Pinot wines. He says in response, “I don't know. It's a hard grape to grow. It's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.”

The Pinot grape which Miles describes is a far cry from the wild grapes of today’s first reading. Yet the vinegrower he describes sounds a lot like the vinegrower whom Isaiah speaks equally passionately about in the first reading. “Let me now sing of my friend,” Isaiah begins, telling us of a vineyard owner, who places his vineyard on a fertile hillside, clears away the stones, plants the choicest vines, and builds a watchtower, treating his grapes with the utmost of care. This care promises a rich harvest. So, why, we are left to wonder, does he get “wild grapes” instead of rich grapes with the flavorful potential of a Pinot? Why is it that all that hard work and great care is not reflected in the final product?

You might say to me, well, Father, isn’t it obvious? He’s not really talking about grapes! The vinegrower is God and the grapes, well, they refer to God’s people. That’s why they’ve gone wild! Because they have a will of their own. And if you said that to me, I’m pretty sure you’d be right. But if you’re right, then we ought to be concerned about the fact that faced with us wild grapes, the vineyard owner decides to tear the vineyard down!

Today, in the pictures of both vineyard owners we can take away the image of a harsh God, one who tears down the unfruitful vineyard, and another who’s likely to kill the greedy and unfaithful tenants who have killed his son. These stories are meant to strike us this way, because they are meant to serve as a warning to us not to live lives unpleasing to God. Some are positively motivated by the idea that they better shape up or God will punish them. But I’m pretty sure this isn’t the view that will motivate us long-term. And I think to focus too quickly on this would be to miss the more positive point that like the passionate vinegrower, God is passionate about caring for us. And that, truthfully, we cannot do without that care. The speaker of today’s psalm realizes that, crying out to God: “Once again, O Lord of hosts, look down from heaven and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted . . . restore us; if your face shine upon us, then we shall be saved.”

Positively, this means that as people cared for by God we are called to reflect the work and care of our Creator and sustainer in our lives. In essence, when people see us, they should also see the God who cares for us, the God who sends his Son, even in the face of danger, to save us. Respecting life begins with accepting the care of God for us, of cooperating with God’s determination, as Miles puts it, to “coax [us] into our fullest expression” rather than growing wild, as if we were on our own. That is how we become, as Saint Paul encourages us to be in the second reading, people devoted to whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and excellent, keeping our minds and hearts focused on the things of God. If we do that, then we can’t help but have an appreciation for life, because we recognize that every person is loved and cared for by God. Their life and ours comes from God, and cannot be without God.

This is the message of today’s readings. And this is what marks the difference in our respect for life from those that do not see the rights and dignity that come as a result of that reflection of God’s care in every person. We are called to cooperate with God in loving, caring and advocating for the preservation of the dignity of the lives of others whether that life be that of an unborn baby, the homeless beggar in Harvard Square, the “enemy,” the death row prisoner, or the person nearing the natural end of life. We are challenged to see these and indeed all lives as objects of God’s love and care, especially because we know we cannot do without God’s love and care for us.

The mass and the homily were received well, and I got one especially interesting reaction. A couple approached me after mass and said, "Father, we have to tell you that your homily had a very particular importance for us." My heart swelled a bit. How wonderful, I thought, something I said really touched these people. "Oh father, yes," they went on, "you see we spent about four hours yesterday trying to remember the name of that movie."

Saturday, October 4, 2008

A Little Help, Here . . .

Regarding the choice of readings in the lectionary and/or special Sundays:

To whom it may concern:

Must we have a Gospel parable which speaks of beating, stoning and killing on Respect Life Sunday?!

I'm just sayin' . . .