Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page


Dear Jesus,

Forgive me for writing you again about the coming Feast of Pentecost.  But I can’t think about much else these days because of what I see happening in the church.  These times are emerging in such marked contrast to those tumultuous days immediately following the close of Vatican Council II.  In those days we really thought that the windows had been opened to let in fresh air.  I thought that was a good figure of speech given the role wind played in the Acts’ account of Pentecost.  Then there was the fire.

Perhaps you should have been a little more specific when you promised to send the Spirit.  Perhaps you should have told us what could happen when the Spirit began to breathe new life into tired beings living on the verge of despair and that people in every age, if they opened themselves and responded, could live and act in that Spirit bringing about a new age of unity in Christ.

It’s true that many people like to celebrate the feast and come to church wearing red clothes.  Red ties and sweaters.  Red dresses.  Presiders wear red vestments.  Red flowers adorn the worship space.  When people start clapping their hands and speaking in tongues, some people get upset.  It is as though they do not want too much of a good thing.  The way they are used to do things is thrown off balance when unexpected things happen.  Fanatics are born from experiences like that.

The reading from Acts about the first Pentecost is proclaimed on every feast.  Does anyone hear how the disciples were transformed when the wind howled and the fire danced?  For sure people were unsettled.  It was as though the wind and fire were blowing out and consuming all that was old.  That is really what the fire during the Easter Vigil is signifying, isn’t it?  Those first disciples were living in a shocked and bewildered state, bewildered by strange and terrifying events and not knowing what to expect after your death.  Most of them thought it was all over when you breathed your last and your body was laid in the tomb.  Fear is tangible.  Vivid memories of what had happened to you burned images into their consciousness. They imagined themselves being rounded up and executed that same way because they had been your followers.  That fear was not extinguished by their delight in seeing you again.  Your friends were too ordinary to take delight in the possibility of following in your bloody footsteps.

But then you breathed on them, or better, into them and, they could never be the same again.  They gasped with the pain of the entry and sighed in the delightful bliss of that agonizing moment at once too intense to long endure and unbearable to imagine ever ending.  They were changed.  It was as though they were pregnant with your life pulsing within them, bursting to go out from them.  And since then they could never return to what they were before.  They had to be about announcing the Good News.  They had to be about bringing you forth and rejoicing when new life begins in others taken by surprise.  Nor could they every say, “Enough!”

I have to apologize.  I keep talking about them and their experience as though this all fit into a moment in history to which this age can only look back.  I should have been talking about us, the people of this age who have had the same outpouring of the Spirit upon us.  We ought to experience that same compulsion to live in you and share you with others.

Our mistake has been in thinking that you unleashed this wind and fire for us to be controlled by us, bringing about change the way we want change to occur. Some among us thought we, your friends, could manage and direct this new force.

Are you surprised by the consternation when we see turmoil in people’s lives, when we hear cries of anguish for reform happening beyond our group?  So often their ways seem irreligious, lacking in decorum.  Hostilities result and people get hurt and even killed in the process of reform.

It’s long enough ago now that people forget how unsettling the pictures were of dogs being set to attack black people who wanted demonstrating to sit in the part of the bus of their choosing, or eat a meal at a lunch counter with other citizens whose color was different from theirs.  Now, because we like the results, Birmingham and Selma seem to have been Pentecost events, a new unleashing of your wind and fire.  But it was messy then.

The demonstrations accompanying World Trade Organization meetings are messy, too.  But the result was for people to pay attention to the plight of developing countries shackled by huge interests on debts to First World countries.  Some kind of change just might result that will be as revolutionary as desegregated buses and lunch counters were.  I wonder if the Spirit is not animating the revolutions going on in Egypt, Libya, Syria and other countries where dictators have long reigned.

I know my namesake had the reputation for being a doubter.  Closer to the truth is the fact that some things you say and do and call us to seem too good to be true.  Do you think it is possible for all people to live as brothers and sisters in the forgiveness and reconciliation you won for us?  Those with power find it difficult to cede that power and live as peers.  It’s hard to give up the places of honor at the banquet if the assumption you have lived with for years is that they are rightfully yours.

We are living in a crisis time in the church right now.  It is difficult to read the painful stories of betrayal, abuse of power, and violation of trust.  It is equally painful to read accounts of those who say that all that is wrong in the church today can be traced back to Vatican Council II.  Problems supposedly began when the Baptized were told that the Church is the People of God, that they are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the affairs of the Church and her Liturgy.  The fact that they are called to be co-celebrators with the presider of the Liturgy has been muted. Most in the assembly are not even aware of that.  Recently, I heard a pastor tell the assembly that they would no longer have access to the Cup of the Precious Blood.  His reason for the decree?  Too many extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist would cause the people to lose sight of the importance of the priest.

There are those, and not a few, who think we would have a better experience in worship were we to have the Tridentine Liturgy back again.  Latin, they think, is more solemn and transcendent.  The priest saying mass with his back to the people would help direct their attention upward and beyond to the transcendent God we worship.  Bringing the tabernacle back to the altar would keep the people’s attention on the transubstantiated species therein.  So much for the action of the Eucharist and the Presence resulting in the Bread and Wine, in the Assembly, in the Word, and in the one presiding at the Eucharistic table.

I believe the decrees of the Council are infallible and proclaim the faith of the Church.  It is quite possible that some of the Council Fathers did not fully realize the implications of those Constitutions and Decrees.  But neither did those disciples gathered in that upper room realize what had begun when the wind began to blow and the fire, to dance.  One thing was soon certain.  The change was for the rest of time.  There was no going back to the days before you, before your passion, your death, and your resurrection.  There was no going back to the days before you sent the Spirit enable you to live in us until time runs its course.

It would help if you would let us know the direction you would like us to take.  Or are we hearing that in the collective cries of those who feel called to exercise their Baptismal priesthood?  The cries of those who feel alienated from the church as they experience the attempt to turn back the clock must reach your ears.

Is all this pain the agar from which a new Pentecost will grow?




The Acts of the Apostles 8:5-8, 14-17

The First Letter of Saint Peter 3:15-18

The Gospel according to John 14:15-21

In the Book of Revelation, God mourns over the people say, I would you were hot or cold; but because you are lukewarm I will begin to spit you out of my mouth. You have heard the saying, I’m sure.  Perhaps you wonder what the Lord means.  To whom do the words apply?  Have you ever heard of the question that blared from posters in the late 60’s and early 70’s of the last century?  If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? The two statements are closely related.  Maybe we could add a third adage for flavoring.  Actions speak louder than words!

We are nearing the conclusion of the Easter Season and Pentecost nears.  Our newly baptized, or Neophytes, have had these weeks to experience the reality of their new life in Christ.  The rest of the Church has had the time to see the fruits of their period of penance during Lent and the renewal of their Baptismal Promises around the Font in the celebration of Easter.  For both groups, enough time has passed to begin to experience the humdrumness of the routine of daily living the faith, of being on the Way.  How are the lives lived now different from the lives lived before the encounter at the Font?

Peter, in this week’s second reading, speaks words of comfort and support to Christians under siege.  They are on trial and facing death because of their identification with Christ.  Their witness and their mode of living have been deemed unacceptable by the civic authorities.  Christians no longer hope in Caesar.  Their hope is in Christ’s Resurrection.  The jaws of the lions loom.  Peter urges them to act with gentleness and reverence so that when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame. Apparently these Christians are not lukewarm in their faith response.  They are on fire with the Spirit living in them.  Their actions speak loudly.  The risen Body of Christ living in the hearts of the Baptized continues to scandalize.

We might be tempted to forget that Jesus gave scandal.  We might be tempted to soft pedal the charges related in the gospels.  This man welcomes sinners and shares table with them. In our minds eyes those sinners can become sanitized, having to make scant changes before it is clear that they are disciples.  We see them as plaster-of-Paris saints in pastels fit for depiction on Markley Street holy cards.  Surely they’re not really sinners.  We can accept that Jesus was comfortable among the poor.  We’re even consoled that he approached lepers.  Surely that’s what the gospel text means by sinners.  Do you think so?  I don’t.  Sinners are sinners.  They were in Jesus’ day, too.  Sinners did not live by God’s law.  Some of them were prostitutes.  (Don’t read Mary of Magdala here.  She was far from being a prostitute.)  Some of them were tax collectors – which translates into being in league with their Roman suppressors and being extorters of their neighbors.  Their wages came from their adding to the tax bills of those neighbors.  (You might think of Matthew here.)  Some of them were thieves.  You name the vice and surely representatives could be found in Jesus’ company.  He was comfortable with them.  Then add the poor and the lepers and any other off scouring of society and you will have a digest of the regulars who reclined at table with Jesus.  Jesus ministers to them unconditionally.  He loves them for who they are.  There’s no indication that all of them changed their ways and became his disciples.

What is my point?  The danger I see in these times is Catholics being too antiseptic in the practice of the faith and our assemblies becoming too homogeneous.  It’s fine to be in choir stalls and to have splendidly florid liturgies.  But that makes no one uncomfortable if in the assembly there is no evidence of diversity.  Do we worship only with those with whom we are comfortable?  Would sinners feel welcome?  Under what conditions?  Are the members of the assembly conscious of their being sinners, forgiven, but repentant sinners, nonetheless?  How comfortable are the pews?  Does the manner of celebrating the Eucharist evoke the full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly?  And does the Assembly rush forth, renewed by the meal they have shared, to allow themselves to be broken and shared until all have been fed.  Are they on fire?

It won’t be long until we observe the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some will remember the days leading up to that horrific event.  There were marches in the streets of Alabama and numbers of people, vulnerable to batons and fire hoses and dogs’ teeth, witnessed to the need for change and the recognition of the equality of all God’s people.  The demonstrators were willing to lay down their lives for justice.  Some did that literally in Alabama and Mississippi and elsewhere.  Some of the demonstrations turned riotous.  Think of Watts and Chicago and Detroit among other places.  Witnessing sometimes can get messy.

Those were heady times that coincided with the first era following the close of Vatican Council II.  Sure there was upheaval as always happens amidst birth pangs.  But something new and wonderful was being brought forth.  The renewed Church was being born.  Think of Archbishop Oscar Romero who left the serenity of the Bishop’s manor to go into the streets to stand as shepherd in the midst of the poor and oppressed and call for justice of the people in El Salvador.  Think of Dom Helder Camara whose witness to absolute solidarity with the poor became a precursor to the controversial Liberation Theology linked to Archbishop Romero.  Even though he was an Archbishop, Camara lived in poverty among the poor.  Dom Helder said: When I give food to the poor they call me a saint.  When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a Communist. At the time of the Viet Nam War he wrote The Cycle of Violence in which he challenged the young people to break the cycle of violence to which previous generations have become addicted.

Think of the sit-ins and demonstrations on college campuses, the students who were shot to death at Kent State.  Think of the demonstrations in the streets of Chicago during a Democratic convention.  Think of the brothers Berrigan.  Call them to mind and be inspired.  Sure there were specific issues challenged by those demonstrations that may no longer seem pressing.  No one would want to relive the years that spawned the assassinations of Dr. King and John and Robert Kennedy.  But the violence of those times should not lull us into complacency in our own times.  There are still the poor who are hungry.  There are still homeless people who live without shelter and whose homes destroyed by hurricanes or earthquakes still have not been restored.  There are still the shunned being bullied, committing suicide in their devastation.  There is not shortage of injustices that cry out to heaven for vengeance.  How will the Church respond?

If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  That is what the Neophytes must ask themselves.  That is what the seasoned Catholics must ask themselves.  Jesus says to us in the Gospel this Sunday: If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Which ones?  There are really only two.  Love God with you whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself. Stated otherwise; Love one another as I have loved you. That love must be practical.  It is in the act of loving that we come to love Jesus and in turn to know that we are loved by the Father and loved by Jesus.  And most wonderful of all, Jesus will reveal himself to those who so love.

Let’s see what happens on Pentecost.  Imagine the wind that could blow then, and the fire dancing, and the change.




“Caleb,” I said, “is that you?”

It took a moment after I had opened the door for me to see him seated on the top step.  He was just outside the circle of light from the overhead lamp.  His arms were wrapped around his legs.  His body rocked gently as he sat facing the night.  I stepped out onto the porch and put my hand on his shoulder.  I repeated his name.  He stopped rocking.

“What is it, Caleb?”  He was small for his 15 years.  Looking down on him from above he seemed frail, even fragile.  I sat down next to him on the step and waited.  I could see that he had been crying but I said nothing as he wiped his tears with the palms of his hands.  He sagged against me.  I put my arm around his shoulder as he began to weep silently again.  When the tears stopped I said, “Let’s go inside where it’s warmer and we can talk.”

He laughed as he helped me to my feet.  I closed the door behind us.  We made our way down the hall to the dining room.  He followed me into the kitchen and watched as I heated milk laced with cocoa.  Hot chocolate seemed like the right thing to do and when it was ready we returned to the dining room and I placed the steaming cup in front of him as he sat to the table.  He thanked me and took a sip or two.  I sat and watched him, as he seemed to savor the drink.  He began to chatter about sundry things, a football game, a test in school, a prank he had played at home.  There was no particular order to the topics, no ranking in terms of importance.  I realized he couldn’t tolerate silence.  He stared into the cup between sips and scarcely gave me a moment to say, “yes,” “no.” or “maybe.”

“Does anybody love me?” he asked.

Instead of answering his question, I asked him if he wanted to tell me what was really on his mind, what it was that was bothering him.  Some of the details of his story I already knew, but he spoke as if this were our first meeting.  He told me the about his birth and that his birth mother, single, didn’t want to keep him.  He had just learned that his subsequent adoption had followed his having been shifted from foster-home to foster-home.  Then it had been difficult for him, growing up in a household with other children born to his parents and one other adopted, as was he.  He knew his parents were good people.  He thought he felt safe and secure in the home.  He liked school and did well in all his classes.  His ambition was to be a physician for senior people because often they are so helpless.  His father was away in the war now.  Caleb missed him.  He paused and took a deep sigh.

“Until tonight I thought I had been adopted as a new born.  I know now that isn’t true.  I went to my bed after dinner and fell asleep and had a weird dream.  I woke in a near panic.  I don’t remember what the dream was about, but I felt big hands beating on me, on my side, on my back, a fist to my stomach.  I felt a huge figure over me picking me up and shaking me and throwing me down.  Then I was screaming like a baby and pleading for someone to help me, please help me.

“My mother came running into my room and held me until I stopped crying.  When I told her what I was feeling she told me it had happened when I was 2-years-old, before they had adopted me.  She said I was bruised and battered when they brought me home.  She said she had planned to tell me the story when I was old enough to understand and accept it.  Now we were both crying.  I told her I needed to get out of the house for a while.  She told me that you knew the whole story and so I came here.

“Does anybody love me?”

I held my cup of herbal tea and took a sip from it as I paused and prayed for guidance.  What did he need to hear?  I placed the cup on its saucer and looked at Caleb.  It was my turn now to ramble through a litany of ideas in no particular order and no hierarchical ranking.  “Does anybody love you?  Your mother.  Your father.  Your siblings.  God.  Jesus.”  Our eyes locked.  Was it for seconds or minutes before he blinked and his gaze returned to his chocolate?

“There’s something I noticed about you when you were in the second grade.  You were more mature than many of your classmates.  That hasn’t changed to the present day.  Do you know why I think that is so?”

He looked at me and gave a silent shrug with his shoulders.  His face was void of emotions.

“I think your maturity rises out of the sufferings that plagued you when you were just a little guy.  The pain couldn’t break your spirit.

“Your folks love you.  Don’t ever doubt that.  God loves you as if you were the only person on the face of the earth, just the way God loves Jesus.  And Jesus lives in you.  Never forget that.

“Someday you’re going to realize that the terrible injuries you endured as an infant have transformed into your having tremendous compassion for other people who suffer, like the seniors you hope to serve someday.  You will be able to say to them in a way that few can, ‘I understand.’  I can say that I sympathize with what you tell me, but because I haven’t suffered in the way you have, I can’t say, ‘I understand.’”

I thought he might say something at that point.  Instead, he lifted his mug to his lips and took a longer drink.  It seemed he was mulling over what I was saying to him.

“When you are afraid, and everybody has moments of fear, remember what Jesus said after his terrible suffering was over and he came back to his disciples on Easter night.  They had all crouched in fear and kept their eyes fixed on the door, wondering if those that had put Jesus to death now would come after them out of the night.  All of a sudden, in the midst of their terror, he knew he was with them.  They saw him.  The first word he spoke was, ‘Peace.’  Somehow in that moment that peace embraced them, comforted them, and transformed them.  All of a sudden they knew that even death wasn’t the worst thing.  Being separated from the love of God was.  But Jesus had told them with that one word that nothing could sever that relationship forever.

“Caleb, that is what Jesus says to you, over and over again, so that you won’t forget.  He wants you to know that no brute or bully, no sickness, not even death will wrest you from God’s grasp.”

And Caleb smiled as he finished his chocolate.