Archive for September, 2013|Monthly archive page


It has been some time since there has been good news about the Catholic Church in the United States.  The world has rejoiced in the months since the election of Pope Francis I.  His humanity, his approachability, his humility and sense of humor, his call for a poorer church in service of the poor, his message is being heard and throngs rejoice.  True, some decry him and conclude from his preaching that he is not a valid pope and the papal seat is still empty.  It all began when Pope Francis stood on that balcony for the first time without the typical papal garb and addressed the crowd as “my sisters and brothers.”  The groan came from those wondered what would happen to the hierarchical structure should people heed his word and imitate his attitude.

It has been a grim time for the Church in this country.  Time after time Pew studies have revealed the numbers of Catholics leaving the church for other communions, the numbers staying but ignoring the teachings of the bishops and the numbers not going elsewhere but not attending Sunday Mass either.  The pews in many parish churches are empty.  Maybe it’s just as well.  The state of preaching in this country has been found wanting for some time now.  People aren’t listening because there is nothing to hear or heed.

The official outcry denouncing the demands of the Affordable Care Act as infringements on religious freedom makes some wince and others laugh.  It isn’t that the people don’t recognize that there are issues of concern.  It’s just that far more serious issues that violate the social conscience have not received the same level of denunciation.  The majority of Catholics long ago made up their minds about artificial contraception long ago when Pope Paul IV wrote his encyclical Humanae Vitae condemning it without nuance despite the urging of many in the hierarchy to urging the contrary.  If the Church reacted as vehemently to other social issues as she does to sexual morality issues, more just might start listening.  But that doesn’t seem to be happening.  And many of the faithful aren’t paying heed to the official ranting.

The times are rife with issues that cry out to God for justice.  The people are demonstrating, but seldom is the official church in evidence in the marches.  Some can remember the days of the fight for racial equality.  Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his address about his dream for the future of America fifty years ago.  If you look at the pictures of the crowd assembled around King, Roman collars and religious habits are in evidence.  Blessed Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council announced the Church’s fundamental option for the poor and their primacy of place among the faithful.  The people listened then, as they did the their call to be fully, actively and consciously participating in the Eucharistic Liturgy.  Just as they listened when it was affirmed that the faith resided in the People of God. The Body of Christ, the Church.  Some of us can remember those days of social unrest that called for change.  Some can remember the peace movement that roused multitudes both Catholic and those of other denominations and faiths.  If we close our eyes and remember, we can still hear the chants calling for War no more!  And we will remember the Fathers Berrigan; and Archbishop Hunthausen demonstrating against nuclear submarines and the missals of mass destruction they would carry.

Think of those days when people boycotted grapes in support of the migrant workers in California.  That famous picture of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, sitting with those workers and their supporters as the police, with their backs to the camera, closed in to break up the demonstration and arrest them.  What was happening in California in support of the migrant workers mirrored what was happening in South America with the call of Liberation Theology to free the poor and secure equality for them in the market place.  Dom Helder Camara and Bishop Oscar Romero made the establishment and the military junta unhappy.  But some in the Church stood with the poor and demanded justice for them.  Oscar Romero was martyred for the cause and so were other priests and sisters and lay people.  The fight for that cause is still being waged.  Sadly, even though the faithful in San Salvador have long proclaimed Romero a saint, he has yet to be officially canonized.

Some of us remember those days of protest, of violence and demonstrations.  The Watts riots.  The sacking of Detroit.  Think of the students from Chicago who went down to Mississippi to help Blacks register to vote and were murdered there.  But here also the voices singing: We shall overcome…” We believed that because the Gospel promised it.  Jesus said that is the way it would be when the Kingdom happened.

Some believe that the Holy Spirit guided those movements that caused the unrest and the riots.  When we thought about Pentecost imagery it made sense.  We witnessed the violent wind blowing and the fire raging.  It was not the serene scene depicted in the stained glass windows.  It took gusts and flames to bring about change.

That action on the part of the people and their excitement about their emerging role in the church and their validation made some uneasy.  It was as if there was concern that once the people got a sense of their place and voice, who would ever be able to bring them back into subservience again.  There are not a few who say that the Second Vatican Council was the worst thing that ever happened to the Church.  The times have become reactionary and retro.  And there has been corresponding silence on so many important issues.  And some say, hence the diminishing numbers of active Catholics.  The second largest denomination in the country, that of Former Catholics continues to grow.

Pope Francis’s urging the priests and bishops to get out and move among the people getting to know them seems to some to be a challenge to get to know the issues that plague the people.  Put off the splendor and walk in simplicity the way St. Francis did and Pope Francis does.  Imagine taking ordinary means of transportation.  Imagine living in simple quarters and cooking your own simple suppers, and breakfasting with ordinary people.  Imagine.

Were that to happen, then there might be an awakening of the Spirit.  There might be an official denouncing of endless wars and of the oppression of the poor.  A voice might be heard again that would denounce clothing and sporting goods companies using Indian, Asian, and Filipino sweat shops where minimal wages are paid to keep the prices down on our clothes and golf clubs.  The Church might speak out demanding justice and decent care for the veterans suffering from PTSD and the after effects of Agent Orange.  The actions of the women religious wouldn’t seem nearly as outrageous were priests and bishops similarly occupied.

The masses seem to be listening to Pope Francis.  The people are saying that sexual activity isn’t the only issue.  Abortion is an evil.  But so are euthanasia and capital punishment.  Where are the voices speaking out against the fact that the United States has more people incarcerated than any other country in the western sector?  If the priests and bishops came down from the pulpits and moved among the people, listening to them, to their causes and concerns, feeling their pain, the preaching just might change and the power of the Good News just might begin to resonate with the masses again.

Who knows?  The pews might start to fill up again, too.






The Book of Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14

Saint Paul’s first Letter to Timothy 1:12-17

The holy Gospel according to Luke 15:1-32


We can be passive as we listen to the readings in the Liturgy of the Word, or we can actively participate in them.  My conviction is that we are supposed to be the latter, active participants so that we are vulnerable and therefore able to be drawn deeper into Mystery by them.  If we place ourselves among the audience to which Jesus speaks in the Gospel, are we one of the crowd, i.e., one of those who is undecided about Jesus and therefore not sure about wanting to follow him and his ways?  Or, are we disciples, among those who have made the decision to accept the Lord’s invitation to be with him on The Way?  That is an important consideration.  Depending on how strong we are feeling and secure we are in faith may put us sometimes in one camp and sometimes in the other.  And that is okay, as long as we continue to listen and strive to respond.

Notice that in this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is sitting with the detested tax collectors and those others judged by the larger community to be sinners.  Associating with these types will contribute to Jesus’ downfall and be a charge that will merit his crucifixion.  While these parables about the shepherd’s quest for the lost sheep, the woman’s search for the lost coin, and the story of the Prodigal Son at first listening might seemed to be addressed to the tax collectors and sinners, they are in fact, addressed primarily to the scoffing scribes and Pharisees who are scandalized by the company Jesus keeps.  The Pharisees and scribes are seriously concerned with the Law.  They strive to live by it exactly and are judgmental about those who seem not to be keeping the Law with due diligence.  Jesus, for example, and the tax collectors and sinners.

Our full, active, and conscious participation in the readings is important.  Ask yourself how you would react if you were one of the characters in the situation Jesus describes in the parable.  In this Sunday’s three readings a common theme appears to be to let go of preconceptions about God as the judger and wrathful one and be challenged by the images conjured of a redeeming and forgiving and loving God.  Do we understand how God loves human kind?  The judgmental among us might grumble as the Pharisees and scribes do, because the picture painted seems to be of a foolish God whose reactions are excessive.  How do we react to Jesus’ question: what one among you wouldn’t act in this way?  The practical and the judgmental ones among us will struggle as they wonder what sane individual would respond like the shepherd, the woman, or the Prodigal Son’s Father?  It doesn’t make sense to leave 99 sheep untended in the desert and go searching for a lost one.  It doesn’t make sense to have such an exaggerated and costly responce to the finding of a lost coin that you would then gave a party that would cost far more than the value of the coin.  It doesn’t make sense to be so lavish in the outpouring of affection for a wastrel son whose excesses have resulted in squandering of a fortune to say nothing of debasing the family name and reputation.  It doesn’t make sense to the judgmental; but what a consolation to those who have a sense of their own sinfulness and have a heartfelt need for forgiveness and acceptance and to know that they are loved.

The parables begin with Jesus asking the Pharisees, the scribes, and us which one of us wouldn’t act in the same way that the shepherd, the woman, and the father do.  I don’t know about you, but I wonder.  Perhaps I could be that fond of a lamb separated from the flock that I would brave the wilds in search of it.  But would I leave the rest untended?  Would I put myself in such danger in the wilds?  Would I get that excited about finding a lost coin?  Would I be that lavish in the moment of reunion with someone who had betrayed me?  I wish I could give an unqualified assent here, but, as I said, I wonder.

Since I am a sinner and find it more consoling to be one of the lost in the parables, I find great solace in imagining being sought out, rejoiced over, and welcomed home again.  It is a matter of perspective.  That is what Paul is talking about in today’s Second Reading.  He is not reluctant to refer to himself as the greatest of sinners, even as he boasts of the redemptive love that resulted in his conversion and his being the foremost of the sinners Jesus saved.

There is a lot to ruminate over in the Prodigal Son parable, especially since some questions raised go unanswered.  How you hear the parable will determine how you fill in those blanks.  The Prodigal Son, for example.  We are not told much about the life he lived on his venture other than that he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.  It is left to the judgmental older brother to interpret dissipation as trafficking with prostitutes.  But did he?  Jesus doesn’t tell us because that doesn’t matter.  It isn’t the sin that is important, but the desolation the Prodigal Son feels as he finds himself longing to share the pig’s slop.  That is the epitome of desperation for a Jewish young man.

Was he really repentant?  It may be by design that his plea in rehearsal is different from the one voiced when he experiences his father’s welcoming embrace.  Then he doesn’t mention the possibility of being treated like one of your hired workers.  On the other hand, perhaps the father didn’t give him enough time to finish all the son wanted to say because that didn’t seem important to the father either.  Can anyone ever adequately express sorrow or repentance?  What mattered to the father was that the son, for whom every evening he had longed to see returning by the light of the setting sun, his son, once lost, now found, once dead is now alive again.

It has been speculated that Jesus is the Prodigal Son in the parable.  Jesus thought equality with God was not something to be grasped at, but rather he emptied himself to become one of us.  The Son dissipated the divine to become sin among us and so was nailed to the cross.  It is in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus cries out from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  In that moment he leapt into the void that is death only to be caught up in the arms of the Father whose will he had always sought, whose image he is.

What about the older son?  At the outset of the parable, the younger son asked for his inheritance now, as if he could not wait for the father to die.  The father divided the inheritance between the two sons.  That means the older son had his share of the inheritance all along.  He remained the first-born.  His brother’s sad saga had no impact on the amount that came to him.  Was it the father who forced the older brother to serve the father’s needs?  Did the older son resent each day’s responsibilities?  Was his life one of drudgery like that of a slave?  His resentment is so intense that he cannot even refer to the returning prodigal as his brother.  He is  this son of yours.

We are not told if the older son accepted the father’s invitation to come in and join in the celebration marking his brother’s return home.  Certainly we can hope so.  But it remains possible that he chose not to.  Is the elder son the stand-in for the Pharisees and the scribes, for those who resent Jesus’ welcoming sinners and eating with them?  They refused to rejoice seeing the off scouring of society made to feel that they were loved by God and had reason to hope.  They couldn’t imagine themselves sitting at the same table with them.

Will there be an anteroom of heaven where those gather who resent seeing those who have been welcomed into the kingdom?  Will they resent having slaved to observe the Law day in and day out while those others did not?  How will they deal with the implications of God’s willing the salvation of all people, continuing to decide not to send down fire and brimstone on those deemed to be sinners?  Will there always be those who want to restrict access to the Table?  Those who cringe when they hear that all are welcome here?

I find tears in my eyes as I think about the implications of this parable.  Sin remains sin – whatever the Prodigal Son’s might have been, whatever mine might be.  But God’s love is greater than even my worst sin.  Therefore, there is no room for despair.  In the Church there is no room for shunning oor a tiered society, one tier lording it over the other.  God rejoices always with the ones who were lost and are found, who were dead and have come to life again.  We are all equals, brothers and sisters in the Lord

I pray the Assembly with which you gather to celebrate Eucharist reflects that kind of diversity, that there are some standing with you with whom you could not have imagined breaking bread before your conversion and the dawning of the light of faith.   Now you see what Jesus has accomplished through his dying and rising and are filled with joy.  This is Gospel, the Good News.

And as you go forth from Eucharist, filled with joy at your welcoming, see if you can resist telling each person that you meet of this wonderful love.





And the Sparrow a Nest for the Brood

He lay on the mat he had placed in front of the church doors.  On his back, he stared into the starry night.  Sleep would not come.  Tension would not allow it.  A breeze rustled the flame trees on either side of the path the led from the road to the church steps.  A hyena laughed from somewhere in the shadows.  Every creak or groan or sound of a twig snapping sent shivers through him.  The occasional car, from its first sound until it faded in the distance, surfaced fears that the military were coming to take him away.  Soldiers or policemen wouldn’t have to beat down doors to get to him.  He had vowed not to flee if they approached him.

The inside of his church provided shelter for some homeless, dispossessed members of the wrong tribe, inferior to the tribe in power.  He still smarted at the thought that the majority of both tribes were Catholic.  He sat up and watched as a truck slowed in front of the parish property.  Someone from the inside flashed a torch toward the building and scanned over the front just above his head.  Then the light focused on him for a moment before ascending again and then lowered and zigzagged on the grass retreating back to the truck.  The torch was extinguished.  How long was it before the engine was started again and the truck crept off down the road as the taillights disappeared from his sight?

He wondered how many more times they would pass during the nights before the time they would stop and arrest him and take him away never to be seen again.  That had happened to others in the vicinity.  It wasn’t exactly with resignation that he concluded his turn was not too far away.

He reclined on his back again and thought about praying.  Prayer wouldn’t come, whatever praying meant these days.  Instead of praying in any of the formats taught him during his seminary days and religiously practiced down through all these years since his ordination, it seemed in these times for him praying translated remembering and wondering how and why.

How did he get here, to this outpost in Kenya, at once revered and respected as a pastor by some and hated as a revolutionary by others?  He was not native to the land.  The issues weren’t his when he first arrived, one suitcase in hand, expecting to serve a summer before returning to the states.  He had come to the country as a result of a dare from a priest-friend who had grown tired of his talk of being bored in his present assignment and feeling out of touch with the cares and concerns of many of his parishioners.  Over and over he had voiced a sense of a need for change so that he could get back in touch with the idealism that had made him first decide that the Priesthood was right for him.

“If you want a renewal, why not make an extended retreat.  Or better yet, why don’t you spend a few months among the poor in Africa.  Life here won’t seem so grim after that.  You’ll welcome Seattle when your summer in Uganda or Kenya is over.  You’ll feel blessed to be here.  You can’t imagine how your perspective will change.”  His friend spoke from experience.  Twice he had volunteered summers there.  Twenty–two years had passed like a heartbeat since that conversation.  At first a stranger, now he identified as a Kenyan through and through.  He loved the people.

What made him think of that day so long ago when he was an 8th grade student, bored in class that day, he had drifted off in a daydream.  Sister called his name, waking him, and gave him a text in Scripture to write out several times.  Maybe then he would be able to stay awake and even pay attention, as were the other students around him.  The Matthew text was Jesus saying that nothing is concealed that will not be revealed.  He transferred the words from the page of his Bible to the lined page in his notebook.  At first they were just words.  The meaning of the text did not register.  That’s the way with rote work.  Then he put down his pencil and read more of what Jesus was saying.  There was talk about sparrows.  He almost laughed out loud when he found himself wondering if he would be the sparrow that God would watch.

From his present perspective the statement that God knows the number of hairs on his head did not seem that much of a challenge given how his hair had thinned.  Not all that many hairs left.  But then, he had drawn strength from thinking that God knew him so well.  No matter who misunderstood him, he would know that God understood.  There would be peace in that for him, he had thought.  He finished the penance and placed the pages of his script on Sister’s desk thinking that he was changed forever.  This dark night God seemed distant.

He fluffed the pillow and rolled onto his side.  Looking down the path he marveled at the journey from his birthplace to this remote part of equatorial Africa and his involvement with these people so different from him.  He loved and wanted to defend them.

Why was he hated?  Little girls in his parish had been raped.  He knew who the perpetrators were.  Deeds done in darkness had to be proclaimed in the light.  Some of the flock that had been entrusted to his care were wrested from their little plots of land and were ousted from their homes.  Should he have remained silent?  He wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier to minister among his people had he not spoken out.

Then there were the long periods of depression that wracked him.  If he slept he heard the voices of his enemies haranguing against him and plotting to kill him.  More than once in his dreams he crouched in a field as rocks pelted him.  Then night after night followed without his being able to sleep.  Fatigue made his hands tremble.  Sometimes he would hold his hands to his ears to still the voices within that whispered and urged him to quit, luring him with the possibilities of an easier life, a life to which he was entitled after so many years of service.  No one would blame him.  Even God would understand, he thought, wouldn’t he?

Terrified parishioners came to him seeking refuge.  At first he had thought about telling them that that wouldn’t work.  He couldn’t be expected to provide shelter for all of these.  Then he was back in Matthew’s Gospel and Jesus praised him because when Jesus was homeless he had sheltered him.  That was the end of his struggle and he opened the church doors.  Pews do not make the most comfortable beds.  Neither does the stone floor.  But within the walls of the church the people slept.  That’s when he began unrolling his mat onto the front steps, making the entrance his bed.  If the militia were to come for them in the night they would have to step over him to get to the parishioners.  That would never happen, or so he thought.

Tension took a toll on his nerves.  He tried pills to calm them and wine to soothe.  Neither satisfied.  He heard the salacious things authorities were saying about him to discredit him.  How could he defend himself?  He remained silent and thought about Jesus’ silence before his prosecutors.

Another truck passed on the road and honked its horn in long blasts piercing the night’s silence.  He thought he should be a stronger man if he were to succeed at his work.  He flinched at the last honk and tears spilled from his eyes.  He clasped his hand to his mouth to stifle a scream that otherwise would have escaped him.  He shouldn’t scream.  That would frighten his guests sleeping inside.

Why was this happening to him?  Why hadn’t he stayed in the quiet and safe neighborhood where the biggest controversy had been putting the tabernacle into a Reservation Chapel? Then he had directed the use of home-baked bread for the Eucharist.  Some had reported him to the bishop for that effrontery.  Staying in those fields of contention, he would not have known anything about the pain of these people that he now thought of as his brothers and sisters.  He wouldn’t be lying on this hard landing fearing the next passing car and wondering if this would be his last night on this earth.

Silently he cried out in the darkness wondering if God was listening.  He longed for a sign, something that would convince him and let him sleep peacefully.  He remembered the night when, as a child, he sat in the loft window of his bedroom and prayed for a sign.  He couldn’t remember what it was that he wanted supported by the sign.  But he never forgot the streak of light, a comet or a meteor, he wasn’t sure, that flashed overhead.  He took it as affirmation.  When I am sheltering these little ones, I am sheltering the Lord, he thought.  I am, aren’t I?

These thoughts rolled around in the troubled sea that was his storm-tossed mind.  Fear paralyzed him.  He thought of the sparrows.  Like a mantra he repeated over and over again, God loves me more than many sparrows.  More than many sparrows.  Many sparrows.  Perhaps he could sleep now.

Then he heard a truck coming up the road.  The rumble grew louder like thunder rolling from one horizon to the other.  The truck turned into the driveway and stopped with the lights shining on the front of the church.  The doors opened and two men stepped out and were backlit by the headlights.  Each carried a baton that he thumped into the palm of his hand as they walked toward him.

He thought it was odd how calm he felt and how at peace.