Sunday, February 22, 2015

Saint Serenus the Gardener: Cultivating Virtue

The one who supplies seed to the sower
and bread for food
will supply and multiply your seed
and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
—2 Corinthians 9:10

As we celebrate the Season of Lent—the Church’s “springtime”—it seems only fair that among the holy women and men we remember in these reflections is a saint who is honored as one of the patron saints of gardeners: Saint Serenus.

Born to a Greek family in the third century, Serenus (who is widely known as Saint Cerneuf in France) became a hermit, living on produce he grew in his hermitage garden in Syrmium (Sremska Mitrovica in modern-day Croatia). When a persecution of Christians erupted, Serenus went into hiding for several months. He eventually returned to his hermitage and garden and it seems to have been widely known that he was a Christian.

The most popular account of his life tells us that he was an exceptionally attractive man and a hard worker. He was respected and admired by everyone who came into contact with him, particularly the wife of one of the guards of the Emperor Maximian (r. 286-305). Her interest in Serenus quickly turned into sexual advances which led him to criticize her behavior, declaring that she was dishonoring both herself and her husband. The spurned woman responded by writing to her husband and declaring that Serenus had insulted her.
A 19th century depiction of Saint Serenus the Gardener
from Pictorial Lives of the Saints
A short time later, the husband presented a complaint to the governor and had Serenus brought to trial. The hermit defended himself so well that the husband dropped the charges, realizing that his wife had been the one at fault. Serenus was acquitted, but the governor suspected that anyone so conscientious must be a Christian. And so, Serenus was charged with being a Christian and invited to sacrifice to the Roman gods. He refused, declaring, “It has pleased God to reserve me for this present time. It seemed awhile ago as if he rejected me as a stone unfit to enter his building, but he has the goodness to take me now to be placed in it; I am ready to suffer all things for his name, that I may have a part in his kingdom with his saints.” He was martyred around the year 303. His commemoration is celebrated on February 23.

The witness of saints like Serenus challenges us to reflect on how we cultivate our own “garden”—our spiritual life. His life as a hermit, commitment to a truly Christian morality, and the witness of his martyrdom remind us that, regardless of our state of life, every follower of Jesus is called to cultivate virtue and witness to our faith in every facet of our lives: in our work, in our private moments, and especially in those times our faith is challenged.

Lent is that time set aside for us by the Church when we are supposed to pause and take stock of the quality of our discipleship. As we know, our commitment as followers of Jesus isn’t measured or reflected in how much we “give up,” but in how we care for one another, in our dedication to prayer, and in the way our faith guides and inspires our day-to-day decisions. With this in mind, spend some time this week reflecting on your own Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Ask yourself if your Lenten “good works” are leading you to focus your attention inward or if they are inspiring you to cultivate a life of virtue, goodness, and fidelity—like Saint Serenus—whose fruits enrich the world around you.

A prayer in honor of Saint Serenus the Gardener +
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Serenus boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the powers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)

This post was originally written Mayslake Ministries and was posted on their blog on February 24, 2015.

Keeping Lent Real

In his Rule, Saint Benedict observes that "the life of a monk ought to a continuous Lent" (from chapter 49). Those words might strike some as harsh, but why is that? Is it because we too quickly associate Lent with ash-smudged foreheads, "giving up" things we generally enjoy, fishy Fridays, and lots talk about guilt and sin?

The insight that we can gain from Saint Benedict's perspective is that the spirit of Lent is something that should permeate our lives every day of the year. And, by saying that, I don't mean the doom-and-gloom that too many associate with this season. Instead, Saint Benedict was saying that our Lenten emphasis on ongoing conversion and covenant is something we should carry with us each day, because conversion and covenant are at the heart of our commitment to follow Christ.

This can only make sense for us today if we try to remember that Lent was originally a 3-day time of fasting and prayer for those who would be baptized at Easter. While this eventually grew into the 40 days we keep today (remember that Sundays are not included in the 40 days of Lent because Sunday can never be a day of penance), the meaning is there for us, as well: Lent is the time when we prepare for the celebration of baptism and the renewal of our baptismal promises. For those in the RCIA process, who are now in the final weeks before they will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, these days are anything but a burden--this is a time of anticipation and joy. But, for the rest of us--who have already been baptized--Lent is often anything but a season of joyful waiting. And yet, each of us will renew our commitment to discipleship on Easter Sunday by recalling our baptismal promises and being sprinkled with holy water. Sadly, most of us miss the connection of this liturgical act and the season of Lent.

In classes and workshops, I often say that Lent is the time to "get back to basics." These are the days to reflect on what it means to be a Christian, to really look at how we are living out our baptismal commitment/covenant, and to begin to take steps to becoming a truer disciple of Jesus. This rarely has anything to do with "giving up" luxury items like chocolate, Facebook, reading fiction. Most of us would benefit more from finding a way to care for the poor, nurture faith in our families, and pray more. The "giving up" of Lent is only intended to remind us that there are things we all desire and hunger for, but these days are also a time when we should be asking ourselves if we're hungering for the right things. In this sense, Lent is the most "grown up" of all the seasons of the Church year. Lent is the season of discipleship.

At the end of the Gospel proclaimed on this First Sunday of Lent, we hear that, "Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.'" This is the meaning of Lent: Now is the time. Live like you really believe what you profess.

As we continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross and Easter, take some time to reflect on where you're putting your energies and attention this Lent. Are you looking beyond the 40 days and choosing to take up a good work that will enrich your faith in and commitment to the Risen Lord? How, in your prayers and almsgiving, are you reaching out to support those who have been entrusted to our care--especially the poor and those who are suffering? Do your Lenten good works include times for prayer and reflection, almsgiving (sharing your resources with others), and making sacrifices that will truly free your body, mind, and spirit? Are you praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters, Church leaders, for an increase in vocations, and for the grace of conversion? If not, remember that each day is a new day and a time to begin again because we are a people committed to conversion: "The life of the Christian ought to be a continuous Lent," always looking towards that eternal Easter.

Happy Lent.

A prayer for the First Sunday of Lent +
Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observance of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Seven Holy Founders, Lent, and Living for Others

The Spirit comes to the aid of our weaknesses;
For we do not know how to pray as we ought,
But the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressive groanings.
—Romans 8:26

After the excitement of Valentine’s Day and celebrations of Carnival, the sobriety of Ash Wednesday can be quite a jolting beginning to our Lenten prayer and good works. Unfortunately, many of us miss out on irreplaceable opportunities for growth and enrichment because we focus too much of our attention on the “thou shalt nots” of Lent and overlook the fact that Lent is really intended to be a spiritual springtime. By thinking only of Lenten penances, we fail to see how our self-denial should be balanced with good works of prayer and charity.

As we make our final preparations for Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent, the Seven Founders of the Servite Order (who are honored with a common commemoration on February 17) offer a fitting example of what our prayer, charity, and conversion might be as we celebrate Lent.

These seven saints founded the Order of the Servants of Mary around the middle of the thirteenth century. This order, of whom Saint Peregrine (the patron saint of those with cancer) is the best known, is a religious community that has much in common with the Franciscans and Dominicans. And although they are not well known in the United States, we owe them a special debt of thanks for working to spread devotion to Our Lady of Sorrows—certainly a title under which we can honor the Blessed Virgin during Lent.

The seven men honored as the “Holy Founders” are Buonfiglio Monaldi, Alexis Falconieri, Benedict dell’Antela, Bartholomew degli Amidei, Ricovero Uguccione, Geraldino Sostegni, and John Buonagiunta. All were wealthy businessmen of Florence, Italy, and four were married, two were widowers, and the other three had committed themselves to celibacy. All seven men had joined a confraternity called the Laudesi and it was during a time of shared prayer on the Feast of the Assumption in 1233 that they were inspired by a vision of Mary to leave behind their wealth and positions and to dedicate themselves to prayer. Those with families made arrangements for their care and together they eventually settled in the wilderness near Monte Sennario.

When a bishop visited them sometime later, he criticized the small community for their harsh way of life and he encouraged them to take care of their bodies, noting that “the enemy of souls often hides himself under the appearance of an angel of light. The brothers obeyed and prayed for guidance as they discerned the future of their community. As they prayed, they had another vision of Mary carrying a black religious habit, accompanied by an angel bearing a scroll that bore the words “Servants of Mary.” They adopted this as the name of their new community and began to live according to the ancient Rule of Saint Augustine. At the same time they began to accept new members and the order grew rapidly. They finally received official papal recognition in 1304. Over the course of several decades, the founding members died and, in 1888, they were canonized together by Pope Leo XIII.

In many ways, the story of the Seven Founders of the Servites is not all that different from the stories of the founders and foundresses of other religious orders. Responding to grace, these saints set out on a new way of life, true pioneers of prayer and ministry. In time, experience, guidance, and prayer helped them establish a way of life and a mission that would work for the good of the entire Church, not only for a select few. And this is where the lesson is for each of us, whether we are a priest or deacon, religious brother or sister, or a committed married or single person: the Christian life is a gradually unfolding process of discernment and prayer that, by God’s grace, will lead us down paths that we might never have chosen for ourselves. This journey of faith is one that we walk with Christ and for Christ. There are times, as the Seven Holy Founders discovered, when our zeal and energy need to be tempered so that we are able to do and be more than we might ever have imagined on our own.

How many times have you begun your Lenten observance with great intentions to pray more and to “do” some kind of penance, only to discover that life seemed to have other plans for you? I can say that has happened to me every Lent! Despite my best intentions on Ash Wednesday, I quickly find myself beginning to slip in my resolve. When I look back on those times, I realize that this generally happens because my attention is focused on myself, and not on others… much like the early life and prayer of the Holy Founders of the Servites. It is only when we can begin to live for others—a truly worthy goal for any of us during Lent—that we have any hope of growing into the people of charity and prayer that God calls us to be.

In his Message for Lent, Pope Francis has reminded us:
Dear brothers and sisters, may this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral, and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
In these first days of Lent, ask the Seven Holy Founders of the Servites and all the saints to help you discern what Lenten good works will bear the greatest fruit, both for you as a Christian who is traveling along life’s way and for those who are most in need of our loving care.
A prayer in honor of the Holy Founders of the Servite Order +
Impart to us, O Lord, in kindness the filial devotion with which the holy brothers venerated so devoutly the Mother of God and led your people to yourself. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministry and posted on their blog of February 17, 2015.

Friday, February 13, 2015

From Good to Better

Almost immediately after Pope Francis announced his intention to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra—the priest who founded a number of missions in modern-day California in the early 18th century—a veritable firestorm of criticism began. One of the most recent voices to weigh in is Ricardo Lara, a California state senator who wants to remove Serra’s statue from the U.S. Capital’s National Statuary Hall, citing that the Franciscan Friar was "too controversial."

The statue of Bl. Junipero Serra
in National Statuary Hall.

President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast, the ongoing debate about Serra, and even the celebration of Saints Cyril and Methodius (along with the Saint Valentines... yes, Valentines) on February 14 have led me to reflect on how we view the saints and what they should and could mean for us.

In a recent editorial on this theme in America Magazine, Fr. James Martin, S.J., wrote:
Canonization does not mean that the church is declaring that a person was perfect. At the same time, we must ask: Are there some things that should prevent a person from being canonized? The answer is yes. But what things? And how shall we evaluate yesterday’s actions using today’s moral calculus? In the future, will some commonplace activities (to take one example, eating meat) seem monstrous, and thus a roadblock to canonization? Likewise, will some things that seem to bar a person from canonization today—say, Thomas Merton’s late-in-life affair with a young nurse—seem insignificant?
These are valid questions.

The reality is that, despite our efforts to turn the holy women, men, and children of the past two millennia into plaster statues—representing doe-eyed do-gooders with larger-than-life virtues—those we honor as saints and beati got it wrong, at times. They made mistakes, they sinned, and they, most especially, were people of their time who tried to serve Christ in the ways they thought were best.

Even the most cursory glance through any responsible collection of saints’ lives will reveal that these holy people were imperfect. And so, the question I would add to those of Fr. Martin is this: when did holiness become equated with perfection?

A painting of John of Capistrano
from the collection of the California
Mission San Juan Capistrano depicting
the Crusader-Saint trampling the heads
of slain heretics.
Perhaps our unwillingness to concede that holiness and imperfection aren’t mutually exclusive comes from some part of us that is looking for an easy out. We like to talk about the mistakes and doubts of figures like Peter and Thomas, but their long-ago relationship with Jesus seems to insulate them, allowing us to politely shrug off their shortcomings. But what about more recent figures? Fr. Martin lists some in his article, as does Fr. John W. Donohue, S.J., whom Fr. Martin references. Great figures like Saint John Paul II, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Blessed Pius IX, Saint Thomas More, and Saint Jerome stand alongside other (perhaps lesser-known) saints, including Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (my personal patron), Saint John of Capistrano, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Rose of Lima, and, of course, Blessed Junipero Serra. These are infinitely complex individuals with checkered stories… just like each of us. (As an aside, in the piece by Fr. Donohue, I learned that one of the Martyrs of Gorkum—a diocesan priest now honored as Saint Andrew Wouters—had a concubine prior to his martyrdom by Calvinists in 1572.)  

In saying all of this, I’m not intending to dismiss or excuse away abuse, neglect, or sin, but I think we have to be careful of how we judge history and what our motives are when we praise (or criticize) the saints.  

Dorothy Day (herself a controversial figure whose cause for beatification has recently been introduced) once declared, “Don’t make me a saint! I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” But, cheekiness aside, her devotion to the saints can teach us an important lesson, even as we recall that the saints were also sinners. In her book, On Pilgrimage, she wrote: 
The choice is not between good and evil for Christians—[it] is not in this way that one proves his love. The very fact of baptism, of becoming the [child] of god, presupposes development as a [child] of God. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Screwtape Letters, points out that the child in the mother’s womb perhaps would refuse to be born if given the choice, but it does not have that choice. It has to be born. The egg has to develop into the chicken with wings. Otherwise it becomes a rotten egg. It is not between good and evil, we repeat, that the choice lies, but between good and better. In other words we must give up over and over again even the good things of this world to choose God…
It is so tremendous an idea that it is hard for people to see its implications. Our whole literature, our culture, is built on ethics, the choice between good and evil. The drama of the ages is on this theme. We are still living in the Old Testament, with commandments as to the natural law. We have not begun to live as good Jews, let alone as good Christians. We do not tithe ourselves, there is no year of jubilee; we do not keep the Sabbath; we have lost the concept of hospitality. It is dog eat dog. We are all hunting whales. We devour each other in love and in hate; we are cannibals.
In all secular literature it has been so difficult to portray the good man, the saint, that a Don Quixote is a fool; the Prince Myshkin is an epileptic in order to arouse the sympathy of the reader, appalled by unrelieved goodness. There are, of course, the lives of the saints, but they are too often written as though they were not of this world. We have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times. We get them generally, only in their own writings. But instead of that strong meat, we are generally given the pap of hagiographical writing.
These are strong words, but anyone who has read Day's books or columns in the Catholic Worker knows that hers was a fiery and prophetic voice who knew how to use words to their fullest. And, in this passage, her point proves true. We have reduced so much of life to simply being black or white that we lose much of the dynamic that exists within Christianity… even while we justify our individual worlds of grey.

The murder of Saint Andrew Wouters
and the Martyrs of Gorkum
by Gerrit Rietveld Zigzagstoel (1932)
in the Gorkum Museum
For those saints who challenge our perspectives on holiness and perfection, we owe a debt of thanks. They remind us that the Christian life is a movement from good to better, not good to perfect, or even to "best." We are to strive for holiness, yes, but each of us struggles against the drives of our human nature and the perspectives (or baggage?) of our own time and place. For example, generations after Saint Peter Claver was tirelessly struggling to secure the rights of slaves in Colombia, men and women religious in America owned slaves (an example of one community's efforts to confront this part of their history can be found here). Does that reality negate the good work, virtue, and faith of these religious? No, I don’t think it does. Does it make them products of their time—even if it is a time we can look back on with regret? Yes, it does. But to judge past generations by our “enlightened” standards is arrogant at best. Times moves on and the practices and perspectives of past generations evolved. We ourselves have wars, violations of human rights, and theological tensions. But these also reveal that our generation is dynamic, moving toward a future point whose own generations will judge us based on our care (or lack thereof) of the poor, the sick and vulnerable, the migrant, the refugee, and the environment.

Each of us is called to seek perfection, even as we understand that perfection is an attribute of God and God alone. I am proud to number those imperfect saints as members of our family and I find great encouragement and inspiration in their lives and the witness they offer. They remind me that, in order to be perfect—to be a saint myself—I don’t have to be perfect. I just have to be moving from good to better.

A prayer in honor of all the Saints +
Almighty God, you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses: Grant that we, encouraged by the good examples of your servants, may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at last we may with them attain to your eternal joy; through Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Our Lady of Lourdes - Contemplating Mary's Smile

It isn’t by chance that the Church celebrates World Day of the Sick on February 11 each year. Pope Saint John Paul II established this day of prayer and reflection in 1992 to encourage prayer for those who suffer from illness and for their caregivers. He himself had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease only a year before and it is very likely that his own experience contributed to his decision to create this day of prayer.

In his Message for this year’s World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis reflected:
Wisdom of the heart means going forth from ourselves towards our brothers and sisters. Occasionally our world forgets the special value of time spent at the bedside of the sick, since we are in such a rush; caught up as we are in the frenzy of doing, of producing, we forget to give ourselves freely, taking care of others, being responsible for others…
For this reason, I would like once again to stress “the absolute priority of ‘going forth from ourselves toward our brothers and sisters;' as one of the two great commandments which ground every moral norm and as the clearest sign for discerning spiritual growth in response to God’s completely free gift” (Evangelii Gaudium, 179). The missionary nature of the Church is the wellspring of “an effective charity and a compassion which understands, assists, and promotes” (ibid.)
The true measure of our faith is our willingness to put it into action. Despite what some Christians profess, our individual faith can never be a private “me-and-Jesus” reality. That isn’t Christianity.

Beyond being World Day of the Sick, February 11 is also the commemoration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, under her title “Our Lady of Lourdes.” As we celebrate the special graces Saint Bernadette received in her 18 visions of Mary, we have an opportunity to also reflect on Mary and Bernadette as women who put their faith into action.
In Mary’s visit to her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth, we are given an example of selfless service to someone in need. This is all more powerful, when we consider that Mary herself was reeling from her own experience of being told she was to become the mother of Jesus. Rather than (justifiably!) focus her energy on the life-changing encounter she had with God, she went out serve to another in need, carrying Christ within her. In her own way, Saint Bernadette shared in this mission by courageously telling the story of her encounters with the Mother of God, despite the suffering she endured at the hands of government and Church officials, her family, and even her own doubts. 
In his apostolic visit to Lourdes in 2008, honoring the 150th anniversary of the apparitions, Pope Benedict XVI shared these words, which so beautifully sum up the meaning of the joint celebrations of World Day of the Sick and the Commemoration of Our Lady of Lourdes:
To wish to contemplate [the] smile of the Virgin, does not mean letting oneself be led by an uncontrolled imagination. Scripture itself discloses it to us through the lips of Mary when she sings the Magnificat: “My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit exults in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47). When the Virgin Mary gives thanks to the Lord, she calls us to witness. Mary shares, as if by anticipation, with us, her future children, the joy that dwells in her heart, so that it can become ours. Every time we recite the Magnificat, we become witnesses of her smile. Here in Lourdes, in the course of the apparition of Wednesday 3 March 1858, Bernadette contemplated this smile of Mary in a most particular way. It was the first response that the Beautiful Lady gave to the young visionary who wanted to know who she was. Before introducing herself, some days later, as “the Immaculate Conception”, Mary first taught Bernadette to know her smile, this being the most appropriate point of entry into the revelation of her mystery.
In the smile of the most eminent of all creatures, looking down on us, is reflected our dignity as children of God, that dignity which never abandons the sick person. This smile, a true reflection of God’s tenderness, is the source of an invincible hope. Unfortunately we know only too well: the endurance of suffering can upset life’s most stable equilibrium; it can shake the firmest foundations of confidence, and sometimes even leads people to despair of the meaning and value of life. There are struggles that we cannot sustain alone, without the help of divine grace. When speech can no longer find the right words, the need arises for a loving presence: we seek then the closeness not only of those who share the same blood or are linked to us by friendship, but also the closeness of those who are intimately bound to us by faith. Who could be more intimate to us than Christ and his holy Mother, the Immaculate One? More than any others, they are capable of understanding us and grasping how hard we have to fight against evil and suffering. The Letter to the Hebrews says of Christ that he “is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses; for in every respect he has been tempted as we are” (cf. Hebrews 4:15). I would like to say, humbly, to those who suffer and to those who struggle and are tempted to turn their backs on life: turn towards Mary! Within the smile of the Virgin lies mysteriously hidden the strength to fight against sickness and for life. With her, equally, is found the grace to accept without fear or bitterness to leave this world at the hour chosen by God.

A prayer in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes +
Grant us, O merciful God, protection in our weakness, that we, who keep the Memorial of the Immaculate Mother of God, may with the help of her intercession, rise up from our iniquities. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time - Prayer and Work

Part of the genius of Saint Benedict of Nursia's Rule for Monasteries was his emphasis on a balance of work and prayer. Saint Benedict, who founded twelve monasteries in Italy in the sixth century, brought together the wisdom of generations of monks before him, but re-shaped those these teachings in the light of his own understanding of the human psyche. This is part of the reason the way of life he established is still lived by tens of thousands of Benedictine and Cistercian monks, nuns, and sisters today. 

In his Rule, Benedict urges his monks to spend dedicated amounts of time each day working to support the monastery: “Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading” (48:1). In another place, he wrote, “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our holy fathers did, then they are truly monks” (48:8).  

Saint Benedict understood that work was necessary for life… but he did not see it as a necessary evil. Work, for Benedict, was a way of giving glory to God, just like the monks' daily rounds of prayer. As Kathleen Norris observes in a wonderful booklet called “Making Our Work Holy”:
Whenever I have witnessed work made holy, it is because ordinary people have taken ordinary tasks and made them something special. What might have been just a job to pay the bills becomes in their hands a vocation, and even ministry… At its best level the Christian and Benedictine perspective on work is thoroughly holistic. In our work we obey the great commandment, expressing our love of God, neighbor, and self.

In my own life, I am very blessed to be able to work as managing editor of Abbey Press Publications[1] and Deacon Digest Magazine and to also be involved in retreat and parish catechetical programs. These “professional” responsibilities bring together my prayer and work in a ministry that continually presents me with new challenges and opportunities and I’m extraordinarily grateful to serve God, the Church, and the world in these ways. However, I’m also aware that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have this synchronicity in their prayer and work.

For too many people in our world today, the work that they have to do robs them of their basic human dignity without even providing them with the means of supporting themselves or their families. Migrant and farm laborers, minimum-wage workers, and countless others find themselves in work situations which can often be dangerous and degrading, while the big businesses that employ so many refuse to provide adequate pay and opportunities for healthcare or compensation when accidents and injuries occur. The frustration and fatigue of those who find themselves working in these circumstances echo the words of Job (7:1-3, 6-7):
Is not man's life on earth a drudgery? / Are not his days those of hirelings? / He is a slave who longs for the shade,  a hireling who waits for his wages. / So  I have been assigned months of misery, / and troubled nights have been allotted to me... My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle, / they come to an end without hope. / Remember that my life is like the wind; /  I shall not see happiness again.
Since the time of the Industrial Revolution (at the end of the 18th century), prophetic voices have challenged us to reflect on the purpose of human labor and to defend the rights and dignity of workers. Whether we think of Pope Leo XIII's game-changing encyclical Rerum Novarum, the social-criticisms of Charles Dickens, or social reformers like Walter Rauschenbusch, Washington Gladden, and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, we have inherited a perspective on the meaning of human labor and workers' rights that we have to be willing to put into play today.
"Job" by Ilya Yefimovich Repin
In Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis has reminded us that our culture's emphasis on wealth and ineffective financial systems comes at the expense of human life and dignity:
Just as the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say "thou shalt not" to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: Without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape...
The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and a return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings... Inequality eventually engenders a violence which recourse to arms cannot and never will be able to resolve. (§ 53, 58)
Like the reading from Job, the Second Reading (1 Corinthians 9:16-19, 22-23) and the Gospel (Mark 1:29-39) for this Sunday's liturgy have a lot to tell us about the positive facets of our work: when done with and for God, our work builds up the Kingdom of God. With this in mind, it doesn't matter if we are a member of the clergy, a day-laborer, a corporate executive, or a member of the "caring professions"--all of our work has a meaning and  value greater than simply being a way to support ourselves. Each individual is given opportunities daily day to support and care for others in the work they do. This is the dignity of human labor. However, when we create or support systems that are based more on the exploitation of workers and the benefit of only a few, human beings are reduced to being cogs in a machine that exists only for its own benefit.

As it happens, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time this year (February 8, 2015) is also being celebrated as the "Day of Prayer and Awareness Against Human Trafficking." This day of remembrance is kept on the commemoration of Saint Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese woman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery just over a century ago. She represents the countless men, women, and children who have been stripped of their humanity so that others can draw the maximum pleasure, profit, and power. To allow this crime to continue is to stand opposed not only to a truly Christian understanding of the value of human labor but to go against the teachings of Jesus himself. Every Christian and person of good will has a moral obligation to fight this injustice, which takes so many forms and which victimizes tens of millions of every year.

As we begin to look toward Lent, consider how your work is an opportunity for service and prayer. Pray, as well, for those who are victims of human trafficking and abuse and give a gift to support those caring organizations who work so diligently to deliver these dehumanized individuals from modern-day slavery.

A prayer for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time +
Keep your family safe, O Lord, with unfailing care,
that, relying solely on the hope of heavenly grace,
they may be defended always by your protection.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

[1] Abbey Press Publications was founded in 1860s as a work of the Benedictine monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. Still a work of this monastic community, Abbey Press provides pastoral care and healing resources to more than ten thousand churches and other places of worship, hospitals, hospices, counseling centers, funeral homes and bereavement groups throughout the world.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Saint Cornelius the Centurion: The Light of Grace

People will come from the east and west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the Kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.
—Luke 13:20-30

What little we know about Saint Cornelius comes from chapters 10 and 11 of the Acts of the Apostles. However, his brief story marks an important shift in the life of the Early Church: through his encounter with Cornelius, Saint Peter was convinced that the Gospel message must be taken to the Gentiles.

In Acts, Saint Luke tells us that Cornelius was the commander of a cohort of Roman soldiers and that he was “devout and God-fearing along with his whole household” (10:2). Luke continues by pointing out that Cornelius was generous in giving alms to the Jewish people and that he was a man devoted to God. These are important details, especially when we remember that the Jewish people were subjects of the Roman Empire.

One afternoon, Cornelius received a vision of an angel who told him: “Your prayers and almsgiving have ascended as a memorial offering before God. Now send some men to Joppa and summon one Simon who is called Peter” (v. 6). Cornelius obeyed and sent two servants and a trusted solider to look for Saint Peter.

Peter baptizing Cornelius
depicted on the 12th-century baptismal font
in St. Bartholomew’s Church in Li├Ęge, Belgium
At the same time, Peter had a vision. He had been struggling over the question of whether the Christian community should welcome non-Jews into the Church. As he tried to understand his vision, he heard a voice telling him that “what God has made clean, you must not profane” (vv. 9-15). While Peter was puzzling over what to make of all this, Cornelius’ men arrived. Peter accepted their invitation and, after offering the three men hospitality, he traveled with them to Cornelius’ home, despite the fact that devout Jews were forbidden to enter the home of a Gentile. Cornelius explained his vision to Peter who realized how special Cornelius was. More than that, however, Peter realized that the Good News was intended for all people: “In truth, I see that God shows not partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him” (vv. 34-36). Peter was then inspired to baptize Cornelius and his family, an act which marked a new beginning for the Church. Later traditions tell us that Cornelius traveled with Saint Peter and eventually became bishop of Caesarea, an important Christian center in the first centuries after Jesus.

As we celebrate the memory of Saint Cornelius each February 2, the Universal Church is also celebrating the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the great day recalling when Mary and Joseph presented the infant Jesus in the Temple 40 days after his birth. That was the day when the old prophet Simeon took Jesus into his arms and offered his great hymn of praise: My eyes have seen your salvation,/ which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: / a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:31-32). But Simeon also recognized that the Child's life would be a mix of sorrow and joy and the source of salvation and hope for all people. That life with the mysteries of passion, death, and resurrection, was the Good News that Cornelius accepted and which re-shaped his whole existence.

In his Message for the 34th World Communications Day, Saint John Paul II reminded us:
The living heart of the message which the Apostles preach is Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection—life triumphant over sin and death. Peter tells the centurion Cornelius and his household: ‘They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest ... And he commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that he is the one ordained by God to be judge of the living and the dead’ (Acts 10:39-42). 
It goes without saying that circumstances have changed enormously in two millennia. Yet the same need to proclaim Christ still exists. Our duty to bear witness to the death and resurrection of Jesus and to his saving presence in our lives is as real and pressing as was the duty of the first disciples. We must tell the good news to all who are willing to listen.
In a profound way, Saint Cornelius and his family represent each one of us. We come from a culture that isn’t looking for a Savior and which values power and comfort, much like the Roman Empire that Cornelius was part of. And yet, despite that, the light of grace began to lead him on a new path. In accepting the Gospel, the lives of Cornelius and his family were forever changed and their openness to God’s grace also marked a significant change in the Church. The same possibilities exist for us and the Church when we are able to open ourselves to God’s voice calling us to choose a different and better way—a life of discipleship.

A prayer in honor of Saint Cornelius the Centurion +
O God, by your Spirit you called Cornelius the Centurion to be the first Christian among the Gentiles; Grant to your Church such a ready will to go where you send and to do what you command, that under your guidance it may welcome all who turn to you in love and faith, and proclaim the Gospel to all nations; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)

This post was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their website on February 2, 2015.

Christ the Teacher

Each year the Scripture passages selected for the brief span of Ordinary Time that begins after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord focus on the theme of discipleship. It's as if the Church is saying, "We've celebrated the Incarnation and everything has changed. Now, let's spend time really understanding Who it is that has come among us." And so, we heard stories about disciples being called, wonders and signs being performed, and accounts of healings and exorcisms, all aimed at helping us understand who Jesus really is.

In the Gospel proclaimed on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, we hear Mark's very brief account of Jesus casting an unclean spirit out of a man. But if we really pay attention to the way the story is told, we see that the point isn't the exorcism, but more about Jesus the teacher and especially about the source of his authority.

In his book, Fully Human, Fully Divine: An Interactive Christology Father Michael Casey, O.C.S.O., writes:
Mark's first account of a miracle shows the effect of Jesus' struggle with Satan in the wilderness. From this solitary contest, Jesus emerges as one with power to expel demons and restore those troubled by them to the "cleanness" of full humanity. The demons, for their part, recognize in Jesus "the holy one of God" whose power they could not withstand. This title should astonish us. In the Old Testament, holiness is the prerogative of God... Because Jesus belongs to the sphere of God, his mission is not dependent on human reception... Thus the words of the demon turn this encounter into more than a routine exorcism. It becomes the raw confrontation of holiness and uncleanness, in which the will of "the holy one of God" prevails.

In other words, when the onlookers are astounded at Jesus "new" teachings, they aren't awed by the novelty of his words. Instead, it is his authority that they find overwhelming: "What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him" (Mark 1:27, emphasis added).

In the Readings for this Sunday, the Church pairs this Gospel passage with a brief selection from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy (18:15-20). In that reading, the People of Israel have prayed to receive a prophet like Moses and God promises to raise up another such leader. As Barbara Reid, O.P., observes, "They want one from among their midst who is deeply prayerful and close to God, who will know and convey God's desires and who can lead the people out of their enslavement and their desert desolation. Moses assures them that their prayer will be heard" (from Abiding Word, Year B).

Although those early listeners of Jesus were quick to respond with amazement and enthusiasm, perhaps seeing Jesus as the fulfillment of that Deuteronomy-promise, many quickly turned against him as he began to upset the status quo. Bu, by calling for conversion and change, Jesus was fulfilling his prophetic mission and giving the people exactly what their prayer had asked: "To ask for such a prophet is not only to ask for a leader who will confront unjust forces external to the faith community but also that we ourselves be confronted by the prophet's searing ability to see the truth. It is to expose ourselves to the invitation to be purified and transformed, to have any 'demons' within us to be tamed and cast out" (Reid).

As I was reflecting on these passages, I thought of many friends--all Christians--for whom Jesus is little more than a righteous teacher who offered some vague moral teachings and who was kind to those in need... or, a nice guy. And yet, when we read the Gospels we are confronted with a Jesus who was, in many ways, continuing the work of John the Baptist, the fiery desert preacher who called the people to conversion, denouncing sin and hypocrisy.

One of the most challenging tasks Christians face today is allowing Jesus to truly be "the holy one of God," capable of transforming hearts and forgiving sins, and who also demands that those who would call themselves his followers live like him. To be a student of Jesus "the Teacher" isn't simply a matter of remembering verses from Scripture or Sunday school Bible stories. It means to live as a disciple, engaging the world as Jesus did and seeing everything around us through his eyes. This includes confronting our inner demons. Being a disciple isn't a matter of instruction, it is about salvation--our own and that of the world: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts" (Responsorial Psalm-Psalm 95).

A Prayer for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time +
Almighty God, Light from light,
who commands the universe and all that is made,
your Word is the power that makes whole what is broken,
the force of good, and the food of peace.
Teach us now as you taught in the synagogue.
Heal us now so that in all that we say and do,
the freedom we have in you may be for others, too;
in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
(from Feasting on the Word Worship Companion:
Liturgies for Year B, Volume 1)