Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Celebrating Blessed Junipero Serra

My newest article for Aleteia is a reflection on the life and legacy of Blessed Junipero Serra. His commemoration is celebrated in the United States on July 1.
Unlike many other American saints and beati, Blessed Junipero Serra has received an unprecedented amount of press since his beatification by Saint John Paul II in 1988. Honored as the man credited with founding the Franciscan Missions in California, his reputation and legacy have also been tainted by recent critics who claim that the missionaries (and Serra in particular) used violent tactics against the native population in efforts to force conversions to Christianity and suppress indigenous cultures.
Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Padre Serra during his upcoming visit to the United States has reignited debate over the friar’s mission, particularly in these days when questions of racism and civil rights form so much of our national conversation. However, during a recent Mass celebrated in Serra’s honor at Rome’s North American College, Pope Francis effectively addressed these criticisms when he praised Serra as being among a number of missionaries who “brought the Gospel to the New World, and, at the same time, defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers.”

You can find the full article here.

A prayer in honor of Blessed Junipero Serra +
O God, who by your ineffable mercy,
have been pleased through the labors
of your priest Blessed Junipero Serra
to count many American peoples within your Church,
grant by his intercession
that we may so join our hearts to you in love,
as to carry always and everywhere before all people
the image of your Only Begotten Son.
Who live and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Friday, June 26, 2015

Transforming Touch

There are few images of sacred art more widely known and treasured than the “Hospitality of Abraham” by Andrei Rublev. The icon depicts the three heavenly visitors described in today’s first reading. The icon and the story that inspired it celebrate the unique and transformative relationship with God enjoyed by Abraham and Sarah. This very human story—with its elements of hospitality, a shared meal, laughter, and promise—reminds us that in those graced moments when the Divine breaks into our daily life, everything changes. This same truth is explored in the Gospel, as we hear about those whose lives were transformed by their encounters with Jesus.  

It can be easy to lose sight of the humanity and intimacy in these stories if we spend too much time analyzing and theologizing them. Doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation can seem remote and abstract when weighed against the demands of daily life. After all, as St. Augustine said, the Kingdom of Heaven is “not just to be looked at but to be lived in.” Philosophy and theology can only take us so far, and intellectual exercises, no matter how noble, can never replace our personal encounters with God in Scripture, prayer, liturgy, and life.

Since the earliest days of the Church, Christians have brought together faith and reason in the search for Truth. However, this search has always been grounded in a relationship with God that has transformed the searcher. Like the stories in today’s Scriptures, the lives of history’s searchers and saints bear witness to God’s power breaking in and re-creating a person’s life, reminding us to be attentive to the ways God is present to us, day to day and moment to moment, because our lives also bear the imprint of God’s healing, transforming touch.

My reflection for Saturday, June 27, published in Give Us This Day by Liturgical Press.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Saints John and Paul: Remembering the Martyrs

For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.
—Wisdom 3:4-5

The Roman martyrs simply known as John and Paul are among those early Christian saints whose stories have been somewhat obscured by time and myth, but they are among the most beloved saints of the early Church. Their names are included in the Roman Canon (the “First Eucharistic Prayer”) of the Mass and the Litany of the Saints, as well as in the liturgies of many of the Eastern churches. Their memory is celebrated on June 26.

According to the accounts of their lives that have been handed down to us, John and Paul were Christian brothers and both served as soldiers in the Roman Army under the emperor Constantine. The brothers were assigned to serve in the household of Constantine’s daughter, Constantia. She held them in high esteem and even named one of them her steward, while the other served as majordomo. The two were eventually sent to serve in Thrace (an area that now includes parts of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) in a military campaign against the Scythians. When the army was in danger of defeat, John and Paul convinced their commander, Gallicanus, that if he were to accept the Christian Faith, they would be assured victory. The legend relates that as soon as he agreed to become Christian, an army of angels appeared and the frightened Scythians ran away.
"Martirio dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo"
by Guercino (1630-1632)

John and Paul continued to serve in the army until Constantine died and his nephew, Julian, became Emperor. Now known as Julian “the Apostate,” this emperor rejected Christianity and tried to reinstitute the worship of the old Roman gods; anyone who did not obey would face torture and death. John and Paul refused to reject Christ and were given ten days to reconsider. Still unwilling to deny their beliefs, they were executed on the Coelian Hill in Rome, around the year 362. This story is said to have been recounted by Terentius, the captain of the soldiers who executed the two brothers. Less than a century later, a church was built over their graves and the Basilica of Saints John and Paul remains a place of pilgrimage.

Our commitment to our faith demands something of us. The annual commemoration of Saints John and Paul, like that of the commemoration of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome on June 30, reminds us that the Christians who face torture, exile, and death today are part of a great procession of heroic witnesses that goes back to the time of the New Testament. While many of us will not face the prospect of martyrdom, we are challenged to make daily sacrifices for the benefit of others and the good of all creation. These daily experiences of self-denial aren’t an end in themselves. They are opportunities for us to become more free to give of our time, our material resources, our gifts, and our prayers.

These are the values that are at play in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. Although too many critics have tried to limit this dynamic document to a few sound bites about environmental challenges (such as climate change), the Holy Father is actually challenging us—as believers—to live out the faith we profess in concrete ways: “Believers themselves must constantly feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith and not to contradict it by their actions. They need to be encouraged to be ever open to God’s grace and to draw constantly from their deepest convictions about love, justice and peace” (§200).  

As we honor Saints John and Paul, take a few moments to offer a prayer for those Christians of our time who are suffering because of their faith in Christ. But also ask these two saints to help you recognize those places in your life in which you can make small sacrifices that will help you become more free to relieve the sufferings of others and to become a better steward of this world that has been entrusted to us: “By their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth, the martyrs light up every period of history by reawakening our moral sense” (Saint John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor 93)

A Prayer in Honor of Saints John and Paul +
We beseech you, almighty God, that on this day’s feast we may receive a twofold joy in the triumph of Blessed John and Paul, whom the same faith and suffering truly united as brothers. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Saint Joseph Daily Missal, New Edition [1964])

Not Everyone Who Says, "Lord, Lord"...

Today's Gospel passage is Matthew 7:21-29, which includes these words from Jesus: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.'"
This is a passage that we need to pay very close... attention to, particularly as so many Americans continue using faith as a weapon to justify so many crimes against one another and against creation.
 A reflection on this text by Sr. Verna Holyhead, an Anglican Benedictine nun from Australia who died in 2011, has this to say:
Today's Gospel is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus tells his listeners that having heard his words it now time to make choices. A lasting relationship with Jesus will never be built on lip service or pious words, such as "Lord, Lord," from those who claim Jesus as their teacher. A true relationship with him is established by putting Jesus' teachings into practice. We may profess we love the poor, are forgiving people, have nothing to do with contemporary demons; we may acclaim Jesus as Lord in our liturgy, but does his rule over our lives extend beyond that assembly? When did we last associate with a poor person? When did we have the courage to say "I'm sorry" to a brother or sister? When did we do something to exorcise our demons of materialism, addiction, social climbing, or status seeking?
To enter the kingdom of heaven we must do "the will of my Father in heaven," says Jesus. And the Father's will is love and life for all that is created and that flows from the radical action of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection."
By all means, let's continue to profess our faith, but when it becomes a tool for justifying institutionalized racism, sexism, homophobia, disdain and disregard for the poor, hatred of other religions, abuse of the environment, or supporting the never-ending "Us versus Them" mentality that defines so much of what we say and do in this country, then we are far from what Jesus taught and failing in our duty to follow the pattern of life given to us by the one we call "Lord."

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A few hours to go...

In just a few hours, the Holy See will release Pope Francis' new encyclical on the environment, "Laudato Si." While encyclicals aren't infallible statements, th...ey do represent one of the highest levels of teaching authority within the Church. As part of the Church's social teaching, we don't have the luxury of simply dismissing the document as one man's opinion. That Pope Francis has dedicated one to the care of creation represents his own resistance to consumerism, exploitation of the environment and the poor, and our "throw away culture." But, his call for greater accountability and environmental stewardship is continuing a trajectory begun by Bl. Pope Paul VI which was continued by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.


I agree with many catechists and commentators that we should not read *about* the document, rather, we should take time to read the document. Unlike any other document issued by the Catholic Church in recent years, this encyclical is causing a firestorm on both the left and the right. Sadly, both the Catholic population and all the "people of good will" that Pope Francis wants to reach are going to be bombarded with sound bites and headlines that won't be able to catch the breadth of teachings and reflections that this document will likely contain.

Based on recent speeches and homilies, as well as themes Pope Francis spoke on in "The Joy of the Gospel," it seems safe to assume that this document will contain critiques of western economic practices and consumerism, along with calls for changes in our use of fossil fuels and industrial processes that are wreaking havoc on the environment. Many in the media--and political leaders--will talk about climate change and "global warming, but in the end, Pope Francis' concern with the environment begins and ends with his conviction that we are responsible for one another. No business, interest group, or nation has the right to engage in business or industrial practices that place others at risk or deprive them of the basic human rights, including clean air and water. That is a truth that is a fundamental part of the Christianity and so many other world religions. We are responsible for our brothers and sisters and I find any attempts to pretend otherwise--including defending exploitative or reckless practices, especially in the name of economics--to be unchristian at least. This will certainly challenge our American entitlement and I think that is a great thing and its long overdue.

One member of the US House of Representatives has already dismissed the encyclical by essentially staying that the pope should stick to matters of faith/religion and leave the policy making to the politicians. Well, I would respond to the congressman that the pope is doing exactly what a pastor should do: he's protecting the flock entrusted to his care and, as a good pastor, Pope Francis understands that this extends to everyone because pastors don't have the right to ignore anyone in need.

So, read the encyclical, take the commentaries and opinion pieces for what they are, and remember that what is really at stake here is our basic human responsibility to care for one another and to ensure that those who follow us are given the opportunity to live in a world where they can be healthy and flourish.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Saint Norbert: Fulfill Your Ministry

Proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching… be self-possessed in all circumstances, put up with hardship; perform the work of an evangelist; fulfill your ministry.
—2 Timothy 4:2, 5

St. Norbert Window
from St. Norbert Abbey
in De Pere, Wisconsin
Saint Norbert was born near Wesel, Germany, around the year 1080. Through the influence of his noble family, he was able to obtain a paid position at the church of St. Victor in Xanten. His only task was to take part in the daily prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours, but he paid someone to take his place so he could take a higher paying position as a religious counselor (chaplain) to Emperor Henry V.

Eventually, Norbert converted from a worldly life, embracing the religious ideal, and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1115. Feeling called to a more austere way of life, Norbert gave away all his possessions and moved to the valley of PremontrĂ© in northern France. He was soon joined by more than 40 companions and, together with them, he pronounced religious vows on Christmas Day, 1121, establishing what would become the Order of Canons of PremontrĂ© (the Norbertines). 
Norbert was elected archbishop of Magdeburg, Germany, in 1126. Tradition relates that upon his arrival at Magdeburg, he was denied entrance to the episcopal palace by the porter who mistook him for a beggar. As bishop he worked for clerical reform, enforcing celibacy and attacking corruption and absentee bishops. Together with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, he worked to heal the wounds caused by the schism of the anti-pope Anacletus II. Saint Norbert died in 1134. Canonized in 1582, his commemoration is celebrated on June 6.

In the Collect (the Opening Prayer) for the Mass of the Commemoration of Saint Norbert, we pray that “by the help of his intercession, the flock of the faithful may always find shepherds after [God’s] own heart.” Noting the “pastoral zeal and preaching” of Saint Norbert, the Church celebrates the ways this holy bishop reconciled the call he felt to a life of prayer and contemplation with the call to serve as a bishop. Called the “angel of peace” because of his work to promote peace within his diocese and the entire Church, he also promoted a spirit of prayer, which must be the foundation for any good work done in Christ’s name.

The life and witness of Saint Norbert are a powerful reminder that God will often ask that we step out of our comfort zones for the sake of the Gospel, sometimes leading us down new and previously unimagined paths. Although he desired to live a contemplative life, Norbert became a true evangelist, dedicated to spreading the Good News without counting the cost. As we continue our transition into the season of Ordinary Time, reflect on what it is God might be asking of you and how your own preferences or agenda might be limiting the work of the Holy Spirit within you:
It is not only through the sacraments and the ministries of the Church that the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God and enriches it with virtues, but, ‘allotting his gifts to everyone according as He wills’ (1 Corintians 12:11), He distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts He makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and offices which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church. (from Lumen Gentium [the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church”] of the Second Vatican Council)

A Prayer in Honor of Saint Norbert +
O God, who made the Bishop Saint Norbert a servant of your Church outstanding in his prayer and pastoral zeal, grant, we ask, that by the help of his intercession, the flock of the faithful may always find shepherds after your own heart and be fed in the pastures of salvation. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

This reflection was originally written for Mayslake Ministries and published on their site on June 2, 2015.