Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thursday of the Octave of Easter: Discerning God's Handiwork

Shortly after he arrived at a compound for patients of Hansen’s Disease (a leper colony) in India, Doctor Paul Brand, a specialist in hands and tendons, quietly slipped into a community meeting, sitting on a mat behind the group in the courtyard. All around were smells of disease and decay, of cooking spices, and medical ointments. His eyes were drawn to the patients’ hands, most of which had missing or deformed fingers that were turned in—hands that were often called “lepers’ claws.” Some of the patients were sitting on their hands or trying to keep them hidden.

When the patients realized Doctor Brand was there, they asked him to speak. So, moving to the center of the group, he began by saying, “I am a hand surgeon. So, when I meet people, I can’t help but look at their hands. [Palm readers claim] that they can look at your future by looking at your hands. I can tell your past. For instance, I can tell what your trade has been by the position of the callouses and the condition of the nails. I can tell a lot about your character. I love hands.”

His talk then took a slight turn: “How I would love to have had the chance to meet Christ, “he said, “and look at his hands. But knowing what he was like, I can almost picture them, feel them.”

He talked about the hands of Christ, beginning with infancy when his hands were small and helpless. Then came the hands of the boy Jesus, holding a stylus as he learned to write his letters. Then the hands of Christ the carpenter—rough, gnarled, with broken fingernails, and bruises from working with a saw and a hammer.
But there were also the hands of Chris the Healer. Compassion and sensitivity radiated from them and when he touched people, they could feel the Divine Spirit coming through.

“Then,” Doctor Brand continued, “there were the crucified hands. It hurts me to think of a nail being driven through the center of the hand, because I know what goes on there…the tendons and nerves and muscles… The thought of those healing hands being crippled reminds me what Christ was prepared to endure. In that act,” he said, “he identified himself with all of the deformed and crippled human beings in the world. Not only was he able to endure poverty with the poor, weariness with the tired, but—clawed hands with the crippled.”

The people were blown away by this idea: Jesus—a cripple, with claw-hands like theirs?

“And then there were his resurrected hands,” Doctor Brand concluded. “One of the things that I find most astounding is that, though we think of the future life as something perfected, when Christ appeared to his disciples he said, 'Come, look at my hands'… He carried the marks of suffering so he could continue to understand the needs of the suffering. He wanted to be forever one with us.”

As he finished, Doctor Brand looked around and saw the patients’ hands now lifted palm to palm in the Indian gesture of respect, namaste. The hands were the same stumps, the same missing fingers and crooked claws. But the people weren’t hiding them anymore. They were held high, close to their faces, in respect for Brand, but also with a new pride and dignity…
I think we know the Resurrection stories so well that we can sometimes to take the details they contain for granted. We’ve become so focused on formation, ministry and mission, so fixated on what’s happening right now and worrying about what’s going to happen, that we forget to look back to see how God is already at work—and has been at work—in our lives and in the Church and the world.

Think about your own life. Haven’t there been times of transition or when things seem to have been falling apart—a job loss, an illness or injury, the end of a relationship, discerning a vocation—when God might have seemed far away in the moment but, when you look back, you see God’s fingerprints as he was guiding and shaping new possibilities and a future that you most likely hadn’t imagined?

That’s what today’s Gospel is about. That’s why it’s so important that Jesus wanted the Apostles to see and touch his hands and feet. Jesus is inviting the Apostles to look back not only at their journeying together, but into their past as God’s Chosen People—thinking about the words of the prophets and psalms—to see how all of the events up to that moment in that room were being shaped and guided by God. It was the only way his death—those wounds—could make sense.

When we look back at Holy Week and that first Easter day, keeping the past in mind, we can see how all God’s Providence and love was compressed, coming together for all history in the wounds of Jesus, in those hands that had healed and blessed and feet that symbolized Jesus’ mission and apostolic journeys still to come.

And so, today, we’re being invited to take a broader view of faith and we’re being asked to trust that the Resurrection life that we celebrate is a continuation of what the Apostles experienced in that room that first Easter. We’re being invited to reflect and discern how God continues to be at work, transforming our own brokenness and wounds, still shaping a future and possibilities that we can only begin to imagine.

This reflection was given during the Mass for the Salvatorian Community of Holy Apostles Formation House on March 31, 2016. The story of Doctor Paul Brand is adapted from Where Is God When It Hurts by Philip Yancy (Zondervan Press, 1977).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Value of a Life: Reflection for Wednesday of Holy Week

“What will you give me if I had him over to you?” “What’s that man’s life worth to you?” “How much is your power, your agenda, your comfort, your security worth to you?”
We’ve heard the story and we know the answer: 30 pieces of silver.
It’s a very specific amount. In Exodus we read that 30 pieces of silver was the value of a slave. Later in the Old Testament, the Prophet Zechariah received 30 pieces of silver as payment for his work as a shepherd. Saint Matthew wants us to make those connections. And we could, of course, spend time reflecting on the theological or symbolic value of those pieces of silver, and perhaps you can do that on your own today.
But as I reflected on the Readings of this “Traitor Wednesday,” I found myself coming back to the Lenten series on morality and the Ten Commandments that led at Saint Pius X Church [in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin] these past six weeks. And, one of the basic ideas of morality that we explored in the series is our belief in the common good, that sense of seeing another person as an extension of myself, knowing that what I recognize I need for health, happiness—and those things I need to be fully alive—are also the things they need to be a healthy, happy, fully alive human person. To say that we are committed to the common good means that we recognize our shared dignity and children of God and that we work to make sure that every person has what they need to truly live.
But to be committed to the common good means that we also forfeit the right to use the language of “us” and “them.” We no longer get to talk about or think about “those people”… whomever “those people” might be. I can only imagine how different the world would be if this is how we Christians lived.  
But we all have our Judas moments. We all have those times when we fail to see those around us extensions of ourselves and we reduce others to being a “them,” different from us, distinct from us. And in those moments we make judgments about their worth. Are they worth our time? Are they worth our energy? Are they worth a kind word? Are they worth the truth? Are they worth the risk?
I think that today, as we reflect on what Jesus was worth—30 pieces of silver in exchange for the security and power of the religious establishment—we might ask ourselves how we value the lives of others in this community, in our places of ministry, and around the world. If we simply go by what we hear in the news or in political debates, we might be led to believe that life is cheap—especially the lives of “those people”—but is that how Jesus lived? Is that how God sees it?
We know the answer to that because we know how much the love the Father has for the Son and how much that love cost. After all, that’s we’re celebrating in this Holy Week.
I delivered this reflection on Wednesday, March 23, 2016, at the Salvatorian community Mass in the chapel of Holy Apostles Formation House.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday in Passiontide: Remembering the Compassion of Mary

Today--the Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent--is a day traditionally set aside to honor to Seven Sorrows of Mary. Although the reforms of the Church's Calendar after Vatican II elimitated this duplicate celebration of the Mary's "Dolours," opting to focus on the Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows on September 15, the liturgy does include an optional collect (opening prayer) for today's Mass which reminds us of the special role Mary played in the Passion.

And so, today, we remember Mary as the Woman of Compassion.

Madonna in Sorrow
by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

In our culture, compassion is often equated with kindness or even with mercy, but there is a much more dynamic meaning to this word. It comes to us from two Latin words (cum=with and passio=to suffer) and literally means "to suffer with." And so, to be a person of compassion means that we literally share in the sufferings of another person. This isn't simple empathy, either. Compassion means that we see the other as an extension of ourself and so, if they are suffering, we, too, feel experience their pain.

The Gospel of John tells us that Mary stood by the Cross of Jesus as a witness to everything that was happening to her Son. She heard his cries and she saw the wounds that had been inflicted upon him. Simeon had prophesied years before that a "sword of sorrow" would pierce her heart and that prophecy had been proven true. And so, we contemplate Mary standing by her Son, sharing in everything he experienced, loving him as only a mother can.

Today, on this Friday of "Passiontide," we stand with Mary and sharing her sorrows as we contemplate the self-gift of her Son offered for our sakes. I think that today marks a fitting prelude to the liturgies and devotions of Holy Week.

The devotion of this day also reminds us that we are also called to compassion, to sharing in the suffering of those other Christs who experience the pain of rejection, abuse, and neglect in so many parts of the world, including in our own communities and families.

Thank you to all of you who took part in the novena honoring Our Lady of Sorrows I had shared last week. May God bless you as we enter into Holy Week and continue our journey to the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

A Prayer for Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent +
O God, who in this season
give your Church the grace
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary
in contemplating the Passion of Christ,
grant, we pray, through her intercession,
that we may cling more firmly each day
to your Only Begotten Son
and come at last to the fullness of his grace.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- from The Roman Missal
Alternate Collect for Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Blesseds John Amias and Robert Dalby: Standing Tall Before Idols

John Amias and Robert Dalby were Yorkshire men who studied for the priesthood at the English College in Douai, France.

John, a widower, was ordained in 1581 and traveled to England with Blessed Edmund Sykes that same year. He successfully ministered for seven or eight years before being arrested. Robert, who had formerly been a Protestant minister, was arrested as he landed in England in 1588. The two priests were tried and condemned together.

Showing great joy and a spirit of prayerful resignation at their execution, Blessed John Amias and Robert Dalby were hanged, drawn, and quartered on March 16, 1589, and beatified in 1929.

In today’s First Reading we hear about the faith of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, young men who refused to worship a false God set up by King Nebuchadnezzar. The king’s golden calf was a symbol of his own authority and by forcing the enslaved Jewish community to worship this idol, he was undermining their identity as God’s Chosen People. Blesseds Robert and John were faced with the same choice and challenge as those three young men: fall on their knees before secular power and deny who they were as men of faith.

A contemporary icon of Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego
by Father Richard Cannuli, O.S.A.
In these days of political turmoil, we are being faced with the same challenge. Will we deny the fundamentals of our Christian Faith in favor of the religion of politics? Do our political affiliations and preferences take precedence over our commitment to discipleship?

Pray today for our nation as we continue to look toward the coming elections. Ask Blessed Robert and Blessed John help you to discern how to discern the best way to express your faith within the public sphere, working toward the common good.

Prayer +
Grant a joyful outcome to our prayers, O Lord,
so that we, who each year devoutly honor the day
of the passion of the holy Martyrs John and Richard,
may also imitate the constancy of their faith.
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: Common of Martyrs—For Several Martyrs)

This post was originally written for and posted on their site on March 16, 2016.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Go and Sin No More: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” …
Jesus [said to the woman], “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
John 8:1-7, 10-11

Blessed Charles de Foucauld (d. 1916), a soldier and explorer, monk and priest, missionary and martyr, once wrote, “We are all children of the Most High. All of us: the poorest, the most outcast, a newborn child, a decrepit old person, the least intelligent human being, the most abject, an idiot, a fool, a sometimes sinner, the greatest sinner, the most ignorant, the last of the last, the one most physically and morally repugnant — all children of God and sons and daughters of the Most High. … We should love all humankind, for they are all children of God.”

Our dignity and worth as people is simply based on the reality that we are all daughters and sons of God. All the good that is within us — our hope, our faith, our love — are gifts from our Creator.

The story of the woman caught in adultery that we hear in this Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that sin — turning away from God and acting against our own dignity and worth — is not an ending. Because God’s love and mercy are unlimited, the gift of a renewed, ever-deepening life in Christ is available to each one of us. The cultural and religious leaders of Jesus’ time, however, were enraged by the woman’s actions and no longer saw a child of God standing in front of them. Instead, they stripped away the woman’s humanity and reduced her to her sin — a sin to be punished. But Jesus recognized her for who she was, forgave her and restored her relationship with God: “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

However we might have sinned or separated ourselves from God’s merciful love in the past, conversion and forgiveness are always possible. Our hope is founded on the new life offered to each one of us by the risen Christ.

The invitation for us this Sunday, then, is to continue to grow in our relationship with Christ by sharing in the Cross. This is the only way we can really discover the power of the Resurrection. This means that we are being called to forget what lies behind us and move forward, as pilgrims journeying together “in pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus” (cf. the Second Reading, Philippians 3:12-14). Then, and only then, can we find forgiveness and claim our true dignity and identity as daughters and sons of God.

How quick are you to throw stones at others when they have fallen? What would it mean for you to replace judgment with compassion?

What realities in your life — relationships, status, pride, etc. — have kept you trapped in the past? How has God’s mercy set you free in the past?

How are you being invited to share the Cross of Jesus as we journey together toward Easter? Are you being asked to help another person carry their cross as Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus in the Way of the Cross?

Words of Wisdom: “See what a mystery this is, and see the goodness of Christ! While the woman is being accused, Christ bends down; when her accusers go out he looks up. If you want to know the meaning of the words, ‘Go, and sin no more,’ let me tell you. Christ has set you free. Let grace now set right in you what punishment has been unable to correct.”—St. Ambrose of Milan

This reflection was originally written for and posted on their website on March 12, 2016.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Honoring the Sorrows of Mary: An Invitation

This Lent, I have been especially mindful of the Seven Sorrows of Mary. Although this isn't a specifically Lenten devotionbringing together as it does events drawn from the entire life of Jesusit nonetheless invites us to reflect on the role Mary played in the full story of salvation, particularly in those times of sadness and fear that are an essential part of the Gospel story.

A strong tie of faith binds Mary’s sorrows to those we experience throughout life. Her faith, resilience, courage, and (especially) hope allowed her to find the hand of God at work, even in the most devastating events of her life.

The Seven Sorrows of Mary are:
1. The Prophecy of Simeon (cf. Luke 2:34-35)
2. The Flight into Egypt (cf. Matthew 2:13-14)
3. The Loss of the Child Jesus in the Temple (cf. Luke 2:43-45)
4. Meeting Jesus As He Carries the Cross (cf. Luke 23:27)
5. The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus (cf. John 19:18, 25-27)
6. Jesus Is Taken Down From the Cross (cf. Mark 15:43-46)
7. The Burial of Jesus (cf. John 19:41-42)

Traditionally, the Church has remembered Mary, the Mother of Sorrows, during the liturgy on the Friday of Passiontide (the Fifth Week of Lent). This year (2016) this commemoration falls on March 18.

As an act of devotion in these final days of the Lenten Season, I would like to invite you to join me in making a novena in honor of Our Lady of Sorrows beginning on Thursday, March 10, and ending with Mass and/or Stations of the Cross on Friday, March 18.

Here are two possible prayers for use during your novena:

1. A Traditional Novena Prayer in Honor of Our Lady of Sorrows +
Most holy and afflicted Virgin, Mother of Sorrows and Queen of Martyrs! You stood motionless at the foot of the Cross beneath your dying Son. Through the sword of grief which pierced you then, through the unceasing suffering of your life of sorrow, and the bliss which now fully repays you for your past trials and afflictions, look upon me with a mother's tenderness and have pity on me, as I [pray before your image to] venerate your sorrows, and place my request with childlike confidence in the sanctuary of your wounded Heart.

I beg of you to present to Jesus Christ, in union with the infinite merits of His Passion and Death, your sufferings at the foot of the Cross and through the power of both, to grant my request: (Mention your request here).

To whom shall I turn in my needs and miseries, if not to you, Mother of mercy? You drank so deeply of the chalice of your Son that you can sympathize with the sufferings of those who are still in this valley of tears.

Offer to our Divine Savior the sufferings he bore on the Cross that the memory of them may draw His mercy upon me, a sinner. Refuge of sinners and hope of all humankind, accept my petition and grant it, if it be according to the Will of God.

Lord Jesus Christ, I offer you the merits of Mary, Your Mother and ours, as she stood beneath the Cross, in order that by her loving intercession I may obtain the happy fruits of Your Passion and Death. Amen.
- Taken from A Treasury of Novenas
(Catholic Book Publishing Company, 1986)

2. A Prayer In Honor of the Sorrows of Mary +
O God, who in this season
give your Church the grace
to imitate devoutly the Blessed Virgin Mary
in contemplating the Passion of Christ,
grant, we pray, through her intercession,
that we may cling more firmly each day
to your Only Begotten Son
and come at last to the fullness of his grace.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
- from The Roman Missal
Alternate Collect for Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jacques Fesch: The Story of a Prodigal Son

While the young son was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.”

But his father ordered his servants, “Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
—Luke 15:20-24

On October 1, 1950, a 27-year-old man was executed in Paris for murdering a police officer during a botched robbery. Jacques Fesch, the murderer, was a victim of neglect by his parents and the isolation and boredom that can accompany a life of privilege. He was a rake. He lived an restless life, wandering from relationship to relationship, job to job, eventually finding himself the father of an unwanted child in an unhappy marriage. However, like the “Prodigal Son” in this Sunday’s Gospel, Jacques also came to know the joy and peace of those who receive forgiveness and unmerited, unconditional love.
A photo of Jacques Fesch
taken during his trial

The three years that Jacques spent in solitary confinement, awaiting execution, was a time of conversion and transformation. He learned what it meant to love his young daughter and his mother. He found a friend and support in the prison chaplain. His cold indifference to his fate and the world around him — as well as his hostile feelings toward God — gave way to a profound sense of sorrow for his crime and serenity rooted in prayer and faith. An unlikely mystic, his prison journals reveal a man whose life was transformed by God’s reconciling and healing love. Today, Jacques Fesch is being considered as a candidate for canonization.

The story of the Prodigal Son reminds us that any one of us can wander away from God’s love, restlessly seeking our own path. It doesn’t mean we’re bad or that we are sinners. It’s simply a matter of choice. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen reflected, “Leaving home means ignoring the truth that God has ‘fashioned me in secret, molded me in the depths of the earth and knitted me together in my mother’s womb’ (Psalm 139:13). Leaving home is living as though I do not yet have a home and must look far and wide to find one.” And yet even as we attempt to “leave home,” setting off on our own to assert our independence, God remains at our side.

The lesson that Jacques Fesch learned during his years of imprisonment is the same as that learned by the younger son in the parable: we come to know ourselves through loss, and it is then that we can become free to see who we really are and what we’re really made of. This gift of self-knowledge is, above all else, a lesson in humility — a simple and unimpeded view of ourselves as we are before God. Humility empowers us to leave behind the illusion of our self-sufficiency and self-love so that we can return home to the Father when we have wandered away.

The lesson for us this Sunday is that God is ever-patient and always willing to welcome us home, regardless of what we might have done or of how far we have strayed. This is the reason for our joy on this Laetare Sunday.

When have you “left home” like the Prodigal Son?

What or who helped you rediscover the joy of God’s love and mercy?

How does the story of Jacques Fesch challenge your ideas of justice and mercy? Do you believe there are those beyond God’s forgiveness?

What is the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” inviting you to do in these final weeks of Lent?

Words of Wisdom: “May your love draw down upon you the mercy of the Lord, and may he let you see that within your soul a saint is sleeping. I shall ask him to make you so open and supple that you will be able to under­stand and do what he wants you to do. Your life is nothing; it is not even your own. Each time you say, ‘I’d like to do this or that,’ you wound Christ, robbing him of what is his. You have to put to death every­thing within you except the desire to love God. This is not at all hard to do. It is enough to have confi­dence and to thank the little Jesus for all the poten­tialities he has placed within you. You are called to holiness, like me, like everyone, don’t forget.”—Jacques Fesch (in a letter to his mother)

This reflection was originally written for and published on their website on March 5, 2016.

To learn more about Jacques Fesch, consider reading: Light Over the Scaffold and Cell 18: The Prison Letters of Jacques Fesch.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Saint Katharine Drexel and a Kingdom Divided

The daughter of one of the wealthiest men in America, Katherine Drexel was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1858. While visiting Europe, Katherine worked to recruit priests and religious to minister to Native Americans, and it was during this trip that Pope Leo XIII suggested that Katherine herself become a missionary. The following year, she established schools in the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, California, Oregon, and New Mexico.

In 1889, Katharine entered the novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy, and in 1891 she professed her vows as the first member of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People. Opening a novitiate in Philadelphia, she received twenty-one new sisters in the first year. The new community’s first mission was in New Mexico. Following the death of her father in 1901, Katherine and her sister each received an inheritance amounting to one thousand dollars a day. Other missions and schools soon followed, including Xavier University in New Orleans. Pope Saint Pius X approved the Rule of the Congregation in 1907, and Katherine used her tremendous inheritance to subsidize the works of her community.

Following a heart attack in 1935, Mother Drexel was forced to return to the motherhouse, where she dedicated the remainder of her life to prayer and contemplation. Katherine Drexel died on March 3, 1955, and was canonized in the year 2000.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus reminds us that “every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house.” As a young woman, Katharine Drexel saw the divisions that existed between the different ethnic groups and cultures within the United States. She saw that too many women, men, and children, were living without those things that we all need to live full and healthy lives: food and water, education, adequate shelter and clothing, meaningful work, and opportunities to celebrate our faith. She dedicated her life to serving those on the margins of American society, making the corporal and spiritual works of mercy the touchstones of her life of ministry and prayer.

Take time today to consider how you are living a spirituality of the Eucharist—a sense of giving all that you have and are for the sake of others, just as Jesus gives all of himself to and for us in the gift of the Eucharist. Ask Saint Katharine Drexel to help you be more aware of the needs of those on the margins, especially those who suffer racial, gender, educational, and economic discrimination. Resolve to make these final days of Lent a time for you to promote true justice for all.

Prayer +
God of love,
you called Saint Katharine Drexel
to teach the message of the Gospel
and to bring the life of the Eucharist
to the Native American and African American peoples;
by her prayers and example,
enable us to work for justice
among the poor and the oppressed,
and keep us undivided in love
in the eucharistic community of your Church.
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 article was originally written for and posted on their website on March 3, 2016.