Monthly Archives: June 2009

The First Christian Martyrs of Rome

The old churches of Rome are wonderful guides to its Christian past. As a student almost 50 years ago I went through them with books like Hertling and Kirschbaum’s The Roman Catacombs and Their Martrys, a book I still keep at hand along with newer ones.

The 5th century church of Saint Peter in Chains is a church I’ve always associated with the First Marytrs of the Church of Rome, a feast we celebrate today, right after the feast of the apostles, Peter and Paul.


It was built near the Roman Prefecture, where people were dragged in chains to be interrogated, tortured, and made to face Roman justice. The Romans were sticklers for procedure. You had to be tried in court. Many Christians–we are not sure how many–were brought to justice near this church. Those chains above may actually come from the nearby Roman jail.

I wrote about it here , and I have a video you can see here.

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Feast of Saints Peter and Paul

IMG_1302News reports today on the tomb of Paul at Saint Paul Outside the Walls say the bones come from someone from the first or second century, buried with honors. We were in the basilica last November where greater access has been provided to go down beneath the main altar and reverence the tomb.


On the Vatican site, you can now take a visual tour of the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s Basilica and see the tomb of Peter. It’s a favorite tour for pilgrims, but because of space visitors are limited. This visual tour is a great alternative.

50 Years, a Priest

I celebrated 50 years as a priest at the 12:00 Mass at St Mary’s Parish in Colts Neck, NJ yesterday. Here’s the homily I preached:

We’re celebrating Mass, which is time to thank God for the blessings we’ve received. You know priests are told they shouldn’t talk about themselves in the homily; they should talk about the scriptural readings for the day. But I know you wont mind if my homily takes a personal turn today as I celebrate with you 50 years as a priest.

I was ordained on the feast of St Juliana Falconieri, June 19, 1959, in St. Michael’s Monastery, Union City, NJ. The bishop ordaining us was Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, a Passionist bishop who had just been released from a Communist jail in China.

June 19th was a late date for our community to ordain priests. Usually ordinations were in February, or April.  June 19 was a very late date.

We didn’t have any particular devotion to St. Juliana Falconieri.  Probably, those in charge didn’t want to unlease us on to the world without getting as much as they could into our heads.

There’s not much to tell you about how my vocation to the priesthood came about. I knew a good number of priests and liked them. I liked the Passionists who helped out in our parish in Bayonne and I joined the community in 1950 out of high school, and they took me in.

1950 was also when the Korean War began. China was deeply involved in that war.  Our community had priests in China then as missionaries, who worked with the Sisters of Charity from Convent Station, and they were imprisoned, humiliated and finally thrown out of the country by the Communist government after war broke out.  They went through awful sufferings. One of them, Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara, bishop of Yuanling in China, ordained me.

As a young student and a young priest I was fortunate to live with many of those men when they came home. They were men of great faith, inspiring, dedicated, zealous– heroes in my mind. Many of them after a little while went to our new missions in the Philippine Islands and Jamaica. They left their mark on me.

I’m grateful for many wonderful priests.  One of them died a few weeks ago, Fr. Thomas Berry. He was known throughout the world as  a leading religious figure on the environment. He taught me in the early 50’s; I was young, just out of high school. He taught us history, and the first day he came into class he gave us copies of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.  “You have to study this, because you can’t understand the world we’re in today if you don’t understand this.”

Now remember, this was in the 1950’s, the Cold War was on. We were fighting Communists then, not trying to understand them. Yet he told us to learn as much as we could about the world we were living in.  He wanted us to learn Chinese, to read the religious texts of Buddhism and Hinduism.  “Asia is going to become more powerful, learn about it.” He was right, 50 years ago.

Because of priests like him, I’ve never felt my life as a priest has been limited. The faith we have in Jesus Christ is not just a package of tightly bound beliefs that you memorize; faith is a way of taking in the world as Jesus takes it in. At Mass, the priest represents the world as it is, in all of its variety and completeness, as Jesus does. Our faith is not meant to make us small-minded.

My community sent me to Rome to study theology in the 1960’s, an interesting time to be there, because the 2nd Vatican Council was taking place. I studied with a great Jesuit theologian, Bernard Lonergan. He wasn’t a good teacher, his classes were disorganized, but he was brilliant.

One thing he said I still remember. “We go to God through questions. You may answer one question, but that opens twenty more, and so it goes.

On the last day of class he said, “ Well, I got this far. If I get any further, and you come back next year, I’ll tell you where I am. But for now, I got this far.” So, at the end of his course, you didn’t know it all. You knew there was always more to come.

That final remark of Lonergan’s  “I got this far” is actually very similar to one my mother’s favorite expressions. When things were difficult, someone died, the future was not too clear, when some problem would come up, my mother would sigh and say, “Well, we got this far.”

But think about it. There’s real faith and wisdom and strength in a phrase like that, isn’t there?  None of us sails through life, life is a mysterious journey. An old black spiritual I like says we “inch”along.  “Keep-a inching along, keep-a inching along, the Lord Jesus comin’ someday. Keep-a inching along like the old inch worm, the Lord Jesus comin’ someday.”

God is there from the beginning, God will be there in the end, God is with us now, but we inch along.

Over the years, my teachers haven’t been just university professors or priests. I’m grateful for those basic schools where we learn so much, for my family into which I was born, for the friends I grew up with. I’m grateful for my years here at St. Mary’s. The priests, sisters and people of this community have taught me a lot about life and faith and God who is present among us. I thank God for all of you.

I was ordained less than five months after Pope John XXIII announced the opening of the Second Vatican Council, and as a priest I’ve seen a changing church and a changing world. I lived through the social revolutions of the 1960’s and 70’ and 80’s. I’ve experienced  the liturgical movement, the ecumenical movement, the charismatic movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movement. It’s been a world of change.

Certainly we all have questions about our troubled world and our troubled church. I wonder, for example, will there be priests to come after me? What about the next generation and the next? Will they go to church?

Someone described our times as a revolution that nobody understands. I don’t understand it, but I have an assurance that faith gives that “ all will be well” as we inch along. We have questions, but we go to God through them.

So as we celebrate this sacrament of faith we lift up our hearts and give thanks to the Lord our God. Our great High Priest, Jesus Christ, abides with us. “He is our ultimate teacher and redeemer, he was born for us, died for us, and for us he rose from the dead. He is our shepherd, our leader, our ideal, our comforter and our brother.” (Paul VI)

“Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God.” We’ve got this far.

Victor Hoagland, CP        June 28, 2009

Fr. Theodore Foley Remembered

Foley Memorial

A memorial area honoring Fr. Theodore Foley, CP in Sacred Heart Church, Springfield, Mass. was blessed today by Bishop Timothy A. McDonnell of the Diocese of Springfield.

Fr. Theodore led the worldwide religious community of Passionists until his death in 1974 and the process for declaring him a saint has begun in Rome. Sacred Heart, in Springfield’s North End was Foley’s parish where he was baptized, attended school and served as an altar boy.

I was one of  nine Passionists at the service, along with a number of diocesan priests, seminarians, sisters and laity. I liked Bishop Mc Donnell’s observation that Fr. Theodore is “a reminder that holiness is all around us.”  How true that is! The memorial area in this beautiful church built in 1889, which has been the spiritual home for so many from the area, is a testimony to the simple, powerful faith of generations of loyal Catholics like the Foleys and their holy son.

The Springfield Republican covered the story and CBS televevision.

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Photo courtesy of Jim Brady, Chicopee



Veronica’s Veil

DSCN1721The Passionists, the community I belong to, were founded by St. Paul of the Cross (+1874) to keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus Christ. For 86 years, from 1915-2001, people from Saints Joseph and Michael’s parish in Union City, NJ,  a parish nearby where the Passionists served for many years, presented a Passion play, “Veronica’s Veil,” during Lent.  Two Passionists , Father Bernardine Dusch, CP, and Father Conrad Eiben, CP,  were the play’s creators.

Patrick Allen, a Union City native and the last stage manager of the play in 2001, has begun to bring the play “back into service,” he says. Last Lent, on Good Friday, the Veronica Veil players processed through the streets of New York’s Little Italy near Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, reenacting the Lord’s journey to Calvary, and ended up in the church itself.

Patrick hopes to present the play again in Union City and New York City this coming Lent. This Thursday, June 25th, he’s accompanying Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the new archbishop of New York, to Rome where the archbishop will receive the pallium from Pope Benedict XIV.

At the Mass, Allen will bring a service banner from Veronica’s Veil as part of the offertory gifts. Afterwards, the banner will be placed with the original relic of the veil presently enclosed in one of the great pillars in St. Peter’s Basilica next to the main altar.

For centuries, Passion plays have told the story of the Passion of Jesus. The banner to be blessed by the pope this Saturday explains why they are created. “May the Passion of Jesus Christ be always in our hearts.”

Here’s Patrick talking about Veronica’s Veil.

The New Media

The Iranian revolution is a fascinating event. It’s opened new ground in communications, for example. The commentators on CNN last night said that the government can hardly control the information available through cell phones, Facebook, Twitter. They‘ve blocked the regular channels, like television and radio, and the journalists who work for them, but a wealth of information comes from ordinary people on the streets.

Today as newspapers fold, magazines like NewsWeek scramble to update their formats, television networks look at declining viewers, the new media is growing. When the host on CNN last night asked his guest communication experts where they would  go to follow the Iranian revolution, they mentioned some blogs that are putting together the emerging story–not CNN itself. I wonder if the CNN host said to himself “There goes my job!”

The 18th century founder of my community, St. Paul of the Cross, was a prolific letter writer. Letter-writing was the rage then, the most popular new form of communication of the time, and he used it to reach a wide range of people.

I think he would blog today. I wish, too, that his community would take more of an interest in the new media. It’s a way to speak to the world.

The Leaking Boat

The story of the storm at sea in today’s gospel is so dramatic:

“A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat,
so that it was already filling up.
Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion.
They woke him and said to him,
‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’
He woke up,
rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Quiet!  Be still!’
The wind ceased and there was great calm.
Then he asked them, ‘Why are you terrified?’
Do you not yet have faith?'”

I’m thinking of another boat, not so dramatically endangered, but still in trouble ahead–old age. “We are in a drifting boat with small leakages” (T.S. Eliot)

From Feast to Feast

IMG_0389St. Athanasius (+373), the great Christian bishop of Alexandria, once said “As Christians, we live from feast to feast.”

I’m sure he wasn’t just referring to good food on the table or a day-off from work. Feasts feed our souls and our minds, besides the body.  They stir our thinking,  unleash creative energies and keep our spirits alive.

I was thinking of this after celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi a few weeks ago. Fewer people in church it seems. What’s going on? Are we losing our appreciation of the Mass?

Is it due to the retreat we are making from “a higher world,” as Charles Taylor says in “A Secular World?” Are we losing a sign of faith that has traditionally been our guide?

Whatever the reasons, we all need a deeper faith in the Eucharist, and this means a deeper appreciation of the Mass. What can we do? We’re reading from St. Cyprian’s commentary on the Lord’s Prayer this week. He simply takes the words of the prayer and reflects on them, verse by verse. That would be a good start–reflecting on the words of the Eucharistic prayers, which lead us into this mystery.

Then, there are the simple gestures and rites of the Mass. Romano Guardini, one of the leaders in the liturgical movement in our times, wrote a little book called “Sacred Signs” which offers reflections on actions like the Sign of the Cross, kneeling, sitting, listening, seeing, walking to Communion. We need to teach our bodies to pray, as well as our minds.

We need to see more deeply into the “mystery of this bread and wine,”  signs of creation brought to the table to be part of the mystery of Christ. The early commentaries on the Eucharist are so aware that bread and wine represent the entire creation. They bring us back to its beginnings and see its unfolding story. Jesus took bread and wine and blessed them; his mission was to our universe, of which we humans are a part. Bread and wine, creation itself, have a vital part in this mystery.

Communion. We call it a Holy Communion, because we receive Jesus Christ, but we receive also a whole world with him. “May all of us who share in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit.” (2nd Eucharistic Prayer) Through his Spirit, Jesus draws us into unity with the whole human family and the creation that came from him.

Vision. We need to see beyond today. The Eucharist let’s us see today, yesterday and tomorrow. It gives us a vision of hope of a loving God who creates and forgives. It offers us in sign the promise of life.

I looked at my Latin dictionary today for the meaning of the word “disciple.” It means “pupil,” “apprentice.”  We can’t stop learning, that’s what we are meant to do. Yes, we need better preaching and celebration at the Eucharist. That would help, but it often has to be left to someone else. Let’s look at what we can do.

Thy Will Be Done

We forget how rich in wisdom are the words of our prayers. Unfortunately, they become words we say unthinkingly. Listen to the commentary of St. Cyprian on one phrase of  The Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father.

“Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. This is not that God should do what he wills, but so that we may be able to do what God wills. For who could resist God in such a way as to prevent him doing what he wills? But since the devil hinders us from obeying, by thought and by deed, God’s will in all things, we pray and ask that God’s will may be done in us.

For this to happen, we need God’s good will – that is, his help and protection, since no-one is strong in and of himself but is kept safe by the grace and mercy of God.

Moreover, the Lord, showing the weakness of the humanity which he bore, said Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, and showing his disciples an example, that they should do not their own will but God’s, he went on to say nevertheless, let it not be my will, but yours.”

Corpus Christi

“I Love a Mystery” was a radio program I listened to as a young boy, long ago. It started, as all mysteries do, with something concealed. Someone, something was lost, someone was killed or was being hunted down and for the next half hour those who would solve the mystery followed various clues until the mystery was solved.

The Mass is a mystery we Christians love. A “mystery of faith,” we say, that reveals the great blessings of God’s love.  It’s a sacrament, a holy sign Jesus has given to his Church, and there are a number of ways to describe it.

One of the earliest terms describing the Mass is “the Lord’s Supper,” which refers to the supper when Jesus sat down with his disciples the night before he died and shared his life with them.  He spoke at the table that night of his love for them and then gave himself to them under the signs of bread and wine.

Whenever I go into a Catholic church or chapel I see how faithfully the church has kept Jesus’ command “Do this in memory of me.” Whether it’s St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican or a small chapel off a busy city street, there will be an altar, a table, at the center of the place. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated here in memory of him.

Readings from the Old and New Testaments will be read here, because Jesus spoke from the scriptures to his disciples. Then the priest who represents Jesus takes bread and wine, gives thanks to God for the gifts of creation and life itself, then repeats the words of Jesus, “This is my body” “This is my Blood.” Then we all receive these gifts.

We don’t just look at a picture from the past when we remember the Lord’s Supper or imagine it in our mind. It’s not enough to read about it in the bible. As Catholics we celebrate it again, by gathering together as Jesus’ own, “whom he loved till the end.” We are his people whom he calls to a table and feeds with his wisdom and life.

You may have seen one of the large Christian “mega-churches”  springing up in our country today. They’re usually large buildings to hold a big congregation gathered around a preaching platform where there’s also room for a choir and musical groups. The mega-churches stress preaching-usually by a well-known preacher- and stirring spiritual music.

But there is no altar in the mega-church, no celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Yes, the Catholic celebration of the Mass can be flawed by cold routine or lifeless participation. Those who take part in the Mass–priest and people – may not bring the lively faith or spirit of thanksgiving  that’s  “right and just” for this great act of worship. We certainly need better preaching and better efforts at celebration.

But still,  as a church we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. We have been celebrating it from the time of Jesus till now, and we will continue till its signs are replaced by the reality of the Kingdom they signify.