Monthly Archives: September 2009

Shepherds for Changing Times

I’m going to Scranton today to discuss with Fr. Cassian Yuhaus some material on Fr. Theodore Foley, who is being proposed as a candidate for canonization. Someone asked me yesterday, “Why him?”

I said he was a man devoted to the common good and devoted to the future of the church and his community at a time when it looked as though everything was falling apart–the 1960’-70s.  He was thoroughly grounded in the past, personally conservative in his thinking and in his habits of life, yet willing to engage others and trust in them and their ideas.  He trusted in God’s plan when it was hardly visible.

In a time of “expressive individualism” he believed in the basic institutions that support so much of our lives and he gave himself to shepherd them through dark valleys of change.

We need people like him today. Shepherds for changing times. It’s a holy, saintly task.

The Cross in Dark Waters

There’s a story in the NYTimes today about the writer, Neil Sheehan, whose book “ A Fierce Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon,” a history of the arms race between America and Russia, will be published tomorrow.  He’s described as “an extremely patient bat” who works long and hard, mostly at night, without research assistants, at his writing.

Sheehan’s book has been 15 years in the making.

What attracted me most were Sheehan’s remarks at the end of the article.

“I really felt I was casting light in darkness. I have a habit of going to church on Good Friday and saying a prayer that I’ll be able to cast light in what I write. And in this case I felt I was writing about a period of history that had been overlooked, and now enough time had passed that we could begin to look at it clearly.”

It takes awhile to throw light on issues like the arms race, which cast its dark shadow on so much of our world since the Second World War. It looks like Sheehan is prompted by the mystery of Good Friday to do it.

Yesterday the Greek churches in our area gathered on the Jersey Shore to participate in the beautiful ceremony in which their bishop takes a cross and casts it into the dark waters of the ocean and waits till it’s retrieved by young divers. It’s part of their celebration of the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross, September 14th.

The Cross brings a powerful blessing to the darkest of waters.

Learning like children, part 2

Sometimes you hear that religious formation is nice, but other things are too. It’s  more important that kids take ballet lessons or learn to play soccer. There’s not time for everything.

Think about that. What’s one of the most important issues of our day? I think health care might be one of them. Where do children learn about health care, an issue that will affect them all their lives?

From parents? In a social studies class in school? From a talk show on the radio or television?

I think our own religious tradition has a lot to say on this matter. Look at Jesus. The gospel says clearly that he reached out to those in need, and taught his followers to do the same. It was one of the most important lessons he taught. He cured the sick and sent them home again. The gospels we hear every Sunday tell stories again and again of his concern for those in need.

We don’t have to go back to the times of the bible, however, to see his teaching.  Look at the strong tradition our church in this country has in health care. There are over 2,000 Catholic health systems, facilities and related organizations in the United States now.  Almost 13% of the hospitals in the United States are sponsored by the Catholic Church.

It was especially for the needs of the poor that so many of them were begun. Think of great Catholic figures who founded these hospitals and charitable works. Mother Cabrini, for example, an Italian immigrant woman who came to this country in 1889 and by the time of her death in 1917 had founded 67 institutions for the poor, among them a number of hospitals.

They say that when she went to visit a bishop looking for money in one of the many cities where she wanted to founded a hospital,  the bishop said to her, “Mother, what am I going to tell the bankers.” She said to him, “You talk to the bankers, I’ll talk to God.”

I think our children should learn about health care from Jesus Christ, from Mother Cabrini, from Mother Teresa rather than from some loud-mouth on the radio. They need to learn about this more than they do ballet or soccer.

The Triumph of the Cross

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The Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross (September 14) originated in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus died and rose again. An immense throng of Christians gathered on September 13, 335 A.D. to dedicate a church built by the Emperor Constantine over the empty tomb of Jesus and the place where he was crucified– Golgotha.

The resplendent church, one of the world’s largest, was called the Anastasis (Resurrection), or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. From then on, Christian pilgrims from all over the world flocked there to see where Jesus was buried and where he died.

Until the Moslem conquest in the 7th century, vast crowds of bishops, priests, monks, men and women from all over the Roman empire continued to come annually to celebrate the feast, which went on for 8 days. It was Holy Week and Easter in September. One visitor, Egeria, a widely-traveled 4th century nun, said the celebration recalled the Church’s dedication, but also the day when “the Cross of the Lord was found here.”

Many Christian denominations continue to celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross on September 14th.

Visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City today see a smaller, shabby successor to Constantine’s great church, which was largely destroyed in 1009 AD by the insane Moslem caliph al-Hakim and was only half rebuilt in the 11th century by the Crusaders. Today the church bears the scars of sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires, and natural disasters.

The scars of a divided Christendom also appear in the church, where various Christian groups, upholding age-old rights, warily guard their own turf. Visitors have to wonder: Does this place proclaim the great mystery that unfolded here?

Like our reaction to the sacraments, we ask Is This All There Is? It takes time to discover the Cross and its triumph.

The Mystery of the Cross

Mark’s gospel (Mk 8, 27-35) describes a journey that Jesus and his disciples made from the town  of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee– an area predominantly Jewish– to the villages of Caesarea Phillipi, about 25 miles to the north.

The town of Caesarea Phillipi and its surroundings stood at the foot of Mount Hermon where many of the sources of water for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. In Jesus’ time it was also a gentile region where Roman and Greek gods were honored and, as its name indicates, Caesar and Roman power proclaimed.

As he often does, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in a center of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” His disciples name powerful Jewish figures:  John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod, and Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel. Some compared Jesus to them.

However, Peter, speaking for the disciples, goes beyond these Jewish heros. “You are the Christ,” he says, more powerful than the prophets and certainly more powerful than the figures honored at Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.

In response, Jesus tells him he is a suffering Messiah, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, will suffer death and rise again. The scriptures had announced a Messiah like this: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” (Isaiah 50)

When Peter rejects this description of the Messiah and tells Jesus to abandon it, Jesus calls him “Satan,” someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.

We’re not far from Peter’s thinking, human beings that we are. The mystery of the cross is hard for us to accept, whether we see it in Jesus or in ourselves or in the unfolding events of our time.

We celebrate the triumph of the Cross tomorrow, September 14th.

Peter Damian

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Last Wednesday the pope spoke of St. Peter Damian, the 11th century saint  from Ravenna, Italy, who was later named cardinal bishop of Ostia, the port of Rome.

Though Peter was drawn to the silence of the monastic life, he was called to work for the reform of the church, which suffered then from abuses resulting from lay investiture. In many places, bishops, abbots, pastors appointed by lay patrons weren’t fit for the job, and the church suffered from the immorality and lack of leadership the practice brought on.

Pope Benedict stressed Peter Damian’s dedication to the mystery of the cross. The hermitage that he loved was dedicated to Holy Cross. He wrote, “He does not love Christ who does not love the cross of Christ,” and he called himself: ” Peter servant of the servants of the cross of Christ.”

He saw the cosmic dimensions of this mystery in the  history of salvation.  “O blessed cross, you are venerated in the faith of patriarchs, the predictions of prophets, the assembly of the apostles, the victorious army of the martyrs and the multitudes of all the saints.”

Peter Damian also saw the cosmic dimensions of the cross in the struggles of his own time, it seems. He wanted a quiet, contemplative life. But he couldn’t just  lose himself in the beauty of contemplation, the pope says. He had “to assist in the work of renewal of the Church,” and the mystery of the cross gave him strength to do it.

I was noticing the cross on top of the church across the way, looking down on the crowded streets below. The mystery’s here too.

By a Winding Road

The great 3rd century scholar Origin, whom I mentioned in my last post, was well acquainted with the holy land, since he was a native of Alexandria in Egypt and taught for a time in Caesarea Maritima, about 60 miles from Jerusalem. He’s one of the first Christian sources to speak of the cave at Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, and he must have been aware of other places associated with Jesus as well.

I remember  a pilgrimage I made  to Mount Sinai years ago, with Origin’s commentary “On Exodus” in hand, traveling by bus from the Red Sea through the mountains on what seemed like an interminable, narrow winding road. “We go to God by a winding road,” Origin said in his commentary, and I knew he had traveled this road.

His commentary explored the spiritual meaning of the scriptural events, but he was there all right. He didn’t forget what was there.

As a pilgrim in Jerusalem he must have stood before the ruins of the temple in Jerusalem. According to early sources, Jews came regularly to the Mount of Olives across from the Kidron Valley to look upon the ruined temple and mourn its passing. Origen must have seen them there. The present custom of gathering for prayer and remembrance at the “wailing wall” or western wall today began with them.

Then as now, some thought of rebuilding the temple, because they couldn’t envision their faith without it. Others realized that the Presence they sought there could be found elsewhere in other towns and places. Their synagogues and homes became more important as places of faith and worship.

Origen thought like the Jews who looked beyond the ruins. “Troubles and persecutions” led to rebuilding, but somewhere else and in another way. At the same time, he looked upon the ruins and acknowledged their glory, as signs of the One “who is, who was, and is to come.”

Church Closings

IMG_2928My window in Union City faces the great church across the street, which I still think of as St. Michael’s, although now the signs outside say in Korean and English that it’s the Hudson Presbyterian Church.  Until its closing and sale in 1981, St. Michael’s was one of the “mother churches” of Hudson County, NJ, where devotions to the Passionist saints flourished and where many of my Passionist community’s important moments took place.

A good number of parishes were established throughout the county from this place, after its foundation in 1869.

St. Michael's 3St.Michael’s 1881

St. Michael’s parish was closed because many of its parishioners moved to the suburbs as new immigrants came here and the Passionists couldn’t take on the large expense involved in maintaining the old church. The Passionists were also experiencing a decline in members,  and staffing the old monastery was difficult.

Since 1981, church closings have increased in the Unites States, especially in the Northeast and Midwest, due to population shifts, the expense in keeping up old buildings, and recently, a drastic economic downturn. But there’s another important factor contributing to church closings that doesn’t get the attention it deserves:   people are leaving the Catholic Church.

One of the best sources on religious practice in the United States is the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (http://pewforum.org/), based in Washington, D.C., “a nonpartisan ‘fact tank’ that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.”

It’s recent survey (April 27, 2009), which reports that about half of American adults have changed religious affiliation at least once in their lives, explores the reasons different groups cite for leaving or joining their religion.

“Most people who change their religion leave their childhood faith before age 24, and many of those who change religion do so more than once,” the survey says.

“The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions.”

“Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.”

“Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change. Many people who leave the Catholic Church do so for religious reasons; two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, as do half of former Catholics who are now Protestant. Fewer than three-in-ten former Catholics, however, say the clergy sexual abuse scandal factored into their decision to leave Catholicism.”

Almost 1,000 Catholic churches have closed in the US in the last 10 years and more closings will come, especially in the Northeast and Midwest. When the diocese of Cleveland closed or merged a third of its 224 parishes recently, Bishop Richard Lennon had to be escorted by Cleveland police as he made the rounds for the closing ceremonies.

In February, Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton announced the consolidation of diocesan parishes –from 209 to 111, citing changing demographics, fewer financial resources and a dwindling number of priests as reasons for the closures and mergers. The bishop’s recent resignation had to be influenced, in part, by the turmoil that came from the move.

It’s a dangerous time to be a church leader, and hard to be a Catholic in a shrinking church.  The church is suffering.

A sermon of Origen, an early 3rd century Christian scholar, may offer a good image for understanding  our present suffering. He sees a suffering church in the light of the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem.

Just as the stones of the Jewish temple, once harmoniously connected to each other, were pulled away from each other and cast down by Roman legions in 70 AD, so the “living stones” of the church, once harmoniously joined together, can become disconnected and fragmented “by troubles and persecutions.”

“Nevertheless the temple will be rebuilt and will rise again on the third day,” Origen says, echoing the words of Jesus,  “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2,19)

For Origin, the destruction of the temple is an image of the Passion of Christ. The “troubles” in our present church belong to this same mystery. We’re experiencing them and have no idea how much will be torn down and what the rebuilding will look like. The “third day” is a good way off, but it will come.

Funerals, Then and Now

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The modern funeral has become largely a time of tribute, when we remember the one who has died and try to assess the contribution he or she made to life in this world.

It’s less about acknowledging the mystery of death as someone passes from this world to a world beyond, and that is surely a loss.

I suppose that’s why the internment of Senator Kennedy’s body in Arlington Cemetery the other day moved me most. As darkness fell the television cameras could only see dim images of a graveside flame and occasional flashes of lightening in the night sky. It was a ceremony taking place in the dark. The simple words of the senator’s letter to the pope and the answer he received seemed to be signs of our helplessness and hope before this great mystery.

In the words of the Imitation of Christ, “the din of human words” had come to an end.

“You thunder your judgements upon me, O Lord; you shake all my bones with fear and dread, and my soul becomes severely frightened. I am bewildered when I realise that even the heavens are not pure in your sight.

If you discovered iniquity in the angels and did not spare them, what will become of me? The stars fell from heaven, and I, mere dust, what should I expect? Those whose works seemed praiseworthy fell to the depths, and I have seen those who once were fed with the bread of angels take comfort in the husks of swine.

There is no holiness where you have withdrawn your hand, O Lord; no profitable wisdom if you cease to rule over it; no helpful strength if you cease to preserve it. If you forsake us, we sink and perish; but if you visit us, we rise up and live again. We are unstable, but you make us firm; we grow cool, but you inflame us.”