Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Paul of the Cross

I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally finished, in time for Lent. Christus Publishing from Wellesley, MA, a new publishing firm, asked me to write the book and I see they have it on their internet site today for sale. We’ll put it on  ,our Passionist site for selling books and media, as soon as we can.

It gave me an opportunity to look again at St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, his spirituality and the community he founded. He was a great teacher of prayer, a gift we need today more than ever. He saw prayer as a gift given to everyone, and his letters to all kinds of people witness that conviction.

I appreciated the opportunity to write a short biography of the saint; I don’t think I copied others exactly. He lived in an interesting time, when the Enlightenment was pushing ahead in Europe, changing the worldview of the church and society. We’re still feeling its affects.

I read most of his letters while writing the book and was impressed by their earthiness. He was an earthy mystic who took people as they were and didn’t mind their darkness. I revised many of the present English translations of his writings for the book, perhaps for the better.

A recent exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City featured the letters of Jane Austen. Letter-writing was the rage from the 18th century on and Paul of the Cross used this “new” communication to reach others. He would be using the new media today, I think.

I liked writing reflections for all the Lenten gospels for the book; the readings for Lent are indeed a treasure to be explored. Our catechesis and spirituality are becoming more biblically and liturgically based, and we need to see how a spirituality like that of  Paul of the Cross fits in to this new trend.

“From their place in heaven they guide us still.”


Holy Rivalry

According to his biographer, St. Athanasius, St. Anthony of Egypt, one of the great spiritual teachers of the early church, grew in holiness by going about “like a wise bee,” visiting every flower, and making the gifts he found in others his own. He was a spiritual competitor, engaged in holy rivalry.

Some years ago there was a book about religious communities called “A Concert of Charisms.” Each community has its own gift and in concert religious communities make beautiful music.

But how about holy rivalry? Yes, we can kill each other competing, but  holy competition isn’t the worst thing in the world. There’s something healthy about it.

I was thinking about that as Liturgical Press, the publishing arm of the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey, announced a new daily aid to prayer for this August called:  Give Us This Day: A Daily Guide for Today’s Catholic

Here’s how they describe it:

“Give Us This Day supports your desire to establish prayer as a part of your life, enhancing your existing practices and deepening your encounter with God by providing:

  • A practical approach to daily prayer
  • Prayers and readings for daily Mass
  • Daily prayer, Morning and Evening

A reflection on the Scriptures for each day”

Surely, the Benedictines realize they’re competing with “The Magnificat” and “Daily Bread” “The St Joseph Missal” and a good number of others in the field, each with their own gifts and approaches.

Hooray for the Benedictines and their embrace of holy rivalry. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the new production. How about some holy rivals for EWTN?

Sharing in Paul’s Conversion

Today, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the liturgy invites us, not to look on Paul from a distance, but to share the mystery of his life. So I  can say:

“Victor, my grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.” “God’s grace in me has not been without fruit; it is always at work in me.”

By looking on Paul simply as a distant historical figure or a Christian hero we diminish what we share with him.

Here’s how St. John Chrysostom sees him:

“Paul more than anyone else, shows us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and what we are capable of. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardor and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them.

“ He boasted of constant beatings, abuse and cursing as though he were taking trophies home on a triumphal procession, giving thanks to God for it all. The only thing he really wanted was always to please God.

“He knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; were he without it, it would be no satisfaction to be the friend of principalities and powers. He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned, than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.

“Paul set no store by the things that fill our visible world, any more than someone sets value on the withered grass of the field. As for tyrannical rulers or the people enraged against him, he paid them no more heed than gnats. Death itself and pain and whatever torments might come were but child’s play to him, provided that thereby he might bear some burden for the sake of Christ.”


Planning, planning, planning

Today it seems we’re forever planning for the future. One big reason is the changing times we live in. No one today can sit still and say “My life and my surroundings won’t change; they’ll be the same forever.” From the big world we live in to the small world of our everyday lives, things are continually changing.

We have to keep our eyes on the big picture, which is the plan of God.  Today’s Office of Readings offers a quotation from the Second Vatican Council’s decree “Lumen gentium” that, at first sight, may seem far from our present situation, but really sheds light on it.

God has a plan for this world, mysterious, wise and good, which is “to dignify men and women with a participation in his own divine life.” His plan will be achieved through Jesus Christ, the redeemer, who is “ the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.”

God’s plan calls for a church where those whom Christ saves will be gathered. The church “foreshadowed from the beginning of the world” will achieve a glorious fulfillment at the end of time when all men and women from the time of Adam, “‘from Abel, the just one, to the last of the elect’, will be gathered together with the Father in the universal church.”

This isn’t a small church. Some are related to it who have not yet explicitly embraced Jesus Christ.  Here’s the way the Vatican Council describes them:

“In the first place there is that people to whom the covenants and promises were made and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh. On account of their fathers, this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts he makes nor of the calls he issues.

“But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the creator. In the first place among these there are the Moslems; they profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and along with us adore the one and merciful God, who will judge mankind on the last day.

“Nor is God himself far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is he who gives to all men life and breath and every other gift, and who as Saviour wills that all men be saved.

“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does divine Providence deny the help necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God but who strive, aided by his grace, to live a good life.

Whatever goodness or truth is found amongst them, is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the gospel, and as given by him who enlightens all men that they may finally have life.”

We need to have this larger dimension in mind when we plan, especially if our planning involves the church. Too often we plan in a small, protective way.



Called by Name

Last weekend I was over at our monastery in Jamaica, Long Island, to participate in a program: Called by Name. It’s for young men who might be interested in joining our community.  No one came. Maybe the weather had something to do with it, but I don’t think it had that much.

Afterward,  three of us who were there to offer some input sat around and talked about vocations to the priesthood and religious life; our conversation gradually went beyond those callings to the whole question of vocation itself.

The word “vocation” comes from the latin word, “vocatio,”  meaning a call, an invitation. The first vocation we have is God’s call, God’s invitation to life in this world. We have been invited to life on earth by God, and he calls us to do certain things in our time here. We have been called by name, individually. The human family has a collective destiny here on earth, but each of us has something to do.

Then, God invites us to another world, we’re called to another life when our years here are done.

It’s important to remember this, because we tend to believe that we choose life and everything involved in it, and God has nothing at all to do with it. That’s not so; God has invited us to live, and our happiness depends on how we accept the call we have received.

One of the priests I was with last week told us the story of his own vocation. He’s a young priest, who was raised in a Catholic family that gave him the best of everything.  “But I didn’t know what I wanted to do in life,” he said, so his parents persuaded him to study to be an engineer.  It’s a good job, good pay. So he studied and got an engineering degree and landed a good job. But he said he wasn’t really happy with his life; he felt it wasn’t what he was meant to do. Finally, after praying about it and discerning about it, he became a priest. This is where he belongs, he told us.

Our call by God is not just a one-time call. God calls us over a lifetime It’s important to remember this. A vocation unfolds over the years.  I decided to become a priest 52 years ago. But I have to answer God’s call today. God’s call is ongoing, so I must ask continually: “What do you want of me now, Lord? Let me hear your call.”

The tragedy that’s just occurred in Tuscon may remind us of the on-going nature of a vocation.  A congresswoman goes out for an ordinary meeting with her constituents, her assistant goes along in her company, a federal judge in her community stops by to say hello, a husband and wife join the group, a little girl interested in politics also joins them. You never know the consequences of your life.

That day they had to live their lives in exceptional circumstances.

I suppose that 9 year-old Christina Taylor Green was one we noticed particularly in the tragedy. It wasn’t just because she was so young, but because she was so alive with so much promise, so much spirit. There was so much of a calling in her. She seemed to be someone our world needs.

She makes us aware that vocation is a mystery. It’s important to remember that too. So much of it is in God’s hands. That’s why we must pray about it. In the Our Father we say  “Your will be done,” We must try to know God’s will, to hear what God is calling us to do now, and to accept it.  “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”

That the theme of today’s scripture reading at Mass. Our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah says that that we called from the beginnings of our lives, from the womb, to serve God. That call from God goes on to the end of our lives. It’s not something small or negligible that we’re called to do. “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” We have a role to play in the mysterious plan of God.

Every few months, a man from California calls and asks for 1,000 or 2,000 little leaflets that we distribute from our place in Union City. It’s a leaflet entitled “Be With Me Today, O Lord.” He gives them out to kids in school and puts them in the back of churches. It’s a simple little reminder that God calls us. We have a vocation.

“Today is new unlike any other day, for God makes each day different.

Today, God’s everyday grace falls on my soul like abundant seed though I may hardly see it.

Today is one of those days Jesus promised to be with me, a companion on my journey, and my life  today has consequences unseen, my life has a purpose.

“I have a mission…I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. God has not created me for naught…Therefore will I trust him. Whatever, wherever I am I can never be thrown away. God does nothing in vain. He knows what he is about.”

May all I do today, begin with you, O Lord. Plant dreams and hopes within my soul, revive my tired spirit: be with me today.

May all I do today continue with your help, O Lord. Be at my side and walk with me; Be my support today.

May all I do today reach far and wide, O Lord. My thoughts, my work, my life–make them blessings for your kingdom; let them go beyond today, O God.

Maybe someone will hear that message someday and say, “I think God is calling me to be a priest.” I hope so.

Are We There Yet?


A familiar question kids ask on a journey. So we give them games to play, tell them to go to sleep, or just shut up and wait. As we go through life, not only kids, but all of us ask: Are we there yet?

We are on a journey, a sacred journey, the Letter to the Hebrews says. Yet even on a sacred journey you can get tired. The Letter to the Hebrews– which we read in the next few weeks in the lectionary– is addressed to tired Christians. Would that be us?

Our ancestors, on their great journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, also experienced weariness, we’re reminded, and that led to discouragement and even rebellion. Despite the promises made to them and the signs of God’s power given them, they faltered. The desert journey got too much for them. Nothing big caused them to fail, just the weariness that came from being on the road day by day.

The Letter to the Hebrews is a letter of advice to tired Christians. Don’t ignore the danger that comes as you give yourself to life day by day, it says, but at the same time don’t let it get you down. Look to God who rested after the tiring journey of creation. God is your strength as you go along. Keep looking at people of faith, “the great cloud of witnesses” who pressed on through trials of every kind. Above all, look at “Jesus, who for the sake of the joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and has taken his place at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Are we there yet? No, but we’ll get there soon.



Christmas: A Call to Baptism

Matthew’s gospel was the gospel most used for catechesis in the early church. It also plays an important role in the creation of our Christmas season. It gives us the Feast of the Epiphany, for example. Jesus Christ came for the gentiles as well as for the Jews.

I think Matthew’s gospel is also an important source for our upcoming Feast of the Baptism of Jesus which closes the Christmas season. Matthew sees baptism as a way of repentance. That’s how John the Baptist describes it in Matthew’s gospel: “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming: ‘Repent, the kingdom of God is near.’” (Mt 3,1-2)

When Pharisee and Sadducees come for baptism, John calls them “a brood of vipers” because they presume they are saved as “children of Abraham.” “God is able to raise up from these stones children of Abraham, “ John says to them.

Baptism is not an entitlement. Baptism is a commitment to repentance. That’s important for us to realize too.

But repentance is a difficult path. Can we do it alone?  John continues in Matthew’s gospel with the promise that one more powerful than he is coming. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” When we are baptized into Christ, we are given the Holy Spirit and his fire to continue on the path of repentance.

Christmas is not just for looking at the Child in a manger; it’s a call  to enter into the mystery of Jesus Christ.


The Big Picture: The Magi

This is the time of the year when people make predictions about the future. It’s a time to look back and look forward.

Our local newspaper on Friday in Hudson County featured the predictions of a local psychic about the future of our mayor, our governor, our senator and a variety of local politicians. Psychics are big this time of year.

The host of PBS’s Newshour the other night asked his two experts to talk about the big picture ahead. “What does it look like?” They talked about the “Tea Party,” possible roll-backs in the health care program, the new Republican majority in Congress. That’s about as far as they went. I would guess the cable news channels talked about the same things from even a narrower perspective: politics and economics–American politics and the American economic picture.

Something’s missing. Our “big picture” is really a small picture. We seem to lack of larger vision of life.

We live in a secular age, an age of “expressive individualism.”(Charles Taylor) One of the drawbacks of the secular mind is its tendancy to be small-minded, to concentrate on the here and now, on what we see and do, on our personal interests. Even believers are part of a secular age and share its tendancies.

The secular age needs the spark of revelation.

What about the mystery of the Epiphany we celebrate today? Can it bring sparks to secular minds?

Let’s take the gospel story of the Magi out of its Christmas card setting and ask what its all about. The Magi were strangers, people coming from afar, bringing gifts. They recognized the Child whom others did not see. Then, we may surmise, they brought news of him back to their own people and part of the world.

The other day I was talking to a young priest from my community in Kenya, an African who’s studying now in Chicago. He was asking me about the new media and how to reach others through it. He wants to learn as much as he can from us, but he also thinks that Africa has something to offer the world, and his church in Kenya as something to contribute to the church beyond it.

Is he the Magi coming to us today?

Matthew’s gospel is the only gospel with the story of the Magi. The gospel was written for Jewish Christians in Galilee and the neighboring areas and it emphasizes that Jesus came first to them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus tells the Canaanite woman, a gentile pleading for a cure for her daughter. (Mt 15;24)  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus instructs the twelve as he sends them out earlier in his gospel. (Mt 10, 5)

Were these stories Matthew’s way to bolster the faith of  Jewish Christians beset by a powerful Jewish orthodoxy that questioned their belief in Jesus Christ? Was Matthew’s story of the magi also a reminder that the gospel was meant for others besides them?

Jesus came to save all, even though his first ministry was to the Jews. God  saves the world and his gifts and graces are in many peoples and places. He doesn’t save the few.

We live in a big world that’s meant to be one. It’s not a world to be ignored. Great gifts and burdens are there, gifts and burdens meant to be shared. An earthquake in Haiti, for example,  is our tragedy too.  A worldwide depression is our problem too. More  and more, we tend to demonize the Muslim world. The Magi may have come from present day Iran or Yemen; two places we hardly view positively today.

We are tending to demonize immigrants in our own country today. Many of us are descendants of immigrants who came here with gifts and burdens. When they first arrived, those here often saw them only as burdens to this country. We know better.

The story of the Magi is not a sweet story about camels and men dressed in strange rich robes. It’s about the big picture, a picture we should see.