Monthly Archives: August 2011


I never expected to be caught up in Ramadan celebrations in Union City, New Jersey, but this morning I did. About 700 Muslims from this area celebrated the end of Ramadan this morning praying and listening to a local Imam at the Union City Midtown Atheltic Complex, which formerly was the garden of a Catholic Monastery– St. Michael’s. Now it belongs to the city of Union City.

Muslims throughout the world are celebrating the end of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, a month given to fasting and refocusing their attention on God. They’re making their way into this area, as today’s event proves; recently they’ve opened a religious school in a former Catholic High school nearby and have a mosque here in Union City.

The Imam spoke in Arabic to the assembly, people brightly dressed from many Muslim countries, but he ended with words in English, thanking Allah for the recent revolutions taking place in Egypt, Syria, Libya and other places in the Middle East and urging his hearers to support those revolutions. He also encouraged support for the Palestinians in their struggle for Independence.

These revolutions are giving Islam a new face in the world, the Imam said.

As the celebration ended a group, likely from Libya, held up a flag from the Libyan revolution to celebrate events in that country.

American cities, like Union City, are changing.

Good Night, Irene

Irene got our attention this weekend on the east coast of USA, from Miami to Washington to New York City and to Boston. The hurricane took over television, governments, businesses, transit systems, entertainments as nothing else has done since the terror attack on the World Trade Center ten years ago. For a couple of days, Irene turned our regular human preoccupations upside down.

Mayor Bloomberg and other government officials kept referring to “Mother Nature”   when they spoke of her. Respect her, they said, and for the most part we listened, though typically some of “Mother Nature’s” children ignored her threats.

Jim Keane, SJ, has a piece in the America Blog entitled “The Mountains Melt Like Wax,”where he asks what our expanding knowledge of creation means for our faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and our understanding of our place as humans in this world. We’re not only learning more about weather systems like Irene, but we’re  also finding out much more about a “Mother Nature” who’s more complex, more powerful, older and more mysterious than we ever thought. She demands respect.

“If our notion of time keeps expanding, and our notion of space does the same, that particular moment of the Incarnation can seem more and more vanishingly discrete.” Sharing this mystery we humans have to wonder about our place in an expanding picture of the universe.

Keane points to Christian thinkers like  Roger Haight, SJ, Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, William Lynch, SJ, Teilhard de Chardin, SJ and David Toolan, SJ. who faced this question.

I would add Thomas Berry, CP.

We like to see ourselves and our human world as the center of everything, and then Irene comes along. Jim Keane put it this way: “In other words, recognizing the immensity of space and the eternity of time might prove a valuable wakeup call for all of us:  it’s not just about you, pal.”

Besides expanding knowledge of our universe, how about Irene? Is she part of a wakeup call? If so, it’s not wise to sing “Good night, Irene.”

22nd Sunday

Don’t miss the way the Prophet Jeremiah talks to God in our first reading today and the way Peter the Apostle in our gospel gets the message of Jesus all wrong. They’re examples of what faith in God is really like. Without people like them, we might think faith is a ticket to a wonderful life and endless sweet dreams.

Jeremiah is fed up with God:

“You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped;

you were too strong for me, and you triumphed.

All the day I am an object of laughter;

everyone mocks me.”

The lonely prophet lived in hard times when Babylonian armies were sacking Jerusalem and everyone was calling him a deceiver because of a message they didn’t want to hear– God was going to let his holy city be completely destroyed and his people led away in chains.

The message sours the prophet’s mouth and breaks his heart. He feels like a fool.  Yet listen to him:

“I say to myself, I will not mention him,

I will speak in his name no more.

But then it becomes like fire burning in my heart,

imprisoned in my bones;

I grow weary holding it in, I cannot endure it.”

He’s faithful to God no matter what.

Peter, a believer,  gets the message of Jesus wrong. He can’t accept the prediction of the Cross, but wants success instead.

Yet God works with this apostle whose faith is so imperfect and  prizes this prophet whose faith is so tried. Since our faith may be like theirs, let’s hope God will work with us.  “We believe; help our unbelief.”

Shelter Island Thoughts


I spent this past week on vacation with two other members of my community on Shelter Island at a retreat house for youth that we’ve recently closed and now are in the process of selling. It’s a place of memories for us, a summer paradise for swimming and sports and a vibrant place where thousands of young people over the years found spiritual nourishment in programs for the young.

Now, like so many other good places devoted to spiritual purposes throughout the county, it’s closing. You have to feel a sense of failure and disappointment. What’s happening, we ask?

Finances and personnel are the reasons we point to, but these don’t answer the question adequately. Our society has lost its interest in God. Not everybody, to be sure, but for many the search for God has fallen down the list of their priorities. As I write, I’m watching an instructor teaching children how to play tennis in this place where young people were once taught to pray.

Religious people like ourselves, supposedly the guardians and promoters of religion, wonder if we are to blame. On EWTN the other night, Fr. Benedict Groeschel seemed to think so; he criticized religious communities for their “worldliness” and there’s some truth in his criticism, but it’s not the complete answer by any means.

I’m reading Pope Benedict’s book “ Jesus of Nazarth” these days and there are two sections in it I find particularly helpful. The first, is his section on the Kingdom of God, and as I read it this place came to mind.

The Kingdom of God is a complex concept; the first disciples of Jesus were not sure what it was. They had  kingdoms of their own in mind that they thought might fit the bill. But Jesus said his kingdom was not like theirs. If it were, his followers would have risen up to stop his enemies putting him to death, but his kingdom was not of this world.

Our kingdoms tend to be like those of Jesus’ first disciples. They may be treasured, holy,  wonderful places in themselves, but they’re kingdoms of the world. Our temptation, like the last temptation of Jesus in the desert, is to hold on to them as if they were the Kingdom of God. But God lets them pass away so that we may search again. Is that what God is doing now?

“Thy Kingdom come,” we say in our prayer, not “My Kingdom come.”

The second section of the pope’s book I found helpful was his thoughts on “Resurrection Thinking,” (my phrase, not his). After the resurrection the disciples of Jesus did a lot of thinking about what had happened before. “When he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.” (John 2,22) Over and over the gospels tell us his disciples remembered something he said or did, sometimes they were terrible things like the events of his passion and death, but now they saw them in a new light.

They didn’t even delete their own sinfulness and lack of faith from the remembered story.

“The Resurrection,” the pope says, “teaches us a new way of seeing.” (p.232) We can look into ruins and see another life rise in them. “Behold, I make all things new.”

What will be the new life we see rising from here? The pope says “all” the disciples were involved in this “Resurrection Thinking.” It takes place through prayerfulness.  A guide, the Spirit of Truth, is there to point our way to the future.

What’s involved today here at Shelter Island, and in so many other places like it, is more than waiting for a buyer.



Who Do You Say Jesus Is?

“Who do you say I am?” is the question Jesus asks his disciples at Caesaria Philippi. It’s a question  at the center of Matthew’s Gospel, which we read today in our liturgy.  Before this, Jesus has taught and done marvelous things in Galilee, mostly around the Sea of Galilee.  Now he’s going up to Jerusalem. “Who do your say I am?”

He asks the question at Caesaria Philippi, a place we don’t know much about, because the city fell into ruins after Jesus’ death and resurrection,  but it’s a place that has an important role in our gospel story.

Caesaria Philippi was located about 40 miles from the lake area where most of Jesus’ ministry took place. It was a gentile city, devout Jews tended not to go there, so we might ask why Jesus took his disciples there to ask this important question.

Caesaria Philippi was located right at the base of Mount Hermon, the great mountain that was the origin of most of the water that flowed into the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. It was a large Greco-Roman city built  in Jesus’ time as part of a big economic boom going on in Galilee. Under the Herods, especially Herod Antipas, a number of large cities like Tiberias, Sepphoris and Caesaria Philippi were built in Galilee to handle the developing trade in agriculture and fish from the Sea of Galilee. The Herod’s wanted this area to be a supplier of food for the Roman Empire.

Some scholars think that Joseph moved his family to Galilee from Judea to get work in this new economy. Sepphoris, one of its booming cities, was only four miles from Nazareth.

“Who do people say I am?”  Jesus’ disciples answer his question in typical Jewish terms. “Some say you are Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jeremiah, or one of prophets.”

In sight of Caesaria Philippi, Jesus’ question might also be posed: “Who do these people say I am?”  The unspoken answer might be “Nobody.”

Would that be the answer we would give if we were asked what any of our great cities think of Jesus Christ today? “They think he’s nobody.”

“And you, who do you say I am?”

“You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Vatican Radio

Vatican Radio  is one of my favorite Bookmarks. Not only do you find basic texts from Rome, like the pope’s talks at World Youth Day, but some great off-beat material too, like interviews with the delightful Carmelite Latinist for the Vatican, Fr. Reginald Foster. The turns and history of latin words can be fascinating and Fr. Reginald is never afraid to give you his own opinions. He’s a brilliant character.

Periodically, there are interesting short programs on music and the art of Rome too on Vatican Radio. One recent program about English hymns to the Sacred Heart made me aware of what that devotion is all about and how it has changed over the years. I’d also like to hear more from the Australian bishop who spoke recently about St. Paul the Apostle’s attitude towards women. You can download these short audio clips and listen to them again.

For this Sunday’s gospel, on the famous promise that Jesus makes to Peter at Caesaria Philippi you can’t do better than listen to Jill Bevilaqua’s 18 minute commentary. Wonderful blend of good history, music, good exegesis and fresh approach. Besides Bevilaqua, there are some other talented women you hear on Vatican Radio, like Philippa Hitchens and Elizabeth Lev.

Great site!

Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth”

Are old voices speaking out anew? What about the voice of Holy Scripture, the books of the Old and New Testament? What about an old pope?

I’ve just finished reading Pope Benedict’s  Jesus of Nazareth, volume 2. I think this book may be his greatest contribution to the church. He’s regularly described as a traditionalist, but in this book he approaches Jesus listening, not to voices from earlier church commentaries, but to new voices speaking through modern biblical studies.

Recent popes  have acknowledged and approved of modern biblical scholarship, but none use it so thoroughly as Benedict does in this work. He opens the scriptures and let’s them speak of Jesus and his mission to the world.

His insights are profound and make you want to look at the scriptures more closely yourself  for the wisdom they contain. One recent European study said that Catholics there don’t read scripture much; I think the same could be said about this side of the Atlantic too. People prefer sermons.

My challenge is not to get people to listen to my sermons, but to help them prayerfully read and reflect on the scriptures themselves in a regular way. That’s what the pope himself recommended recently. Take up the scriptures; they speak of Christ.

He never says read my book, but I’m going to read it again too. It’s very good.

Ever Old, Ever New

Our faith is “ever old and ever new.” It has a beauty ever old and ever new, a beauty found in the ancient scriptures we’ve received and in the creeds and traditions handed down to us; a beauty that shines out as it meets new times and circumstances and knowledge. The beauty of Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we hear about “an age of faith,” meaning an age gone by when faith was strong and real. That age is gone, it’s said; our times are unbelieving times when faith is weak and dying.

But is that true? Is faith just for another time, or is it also for our time? Can it be that  it only waits for fresh understanding and expression.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language

And next year’s words await another voice.” (T. S. Eliot)

“Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” (Hebrews 13,8) Where are the voices that speak of him now? Are they ours?

God of Storms and Tiny Sounds

Sometime in the summer I go down to the Jersey Shore and just sit by the water. The other day some young boys were looking out at the ocean and one said to the other: “What do you think is out there where we can’t see?” The other said, “ I don’t know, but something’s out there.”

Little children were playing along the shore that day, and as mothers and fathers have always done, they stood close to the children telling them to watch themselves, the waves can be dangerous.

The sea is fascinatingly beautiful and dangerous at the same time. For St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, the sea was a favorite symbol of the infinite love of God and our spiritual passage to a new, uncharted future. He lived for many years on a mountain on Italy’s Tuscan coast and I think he spent a lot of time looking at the sea and learning from it too.

It’s a book that teaches us about life. We may believe in God’s love all right, but sometimes storms come that seem more powerful and we’re sure we’re going to sink.

That’s what happened to Peter in Sunday’s gospel. When told by Jesus to come to him over the water, he set out bravely, but “ when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter.”

The sure hand of God is stronger than the raging storms of the sea, our gospel reminds us. Hold on to that hand.  At the same time, our first reading from the Book of Kings reminds us that God is just as strong in quiet times when nothing much seems to be happening.

As the Prophet Elijah watches from his mountain cave, strong winds, earthquakes, fire strike the mountain, but he finds God, not in these, but in the “tiny whispering sound” where one might not expect God at all. God works in quiet times too.



Lessons from Miracles

The miracle of the loaves and the fish is one of the most important miracles of Jesus mentioned in the New Testament. It’s in all four gospels: Mark reports it twice. Most people who know anything at all about Jesus know this story in some form or another. We read Matthew’s version at Mass last Sunday.

Miracles teach us many things. Defying reasonable explanations, they’re signs that God is present in our world and not distant or uninvolved in human affairs. They’re striking acts of divine love and mercy breaking the usual quiet and unseen presence of God among us. In the life of Jesus, miracles are one of the ways God confirms his divine mission.

Miracles teach us other things too. For instance, the story of the loaves and fish reminds us of  the Holy Eucharist, the sacrament in which Jesus through signs of bread and wine nourishes and supports us on our journey through life.  Just as God sent heavenly food,  manna, to the Jews as they made their way through the desert to the Promised Land, so Jesus gives this Bread as food on our way to eternal life.

Miracles invariably involve ordinary human beings as they unfold. Unfortunately, we sometimes overlook their human dimension.

A little boy had five loaves and two fish, John’s account of the miracle relates. (John 6, 9) He evidently gave them to Jesus. No one seems to remember his name. A small detail in the story, we may say. In this same miracle, it’s the disciples of Jesus who alert him to the hunger of the crowds and after the miracle distribute the bread and the fish to them. Minor details of the story, we may think.

Yet, it’s good to keep in mind that in every miracle Jesus seems to involve people,  who cry out their need, like the blind men along the road, or bring him a request for someone else, like the Roman soldier asking for his servant, or bring him the sick and the needy,  like the care-givers who followed him wherever he went.

The cure of the paralyzed man is one of the most colorful stories in the gospel. Those who brought him to Jesus  (how many were there anyway?) carry the helpless man  to the house where Jesus was and when they can’t get through the door because of the crowds, they climb onto the roof, cut a hole in it, and lower him down before Jesus.

The man was cured and walked out of the house carrying his mat with him. It was a miracle, truly,  but what about those who brought him? Some human cooperation like theirs is found in almost all of the miracle stories of the gospel.  A rare exception may be the story from John’s gospel of the paralyzed man who sat for 37 years near the Pool of Bethsaida and had no one to help him enter its healing waters. No one brought him to the attention of Jesus, it seems. so Jesus spontaneously heals him, because he’s so helplessly on his own.

God seldom acts alone, the miracle stories tell us; he invites human cooperation. Our challenge, then, is to respond and do our part in God’s work in this world.  That response may be as small as the little boy’s response who gave over his five loaves and two fish. But it’s important just the same.

How do we prepare ourselves for this role? I think  by daily prayer.