Monthly Archives: June 2012

St. Francis Center for Renewal

I’m preaching a retreat these days at St. Francis Center for Renewal in Bethlehem, PA, for a group of sisters from various communities. Surrounded by 108 acres of woodlands and meadows, the center belongs to and is staffed by the School Sisters of St. Francis. It’s a silent retreat for 7 days.

The center has some wonderful programs for Catholics and groups from other religious traditions. Its ecumenical reach is praiseworthy. True Franciscans, the sisters like the wide world God made.

Places like this need support because they meet the growing spiritual needs of so many today. In the balancing act that is our present church, I hope we keep retreat centers like St. Francis in play. We need them.

Go to Bethlehem.

Irenaeus and the Gnostics

Many years ago I took a course on Gnosticism in Rome under Fr. Antonio Orbe, SJ, an expert on the subject. Gnosticism, an early heresy that threatened Christianity in the 2nd century eventually waned as a movement and its writings were destroyed. Until a large cache of gnostic writings was discovered recently in the sands of Egypt, most of what was known about the the gnostics came from the writings of St. Irenaeus, the bishop we honor today in our liturgy.

When I studied under Fr. Orbe, he was just back from Egypt and was busy deciphering a trove of gnostic writings. I remember an observation he made about St. Irenaeus.  He said he was struck by how accurately and fairly  Irenaeus reported  what the gnostics taught in his writings,  not distorting what they said or omitting their ideas. He was fair and respectful to friend and foe alike. He was a peace-maker.

Not a bad example for today when hot words and smear attacks, distortions and lies dominate our communications. Irenaeus was a peace-maker. Peace makers don’t destroy, they heal and unite. Blessed are they!

Ireneaus also respected the created world. wrote against the gnostic teachers of his day who claimed their wisdom was wiser than the gospels. He compared their teaching to the faith of “the great church,” the church all over the world. The widely-traveled Christian bishop knew that church; originally he came from Asia Minor, became bishop of Lyons in Gaul, visited Rome. He knew what Christians over the Roman world believed.He also knew what the new gnostics taught, and he wrote down their teachings in great detail in a book called:

Maintenance and Mission

We had three readings from the Book of Kings this week at Mass.  A hard book to read because, though it’s a history of the kings who succeed King David, it’s not history as we know it.  For one thing, it’s clearly biased towards the kings of Judea and antagonistic to the kings of Israel, the northern kingdom.

Besides, kings are judged by their loyalty to God, by how they listen to the prophets and how they promote Jewish worship, particularly temple worship. It’s not building programs and political success that count; it’s listening to prophets like Elijah, Elisha and Isaiah.

If they don’t do this, kings are given low marks, and God sends the Assyrians, the Babylonians and other Middle Eastern powers to subjugate his people because of their evil ways.

We hear about two good kings Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week Hezekiah and Josiah. ( 2 Kings  17-23) Yet, today’s reading offers a caution about Josiah who restores the down-trodden temple in Jerusalem but forgets something very important.  Absorbed with temple building, he seems to forget its mission.

Someone finds a copy of a book (probably parts of the Book of Deuteronomy) in the ruins of the temple and the king calls the people to come together to listen to God’s word. Before all else, the word of God points out what to do.

Today we still try to balance questions of maintenance and mission, in civil society, in the church and in our personal lives.

It’s not a matter of figuring things out by reason or going by what is or what was. The Book of Kings tells us to listen to God’s word, our living guide to the future.

Go or Stay?

Bill Keller in an op-ed piece in New York Times on June 18th had some hard words for the Catholic Church which, as he sees it, is governed by a dysfunctional leadership and is falling apart.  His advice:

“Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go.”

Keller finds himself agreeing with Bill Donohue, a strident Catholic voice on the right, who urges leaving the church but for another reason. He’s telling Catholics not in agreement with some of the Church’s positions: Get out.

A letter in today’s Times offered a fine answer to both Keller and Donohue:

“It seems to me that both Bill Keller and Bill Donohue, the president of the Catholic League, misunderstand the catholicity of the Catholic Church. Mr. Keller’s advice to disaffected Catholics, including priests, nuns and vowed religious, to “summon your fortitude” and leave allows no room for reconciliation, reformation and peace within conflict that is central to Christian social life.

“Christian community is not a social contract like those of liberal democracies; it is a covenant that seeks to give witness to God’s unconditional love for humanity through the bonds of community. Leaving, as Mr. Keller suggests, may serve our consumerist attitudes well, but it does little to improve community; it only weakens community.

“Mr. Donohue makes a similar misreading of Catholic catholicity by seemingly insisting on ideological purity. This is a dangerous desire that has plagued Christianity since the fourth and fifth centuries. There is no such thing as an ideologically pure church, and frequently such perceptions have led to serious abuses of power.


“Disaffection and ideological dispute among Catholics are a pastoral issue that should be approached within particular religious communities, parishes and lay groups with their pastoral and ministerial leadership. It is a chance for reconciliation and understanding.

Arlington, Mass., June 18, 2012

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate in practical theology at Boston University.”

 The writer’s on target.

Someone said to me today: “If your father develops Alzheimer’s  do you abandon him? If your family breaks down, is split by misunderstandings, do you leave it? Is the church a political party? You don’t like the platform, join another one?”

The church is a community formed by God’s unconditional love for humanity. That same love is asked of us.

I liked another letter to the Times also:

“The behavior of the Roman Catholic hierarchy disappoints me on so many fronts that it would be difficult even to begin cataloging those disappointments. How many times have I contemplated joining the Episcopal Church? More times than I can count.

“Why do I stay? Because my own parish, with its engaged pastor, deacon and staff members, vibrant liturgy and forward-leaning membership, is a comfortable home that embraces each one of us in times of joy and sorrow and provides an atmosphere for real spiritual growth.

“I suspect that many Catholics, including a lot of the nuns who are being hounded at the moment, stay for the same reason I do, and I would suggest to those who are on the verge of leaving that they should shop around first. There are welcoming and joyful Catholic communities just waiting for you to join. I know. I belong to one.

Clarks Green, Pa., June 18, 2012

Preaching “Out of Season”

CARA is a non-profit research group based in Washington, DC that studies the Catholic Church. Some statistics on its recent blog are worth reflection.

How many people in the US have been Catholic some time in their lives?  About 97 million.

Have many currently consider themselves Catholic?  Over 74 million.

How many go to church only on Easter and Christmas?  Over 50 million.

How many attend Mass at least once a month?    Over 36 million.

How many attend Mass weekly?  Over 17 million.

How many are actively engaged in their parishes? About 3 million.

There are about 17,000 Catholic parishes in the United States, which are important sources for evangelizing those who infrequently or never practice their faith. They also have a significant role in reaching out to the unchurched.

But are parishes the only sources for bringing the gospel to others? We’re experiencing a priest shortage, that shows no signs of ending. A parish-based evangelization depends on a resourceful, innovative clergy. Without resourceful, innovative priests, I don’t see how we can evangelize from the parish alone. We need to turn to other sources for evangelization.

Seems to me the media in its many forms has a role.

I think too this is a time for Christian movements beyond the parish to arise to meet the need to preach the gospel, “in season and out of season.” Let’s pray for new movements, and also let’s pray that some of the older religious communities and lay groups rise up again.

Our time is certainly “out of season.” But that’s when preaching needs to be done.

Preaching, 2

Yesterday I offered some thoughts on preaching. Today a few more reflections. Who are those we preach to today? We should know them as they are and the church in which we preach as it is.

Let’s recognize we’re preaching to people and to a church experiencing a priest shortage, a declining number of women and men religious, and a weakened hierarchy.Statistics– surely we see it ourselves– tell us that people, especially the younger generation, aren’t going to church as they once did.  Our parishes are suffering from a decline in members and Catholic schools are closing.

It’s a church roiled by sexual scandals, controversy over the place of women, issues like gay marriage, abortion and government regulations. Certainly,  Jesus Christ will be with us always and the church will survive, but what can we do to strengthen it?

I think the closest historical parallel to our American church today may be the Catholic church in American colonial times, which one historian describes as a “priestless, popeless church.”  We might add  “sisterless” to describe our church, since religious woman had a major role in its growth until now.

The colonial church survived, according to historians, because it was kept alive in the home, by prayerbooks and catechisms. (cf. The Faithful: A History of Catholics in American, by James M. O’Toole, Harvard,  2008)

Historical parallels are never absolute, but that era may suggest a preaching aimed at building a home-based faith, that is strongly catechetical and that promotes a life of regular prayer in people.

What would the prayerbook and basic catechism for today’s church be? The bible, now providentially blessed with new tools to access the treasures of its spirituality. We need a preaching that directs people to this source and helps them mine it.

It’s important we recommend the best versions of the scripture available (The New American Bible, The Jerusalem Bible) and encourage people to use aids like The Magnificat and Give Us Our Daily Bread to follow the daily lectionary.

Who preaches?

I believe we need a new generation of preachers in our churches and wherever the gospel can be proclaimed: men and women, priests, religious and laypeople. I’m not looking for new Bishop Fulton Sheens, spell–binding orators to dazzle us with their eloquence.

I think I’d prefer preachers with more modest skills. Maybe preachers like the hosts on the cooking shows on television, who whip up good food and bow out modestly after they show you how it’s done. I think  laypeople will have an increasing role in the renewal of preaching.

What about canon law? “The times, they are a-changing.”

The Sign of the Cross

When Jesus prayed, he used the words and signs of his own  Jewish tradition, which he learned in his family and from others. Our Christian tradition, which guides us in prayer, grew from the Jewish  tradition of prayer that nourished Jesus himself.

Christian prayer has a wisdom all its own, with many different forms and expressions. One basic prayer has  a special place–  The Sign of the Cross.

In the Catholic church and other Christian churches,  the Sign of the Cross is an important part of personal and public prayer. Originating in the earliest days of Christianity, it’s centuries old. It’s the first sign made on us at Baptism and the last sign made as we pass to our future life. It’s a vital part of liturgical prayer and the sacraments. With the Sign of the Cross we begin and end our prayers.

A Blessing of the Triune God

We call it a blessing. We say we “bless ourselves.” Tracing with our hand the figure of the cross on our forehead, our breast, our shoulders, we bless ourselves: Spacer

In the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Sign of the Cross proclaims a blessing. It symbolizes God blessing us, God embracing us with blessings. And this same sign expresses our belief that God is the One from whom all  blessings flow. In the Sign of the Cross we embrace our good God with mind and heart and all of our strength, and God embraces us.

God blesses. The Jewish scriptures describe God, above all,  as the One who blesses. God blessed Noah and saved the world from the flood. God blessed Abraham and Sara with blessings more than the stars in the sky. God blessed the Jewish people, redeeming them from the slavery of Egypt. Life itself and all creation are God’s blessed gifts.

The Jewish tradition of prayer always approaches God as One who blesses. “I will bless the Lord at all times,” the psalmist prays. Because we are blessed by God,  we bless the Lord in return.

The Christian tradition of prayer follows this same pattern, but in addition it praises the One who blesses for another incomparable blessing: the blessing of Jesus Christ. “Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has bestowed on us in Christ every spiritual blessing.” ( Eph 1,3 ) He is “the Word who made the universe, the Savior sent to redeem us.”

In Jesus Christ God appears as our Friend and Brother. With the Father he sends the Holy Spirit upon us “to complete his work on earth and bring us the fullness of grace.” In Jesus, God has reveals the source of all blessings.

When we bless ourselves with the Sign of the Cross we remember the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who blesses us with life here on earth and the promise of life beyond this.

It is part of our prayers and is a prayer in itself.