Monthly Archives: July 2012


Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. ‘Mercy’ is a beautiful word: more beautiful still is mercy itself. All wish to receive it, yet not all behave in a way that deserves it…You must show mercy in this world if you want to receive mercy in heaven.. What is human mercy? Exactly this: to have care for the sufferings of the poor. What is divine mercy? Without doubt, to grant forgiveness of sins. Whatever human mercy gives away on the journey, divine mercy pays back when we arrive at last in our native land. For it is God who feels cold and hunger, in the person of the poor. As he himself has said: As much as you have done for the least of these, you have done it for me. What God deigns to give in heaven, he yearns to receive on earth.

St. Peter Chrysologus

Family Values

I mentioned previously that the 11th and 12th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, which we’re reading during the novena, deal with the growing opposition to Jesus as he preaches and performs miracles in Galilee. A rather dark section of the gospel.

Jesus is opposed by the Pharisees, who now take “counsel against him to put him to death” (Matthew 12.14). They’re not satisfied with his teachings and miracles and demand a sign. He offers the sign of Jonah. He will enter the mystery of death and will rise again. This is his greatest sign.

Jesus also is rejected by “this generation” of Israelites, the towns “where most of his mighty deeds had been done.” Corazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum. (Matthew 11,16-19) They’re like the rocky ground Jesus spoke of in his parable of the sower. They received him first but later forget him “because the soil was not deep.”

Concluding this section, Matthew adds another source of opposition to Jesus that may surprise us. His own family from Nazareth seems to oppose him.

“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers appeared outside, wishing to speak with him.

 [Someone told him, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, asking to speak with you.”]*

 But he said in reply to the one who told him, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?”

 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.

 For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Matthew 12,47-50)

We need to remember something about family life at the time of Jesus to appreciate this gospel. It’s safe to say that in Jesus’ day nuclear families did not exist. A nuclear family is a mother, father and children, and it’s a modern form of family life. In Jesus day families were extended families or clans, who lived and worked together.

For this reason, the picture we sometimes have of the Holy Family– Mary, Joseph and the Child Jesus all by themselves in a small house in Nazareth– is not a realistic picture. Families in Nazareth, as we know from the excavations at Capernaum, lived in compounds. People lived together in those days, as they often do today in the Middle East and elsewhere, working together in the fields or in a business and offering each other support.

You were obliged to be loyal to your extended family or clan in Jesus’ day. Everyone had to help in the harvest; you were expected to promote your family’s interest. The mother of James and John who approached Jesus looking for a good place for her sons in his kingdom was only doing what she was expected to do.

What we see in this gospel is the extended family of Jesus descending on him as he is speaking to the crowds to remind him of his family obligations. What did they want to remind him of, we wonder? Were they off to a wedding or a funeral of a relative and were telling him to come along? Or, was the wheat harvest ready at Nazareth and they came looking for help? Or, they just wanted him for themselves for awhile?

Whatever it was, Jesus said that his family was the crowd before him and there he was meant to be.  “ I belong here now,” Jesus seems to be saying to them. The kingdom of God, God’s family, God’s purpose, is greater than his family’s interests.

Today, of course, individualism is our predominant value, and it often stands in the way of family interests. It’s what “I” want that counts. But still today, family interests, family pressure can be strong and can get in the way of what God wants. Sometimes those closest to us, like our family, can be hard to manage, even though they want the best for us.

Jesus experienced that too.

Traditions about St. Ann

As one might expect, a saint like Saint Ann has a rich history in the Christian church. She’s honored from earliest times in the eastern churches as the mother of Mary.

Around the year 550, a church in her honor was built in Jerusalem on the site where her home was said to be, near the Pool of Bethesda, where Jesus cured the paralyzed man. Since then, many churches honoring her have been built throughout the world and she appears frequently in Christian art.

Feasts of St.Ann

Feasts in honor of Mary’s birth (September 8) and her presentation in the temple (November 21) – inspired by the Protoevangelium- were introduced into the liturgies of the Eastern churches in the 6th century. Feasts in honor of St.Joachim and Ann (September 9), the conception of St.Ann (December 9), and St.Ann alone (July 26) have been celebrated from the 7th century in the Greek and Russian churches. In the western church, the feast of St.Ann has been celebrated on July 26 since the 16th century.

Why was the story of Ann and Joachim so popular in the Eastern Christian churches, first of all?  For one thing, Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land wanted to know as much as possible about the earthly life of Jesus and Mary and so stories about Ann and Joachim satisfied their curiosity.

Her story also supplied information about the family background of Mary and Jesus, which supported the traditional belief that Jesus is Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary.  Early on, these beliefs were  questioned by heretical elements within Christianity as well as by outsiders hostile to the faith.

Finally, and just as important, Ann and Joachim offered inspiration to mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, grandmothers and grandfathers –to live their lives in their circumstances of family life.

Devotion to St. Ann in Europe

In the western churches, devotion to St.Ann was fed by a popular belief that relics of her were brought to France by Mary Magdalen, Lazarus, Martha, and other friends of Jesus who crossed the stormy sea from Palestine to bring the Christian faith to the region around Marseilles.

Her relics were buried in a cave under the church of St.Mary in the city of Apt by its bishop, St.Auspice, according to this story. But when barbarians invaded the area, the cave was filled with debris and almost forgotten, only to be unearthed 600 years later during the reign of Charlemagne.

You can see from this story why sailors and miners would be devoted to St. Ann. When crusaders from Europe – many from France – went to the Holy Land in the 11th century, they rebuilt the early church of St. Ann in Jerusalem. By the 14th century, devotion to St. Ann was on the rise throughout Europe.

There are reasons for this growing devotion. In the mid- 14th century, Europe was struck by the Black Death,  a plague that raged everywhere for over 150 years, wiping out almost 30 percent of its population and bringing fear, famine and death. Families bore the brunt of the catastrophe as they tended their sick and cared for the healthy.

They needed models like Mary and Joseph, protectors of their Child in difficult circumstances. Extended families needed models like Ann and Joachim, grandparents who supported their child and grandchild.

When the plague ended, Europe’s population expanded dramatically in the late 15th and 16th centuries; new towns and cities sprang up everywhere and families were uprooted from places and people familiar to them. Relatives and friends were separated, work was often hard to find. Families needed help to stay together and survive.

At a time when children were under pressure, sometimes neglected, faith suggested the biblical models of Mary and Joseph, Ann and Joachim.  Images of the nursing Madonna and the caring grandparents became important sources of inspiration.

Groups of Christians arose known as Confraternities of St. Ann, dedicated themselves to caring for widows, orphans and families under stress. Images of Mary and Ann, nursing their children, playing with the Christ Child and/or John the Baptist were more than pious pictures; they had a social purpose as well.

One picture from this era, still popular today, portrays St. Ann teaching her little daughter how to read.  Sometimes the words on the book are words of scripture; sometimes they’re basic numbers or letters of the alphabet: 1,2,3,4-A,B,C.

Playing with children, teaching them the ABC’s, passing on the mysteries of God to them are vital actions. Simple as they may seem, they are holy actions and they can make those who do them saints.

Songs of the Saints

Ann, Mary, the Child Jesus, Massacio

Someone told me about a recent program on NPR on which a scientist said our hearing is wired to hear the song of birds. Our earliest ancestors learned to listen to the song of birds, I suppose because birds could tell them there was water and food nearby–or perhaps their silence warned of enemies.

I wrote about this awhile ago on this blog.

It may be a good analogy for discussing saints.  Saints are like the song of birds telling us there’s another kind of water and food nearby; they point to the presence of God. And we have different saints, just as we have different kinds of birdsong.

What kind of saint is St. Ann? Like all saints she faced challenges in her life. Her greatest challenge was that she and her husband Joachim were not able to have a child for a long time. This was at the time when children were looked upon as treasures and those who did not have children were sometimes seen as cursed by God. Besides, as descendants of David they had a duty to continue his line.

Ann and her husband had a long, hard wait before she conceived Mary, who became the Mother of Jesus. Once, she’s described as bursting into tears as she looked up and saw some sparrows building a nest in a laurel tree. “Why was I born, Lord?” she said, “The birds build nests for their young and I have no child of my own. The creatures of the earth, the fish of the sea are fruitful, but I have nothing. The land produces fruit, but I have no child to hold in my arms.” (Protoevangelium)

You can see why some pray to St. Ann for help in marriage or to have children. Perhaps grandparents today as they’re called to help out with younger grandchildren can see in her an older person who did that too.

Saints have different lessons to teach, but all saints have this in common: they have a deep faith in God’s will and they’re constant in prayer. They’re faithful in prayer, in good times and in bad. Prayer is their daily song to God. It may be a sorrowful song like Ann’s in the example above. Or it may be joyful. But prayer gives them wisdom and strength and peace, from moment to moment, from day to day.

One of the great early saints from the Egyptian desert, St. Anthony, was asked once what’s the hardest thing you have to do in life? “ The hardest thing you have to do in life is pray,” he said, “Everything else you can stop doing, but you can’t stop praying.”

I’m afraid today daily prayer isn’t high on our priorities. I think it’s going the way of Sunday Mass, becoming “occasional prayer.” We only think about prayer when a tragedy like yesterday’s shootings in Colorado happens.

Daily prayer gets us ready for what God gives us to do each day.  Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father; that’s a daily prayer. It tells us who we are each day: we’re children of God and should act like God’s children. We need to remember God’s kingdom is coming and we’re to work for it day by day. We need daily bread of all kinds. We’re part of a messy, noisy world that’s torn apart by selfishness and smallness and pride. We’re bring our share of sin into the world, so we ask for forgiveness each day and forgive others day by day.

“Deliver us from evil” today. Deliver all of us from evil, today.

Passing On The Faith

Basilica of St. Ann, Jerusalem, 11th century

Devotion to St. Ann began in Jerusalem, probably at a 5th century basilica near the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus cured the paralyzed man waiting to get into its healing waters. Ruins of the basilica can be seen today in the ruins of the Bethesda pool. The present basilica of St. Ann, begun in the 12th century, stands nearby.

Would the early basilica be near the place where Joachim and Ann lived in the city, or was its site chosen for convenience? The ancient stories of the Protoevangelium associate Mary’s family with the temple and describe Joachim participating in the temple sacrifices. I wonder if we dismiss these stories too quickly as “myths.”

The Protoevangelium says that Mary was presented in the temple and dedicated to God as a child. At the least, this indicates that Mary would be well acquainted with the temple, its worship and the teachings of Judaism. If we accept this reconstruction, Mary would be far from a peasant girl from Nazareth. She would be better formed in Judaism and particularly in temple worship than we sometimes think.

Mary’s family was related to the family of John the Baptist, whose father Zachariah is a priest in the temple. (Luke 1,3-25) They live in the hill country near Jerusalem. Mary’s visit before Jesus’ birth to Elizabeth, Zachariah’s wife, connects her closely with them.

Later, as a young boy Jesus engages the teachers of the law on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (Luke 2,41-52) He amazes them with his wisdom. Could some of that  wisdom have come from a mother’s teaching?

“And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace before God and man,” (Luke 2,52)

Mary and Joseph, Ann and Joachim certainly contributed to his growth.

Today at the novena, I’m going to talk about how Mary and Ann may have taught Jesus about the temple and what to do there. Like them, we must pass on our faith to others, particularly to the next generation.

Basilica of St. Ann, Jerusalem

The Spirit of the Child

For most of our novena the gospel readings at Mass are from the 11th and 12th chapters of Matthew’s gospel, which deal with the growing opposition to Jesus as he preaches and performs miracles in Galilee. It’s a rather dark section of the gospel.

Jesus is opposed by the Pharisees, who now take “counsel against him to put him to death” (Matthew 12.14) and by “this generation” of Israelites, the towns “where most of his mighty deeds had been done.”  (Matthew 11,16-19). He meets little success.

Concluding this section, Matthew adds another source of opposition to Jesus that may surprise us. His own family from Nazareth seems to oppose him.

Yet, in this bleak section of the gospel, when so many turn against him, Jesus praises his Father, Lord of heaven and earth, “for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”  (Matthew 11,25)

He praised those who have the spirit of the child and keep it. Certainly, St. Ann taught her daughter Mary that spirituality. On this day of the novena, we will  reflect on it.

St. Leo the Great, an early pope, said that becoming like a child– remember Jesus told his disciples to become like little children– does not mean going back to infancy physically. It means, like children, to be free from crippling anxieties, to be forgetful of injuries, to be sociable, and to wonder before this world.

The Amos Principle

In our Sunday reading from the Old Testament (Amos 7, 12-15) the priest Amaziah tells Amos, a poor shepherd, uneducated and without training, not to speak up in the temple at Bethel. In fact, he should leave there right away. He doesn’t have the credentials.

But the Prophet Amos replies:  God calls him to speak out. That’s all the credentials he needs. Obviously, the reading is meant to support Jesus’ call of his twelve apostles in our gospel. (Matthew 6, 7-13) They’re not educated either, but God calls them.

The example of Amos can be applied to more than the twelve apostles, however. Let’s call it “The Amos Principle.” It can be applied to us all. We’ve all been called to live our faith and bring it to others.

Now Amos the prophet was a man; the apostles were all men. How about women? Let’s not  forget what part they played in Jesus’ life and the part they play in the church today.

Consider some recent statistics from Rome. There are about 460,000 priests and men in religious orders in the church worldwide today. There are over 740,000 religious women. In many unsung ways, these women represent our faith to others. Do they get  much recognition?

Though the gospels pay more attention to men, my guess is that more women than men supported Jesus in his lifetime.

Look at the gospels. Who was the closest to Jesus through his life? Wouldn’t it be Mary his mother? She was with him from the beginning, at his birth, in the years at Nazareth, as he suffered on the cross. She buried him in the tomb and saw him risen. St Luke says, “ She treasured all these things and kept them in her heart.” So much of what we know of Jesus comes to us from this woman.

The gospels tell of other women who believed in him. As an infant, Anna, the prophetess, sung his praises when he’s brought into the temple. The Samaritan woman (John 4,1-39) came to believe in him at the well and then brought her whole village to see him. The Syro-phoenician woman (Mark 7,24-30) calling him to help her daughter, the woman who touched his cloak in the crowd (Matthew 9,20-22), the woman who came looking for pardon for her sins represent the many women who believed in him.

When he came to Jerusalem for the feasts, Jesus must have stayed in nearby Bethany with his friends Martha and Mary and Lazarus. When Mary poured perfume on him in Bethany before his burial, Jesus says she will be remembered forever for her love, when that story is told.

In his parables you can see the high regard Jesus has for women. He praised the poor widow who gave her little coin in the temple, the woman who searched so earnestly for her lost money, the widow who looked for justice from the unjust judge.

St. Luke in his gospel speaks of the many women who followed Jesus from Galilee and actually supported him from their means. Luke names some of them: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna and “many others,” (Luke 8, 2-3)

All the evangelists say that women were with Jesus during his last hours. They did not abandon him when he was taken prisoner, condemned and was crucified. His twelve disciples fled, but they didn’t. Mary Magdalen, one of his staunchest disciples, stayed with him during his passion and was the first one to go to his tomb on Easter morning. He meets her and sends her as witness and announcer of his resurrection the others. She’s called “the apostle to the apostles,” because of her faith.

The picture didn’t change in the early years of the church. True, Paul and Peter are featured in that early history, but look closely and you can see there were women with them. They were there at the beginning of the church and they have been with the church ever since.

A few days ago I took some visitors to the shrine of Elizabeth Seton on State Street in lower New York City, near the Staten Island Ferry. She is one of the founders of the Catholic Church in this country, the foundress of our system of Catholic schools and of a religious community of women, one of many, that worked tirelessly to establish the immigrant church. Not far from her shrine, Mother Cabrini cared for poor Italian immigrants who came to this country and sought their livelihood in a strange land.

We should not forget these women from our past, and we should not forget the women who belong to our church today. They have been called.

Waiting for Next Year’s Words

Years ago, I took a theology class taught by Bernard Lonergan, SJ., and recently I’ve started reading a book by him called “The Way to Nicea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology,”  Philadelphia, 1964. The book’s an English translation of a course he taught in Latin on the Trinity.

Theologians, like the physicists who gave us the Higgs-Boson particle some weeks ago, like to explore. What makes up matter, physicists ask? Speculative theologians, like Lonergan, ask questions about God and, like physicists, they’re not always easy to follow.

How did we get from the fulsomeness of the scriptures, writings that “penetrate the sensibility, fire the imagination, engage the affections, touch the heart, open the eyes, attract and impel the will of the readers,” to the spare words of the Nicene Creed that seem “to bypass the senses, the feelings and the will, to appeal only to the mind?” That’s a question Lonergan asks and he’s not asking simply an historical question. He quotes from Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his preface: “ All religions are new religions, every morning. For religions do not exist in the sky, somewhat elaborated, finished and static. They exist in men’s hearts.”

Our thinking about God develops; Lonergan uses the development of early Trinitarian Theology to understand how. We hold to the faith of Nicea, but we’re people of today and our religion is new every morning, so we need to express it ourselves and in our time. “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning. (T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding)

I hope the Year of Faith, which we’re beginning in October, is not just about last year’s words. We need words for today and tomorrow. Besides poets, mystics and artists, we need speculative theologians like Bernard Lonergan.

Galileo Galilei


The brilliant Italian scientist Galileo Galilei was one of the great figures of the 17th century. Born in Pisa, in Tuscany, Galileo studied, taught and lectured in Pisa and Padua as well as in Florence, where he and his family made their home. The father of experimental science, his work in astronomy drew criticism from the church of his time and made him a symbol of the conflict between faith and science.


He was a deeply religious man; Catholic to the core. Two of his daughters entered the convent outside Florence and one of them, Sister Maria Celeste, carried on a long, tender correspondence with her brilliant father.

Galileo believed that nature was a teacher along with the bible, and he wanted the church to accept the evidence that science provides, otherwise it could be called an enemy of truth and human progress. Like others then and now, he believed that the bible taught you how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go.

His story is beautifully and carefully told today in a recent book I’m reading now:

Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love, Dava Sobel,  New York 1999

There’s a television version:  Galileo: Battle for the Heavens, that you can find on Nova’s site on the internet.

I admire the author’s even-handed description of the relations between the scientist and the churchmen who condemned him for what they saw as his heretical ideas. “A tragic mutual incomprehension has been interpreted as the reflection of a fundamental opposition between science and faith, “ Pope John Paul said regretfully  in 1992.

I’m going in October on a pilgrimage through some of the Tuscan cities and Venice,  where Galileo achieved so much.  He was a believer and a scientist. May others follow him and may our church welcome the knowledge they bring to the human family.

The Higgs-Boson Particle

Scientists all over the world are celebrating the discovery last week at a research center in Switzerland of a mysterious particle called the Higgs Boson particle. It’s a particle that’s found in all matter and its existence contributes to a new understanding of the nature of our universe.

After fifty years of searching for it, physicists seem to have found it.

I certainly can’t explain what they found, but I admire the scientists for their curiosity, their imagination and their patient searching for this mysterious piece in the puzzle of our universe. They want to know and I admire their drive to know.

I also admire their humility. The scientists say they’re only beginning to see how this world of ours began and how it works. To use a religious analogy, like Moses on the mountain, they’re approaching this mysterious universe with shoes off.

Our search for God is similar to theirs. We know God step by step, little by little. We can’t look straight at the sun; neither can our minds know God completely and at once. We search, not for particles, but for signs and experiences of life that reveal God little by little.

The truth of it is that God does not hide from us. In fact, we believe God revealed himself in the extraordinary sign of Jesus Christ, God’s  Son, who came humbly into our world as God’s Word.

Today’s gospel for the 14th Sunday of the year (Mark 6,1-6 ) recalls the rejection  of Jesus by his own people in Nazareth, a town in Galilee where he was brought up. He suffered the rejection that prophets often receive; later he would suffer a cruel death on a cross, but he did not turn away. In his life, death and resurrection, we see God’s love, God’s desire that we know him.   In him, we have God’s invitation to share his life more deeply, face to face.

We have to fix our eyes on him, patiently and steadily. If we do, we will find him.