Monthly Archives: October 2014

Reading Churches

door cologne

We hurry through doors, because we want to get inside. But cathedral doors are not ordinary doors; they try to slow you down and get you ready for what’s inside.

cologne apostles

The apostles stand at the western door of the Cologne Cathedral. Peter and Paul are nearest the door itself. Above them is the scene of their martyrdom under Nero. They’ve given their lives to the truth that’s told here, that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was sent from above, and by his death and resurrection he calls us to follow him to glory. They’re teachers of faith who invite us to believe. You might call this door a version of the Apostles’ Creed.

cologne rulers

Earthly rulers, like Charlemagne, stand at the door too, witnesses of another authority. The faith is to be lived on earth as well as heaven.

The images of prophets, teachers, martyrs and saints on the outside and within the cathedral echo the same promise. The Cologne Cathedral was an important church that welcomed pilgrims from other parts of northern Europe and so, besides the Three Kings, images of the popular saints honored at other shrines along the pilgrim routes of Europe, like St. James of Compestelo, are found there. It encouraged a common vision of life that made the various peoples one.


In days when people couldn’t read, they read the cathedral’s stained glass, paintings and sculpture. With them can we see the building’s reach into the heavens pointing to a world above, a world where the promises of God will be fulfilled?

Last Suppercloseup

I took a picture of a stained glass window of the Last Supper in the Strasbourg Cathedral. Jesus hands a morsel to Judas, who then goes out into the night. How beautifully the artist captures the sadness of the Lord.

The Three Kings


Three Kings 2

The Three Kings who visited the Infant Jesus are honored at a shrine in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral, where their relics were placed after being brought there in the 12th century from Italy. Images of the kings appear everywhere in this part of Germany; the rich gold reliquary holding their remains is one of the cathedral’s treasures.


“The purported relics,” our guide told us a few weeks ago, as if settling the matter.

But suppose we ask : “ Why were relics of the Three Kings brought there in the first place?” That invites some speculation.

The earliest Christian churches often traced their faith to those who brought it to them. Rome, for example, looked to the apostles Peter and Paul. Greece honors Peter’s brother Andrew for bringing the faith to their land. Other parts of the Christian world claimed other apostles, like Simon and Jude.

I wonder if Cologne, the Roman colony along the Rhine, at the “limes,” the end of the world, saw the Three Kings as appropriate patrons for their church so far from the land of Jesus as well as from the early churches first blessed by his gospel. Late in receiving the faith, did this land see the Three Kings as the bearers of the faith to them? They were not left out.

“Go out to the whole world,” Jesus told his disciples.

The cathedral reliquary (above) portrays Jesus in glory as Teacher and Lord. On the bottom left is a scene of the Three Kings paying homage to the Child on Mary’s lap. They come from the ends of the earth. On the bottom right, Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan, sanctifying not only the waters of that river but the waters of the Rhine as well. A simple portrayal saying everything: All nations are called to the promise of his life.





30th Sunday: Pope Francis’ Synod


To hear the audio of today’s homily please select the audio slider below:

“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says. The question then is: How do we love God and neighbor in the world we live in, for example, in our families? That’s the question the recent Synod of Bishops considered, the synod convened by Pope Francis who invited church leaders from around the world to join him in looking at the times in which we live, “the signs of the times,” and see how we can adapt to the changing conditions of society.

For two weeks in Rome, leaders of the Catholic church studied reports they received previously from all parts of the world, shared their reflections and made some preliminary recommendations. Now, the pope asked them to bring their reflections home to be discussed by their local churches and then return to Rome to continue the process with him next year.

It’s a long, extended process, over two years; it’s not finished yet.

You can read about the synod in your diocesan paper or online, and I hope you do, because it gives us an interesting look at family life in all parts of the world. You can find the working paper from the synod on the Vatican website.

Let me mention a few things from the working paper for the synod. As you might suspect, it reflected on the family from the perspective of the bible and church tradition, but then in Part II it takes up the challenges a family faces today.

One is a perennial challenge: lack of communication in families. Husband and wife not talking to each other, children not talking to parents. Where there’s no communication in a family, there’s a loss of meaning and an experience of love. (64)

Families can also be torn apart by violence and abuse, an abuse that can be psychological, physical or sexual. Families can be damaged by addictions to alcohol and drugs. The synod then mentions some dangers today from the social media and the internet, particularly pornography. (66)

Let me quote from its document: “… Television, smart phones and computers can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members, leading to a breakdown and alienation in relationships within a family, where communication depends more and more on technology. In the end, the means of communication and access to the Internet replace real family relationships with virtual ones. This situation runs the risk of leading to not only the disunity and breakdown of the family but also the possibility that the virtual world will replace the real one.” (68) The people on television, video games, become more real than the people in your home.

The economy and work also influence families. Let me quote again: “The pace of work can be fast and sometimes even exhausting…and increasingly hectic life leaves little opportunity for moments of peace and family togetherness…Increasing job insecurity, together with the growth of unemployment and the consequent need to look for work elsewhere, have taken their toll on family life. “ (70)

There’s a need for governments and businesses to make sure there are decent jobs and just wages, as well as programs that assist families and children. (71)

I think you can see from these few examples that the synod is looking at real life situations.

The 3rd chapter of the synod document gets most attention in the media. “Difficult Pastoral Situations.” The first difficult situation it mentions is the increasing number of couples, particularly in North America and Europe who are living together, without getting married. They do this for different reasons, the surveys say. Sometimes its because of “financial need, unemployment and lack of housing.” Sometimes it the “fear of making a commitment and the idea of having children. They don’t want to make definitive decisions or have responsibilities that come with marriage. The leaders of the church are asking–and we all have to ask– how can we help young people enter into the long term relationship which is marriage? (82)

Another difficult situation, “especially in Europe and across America is the very high number of people who are separated, divorced or divorced and remarried.” Because of their situation, many of them can’t receive Holy Communion. The questions being asked is what can we do to help these people and how can we make them and their children feel at home in the church?  (86)

The final difficult situation is about same sex marriage. The synod is rejecting the view that homosexual unions are the same as the traditional union of man and woman. “Yet, at the same time, we need to make clear that men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.’” (110)

There’s an opposition, then, to “redefining” marriage between a man and a woman through laws permitting a union between two people of the same sex. We’re trying to find a balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions. (113)

I began with the simple words of Jesus, “You shall love God and your neighbor. Not easy in a complex world, but we’re called to do just that.

When Pope Francis called for the synod he asked the bishops to consult their people and listen to them. He asked for transparency in discussing these issues. He recognizes there will be different ideas and different solutions concerning these challenges. He said we are on a journey. It’s a unique process the pope has begun and I hope we all can enter into it.

The Passion of Christ

passion site

Monday on the Feast of St. Paul of the Cross we launched a new website on the Passion of Christ.

The website has a commentary on the Passion Narratives by Fr. Don Senior, CP, and information on Passion sites, devotions, prayers, spirituality and recent studies.

In recent studies, for example, there’s a review by Fr. Paul Zilonka, CP. of Bill O’ Reilly’s recent book “Killing Jesus.”

It’s a work in progress. A lot more material will be added in days to come, so drop in every once in awhile. The Passion of Jesus is at the heart of the mission of the Passionists, the community I belong to. It’s a mystery that can feed your soul.  I would be grateful for any suggestions you may have.

The site will play on any computer, iPad or smart phone. We hope eventually to develop the website into a multi-lingual site that will literally reach the whole world.

I’m very grateful to the person who did such a beautiful job in formatting the site. A work of art in itself. A special grace brought this site about.

29th Sunday – Paying Taxes


To listen to the Homily please select the audio below:

In today’s gospel, the enemies of Jesus try to trap him with their question about paying taxes to Caesar. Taxes are always controversial, and they were more so in Jesus’  time. Refusing to pay them might make you a hero in people’s eyes, but your moment of glory would soon bring you the sentence of death.

Jesus’ answer squarely acknowledges the rights of a government to be supported by their people. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He seems to imply there are bigger things than paying taxes. Stay where you are, he says, you can be a revolutionary there.

Can we be revolutionaries where we are? In unfavorable times, in times as they are? And is that where Jesus asks us to follow him, in our lives as they are?

The gospels say Jesus called some like Peter, James and John to leave their lives as they were and follow him, but most of those he called remained where they were as his followers.

Think of one of the first he called, Peter’s mother in law. When he raised her from fever she got up to wait on them. She was back at her life as it was.

He told many whom he cured to go home to their lives as before. When Jesus left Jericho for Jerusalem he left behind Zachaeus, the chief tax collector, evidently still the chief tax collector but now a changed man.

And what about Mary his mother? She did not seem to follow him on his missionary journeys but remained in Nazareth until the days when her son went to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Nazareth at that time must have been a hard place to be.

Perhaps the hardest places to follow Jesus and revolutionize are where we are.

A Wedding Garment: 28th Sun A


Scholars find this story from Matthew’s gospel difficult to understand, especially when you compare it to the same story more simply told in Luke’s gospel. (Luke 14,16-24) Both evangelists describe a banquet in which last minute rejections by those invited cause the host to send out his servants to scour the land for others to come in.

In Matthew’s account the story is directed towards the “chief priests and elders of the people,” whose refusal to accept God’s invitation through Jesus leads others to take their place. “Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find… bad and good alike.” God’s big net, cast far and wide, brings Jews and Gentiles to fill the halls of his kingdom.

But there’s a cautionary part in Matthew’s account. An invitation to God’s kingdom doesn’t mean you’re safely in and automatically saved. Seeing a guest with no “wedding garment,” the king has him thrown into the darkness outside where there’s “wailing and grinding of teeth.”

A “wedding garment” is not something you freely get and freely wear. Once called to the banquet, you have to shed your old clothes of sin and clothe yourself in goodness. There were probably people in Matthew’s church (in our church too?) who thought being a church member was an automatic ticket to heaven. Not so, you need a wedding garment, and that means living a life of faith and goodness.

Are you wearing your wedding garment today

On to the Rhine


I’m going with a group on a cruise of the Rhine River leaving Wednesday. Here are a few notes about the trip for those on the cruise and those who may wish to follow us.

The Rhine River is a living history book as it winds its way 820 miles from the Swiss Alps to the North Sea.

Look for signs of Roman forts along the way. The ancient Romans tried to make the Rhine a kind of “Iron Curtain” to contain the barbarian tribes that wanted to enter the empire. They also found the fertile lands near the river good for growing grapes and other crops, so some of the forts became centers of trade, like Mainz.

After the Peace of Constantine (312 AD), Christianity brought the gospel to the lands along the Rhine. St. Boniface is an important figure. (c. 675 – 5 June 754 AD) A missionary from England he preached to the various Germanic tribes, became bishop of Mainz, and established monastic settlements along the river to fulfill his mission.


Should he be our patron for the trip? “In her voyage across the ocean of this world the church is like a ship pounded by the waves of life’s different stresses. Our duty is not to abandon ship, but to keep her on course…Let us stand fast for what is right and prepare our souls for trial…Let us be neither like dogs that do not bark nor silent onlookers nor servants who run away before the wolf.”

In the 12th century with the growth of cities majestic cathedrals, like those in Strasbourg and Cologne, were built. Castles and buildings of local rulers line the river’s banks as defenses against invaders and symbols of power.

In the 14th century, the shrines and churches of the Franciscans and the mendicant orders appear. The 16th century brought the Reformation. We hope to sample some cathedrals and churches along the river.

The Rhine was a battleground through the centuries; the last two world wars have left their mark on the lands along the river.

We land in Basel, where John Calvin wrote his “Institutes” in 1536, a defense of Protestantism which he sent to Francis 1 of France. Francis kept France Catholic, however, and Calvin fled to Geneva and made it into a key Protestant center that had influence worldwide.

I hope to reflect particularly during our trip on the Reformation and the relationship of Protestants and Catholics today. Much has changed since the stormy beginnings in the 16th century. Pope Francis recently remarked to a group of European bishops that “Speaking about God has become more and more marginal” in Europe. The pope, a strong advocate of ecumenism, hopes all Christians will come together to face the challenge.

We will see many churches and signs of its Christian past on our trip down the Rhine from Basel to Amsterdam, but I don’t think we’ll hear much about God or see many signs of Christian practice. Europe is increasingly secularized.

Some books that I’ll bring along on the trip.

“A Brief History of Spirituality” by Philip Sheldrake, Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Sheldrake has a wonderful gift for summarizing spiritual movements like monasticism and relating them to the world in which they take place.

“The World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770” by R. Po-Chia Hsia, Cambridge University Press. The Catholic Church responds to the Reformation. A good study in social history.

“Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church” E.A. Livingstone, Oxford 1977 Just what it says: a lot of concise information about the Christian Church.

I also mentioned the Rhine trip in a previous blog:

27th Sunday A: News from the Vineyard

For audio version of the sermon, see below:

I visited the Holy Land some months ago and stayed for five days in East Jerusalem at St. Martha’s, a house belonging to my community, the Passionists. East Jerusalem is a crowded, predominantly Muslim part of the city, but once you go through the gates of St. Martha’s you’re in a world that reminds you of Jesus.

In his time the area was called Bethany, where Jesus stayed when he came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feasts. Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus lived there. Jesus spent his last days there before he was arrested, sentenced to death, crucified under Pontius Pilate, died and was buried. The traditional tomb where Lazarus was raised from the dead is only a short distance away from that house.

St. Martha’s is on a hillside of the Mount of Olives; a grove of olive trees surrounds the house and the trees still produces good oil, the priests who live there say. You can see a cave where the olives were pressed, probably dug at the time of Jesus or before. On the western end of the property are the foundations of small houses that archeologists believe go back to the time of Jesus.

When I hear Jesus using a parable about a vineyard, which he often does, I see the vineyards and olive groves of Bethany. Jesus used the world around him when he wished to teach. He’s in Jerusalem shortly before his death when he speaks this parable, Matthew’s gospel says. The olive trees and vineyards of Bethany were there before him. Likely, some of the vineyards were let out to tenant farmers who were expected to make a return to the owners at the harvest.

So Jesus explains what’s happening to him through a parable, which the Prophet Isaiah also used before him. “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.

Notice how much the owner of the vineyard did before entrusting it to the tenants. He did everything. The vineyard is a tremendous gift that he put into their hands. Then, at harvest time the tenants seize the owner’s servants who are looking for his share. Those are the prophets who came to Israel before me, Jesus is saying. They were reviled and mistreated and killed.

“Finally, he sent his son.” And they will kill me, Jesus is saying.

The parable is a stark story about the goodness of God and the ingratitude of Israel. It’s about a lack of response to the gift that was given; it’s about the failure to see that God expects a return for his gifts. “No,” the tenants say, “This belongs to us.”

We can look at the parable as Jesus’ words to the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem long ago. But suppose Jesus was here speaking to us. What would he say? Would he look around and say, “You have a beautiful church here and you come from nice homes. This is a good area; you have good roads, good schools, a lot of nice things. Are you using all this the way you should? Are you using these gifts I’ve given you?”

Maybe we would say. “This is all ours. It belongs to us. We can do what we want with it all.”

Sounds a little like the parable then, doesn’t it?