Author Archives: vhoagland

Sirach: Learning by Doing

Our selections in our liturgy from the Book of Sirach end Friday and Saturday with an old man’s reflections on growing in faith from his childhood. Far from rote learning, Sirach saw his faith grow through prayer and celebrating the Jewish feasts. This kind of prayer brings wisdom and joy. Saturday’s reading says:

“When I was young and innocent, I sought wisdom openly in my prayer. I prayed for her before the temple and I will seek her until the end…My heart delighted in her, my feet kept to the level path because I was familiar with her.”

The journey of faith begins from childhood. Fortunate for those, like Sirach, who get to know faith from the beginning of their lives and never cease to be instructed in her “secrets”. They will keep to the right path. I wonder if young parents today realize that?

In Friday’s reading Sirach sees the example of holy people forming us in faith. I will paraphrase some of his words:

Now will I praise those godly men and women,
our ancestors, each in their own time.
But of others there is no memory,
for when they ceased, they ceased.
And they are as though they had not lived,
they and their children after them.
Yet these also were godly women and men
whose virtues have not been forgotten;
Their wealth remains in their families,
their heritage with their descendants;
Through God’s covenant with them their family endures,
their posterity, for their sake.

Thank God for the example of holy people in your life. Learn from them. They are often, “the saints next door”, a phrase Pope Francis used to described the familiar saints, like mothers and fathers, neighbors and all.

Sirach, “Ecclesiasticus”, was a staple source in the catechesis of the early Christian church. You can see why. The learning Sirach describes is not knowing short questions and answers and then you got it. Catechesis, as you see in Sirach, introduces us to the mystery of God from childhood and carries on until the end.  It’s not a lesson in human behavior. It’s a prayerful search into what was, what is and what ever shall be. It goes far beyond the human world, but embraces the human world.

It’s learning by doing in the everyday classroom of life. Blessed are those who embrace this kind of “great instruction”. 

“Saint” Sirach pray for us.

Feast of Charles Lwanga and Companions

Charles Lwanga and Companions. Bro. Michael Moran,CP

The martyrdom of St. Charles Lwanga and twenty-one companions in Uganda, Africa in 1885-86 was the start of a remarkable growth of Christianity on that continent. The White Fathers, Catholic missionaries who reached Uganda in 1879, succeeded in converting a number of native Africans who were servants of King Mwanga, a local Ugandan ruler. But in 1885 the king began persecuting Christians.

Charles Lwanga was in charge of the pages in the kingʼs court. The king wanted some of the pages as sexual partners. His Christian pages refused and he threatened them with torture and death. Led by Charles, they rejected the kingʼs advances and so the king, summoning them before him, asked if they were going to continue to deny him as Christians. “Till death!” they answered. “Then put them to death!” the king shouted.

Three pages died on the road to their execution at Namugonga. Many bystanders were amazed at the courage and calm of Charles and his companions. On Ascension Day, 1886, they were wrapped up in reed mats and set afire for their faith. The following year an extraordinary number of Ugandans became Christian.

The grace of God was working in them, the prayer for their feast on June 3 says: “Father, you have made the blood of martyrs the seed of Christians.””

Africa has a history of martyrs, Pope Paul VI recalled at their canonization; the early Christian martyrs St. Cyprian, Saints Felicity and Perpetua, the 4th century Martyrs of Sicilli, whose relics are venerated in the Passionist church of Saints John and Paul in Rome.

Charles Lwanga and his companions opened a new page in the history of holiness in Africa. Paying tribute to them, Pope Paul recommended not forgetting “ those members of the Anglican Church who also died for the name of Christ.” Pope Francis recently spoke of “an ecumenism of blood”, as Christians from different denominations suffer persecution today.
“These African martyrs herald the dawn of a new age.”

Christian activity in Africa began in the 1st century in Alexandria in Egypt and other parts of Roman Africa, but the 7th century Islamic conquest caused a deep decline in Christianity there. In modern times Christianity reached south as the European powers colonized the continent. By 2005 Catholics numbered 135 million Africans out of a population of 809 million. By 2025, African Catholics are expected to be one-sixth of the world’s Catholic population. A new Christian Era has begun.

“Go out to all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.”

St. Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (c.100-165 AD)

Justin Martyr

We need Christians today like St. Justin, the 2nd century philosopher we remember June 1. “We need to make our teaching known,” he said. Still true today.

In Justin’s time, philosophers were the mentors and teachers of Roman society and were welcomed in the forum and private homes of the Roman world. St. Paul addressed them in Athens with limited success.

Born in Nablus in Palestine of Greek parents, Justin studied all the philosophers of his time in Alexandria, Athens and Ephesus. It may have been in Ephesus around the year 130 that he encountered Christianity when, walking along the seashore, he met an old man who told him the human heart could never be satisfied by Plato for “the prophets alone announced the truth.”

“After telling me these and other things…he went away and I never saw him again, but a flame kindled in my soul, filling me with love for the prophets and the friends of Christ. I thought about his words and became a philosopher..” (Dialogue 8)

Justin was influenced, not only by Christian teaching, but also by the example of Christians he met:

“I liked Plato’s teaching at first and enjoyed hearing evil spoken about Christians, but then I saw they had no fear of death or other things that horrify, and I realized they were not vicious or pleasure-loving at all.” (Apology 2,12)

Forum q
Ruins of the Roman Forum

Justin championed the cause of Christians who were increasingly being attacked by society. Donning a philosopher’s cloak he taught and wrote in Rome about the year 150 AD. He was a new kind of Christian, a Christian philosopher engaging Roman society on its own terms. He gave Christianity a Roman face and voice.

Justin defended Christians against the charge they were atheists and enemies of the Roman state. Christians were good citizens, he wrote, who pray for Rome, though they don’t worship in temples, who had no statues of gods or who did not participate in the religious rites of the state.  Justin’s writings give us a unique picture of 2nd century Christianity and early Christian worship.

In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew” Justin offered the traditional Christian defense of Christianity to a Jewish antagonist. The Jewish prophets predicted the coming, the death and resurrection of Jesus, Justin argues.

In the documents of Vatican ii, Justin is recognized as an early example of Christian ecumenism. (Evangelium Nuntiandi 53) Through the Word of God all things came to be, he said.  The Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, but Justin linked the biblical Word to the Logos of the philosophers. “Seeds of the Word” were scattered throughout the world, Justin claimed. Every human being possesses in his mind a seed of the Word, and so besides the prophets of the Old Testament, pagan philosophers like Heraclitus, Socrates and Musonius lead us to Jesus Christ, Justin said. (Apology 1,46)

A prolific writer and teacher, Justin was an early Christian intellectual using his talents to promote his faith, Unfortunately only three of his writings come down to us. Other Christian intellectuals followed him, using the tools of philosophy to dialogue with the Greco-Roman world.

Finally, rivals in Rome pressed charges against Justin as an enemy of the state and he was  brought before a Roman judge along with six companions. Sentenced to death, they were beheaded probably in the year 165 AD. The official court record of their trial  still survives.

Procession to the Mary Garden

“All generations shall call me blessed,” Mary says as she visits Elizabeth and praises God for his gift and the mission God gives her. There are signs of her blessed  presence in all generations. Sometimes she comes to bless people through someone she appears to, as she did when she appeared to Juan Diego in Mexico City in the 16th century, to Bernadette Soubrious in France the 19th century and to the children at Fatima in the 20th century.  The apparitions at Mexico City, Lourdes and Fatima are especially significant.

For more than 2000 years Mary has been a steady presence in the church and in the world.

What’s Mary’s mission? Why do generations call her blessed? Mary brings joy to the world by announcing the presence of her Son, the child of womb, Jesus Christ, who came to take away our fears and offers his promise. She brings wisdom for each generation to live wisely in its time.

Yesterday, we celebrated the Feast of the Visitation with Mass and then a procession to our Mary Garden. In our generation, I think Mary’s mission is to make us aware that our world is a garden we should love and care for. We seem so uncaring and unloving to creation today, especially to the poor.

In the 14th century, the Black Death took countless lives in Europe, and many saw the earth itself the cause of the pandemic. In response, Mary Gardens were planted next to religious houses and churches.  They were reminders of the Garden of Eden, where God first blessed the human family with the blessings of creation. God saw creation as good, a place of blessing. 

Mary has a special place in creation. She has a special place renewing faith in the God of life. Our procession to our Mary Garden yesterday was a simple way of asking her help today, when creation in endangered.

She stands in our Mary Garden with her mighty Child in her arms, looking out on creation. Don’t lose hope in this planet of ours, she says. Care for it, cherish it, and pray that God, the Creator of heaven and earth, will move the hearts of the children of Adam and Eve, so that all the creatures of the earth, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea will flourish.

“Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God, that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.”

For more on our Mary Garden see here.

Here’s a video on our Mary Garden.

Sirach: Beauty in All His Works

More than a book of do’s and dont’s, of memorized commandments or little gems of human wisdom, Sirach puts human life and creation itself in the context of God’s plan. You can see that in Thursday’s reading:

“How beautiful are all his works!

even to the spark and fleeting vision!

The universe lives and abides forever;

to meet each need, each creature is preserved.

All of them differ, one from another,

yet none of them has he made in vain,

For each in turn, as it comes, is good;

can one ever see enough of their splendor?” (Sirach 42:20-25)

The simplest, smallest thing that passes quickly away, like a spark or fleeting vision, is beautiful–like the small pollinators at work now in our garden or the spring fireflies in our night sky, Each thing has its place in the universe, Sirach says.  “All of them differ, one from another, yet none of them has God made in vain.” 

Sirach sees creation as Pope Francis does in Laudato si’. “For each in turn, as it comes, is good; can one ever see enough of their splendor?” “Creation is given to us, not to be exploited or judged by our needs, but to reveal God’s glory. We live in a world of mutuality and interconnectedness, where the smallest have a place.” 

Look at  creation that way and look at humanity that way, Sirach tells the next generation, which may be looking ahead rather than seeing the present, especially the humble present.  Be humble and don’t miss those who live humbly, the poor, the widow, the suffering, the sick. Be honest and truthful and generous and kind. See God in humanity, especially where God is often in disguise. See God in the smallest things of creation.

An old catechetical work,  does Sirach offer a framework for catechesis today, which may be too humanly oriented in its approach? I think it does.

The Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Faith gives you life and calls you to live with a mission. That’s what it did for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke’s gospel before today’s reading said that Mary believed in the message of an angel in Nazareth. She welcomed the Son of God to be born of her. He brought life to her and to the world.

He gave her a mission, Luke’s gospel says today.  Mary set out “in haste” for the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who also was with child. Mary has a mission.                                                                                                                        

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb.” The infant who would be John the Baptist, leaped for joy, the gospel says.

Both of these women had exceptional faith. Mary, the younger woman, accepted what the angel asks, even as she questions how it will take place and the meaning of it all.                                                                                                                                 

Elizabeth, the older woman, conceives with her husband, Zechariah. But she’s an old woman, pregnant with a child. However miraculous her pregnancy was, she must have felt fear and uncertainty for having a child in her old age. Like Mary, she must have asked, “How can this be?” “What does this all mean?”

Mary’s visit took those fears away. The child in Elizbeth’s womb leaped for joy. Elizabeth’s fears were turned into joy. Faith gives you life and sends you into life on a mission. Exceptional faith, in the case of Mary and Elizabeth led to an exceptional mission. 

In spite of what some people think, faith is not a burden that cripples you. Faith is a gift that empowers you. It takes you beyond your dreams and what you hope for. 

“Blessed are you who believed,” Elizabeth says to Mary.

“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments St. Ambrose, “ you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.

“Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ, but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”

As with Mary so with us, faith gives life and sends us on a mission..

Four years ago, on May 31st, we blessed our Mary Garden here at Immaculate Conception Monastery. We will celebrate Mass in our chapel at 11 AM and pray afterwards in the Mary Garden to Mary, Queen of All Creation.

Mary, the Dawn

13 century England 

Father Justin Mulcahy, CP, a beloved teacher and musician who taught generations of Passionists in my province, wrote a hymn anonymously “Mary, the Dawn” under the name “Paul Cross” – St. Paul of the Cross is the founder of the Passionists.

It’s a wonderful hymn and prayer for a Mary Garden describing Mary’s role in the life of Jesus through simple earthly images. She’s the Dawn, he’s the perfect Day, the root, he’s the mystic vine, the grape, he’s the sacred wine, the wheat, he’s the living bread, the rose, he’s the rose blood-red.

I hope we can sing this song in procession to our Mary Garden for the Feast of Mary’s Visitation. Here it is,, with a few added stanzas at the beginning. I’m adding an organ melody by Greg Martinez


Mary, full of grace,
Mother of us all
All sing your praise,
Pray for us all.

Mother of Jesus,
Mother of us all
Show us your Son
Savior of us all.

Mother of seasons,
Earth and sky and sea,
In all our ways
Help us count our days

Mary the Dawn,
Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the Gate,
Christ the Heav’nly Way!

Mary the Root,
Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the Grape,
Christ the Sacred Wine!

Mary the Wheat,
Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the Rose,
Christ the Rose Blood-red!

Mary the Font,
Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the Chalice,
Christ the Saving Blood!

Mary the Temple,
Christ the Temple’s Lord;
Mary the Shrine,
Christ the God adored!

Mary the Mother,
Christ the Mother’s Son.
Both ever blest while endless ages run.

Sirach, Teacher for Young People

This week we’re reading selections in the lectionary from the Book of Sirach, a 2nd century BC writing. Sirach is a compilation of a Jewish father’s or grandfather’s advice to his son or grandson. Formerly, it was called the Book of Ecclesiasticus, because it was used extensively by the church to teach catechumens and young people about right living and morality. 

What’s the advice to the young in this first reading?

In a generous spirit pay homage to the LORD,
be not sparing of freewill gifts.
With each contribution show a cheerful countenance,
and pay your tithes in a spirit of joy.
Give to the Most High as he has given to you,
generously, according to your means.

My guess is its advice to give yourself generously to society, whether it’s the government, the church, the school, the neighborhood, or the world itself. In times like ours, particularly, the young may pull away from establishments, looking critically at their obvious flaws– many as they are.

Don’t choose isolation. Don’t give up on the world you live in, Sirach seems to say. It’s your world where you’re meant of find meaning and purpose. It’s your world where you’re meant to serve God.

Not bad advice for our younger generation?

Readings here.

Scriptures and Prayers for Green Time

Those who produced the lectionary, the calendar and other revisions of the church’s prayer after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s were biblical, liturgical and catechical scholars, mostly from Europe, who had the task of providing a fuller experience of the scriptures for Catholics throughout the world. It was a monumental work, which we are still learning to absorb. 

The lectionary provides readings, psalms and prayers for everyday. For Sundays, the lectionary provides readings over a three year cycle. This year we’re reading the Gospel of Matthew most Sunday’s.

The lectionary does’nt just provide readings for Sundays, or feasts or seasons like lent, easter and advent. Each year it provides a semi-continuous reading of the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke for ordinary time. 

We’re reading everyday now from the gospel of Mark, which is recognized as the first gospel written and probably derives from Peter, the leader of the apostles. In the 10th week of ordinary time, through June to September,  we’ll  be reading from Matthew’s Gospel, In the 22nd week of ordinary time, September to Novermber, we’ll read from Luke’s Gospel. As we near the end of the church year, we’ll read from the accounts of the last time from all the gospels. 

Every year the lectionary follows this same cycle of gospel readings, so following the lectionary every year should help us become familiar with the gospels.

The first readings for ordinary time in our lectionary are arranged in a two year cycle that includes readings from the Old Testament and writings from the New Testament, especially the letters of St. Paul.

We’re reading this week from the Book of Sirach. Next week it’s the Book of Tobit, then we’re into St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians for a couple of weeks. A mixture of readings from the Old and New Testament.

For myself I find following the lectionary a good way to pray. It’s a day by day way of praying. It’s a way of learning the faith seasonally instead of systematically. Year by year, day by day, it reveals the mysteries of God. It’s a school that’s open every day, not confined to a classroom or a catechism or a theology book. It’s for slow learners who forget and have to be reminded year by year. That’s most of us.

I find too that this approach also seems to offer an answer to what’s happening in daily life, in my personal life and in the big world that’s changing so fast today. Not a perfect answer, but enough to see God’s hand in it all. 

You can find the readings from the lectionary online at the website of the US Catholic bishops.   I usually link to the readings in this blog, which follows the lectionary.

The Spirit Works in Green Time


Green is the liturgy’s color for ordinary time. Not white, the bright light of Eastertime, or red the color of blood and fire. or purple the color of penance. Green is earth’s color, color of slow growing trees and grasses, of ordinary time.

An unknown 4th century spiritual writer describes the ordinary ways the Holy Spirit works in us. “In varied and different ways” invisible grace leads us. Ordinary time doesn’t mean that every day’s the same.  Sometimes we find ourselves sad at the state of things; sometimes we joyfully hold the whole world in our arms. Sometimes we feel helpless; sometimes we think there’s nothing we can’t do. Sometimes we’re brave; sometimes we escape into the supposed safety of ourselves looking for peace.

“… The soul becomes like any other human being.” Which means, I guess, that we don’t feel spiritual at all.

Far from taking us away from the human condition, the Spirit leads us by human steps in human time. Ordinary time is the natural roller-coaster of life, all right, but the Spirit leads us on.

That’s why the psalms are such wonderful prayers. They’re the great prayers of ordinary time. They take us from one human experience to another. If you don’t experience what a certain psalm describes, wait awhile–you will.

Green is the Season

Green is the season after Pentecost.
The Holy Ghost in an abstracted place
spreads out the languid summer of His peace,
unrolls His hot July.
O leaves of love, O chlorophyll of grace.
Native to all is this contemplative summer.
The soul that finds its way through Pentecost
knows this green solitude at once as homeland.
Only the heart, earth held and time engrossed,
dazed by this unforeknown and blossoming nowhere,
troubles itself with adjectives like “lost.”

Jessica Powers, 1954