Author Archives: vhoagland

The Wisdom of Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Acquinas

The feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, January 28th, in my student days was a day for presentations honoring the saint. The presentations were not about the saint’s life but his wisdom. Thomas Aquinas was a great theologian dedicated to the search for truth.

He was a man of faith, searching for understanding. That’s the definition of theology–faith seeking understanding, an understanding that draws us closer to God and helps us know God, the source of all truth.

He was a man of questions, who approached great mysteries through questions. That’s the way St. Thomas begins a sermon he once preached, found today in the Office of Readings for his feast:

 “Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us?” he asks as he looks at the Cross of Jesus. The passion of Jesus was necessary, the saint says, for two reasons. First, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

Interestingly, the saint doesn’t spend much time asking why it’s a remedy for sin. He’s more interested in the passion of Jesus as an example for us. To live as we should, we need to look at Jesus on the cross, an example of every virtue:

“Do you want an example of love? ‘Greater love than this no one has, than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That’s what Jesus did on the cross. If he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

“If you want patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid.

“Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

“If you want an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

“If you want an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

“If you want an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

“Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honours, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

St. Thomas’ great theological work, the Summa Theologica can be found here.

Be Merciful, O Lord, For We Have Sinned

David penitent


Because Jesus is often called “Son of David” in the New Testament and so many of the psalms are attributed to David, we may tend to idealize the great king.. David united the tribes of Israel and established a nation with its capitol in Jerusalem. Jesus himself appealed to David’s example when his enemies accused his hungry disciples of eating grain on the Sabbath.

Yet, the long narrative we read in the Book of Samuel today and tomorrow at Mass offers a darker picture of the famous king– he was a murderer and an adulterer. David had Urriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in his army, killed so that he could have Bathsheba, his wife. (2 Samuel 11, 1-17)

Psalm 51 is the response we make at Mass after listening to the king’s sordid deed. Tradition says it’s David’s own response after he realized what he had done. The Book of Psalms calls Psalm 51: “A psalm of David when Nathan the prophet came to him after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

“Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness;
in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense.
Thoroughly wash me from my guilt
And of my sin cleanse me.”

The psalm, the first of the Seven Penitential Psalms, asks God to take away both the personal and social effects of our sin, for our sins do indeed have emotional, physical and social consequences. Only God can “wash away” our guilt and cleanse our heart. Only God can “rebuild” the walls that our sins have torn down and the lives they have harmed. Only God can restore joy to our spirits and help us “teach the wicked your ways, that sinners may return to you.” Only God can bring us back to his friendship.

In the scriptures, David is a complex figure– a saint and a sinner. He’s really a reflection of us all. That’s why our response in the psalm at Mass today takes the form that it does –

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.”

“Your” Kingdom Come

Mustard Plant

“Jesus said to the crowds:
“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit

To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground,
is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants
and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.”
With many such parables
he spoke the word to them as they were able to understand it.
Without parables he did not speak to them,
but to his own disciples he explained everything in private.

.”  (Mark 4, 26-34)

A “man” scatters seed on the land in the parable from Mark’s Gospel we read today. In Mark’s previous parable, it’s a Sower who can be God as well as man. In this parable only a man can be so lacking in knowledge and attention he doesn’t know how the seed sprouts or grows.

Day and night, as we go about life, we don’t see or understand everything. We are creatures, not God.

The Kingdom of God is beyond human power to build and understand, the parable also says. “Of its own accord the land yields fruit.” God of his own accord brings the Kingdom about. “Your Kingdom come.”

We can’t understand or see the growth as something as small as a mustard seed. How can we understand how the Kingdom of God grows?

How hard to humbly acknowledge we don’t control or fully understand the world we live in. The two parables for today tell us to recognize our limited power and wisdom. We’re told, “You can do anything if you believe and put your mind to it.” Not true. We’re human beings.

Yet we have to bring what we can bring to see. As another of Jesus’ parables says, we have to bring our light to this dark world. It may be a small light, but we must put it on a lamp stand to see what we can see in the house of our world.

The parables of Jesus put us in our place as we go through life.

Listening to Parables

In the first chapters of his gospel Mark highlights the remarkable actions of Jesus in the towns near the Sea of Galilee as he confronts demons and heals many. Only in chapter 4 does Mark give examples of his teaching. For Mark, what Jesus did was more important than what he said. When he taught, he taught in parables– “without parables he did not speak to them.”  

“A parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” (C.H. Dodd)

Jesus drew from life around him for his teaching, from the natural, religious and political worlds he and his hearers knew so well.

Galilee was a land of farms and vineyards, farmers and fishermen. When Jesus spoke of the ways of seed and soil, of nets cast into the sea, he shared a world his hearers also knew. When he spoke of David feeding his followers on the Sabbath or Elijah the prophet, or scribes and Pharisees, his hearers knew those figures as well.

His references to the political world – if we follow Mark’s indications, for example– were more carefully couched. When the scribes from Jerusalem accused him of casting out devils by the power of Beelzubel, the prince of devils, Jesus responded: “A house divided against itself cannot stand… How can Satan drive out Satan?” (Mark 3: 23-24)

The world Jesus lived in was a divided house politically, as the descendants of Herod the Great fought each other for power and control. Like other political dynasties, they were powerful at the time, but then fell.

The economy of Galilee in Jesus’ time was expanding under Herod Antipas. Large cities like Tiberias, Sephorris, Caesarea Philippi, Caesarea Maritima were being built, roads to ship Galilee’s produce laid out, funding for the development put in place. Some were enriched by it; many others were not. Jesus spoke of the failures of his society in his parables.

The parables of Jesus do not simply describe his world; they’ re meant, in C. H. Dodd’s words  “to tease the mind into active thought.” Jesus wanted those who heard him to think and question, to wonder and continue to explore. His parables don’t leave us knowing everything. Rather they ask “What do you think and what will you do about it ?”

If we hear ourselves saying “ I know that story, I heard it before” we haven’t heard .

We don’t live in the time of Jesus, but his parables still teach us. His parables drawn from nature may be especially important today as our world faces climate change. We need to re-engage more deeply with nature and it seasons and its care

We also need to engage in our religious and political worlds as he did. We’re not spectators looking on, accepting what we see on a screen. We’re meant to have minds teased into active thought.  What do you think and what will you do about it ?”

“What do you think of your church and what will you do about it?”

“What do you think of your world and what will you do about it?”

Timothy and Titus

Timothy and Titus were companions of St.Paul on his missionary journeys and they continued his mission. Timothy was given leadership of the church at Ephesus; Titus assumed leadership of the church in Crete. We have Paul’s letters to them: one letter to Titus and two letters to Timothy, most likely written from house arrest in Rome.

Like Jesus, Paul never saw himself acting alone or handing on a church that was completely developed. He had men and women companions in his ministry and he recognized a church in transition, evolving from a “way”, a movement, to a church settled in places like Ephesus and Crete. 

We celebrate the feast of Timothy and Titus on January 26th, the day after the feast of Paul’s conversion, as a reminder that Paul recognized others at his side and continuing his work. 

The church entered a new stage with the ministry given to Timothy and Titus.  Paul and the other apostles were completing their ministry to the nations, now the church had to be firmly established in every place they visited. The roles of bishops, priests and other ministries began to evolve to fulfill that task.

Paul’s  advice to Timothy is especially interesting. “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.”

Sounds like Paul is trying to bolster Timothy’s confidence, who is losing his powerful mentor, but also Timothy needs the gift of God to make the church flourish in its own time in Ephesus. It would be a local church.  I wonder if we could say that church would be a place where Timothy’s mother Eunice and grandmother Lois would find a home.

Timothy and Titus were given “apostolic virtues” by God to continue the work of Paul and the other apostles, the opening prayer of their feast says. And “May we merit to reach our heavenly homeland” by “living justly and devoutly in this present age.” Like them “we” also are given a task –to work for the church’s growth and development in this present age.

We have to remember our mentors and remember too that God “ does not give a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self control.” Like the two followers of Paul, we have to hold on to what we were given, but it’s our turn to continue their work: “Go into all the world, and proclaim the gospel. I am with you always, says the Lord.”

I see in the notes of American Bible that the deacons Paul refers to in I Timothy 3, 8-13 may include women as well as men. “This (deacons) seems to refer to women deacons, but may possibly mean the wives of deacons. The former is preferred because the word is used absolutely…”

Why not today? We need women in roles of leadership. I have some in mind who would fit the role very well. I wonder what my mother would say.

Paul’s Conversion: January 25th

Caravaggio, Conversion of Paul

Saints are examples of how far we can rise, from the depths to the heights. Today the church celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul, who never forgot that God’s grace raised him from the dust to become  a powerful force in his church and in the world.

The dramatic conversion of Paul is recalled in today’s first reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles. Luke describes this event three times, a way of acknowledging Paul’s special  role in the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome.

 Paul’s conversion and ministry was a work of God, who used the apostle for his own divine purposes. It’s not Paul’s genius or imagination that achieved so much. God’s grace brought him to the ground on his way to Damascus and God’s grace sent him on his mission.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Jesus says to him. From that meeting Paul gained the conviction that faith is a gift that justifies us and that the church is the body of Christ. He did not come to those beliefs on his own.

Paul’s great conversion story in Acts leads to the conversion of the gentiles. Paul has a prominent part in these stories; he’s  an agent whom God sends and constantly empowers. But he never forgot the moment he was blinded by a light that made him see.  

“Paul, more than anyone else, has shown us what we really are, and in what our nobility consists, and of what virtue a human being is capable. Each day he aimed ever higher; each day he rose up with greater ardour and faced with new eagerness the dangers that threatened him. He summed up his attitude in the words: I forget what is behind me and push on to what lies ahead. When he saw death imminent, he bade others share his joy: Rejoice and be glad with me! And when danger, injustice and abuse threatened, he said: I am content with weakness, mistreatment and persecution. These he called the weapons of righteousness, thus telling us that he derived immense profit from them… ” ( St. John Chrysostom)                                                                                             

Don’t lose Hope!

We’re reading from the 2nd Book of Samuel this week at Mass. The first 8 chapters describe David’s accomplishments as an ideal king. He unites the tribes of Israel and conquers Jerusalem from the Jebusites to make it his capitol– his greatest military victory. (Monday).

 He brings the Ark of the Covenant and places it in a special tent in his capitol city, acknowledging God’s primacy over this kingdom. He listens to the prophet Nathan, acknowledging the prophetic voice, God’s voice, in Israel.

God says to David, through the Prophet Nathan: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever.’” Unlike Saul’s throne, David’s throne will stand forever.  (Tuesday-Thursday) 

But chapters 9-20 of 2 Samuel describe David’s darker side, beginning with his murder of Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba. That brings on him the accusation of the Prophet Nathan. (Friday-Saturday)  Though he repents, dire consequences follow his sin. Yet, God remains faithful to David and his people Israel. 

One reason we keep reading the Old Testament is to see Israel’s history unfold and hear the promises God makes to her, in spite of her sinfulness and infidelity. It helps us deal with our own times

I don’t think I have ever seen ordinary people and the news media so pessimistic about the future as they are today. There is even a pessimism about science, once infallible, now with clay feet. There is pessimism about our political system, our church, climate change. No hope, no vision for science, capitalism or politics, even the physical world itself– all the big engines of our society.

The scriptures match the bad news we face, but they never quench hope. That’s why we read them. God has a parent’s love for us, and so we shouldn’t succumb to pessimism. We’re David’s children, through Jesus Christ. “The future of humanity rests with people who are capable of providing the generations to come with reasons for living and for hope.” (Gaudium et spes, 32)

I like the responsory to today’s reading from 2 Samuel about David: “My faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him.” That’s meant for us all.

Saint Francis de Sales, January 24

Francis de Sales had a wonderful approach to holiness. He believed in the uniqueness of every person and recognized the variety of ways people become holy. He also believed firmly in respect and dialogue, especially with someone who doesn’t think like you or is from another religious tradition.

Some years ago, I visited a church in Geneva, Switzerland, center of Calvinism in the 16th century, where Francis was the Catholic bishop. A statue in that church (above) pictures him holding a book and a pen in his hand – not a sword.

Geneva was a city of swords then, real and verbal;  religious differences led to conflict and even bloodshed. Francis believed instead in peaceable dialogue.

Dialogue did not mean for him abandoning your own beliefs or being silent about them. It meant examining and measuring your own beliefs more deeply while listening carefully and respectfully to the beliefs of others to find the truth.

Francis de Sales prepared the Catholic Church for the approach to ecumenism it would take in the 20th century at the Second Vatican Council. He would certainly support the ecumenical movement today.  

 The spiritual writings of Saint Francis de Sales have become classics. Here’s something from  “An Introduction to a Devout Life” that reveals the way he thought and taught.

DSC00154

“When God the Creator made all things, he commanded the plants to bring forth fruit each according to its own kind; he has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character, his station and his calling.

“I say that devotion must be practised in different ways by the nobleman and by the working man, by the servant and by the prince, by the widow, by the unmarried girl and by the married woman. But even this distinction is not sufficient; for the practice of devotion must be adapted to the strength, to the occupation and to the duties of each one in particular.

“Tell me, please, my Philothea, whether it is proper for a bishop to want to lead a solitary life like a Carthusian; or for married people to be no more concerned than a Capuchin about increasing their income; or for a working man to spend his whole day in church like a religious; or on the other hand for a religious to be constantly exposed like a bishop to all the events and circumstances that bear on the needs of our neighbour. Is not this sort of devotion ridiculous, unorganised and intolerable? Yet this absurd error occurs very frequently, but in no way does true devotion, my Philothea, destroy anything at all. On the contrary, it perfects and fulfils all things. In fact if it ever works against, or is inimical to, anyone’s legitimate station and calling, then it is very definitely false devotion.

“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them. True devotion does still better. Not only does it not injure any sort of calling or occupation, it even embellishes and enhances it.”

You can find this spiritual classic online here.

The opening prayer in today’s liturgy asks God to give us too  Francis’ gentle approach to life: 

O God, who for the salvation of  souls willed that the bishop St. Francis de Sales become all things to all, graciously grant that, following his example we may always display the gentleness of your charity in the service of our neighbor. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

A good prayer and a good saint for our contentious times. 

January 24-31: Readings and Feasts

JANUARY 24 Mon St Francis de Sales, Memorial 2 Sm 5:1-7, 10/Mk 3:22-30 

25 Tue Conversion of St Paul Feast  Acts 22:3-16 or Acts 9:1-22/Mk 16:15-18

 26 Wed Ss Timothy and Titus, Bishops Memorial 2 Tm 1:1-8 or Ti 1:1-5/Mk 4:1-20

27 Thu Weekday [St Angela Merici, Virgin] 2 Sm 7:18-19, 24-29/Mk 4:21-25 

28 Fri St Thomas Aquinas, Priest, Doctor  2 Sm 11:1-4a, 5-10a, 13-17/Mk 4:26-34 

29 Sat Weekday 2 Sm 12:1-7a, 10-17/Mk 4:35-41 

30 SUN 4th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

Jer 1:4-5, 17-19/1 Cor 12:31—13:13 or 13:4-13/Lk 4:21-30 

31 Mon St John Bosco, Priest Memorial 2 Sm 15:13-14, 30; 16:5-13/Mk 5:1-20 

We’re ending January reading weekdays from Mark 3- 5. Facing opposition, Jesus teaches in parables and then goes to the other side of the Sea of Galilee where he casts out demons. 

The readings from 2 Samuel are stories of David. 

Important saints celebrated this week: Francis de Sales, Thomas Aquinas, Timothy and Titus, John Bosco, Angela Merici.