Category Archives: Religion

Feast of The Immaculate Conception

Some question why Mary, the Mother of Jesus, has such a big place in our church. The words of the angel in Luke’s gospel, words we often repeat in prayer, are an answer: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you.”

Mary is full of grace, gifted by God with unique spiritual gifts from her conception, because she was to be the mother of Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.

She would be the “resting place of the Trinity,” and would give birth to, nourish, guide and accompany Jesus in his life and mission in this world. To fulfill that unique role she needed a unique gift. She would be free from original sin that clouds human understanding and slows the way we believe in God and his plan for us.

“How slow you are to believe” Jesus said to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus made that complaint repeatedly as he preached the coming of God’s kingdom. “How slow you are to believe!” “What little faith you have!” “Do you still not understand!” Human slowness to believe didn’t end in gospel times. We have it too.

Mary was freed from that slowness to believe. “Be it done to me according to your word,” she immediately says to the angel. Yet, her acceptance of God’s will does not mean she understood everything that happened to her. “How can this be?” she asks the angel about the conception of the child. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you.”  But the angel’s answer seems so incomplete, so mysterious.

Surely, Mary would have liked to know more, but the angel leaves, never to return. There’s no daily message, no new briefing or renewed assurance by heavenly messengers. The years go by in Nazareth as the Child grows in wisdom and age and grace, but they’re years of silence. Like the rest of us, Mary waits and wonders and keeps these things in her heart.

That’s why we welcome her as a believer walking with us. She is an assuring presence who calls us to believe as she did, without knowing all. She does not pretend to be an expert with all the answers. She has no special secrets known to her alone. “Do whatever he tells you,” is her likely advice as we ponder the mysteries of her Son.



Do Whatever He Tells you

St. Ambrose, bishop

St. Ambrose baptizing St. Augustine

St. Ambrose, born in the 4th century into a Christian family, was a lawyer and high official in the Roman government in northern Italy until he was called by popular acclaim to be bishop of Milan.  He had not yet been baptized! Eight days after his baptism he was ordained bishop and became one of the church’s great bishops and teachers. Ambrose was a leader in a critical time.

He found wisdom and joy studying the scriptures and preaching the word of God, and he recommended that same source to a bishop who faced troubles in his own church. “Whoever reads much and understands much, is filled. And whoever is full, refreshes others…Drink, then, from Christ, so that your voice may also be heard.”

Evidently the bishop was overwhelmed by the storms he was experiencing. Ambrose told him God’s graces increase when storms beat upon us. Good thing to remember today.

“You pilot the ship against the waves. Take firm hold of the rudder of faith so that the severe storms of this world cannot disturb you. The sea is mighty and vast, but do not be afraid, for as Scripture says: he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.”

Tomorrow is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Ambrose saw in Mary a strong faith that gives life and sends us on a mission. She believes in the angel’s announcement and sets out “in haste” to visit Elizabeth. She goes “in haste” because she has a mission. Faith was not a burden for her, it empowered her. She’s blessed.

“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments 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.”

Let the soul of Mary be in each of us. A beautiful Advent prayer.

Stories of St.Nicholas

Today’s the feast of St. Nicholas, the model for Santa Claus, of course, but also patron of Russia and one of the most important saints of the eastern churches. 

Nicholas lived in the 5th century in Myria, a seaport in Asia Minor, but when the Moslems overran that region in the 11th century, sailors from Bari in Italy took his relics from his shrine there and installed them on May 9,1087 in a shrine in Bari, along the Adriatic coast.  

Since then, the Basilica of St. Nicolas has been a place of pilgrimage for eastern and western churches.  Russian pilgrims are especially prominent, but pilgrims from other eastern churches also come here.  Pope John Paul in his time promoted the basilica as place for dialogue with the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1966, an Orthodox chapel was established in the basilica itself to provide for Orthodox liturgy. In 2018 Pope Francis met with religious leaders from the Middle East to pray for peace and end the conflict in Syria.

In 2007, Vladimir Putin himself came to Bari and knelt as a pilgrim in front of St. Nicholas’s tomb. In 2017, Pope Francis lent relics of Nicholas to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow as a gesture to improve relations. Mr. Putin kissed the glass cased relic at its arrival. 

Today pilgrims in Bari from Russia and its allies and Ukraine and its allies mix uneasily around the saint’s grave, according to reports.

As a young seminarian I studied history long ago under Fr. Thomas Berry, CP. He told us the first day of class we had to know the world we’re living in and gave us copies of   the Communist Manifesto, then on the list of forbidden books and widely considered the work of the devil in what was currently the McCarthy era, to study.  

I remember him saying that though many scholars see the Communist Manifesto a thoroughly secular document and Marx and Engels disclaimed any religious inspiration for it at all, communism is inspired by Old Testament prophets and New Testament accounts of the early Christian Church. Pope Francis said something similar recently in an interview in the Jesuit magazine America. He joked: “The communists stole some of our Christian values. Some others, they made a disaster out of them.“                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Did saints like Nicholas inspire communism? The story that stands out from the Nicholas stories is his rescue of the three girls who will be sold off into slavery because they have no money for a dowry. (Above) The story influences the Santa Claus story, but it goes further, I think. 

Nicholas comes to aid the three poor girls by dropping gold in a sock into their house at night and disappears without any notice, leaving them, one after the other, with the promise of a better life. Help the poor, the story says, they deserve a better life.

The father of the poor girls wants to know who their benefactor is and finally, tracking him down after his last gift, asks Nicholas who he is and why he’s done what he’s done?

Nicholas wants no recognition. It’s better only God knows. He offers an example of “quiet giving”, asking for no credit, no power over others. A high form of love. We see it in Jesus Christ, and he taught it to his disciples.

Communism made a disaster of this Christian value, to follow the pope’s comment. It’s mission to lift people out of poverty led to tyranny and control. 

We can still learn from Nicholas, and he’s still a great teacher children should know.

Tuesday 2nd Week of Advent

Sometimes a picture is the best commentary on scripture. Here’s one I find more powerful than any commentary I might read. The Good Shepherd will go in search of any of his flock lost in those distant mountains, the mountains Isaiah describes that God will bring low, providing a path for exiles on their journey to Jerusalem.

Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;
        in his arms he gathers the lambs,
    Carrying them in his bosom,
        and leading the ewes with care. ISAIAH 40

Jesus said to his disciples:
“What is your opinion? 
If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray,
will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills
and go in search of the stray? 
And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it
than over the ninety-nine that did not stray. 
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.”

MATTHEW 8:12-14

Today’s also the feast of St. Nicholas. He’s the patron of Russia as well as the model for Santa Claus. Two video for children, but we can watch too:

John the Baptist

John the Baptist in wilderness of the Jordan Valley as he preaches and baptizes pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. Someone to learn from in Advent. Son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John is six months older than Jesus, as Luke reckons it in his gospel. Were they close as children growing up?

John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry, but they seem to part ways. Even as they do, John offers Jesus two of his own disciples, Peter and Andrew. Their only contact afterwards only seems to be through messengers.

Both preach a message of repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2; 4,17). Both call for people to change, but Jesus’ message contains a surprising mercy not found in John’s preaching:

“When John speaks of the One who is to come, he is thinking of an executor of divine judgment, not so much of him through whom God’s mercy and love are made visible. He expects the kingdom of God to arrive in a storm of violence, in the immediate future, with the Messiah’s first appearance… From what we know of his preaching, he seems transfixed by the vision of the judgment and finds nothing to say about the salvation the Messiah will bring.” ( Rudolf Schnackenberg Christian Existence in the New Testament, Volume 1, University of Notre Dame 1968, p 39)

“The ax is ready to cut down the tree that bears no fruit,” John says. Repentance dominates his message. But does Schnackenberg’s appraisal of John miss the comfort he brings? He’s a follower of the Prophet Isaiah. He’s like a drill sergeant readying troops for an upcoming battle. He’s a preacher of tough love to pilgrims climbing the holy way leading to Jerusalem.

Road to Jerusalem, Air view, 1932

Jesus urges repentance too, but with a tenderness and compassion not found in John. “Go tell John what you hear and see…” he says to messengers John sends.  The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the dead are raised. 

Jesus reveals God’s mercy, not only in through his many miracles, but also in his teaching. Think of the stories of the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the thief on the Cross– signs of God’s mercy, God’s patient mercy.

You must take a desert road, John says in his preaching. You must take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says, but again, the way’s not hard–his yoke is easy, his burden light. 

Jesus doesn’t dismiss John. There’s none born of woman greater that he, Jesus says. John has integrity, he’s not swayed by what other people think or say, not swayed by public opinion or the fear of failure, or sickness, or deprivation. He’s not swayed by winds good or bad. His face is turned to God, his ears hear God’s word, his voice speaks what he hears.

Jesus Blessing John, Moretto Da Brescia, VAMuseum


Monday, 2nd Week of Advent

Today’s readings from the Old and New Testament complement one another. Isaiah 35:1-10 describes a “holy way” to Jerusalem’s “holy mountain” through the wilderness. God will bring Jewish exiles from Babylon on that holy way. God calls all nations, all people to take it. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the fearful will take it, for God will strengthen them. The lame will leap “like a stag” and the “tongue of the mute will sing.”

The paralyzed man brought to Jesus in the gospel and sent away singing and dancing, (Luke 5:17-26), is a symbol of a paralyzed world that Jesus sends on its journey, fulfilling the hopes of the prophets and people of the Old Testament. Jesus also fulfills humanity’s hopes, our hopes as well. God wishes to heal our paralyzed world. Isaiah’s vision isn’t small.

Our vision should not be small either. Too often we give up on things and people and the world itself. “They’re not going anywhere.” “They’ll never change.” “The world’s never going to change.” We live in a cynical world.

Let’s not forget the men who lowered the paralyzed man from the roof down to where Jesus was. They were people of hope, willing to chance it with someone who looked like he would never move his limbs again. We need more of their kind today.

“They will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, Say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes to save you.Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; Then will the lame leap like a stag,then the tongue of the mute will sing… A highway will be there, called the holy way;
No one unclean may pass over it,
 nor fools go astray on it.
 No lion will be there,
  nor beast of prey go up to be met upon it.  It is for those with a journey to make,
 and on it the redeemed will walk.”

2nd Week of Advent: Readings and Feasts

DECEMBER 5 Mon Advent Weekday Is 35:1-10/Lk 5:17-26 

6 Tue Advent Weekday [St Nicholas, Bishop} Is 40:1-11/Mt 18:12-14 

7 Wed St Ambrose, Bishop Doctor Memorial Is 40:25-31/Mt 11:28-30 


(Patronal Feastday of the United States of America) Solemnity

Gn 3:9-15, 20/Eph 1:3-6, 11-12/Lk 1:26-38 

9 Fri Advent Weekday [St Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin]

Is 48:17-19/Mt 11:16-19

10 Sat Advent Weekday [Our Lady of Loreto] Sir 48:1-4, 9-11/Mt 17:9a, 10-13

11 SUN THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT Is 35:1-6a, 10/Jas 5:7-10/Mt 11:2-11 

The journey to God’s holy mountain will not be by way of the sea, the easiest road to Jerusalem from Babylon, Isaiah told Jewish exiles in Babylon. (Isaiah 40 ff)  God will bring you over mountains and through a wilderness, but the valleys will be filled, the mountains made low, the crooked ways straight. You’ll have guides and graces; God himself will shepherd you.

John the Baptist preached Isaiah’s message in the Jordan Valley where the winding road up to Jerusalem began. He is the messenger God sends to announce the coming of Jesus Christ.

This week’s Old Testament readings, mostly from Isaiah, recognize how hard the wilderness journey can be, but the desert will bloom and a highway will be there, a holy way. (Monday) God speaks tender, comforting words to his people on the way. (Tuesday)  Those who hope in him will renew their strength, soaring on eagle’s wings. (Wednesday) Though we’re as insignificant as a worm, God grasps our hand and says: “Fear not; I am with you.” (Thursday) God, our teacher, shows us the way to go. (Friday) Prophets like Elijah also accompany us. (Saturday)

The readings this week are for our encouragement, as Sunday’s reading from the Letter to the Romans reminds us. Jesus is with us on the way, the Gospel readings say. He forgave and healed a paralyzed man, symbol of a paralyzed humanity, who was lowered through the roof into the house in Capernaum. (Monday)  Like a good shepherd Jesus searches for and finds the stray sheep. (Tuesday)  “Come to me all who are weary…” he says. (Wednesday) He sends prophets and guides like John the Baptist and Elijah.   (Thursday) Though rejected like John the Baptist, Jesus still teaches. (Friday) He will save us, though he is unrecognized like John and Elijah. (Saturday)


THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY, the patronal feast day of the United States of America, is celebrated on Wednesday of this week.

We have also feasts of St. Ambrose, St. Juan Diego and–how can we forget–St. Nicholas.

Readings Online:

Saturday, 1st Week of Advent

The readings for the 1st week of Advent end today with Jesus going “to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Gospel of the Kingdom, and curing every disease and illness.” His heart goes out to them.

And his heart goes out to us.

The towns and villages of Galilee will not be the last places Jesus goes. He looks for others to join him as God’s harvest goes on, and he empowers them. It’s God’s harvest, first of all. Jesus, the Son of God, is still the Son he sends. And we are called to go out for the hours we can. ( Matthew 9:35ff) 

As we end this first week of Advent, I’m grateful to those who skillfully provided us with the lectionary readings and prayers for this season after the 2nd Vatican Council. It just didn’t happen. Prayerful hands, steeped in the scriptures and the liturgy, humbly serving the church, gave them to us. May they be blessed.

I hope the liturgy, its readings and prayers, will be a treasure we grow to appreciate more and more. It forms us in our faith and tells us how to live. A renewed liturgy and a renewed understanding of the scriptures were goals of the 2nd Vatican Council. Still waiting to be fulfilled, by the way. I found this quote from Pius XI appropriate:

“For people are instructed in the truths of faith, and brought to appreciate the inner joys of religion far more effectually by the annual celebration of our sacred mysteries than by any official pronouncement of the teaching of the Church. Such pronouncements usually reach only a few and the more learned among the faithful; feasts reach them all; the former speak but once, the latter speak every year – in fact, forever. The church’s teaching affects the mind primarily; her feasts affect both mind and heart, and have a salutary effect upon the whole of man’s nature” (Encyclical Quas primas, 11 December 1925).”

Isaiah’s promise of a holy mountain will be fulfilled, our readings today say. The Messianic times arrive with the coming of Jesus Christ. In our first reading today, Isaiah renews the promise of a holy mountain to exiles, like us.  

Isaiah Promises…

On this mountain,

Yahweh will prepare for you

a banquet rich in goodness.

On this mountain,

Yahweh will remove

the veil of darkness

covering God’s people.

Death will be destroyed,

you shall weep no more.

You shall rejoice in your God

on this mountain.    (Isaiah 25:6-9)

Gloria Ziemienski December 1982

 Here’s a music version of “On that Holy Mountain”

Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552)

“All nations will come to climb the mountain of the Lord,” the Prophet Isaiah says in our Advent readings. Joining Portuguese merchants, Saint Francis Xavier went to far-off Asia, not for its exotic spices and goods, but to call new followers to Jesus Christ.

For 10 years, Francis Xavier labored in India, Japan and southeast Asia to bring the gospel to the native peoples of these lands. In a letter to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, he explains that he’s so busy teaching and baptizing he has hardly a minute to himself. “Send help,” he says.

“Many, many people hereabouts are not becoming Christians for one reason only: there is nobody to make them Christians. Again and again I have thought of going round the universities of Europe, especially Paris, and everywhere crying out like a madman, riveting the attention of those with more learning than charity: ‘What a tragedy: how many souls are being shut out of heaven and falling into hell, thanks to you!’”

He’s driven by missionary zeal. Today, unfortunately, we’re becoming more like those university people in Paris– concerned about ourselves and ready to let the rest of the world go by.

The statue of Saint Francis Xavier above is  in the beautiful church of the Sacred Heart in Springfield, MA, where Father Theodore Foley went as a boy. Was it put there after a Novena of Grace preached by some Jesuit missionaries, I wonder? How many  people, like Theodore Foley, heard the story of the fiery missionary and saw themselves called to be missionaries ?

The Prophet Isaiah’s call to the nations is not confined to his time. God’s mission to the nations is for our time too.