Category Archives: spirituality

The Numbers are Down:Mark 4:24-34

The Sower. Jame Tissot

Numbers seem to indicate power and popularity. We think that way; Jesus’ disciples must have thought that way too. In Mark’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. Religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him.. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. His numbers go down.

Why are the number going down, his disciples must have wondered? It didn’t make sense. Jesus’ answer comes in Mark’s gospel today. God’s kingdom is coming; God is at work in the world, but God‘s working in this world, but human beings are mostly unaware of it:


“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,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

Great power is at work in the scattered seed, but we know little how it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but still there’s mystery we don’t see. We sleep.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are growing numbers giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Look into the signs of the time. Treasure the seed we have. Scatter it as we can. Be patient as we sleep. The Kingdom of God comes.

Reading Mark’s Gospel

Mark

Mark 1, 7-11-  Mark 8, 14-21

After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark until Ash Wednesday.

Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but begins with his baptism in the Jordan River. Then he describes his miracles and teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee– the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. Then Jesus goes up to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.

Until recently, Mark’s Gospel received little attention compared to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. It was hardly read in the liturgy. Early commentators thought Mark was simply a synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel. Commentators today, however, recognize Mark’s Gospel as the first to be written and appreciate the powerful way it tells the story of Jesus. It’s not just a simple portrayal of historical facts or a synopsis of Matthew. It’s rich in symbolism of its own.

Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus is called God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. Water is a recurring image in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.

John Donahue SJ, a recent commentator on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) , points out the symbolic nature of the various events in Jesus’ ministry, beginning with his baptism in the Jordan River and then his ministry around the Sea of Galilee. As the Spirit rested on the waters of the Jordan, so does the Spirit stir the waters in Galilee, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. Crossing from the western to its eastern side of the Sea – from a side largely Jewish to a side largely gentile – Jesus and his disciples bring the gospel to gentiles as well as Jews. 

The storms Jesus and his disciples face on waters of the Sea of Galilee are more than historic storms; they symbolize the fearful challenge and rejection to be faced in bringing the gospel to others. (Mark 6:45-52)

“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. He makes them “ fishers of men.” (Mark 1, 16-19) Along the sea, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables.

The journeys of Jesus and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are also more than historical markers. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man, both gentiles healed there, are signs that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37) 

Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)

The Spirit moves in the waters of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee and the waters beyond yet, as Mark’s Gospel indicates repeatedly, the Jewish leaders, the pharisees, scribes, Herodians, members of his own family, his disciples, do not understand. Neither do we.

Still, the Spirit works through the waters, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.

Our readings from Mark end on Ash Wednesday.

John Neumann, January 5

Neumann
Shrine of St.John Neumann, St. Peter’s Church, Philadelphia

Today’s the feast of St. John Neumann,. “The sacrament of Holy Orders is at the service of the communion of the church.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church). In his life as a priest and bishop John Neumann served the church in an heroic way.

Born in Bohemia in 1811, John Neumann studied in the seminary there and was drawn to serve the church in the new lands of the United States of America. Arriving in New York City in 1835, he was accepted for ordination by Bishop Dubois and almost immediately ordained at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Bishop Dubois sent. him to the northern parts of New York State then experiencing explosive growth because of the newly built Eire Canal. Many of its builders were Catholic immigrants who settled in the cities and towns along the canal, but were without priests. Immigrant Catholics also followed the railroads that were transforming. the new nation.

First as a diocesan priest and then as a Redemptorist, Neumann founded  parishes and missions in the cities and towns along the canal and the railroad lines.

Neumann spoke a number of languages and learned to speak others, even Gaelic, as he reached out to the new immigrants from different nations. He wore himself out in his tireless effort and joined the Redemptorist Order looking for the support and stability that a religious order provided. As a Redemporist he continued building the church through the northeastern United States, establishing parishes, preaching and catechizing an immigrant people.

In 1852 he was appointed bishop of Philadelphia, then experiencing a growing Catholic population. He worked vigorously in that diocese as its shepherd, building over 100 new schools and 50 churches there, until his death in 1860. Convinced of the need for good instruction in the faith, he wrote two catechisms, preached continuously, administered the sacraments and established the Forty Hours Devotion in his diocese.

John Neumann was a priest at the service of the communion of the Church. Leaving his home and the well established church in Europe, he built a new church in the United States. He was a true missionary of Christ.

We need priests like him today.

O God, who called the Bishop Saint John Neumann, renowned for his charity and pastoral service, to shepherd your people in America, grant by his intercession that, as we foster the Christian education of youth and are strengthened by the witness of his brotherly love, we may constantly increase the family of your Church.                       Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

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

Tuesday: 1st Week of Advent


A child stands atop Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom in Tuesday’s first reading at Mass:

“The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” (Isaiah 11,1)

It takes a child to believe the astounding promises Isaiah makes. Adults, hardened by the experience of life, struggle with the prophet’s words. That’s why Advent invites us to become children, not physically, of course, but spiritually.

Become like little children. That’s what Jesus told his followers,  and he praised the childlike:

“I give you praise, 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.” Luke 10

Only the childlike believe in great promises.

What does being “childlike” mean? Here’s what St. Leo the Great said about Jesus’s teaching on spiritual childhood: To be a child means to be “free from crippling anxiety, to be forgetful of injuries, to be sociable and to keep wondering at all things.”

A little child in its mother’s arms has no worries. It’s a good place to be, free from anxieties and a mother’s voice promising all will be well. Advent brings that grace back  to us; a grace we can lose so easily.

Jesus experienced that grace in Mary’s arms. Herod’s soldiers, like Isaiah’s Assyrian armies, were on their way. It’s a poor place where he’s born, no room in the inn, but the Child in his mother’s arms has no fear. All will be well.

Injuries would come. The world can turn hostile. The promises may seem far away, but from infancy to his death, Jesus knew he was a child of God, his Father, in God’s caring hands and destined for God’s kingdom.

Look on us, O Lord, and grant us the spirit of the childlike.

Mother Cabrini

Mulberry Street, New York City, ca.1900

From 1880 to 1920 more than 4 million Italian immigrants came to the United States, mostly from rural southern Italy. Many were poor peasants escaping the chaotic political situation and widespread poverty of a recently united Italian peninsula.

Almost all the new immigrants came through Ellis Island; many settled in the crowded tenements of the New York region, where men found work in the subways, canals and buildings of the growing city. The women often worked in the sweatshops that multiplied in New York at the time. Almost half of the 146 workers killed as fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, were Italian women.

Over time, the immigrants moved elsewhere and became prominent in  American society, but at first large numbers suffered from the over-crowding, harsh conditions, discrimination and cultural shock they met in cities like New York. Many returned to Italy with stories of the contradictions and injustices lurking in “the American dream.”

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini

Mother Maria Francesca Cabrini (1850-19170), founder of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, an order of women missionaries , came to America in 1889 at the urging of Pope Leo XIII to serve the underserved poor. Her work is succinctly described on the website of the Cabrini Mission Foundation.

“She proceeded to found schools, orphanages, hospitals and social services institutions to serve the needs of immigrants in the United States and other parts of the world. Despite poor health and frailty, Mother Cabrini crossed the ocean 25 times during 29 years of missionary work, and with her sisters founded 67 institutions in nine countries on three continents – one for each year of her life.

Mother Cabrini was a collaborator from the start of her missionary activity. She was a woman of her time, yet beyond her time. Her message – “all things are possible with God” – is as alive today as it was 110 years ago. Mother Cabrini lived and worked among the people, poor and rich alike, using whatever means were provided to support her works. She was a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others. In recognition of her extraordinary service to immigrants, Mother Cabrini was canonized in 1946 as the “first American saint,” and was officially declared the Universal Patroness of Immigrants by the Vatican in 1950.”

Be good to have leaders like her today in the church, as well as in society, wouldn’t it? “… a progressive, strategic visionary, willing to take risks, adaptable to change, and responsive to every opportunity that arose to help others.”

Her feastday is November 13th. “Mother Cabrini, pray for us.”

St. Martin of Tours, November 11

martin_of_tours_204_detail_843x850

Martin of Tours is a saint worth reflecting on. Saints are the antidotes to the poison of their times, Chesterton said,  so what poison did Martin confront?

One was the poison of militarism. Martin was born into a military family in 316,  his father a Roman officer who arose through the ranks and  commanded the legions on the Roman frontier along the Rhine and Danube rivers. When his son was born his father saw him as a soldier like himself. He named him Martin, after Mars, the god of war.

Rome was mobilizing then to stop invading barbarian tribes, and soldiers, like the emperors Constantine and Diocletian, were its heroes.  But Martin wanted nothing to do with war. As a young boy he heard a message of peace and non-violence from Christians he knew. Instead of a soldier, he became a Christian catechumen, over his father’s strong objections.

Martin was a lifelong peacemaker. He died on his way as a bishop to settle a dispute among his priests.

Another poison Martin confronted was the poison of careerism. Elected bishop of Tours by the people, Martin adopted a lifestyle unlike that of other bishops of Gaul, who were increasingly involved in imperial  administration and adopting the privileged style that came with it.

Bishops set themselves up in the cities;  Martin preferred to minister in the country, to the “pagani”, the uneducated poor.

Are the poisons of militarism and careerism around today? We remember our war veterans today.So many died in terrible wars these 100 years and many bear the scars of war. Militarism, the glamorizing of war, is still around.  So is careerism .

The story that epitomizes Martin, of course, is his meeting with a beggar in a cold winter as he was coming through the gate in the town of Amiens, still a soldier but also a Christian catechumen. He stopped and cut his military cloak in two and gave one to the poor man. That night, the story goes, Christ appeared to him in a dream, wearing the beggar’s cloak. “Martin gave me this,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI commented on this event.

“ Martin’s gesture flows from the same logic that drove Jesus to multiply the loaves for the hungry crowd, but most of all to leave himself to humanity as food in the Eucharist… It’s the logic of sharing.

May St Martin help us to understand that only by a common commitment to sharing is it possible to respond to the great challenge of our times: to build a world of peace and justice where each person can live with dignity. This can be achieved if an authentic solidarity prevails which assures to all inhabitants of the planet food, water, necessary medical treatment, and also work and energy resources as well as cultural benefits, scientific and technological knowledge.”

Well said.

In medieval Europe farmers, getting ready for winter at this time, put aside food and meat for the cold days ahead. Martin’s feast day was a reminder to them to put aside something for the poor. The poor are always with us; are we remembering them?

Today  Veterans’ Day in the USA honors those who fought in our country’s wars. It was originally called Armistice Day celebrating the end of fighting between the Allies and Germany on November 11, 1918. The United States lost 116,516 troops in the 1st World War; other countries lost millions more. The wars that followed added to that count.

St. Thérèse and the Poison of Unbelief

therese-close

We celebrate the feast of St. Thérèse, a Doctor of the Church, October 1. Saints are antidotes to the poisons of their times, G.K. Chesterton once wrote. They reveal what’s wrong in their world and counteract its poison by their own lives. Mother Theresa, for example, saw a world poisoned by its neglect of the poor.  She not only pointed out the evil but did something to remedy it.

What poison does St. Thérèse reveal? She lived in late 19th century France, when the poison of unbelief, which first infected French intellectuals like Voltaire, had spread to the country’s ordinary people. Many rejected faith in God and traditional religion. In their place they put their trust in reason and their own lights. As the psalmist said of his day, “There is no thought of God in them.”

Raised in a family of firm faith and traditional beliefs, Thérèse’s childhood was nourished by a sheltered life. Her faith grew in the Carmel of Lisieux, which she entered at 14. There she lived a life of prayer, with people of faith inspired by the spiritual wisdom of the Carmelite tradition. Yet limitations of sickness and unrealized dreams challenged her.

In her last days, she was plunged into a darkness that brought her an experience of  the poison of unbelief. God permitted her to be “invaded by the thickest darkness,” she said, and “the thought of heaven, up to then so sweet to me, was no longer anything but a cause of struggle and torment.”

In her experience she saw herself as a voice for those who do not believe.

“Your child, however, O Lord, has understood Your divine light, and she begs pardon for her brothers. She is resigned to eat the bread of sorrow as long as You desire it; she does not wish to rise up from this table filled with bitterness at which poor sinners are eating until the day set by You.

Can she not say in her name and in the name of her brothers, “Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!” Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus!

if it is needful that the table soiled by them be purified by a soul who loves You, then I desire to eat this bread of trial at this table until it pleases You to bring me into Your bright Kingdom. The only grace I ask of You is that I never offend You!” (Manuscript C, chapter 10)

Sharing the darkness that comes with unbelief, Thérèse  prayed in their name, “’Have pity on us, O Lord, for we are poor sinners!’ Oh! Lord, send us away justified. May all those who were not enlightened by the bright flame of faith one day see it shine. O Jesus!”  Her “struggle and torment” linked her to unbelievers “ not enlightened by the bright flame of faith.”

Mother Theresa seems to have had a similar experience of that darkness. Do other believers today share, in different degrees and different ways, that experience of darkness, that “dark night”, so that “those not enlightened by the bright light of faith may one day see it shine?” It seems so.

Here’s a description of how Thérèse  saw herself:

Since my longing for martyrdom was powerful and unsettling, I turned to the epistles of St Paul in the hope of finally finding an answer. By chance the 12th and 13th chapters of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians caught my attention, and in the first section I read that not everyone can be an apostle, prophet or teacher, that the Church is composed of a variety of members, and that the eye cannot be the hand. Even with such an answer revealed before me, I was not satisfied and did not find peace.

  I persevered in the reading and did not let my mind wander until I found this encouraging theme: Set your desires on the greater gifts. And I will show you the way which surpasses all others. For the Apostle insists that the greater gifts are nothing at all without love and that this same love is surely the best path leading directly to God. At length I had found peace of mind.

  When I had looked upon the mystical body of the Church, I recognised myself in none of the members which St Paul described, and what is more, I desired to distinguish myself more favourably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation. Indeed I knew that the Church had a body composed of various members, but in this body the necessary and more noble member was not lacking; I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love. I knew that one love drove the members of the Church to action, that if this love were extinguished, the apostles would have proclaimed the Gospel no longer, the martyrs would have shed their blood no more. I saw and realised that love sets off the bounds of all vocations, that love is everything, that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.

  Then, nearly ecstatic with the supreme joy in my soul, I proclaimed: O Jesus, my love, at last I have found my calling: my call is love. Certainly I have found my place in the Church, and you gave me that very place, my God. In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things, as my desire finds its direction.

Our Lady of Sorrows: September 15

DSCN0299

The Memorial of Our Lady of Sorrows is celebrated the day after the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross (September 14). It’s also eight days after Mary’s birth (September 7). So this feast, we should remember, recalls Mary’s sorrows, her lifelong sorrows. 

When Jesus was born, the old man Simeon  told Mary a sword would pierce her heart. Today’s readings and prayers recall her final experience of that sword, when she stood beneath the Cross of her Son. But Mary experienced sorrow all her life. She is Our Lady of Sorrows. An earlier feast, the Seven Sorrows of Mary, made her lifelong sorrows more explicit.   

What were Mary’s lifelong sorrows? She was a human being and a believer. She experienced what all human beings experience- we’re contingent beings. An infant cries as it enters this world. “Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain.” (Psalm 90) You hear that complaint often in the psalms. It’s a human complaint.

Faith doesn’t inoculate us against sorrow. We don’t see clearly the promises of God. Mary, like every believer, experienced the sorrow that comes from not knowing. Her life, like ours, was not immune to sorrow.

The sword of sorrow struck Mary most deeply at the death of her Son. Mark’s gospel describes some onlookers at Jesus’ crucifixion: There were also women looking on from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of the younger James and of Joses, and Salome.” They were looking on from a distance, not emotionally distanced. They were deeply engaged in the sorrow before them.  (Mark 15, 40-41) 

John’s gospel brings some of the women closer.  Mary, the Mother of Jesus stands at the cross itself. “Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.”

Mary stands by the Cross of Jesus, close by, not at a distance. She’s not absorbed in her own suffering, not afraid to see. Her standing by the Cross is significant. She enters the mystery of her Son’s suffering through compassion. 

She stood by him. Compassion doesn’t experience another’s suffering exactly, and it may not lead to taking another’s suffering away. Compassion enters suffering to break the isolation suffering causes. It helps someone bear their burden.  The sword, the spear, the sorrow, pierces both hearts, in different ways.

Our prayer for today’s feast says that when her Son “was lifted high on the Cross” his mother stood by and shared his suffering. “Grant that your Church, participating with the Virgin Mary in the Passion of Christ, may merit a share in his Resurrection.

Where is the Passion of Lord? It’s in the human lives of each one of us. It’s in the poor. It’s in the earth we’re destroying. Sometimes we can do something to relieve that suffering. Like Mary, we’re always called to stand close by as she did, and see. 

For a commentary on John’s Gospel see here.

For a study on Mary on Calvary see here.

For readings for the feast and the Stabat Mater see here.

The Triumph of the Cross: September 14

Holy sepul

Pilgims enteing the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

This ancient ecumenical feast,  celebrated by Christian churches throughout the world, commemorates the dedication of a great church in Jerusalem at the place where Jesus died and rose again. Called the Anastasis ( Resurrection) or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was built by the Emperor Constantine and was dedicated on September 13, 325 AD, It’s one of Christianity’s holiest places.

Liturgies celebrated in this church, especially its Holy Week liturgy, influenced churches throughout the world. Devotional practices like the Stations of the Cross grew up around this church. Christian pilgrims brought relics and memories from here to every part of the world. Christian mystics were drawn to this church and this feast.

Holy Sepulcher - 28

Tomb of Jesus

Calvary

Calvary

Pilgrims still visit the church and the tomb of Jesus, recently renovated , after sixteen centuries of wars, earthquakes, fires and natural disasters. They venerate the rock of Calvary where Jesus died on a cross. The building today is smaller and shabbier than the resplendent church Constantine built, because the original structure was largely destroyed in the 1009 by the mad Moslem caliph al-Hakim. Half of the church was hastily rebuilt by the Crusaders; the present building still bears the scars of time.

Scars of a divided Christendom can also be seen here. Various Christian groups, representing churches of the east and the west, claim age-old rights and warily guard their separate responsibilities. One understands here why Jesus prayed that ” All may be one.”

Holy Sepulcher - 04

Egyptian Coptic Christians

Seventeenth century Enlightenment scholars  expressed doubts about the authenticity of Jesus’ tomb and the place where he died, Calvary. Is this really it? Alternative spots were proposed, but scientific opinion today favors this site as the place where Jesus suffered, died and was buried.

For more on its history, see here.

And a video here.

Readings for the Triumph of the Cross

DSC00234
Via Dolorosa - 17

“Do not forget the works of the Lord!” (Psalm 78, Responsorial Psalm) We remember his great works here. How can we forget them.