Tuesday, January 20, 2015

We All Matter

“All lives matter.”  This statement has been an  inclusive response to the unrest we have experienced in our communities.  Rather than extolling the rights of one particular race or class, the most appropriate message is that no life is less worthy of the dignity and respect due to all people, for we are made in the image and likeness of God

The phrase came to my mind again last week during the coverage of the terrorist attacks in France.  The supposed reason for the attacks was a perceived disrespect for the Islamic faith.  The attackers in turn violated the
right to free speech, no matter how ugly, and the most essential right that even the lives of our enemies matter.  As disturbing as this event was, I found the lack of attention given to terrorist attacks in Nigeria last week, to be a painful reminder that our public reactions often reveal that all lives don’t matter equally.

Last Saturday, explosives, strapped to a girl who appeared to be about 10-years-old, detonated, killing at least 20 people in a Nigerian village. Furthermore it is believed that militants killed as many as 2,000 people, mostly Nigerian civilians, in a massacre that started the weekend before the terror attack in Paris.  While world leaders united in Paris to stand in solidarity against terrorism, hardly a public statement was made about the atrocities in Nigeria. In fact, Nigeria’s own president publicly expressed sympathy and Nigeria's "full solidarity" with the people of France, but he failed to do the same for the victims of terrorism in his own country.  Do not all lives matter?

This week hundreds of thousands of people will participate in the annual March for Life in Washington D.C.  Some estimates say that 1 in 4 Americans who live east of the Mississippi river participate in this event each year.  During any given year there will be extensive media coverage of rallies and marches that garner hundreds, or at the most, thousands of participants yet this march is hardly ever reported.  Do not all lives matter?  Do not demonstrations advocating a respect for life matter?
The reason people of all faiths and ethnicities participate in the March for Life, is very simply that, all lives matter.  Why do we see so many acts of violence at
home and abroad?  It is simply because our societies have devolved into accepting that certain lives don’t matter.  Poverty and racism are a result of a genuine acceptance that some lives matter less than others.  At the root of the pro-life movement is the very simple belief that, all lives matter.  If I cannot state unequivocally that the LIFE of an unborn child matters, where is my credibility when I profess that the lives of the poor, minorities, and other underrepresented people matter?

St. Paul teaches us that we are all equally members of the body of Christ and our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. Therefore all lives matter.  We cannot accept that the victims of terrorism in one country seem to matter more than victims in another land.  We cannot accept that lives of the victims of poverty, racism and violence deserve our attention any more than the millions of unborn lives that are lost each year.  Nor can we say that these unborn lives matter more than their mothers and fathers who are terrified by a crisis pregnancy.

I pray that each of us who take this faith of ours seriously, examine our conscience, and reevaluate those times and places in our lives when we did not respect the dignity of life.  For in the eyes of God – all lives matter.

Thursday, December 25, 2014


Because this year marks the 100th anniversary of its occurrence, there have been quite a few articles and stories written about what is known as the 1914 Christmas truce.  It is the legendary story of British and German soldiers on the western front of World War I, ceasing hostilities on that Christmas and actually joining each other in companionship, playing soccer and singing Christmas carols together.  Movies and books have been written, dramatizing the occurrence and it has become a hopeful symbol of the possible.  The reality is the Christmas day truce, was the culmination of what had become an ordinary occurrence.  Soldiers on the front were in such close proximity to each other that they would shout to each other in conversation.  They develop agreements not to attack each other at tea, meal or washing times.  They allowed each other the opportunity to peacefully recover the deceased and injured.  During these breaks they were known to exchange small gifts and cigarettes.  One historian reflected on these truce experiences as one that “gave soldiers some control over the conditions of their existence.” The December 1914 Christmas Truce was not a unique event, but a result of the closeness they had already developed.

What I find most interesting about the famous Christmas truce is that it was not a political or humanitarian decision from above, it came genuinely from the men in the trenches.  Such truces were discussed and proposed by various leaders, but few believed it was possible and some saw it as weakness.  Pope Benedict XV is known for appealing to the heads of state to avoid the war before it began and at the beginning of that December begged again that the warring nations would embrace a Christmas truce. His appeal fell on deaf ears.  The truce happened not as a top down order, but a grass roots gesture of human decency.  The enemy was so close, their deplorable living conditions similar, and they all shared the same desire to return to their families.  They had more in common than they had differences – and those common desires evolved into a unifying peace -- which perhaps was the most authentic celebration of the birth of the savior that one could have. 
We've lived for many years now in a new kind of war. One hundred years after the First World War, we are still longing for a peaceful world.  We feel powerless and we find ourselves saying someone needs to do something.  We look to our leaders and to Pope Francis for the answers and direction; but the world doesn't seem to change.  Within our own nation and our own city we have been living a painful war these last few months.  In the wake of the assassination of two police officers – political leaders and clergy have called for a truce to this war but the protests and rhetoric go on. We have battles in our own personal lives too, wars at home.  How many of us have asked our mother what she wants for Christmas only to receive the reply, “I just want everyone in this family to get along.”
In the divine wisdom of God, the savior of the world is not an earthly king, a soldier or even a member of the religious establishment – but a savior who is close to us in our humanity.  The salvation that we seek from the battles of our lives is found when we draw close to this child born in a manger.
God himself literally comes across the line to be in humanity, because God sees himself in us. We are made in his image and likeness – so we may know peace.
On the western front of World War I, soldiers drew close to the child as they spent time with the savior who was present in their enemy across the line – and they knew peace.

Through the words of the Gospel, the reception of the Holy Eucharist and our meditation on the nativity scene before us, - we draw close to the Lord and we hope for his peace.
When we have the courage to cross the lines of life and see our God in our enemies and our agitators, we know the saviors peace.
With whom do we need to come to a truce?  Who is across the table, across the street, down the hall, around the corner, in the next town over, the bordering nation or across the globe who bears the same struggles and the same Christ as me?    Can we look across these battle lines of life and see a brother or sister whose joys and sorrows are the same as mine?  Who simply longs for peace like I do?
We heard St. Paul in his letter to Titus say, “our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”  God looks across the battle front of human history and he sees his Son in us, he sees his sons and daughters – and without merit, he extends his mercy, there is peace.  When we look across the battle fronts of our lives – we can’t help but see Jesus.  The innocent child born of meager means, the man on the cross who dies for us; calling us to be merciful.  No one deserves mercy – it is a sacrificial gift which is the seed of peace.
In the folklore of the telling of the 1914 Christmas truce, it is often recounted that the carol the soldiers sang together was, Stille Nacht - Silent Night.  This probably was not accurate, since the German song was not yet well known to the English speaking Brits.  It is more accurately believed that what they sang together was, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” because both the German and English speakers would know the tune and its Latin lyrics.  Moreover, this carol more accurately reflects what made the truce possible; faith and the faithful.  Not leaders and governments – the faithful who come to adore Christ.

The birth of Jesus, God made man, is the manifestation of the divine truth that a genuine peace happens when the desire to be right is sacrificed for the greater desire of mercy.  The child in our midst draws us close this day and every day so we may recognize him in friend and adversary, extinguishing our thirst to battle and fostering in us the desire to manifest divine peace.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Are You Watching?

One of the perks, or more appropriately, blessings of my years as a high school chaplain was the chance I had to chaperone several trips to Europe.  It was on the first of these trips that I learned an important lesson from our tour guide. Arriving in London, our group was certainly tired from our travel, but we were excited to begin our adventure.  Our first stop, however, did not seem to be so adventurous.  Our guide brought us to a cafe and told us to get ourselves something to eat or drink and after we did he encouraged us to put our maps away and simply watch the crowd go by.  At first this sounded like a terribly boring thing to do.  But after a short while we found ourselves pointing out the various sights and people.  Some even chatted about how the coffee or the pastry tasted different from what they had at home.  When our guide asked us if we were ready to move on, we found ourselves asking for a little more time to watch and take it all in.

What this seemingly unexciting activity allowed us to do was to observe the pace of life, the fashion, the culture, the characteristics of people, what they eat, the smells of the city, the architecture.  This simple activity introduced us very quickly to a new culture and way of life, an experience we would not have if we did not take the opportunity to stop and watch for awhile.

I continue to remember this lesson and apply it, not only when I go to new places, but I try to remind myself to do this in everyday life.  We learn best when we watch and observe.  When we have responsibilities to fulfill we are at our best when we "watch what we are doing."  How often we hear a child say, "watch me Mommy," as he or she accomplishes something new. Being watchful and attentive is an excellent way for us to acknowledge the value and giftedness of others.

As we begin the season of Advent, the word, "Watch" describes the disposition we need to have if we wish to be nourished by the blessings of the season. Taking a step back to simply watch, is so contrary to the rhythm of life this season.  We are busy with many tasks during these days and we are pulled in various directions.  It is necessary, therefore, to set aside the time to watch and observe.

Advent watching is about two perspectives.  This season is about watching and waiting to celebrate once again the birth of the savior in time. Advent is also characterized by our watching and waiting for the second coming of Christ in the end time; as well as the presence of the savior in our everyday life. The Advent season is alerting us to the call to vigilantly watch for the savior here and now.

In order for us to watch for a savior, however, we must acknowledge that we are in need of a savior.  Why watch for a savior if I don't need to be saved?  I love going for a swim in the ocean, but I am consciously aware of the location of the lifeguards because I know that despite my ability to swim, I may need to be saved.  During this season we are watching for a savior, because we have observed our own need for one.

"Watch yourself," we sometime admonish each other if we sense the other is stepping into danger. My nephews are visited everyday by Fred, their elf on a shelf who watches them and reports back to Santa if they are bad or good. Knowing that Fred is watching, is really an exercise in being aware of one's own behavior.  Most importantly then, we ask the Lord for the grace and the courage to observe ourselves.  Watch the language you are using.  Watch your habits that are annoying or harmful to others.  Watch the relationships and people you take for granted or abuse. Watch how someone is waiting for you to apologize. Watching for a savior makes no sense if I have not first observed that I need to be saved from my sin and imperfections.

During these days find yourselves an Advent Cafe where you can watch and observe.  Find the time to be watchful and quietly say, "Come, Lord Jesus," and watch what happens.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

How lovely is your dwelling place

Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

A year and a half ago, we completed a major renovation project of our church. We were able to turn what was part church and part multipurpose area into one single space of noble simplicity for worship. The final product was well received. One aspect of the work has still remained, however.  Several panels of stained glass were removed in order to create a new sanctuary wall.  We have been trying to find creative ways to reincorporate these windows into the renovated space.  Last week we found a space for some of those pieces.  

In the renovated sanctuary a full length piece of translucent material was placed behind the tabernacle.  The intention was to surround the tabernacle with natural light.  In the end, after living with it for over a year, most of us felt that the image created was underwhelming.  Thanks to the skills and ingenuity of our maintenance staff, three of the glass panels were fashioned to be inserted in the wall behind the tabernacle. The transformation was amazing, the insertion of the stained glass transformed the sanctuary. What was already a renewed place for worship was enhanced and a renewed sense of the sacred was evident.

Churches can be lavish and beautifully adorned or they can be of a simple construct, but God’s dwelling within them is no less significant. Appreciating our churches as sacred dwelling places of God also gives us an opportunity to proclaim the truth that the divine chose to dwell in the human experience. The sacred dwelling place of a church is a symbol of the temple which is the human person, first in Jesus Christ and then all of us. Like a church the human person can have profound intelligence, observable beauty, athletic skill and strength.  However, the human person can also be burdened with pains, sorrows and limitations beyond endurance. God’s dwelling is no less significant in anyone of them.

Earlier this week I concelebrated the funeral mass of Patricia and Derek Ward. The previous week, Pat lost her life at the hand of her son, Derek, who subsequently took his own life. The principal celebrant of the mass was our diocesan bishop, William Murphy and the homilist was Fr. Robert Lubrano, the brother and uncle of the deceased. I have never been present for a double funeral let alone one in which the circumstances were as unfathomable as this one. I do not know how Fr. Bob was able to preach as he did, I don’t know if I could have managed to put a comprehensible sentence together. 

It was one of the most powerful reflections I have ever heard. Fr. Bob preached about how his sister was the personification of Jesus’ great commandment to love. In particular, those who are difficult to love. Her career in teaching was one dedicated to the marginalized who she believed had the right to an education that would empower them to better opportunities in life. She applied that same loving effort to her son, whose mental illness and learning disabilities made it difficult for him to read. Through her steadfast love, he became an avid reader. She loved him as his mental illness grew uncontrollable and she struggled to find care for him. Over and over again, at this funeral of his sister and nephew, Fr. Bob challengingly spoke of the dignity of the human person, no matter how broken or sinful and their God given right to be loved and cared for.

The event of Pat and Derick's death generated a great deal of media attention.  In one way, I was glad that there was no media present for the funeral mass, but I also found myself wishing that the larger world, who knew of the tragedy, also had the opportunity to hear the profound words of faith spoken by a grieving brother and uncle.  I therefore felt called to share what I could. In a week in which my parish community was given an renewed opportunity to acknowledge the presence of God in the sacred dwelling place of a church, I was reminded to recognize his presence in the sacred dwelling place of the human person.  We must commit ourselves to acknowledging and caring for that presence in our brothers and sisters of all faiths, orientations, ethnicity, and abilities great and small. 
Fr. Bob began his homily and I conclude this reflection with these words from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe—the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Resurrection Is No Fairy Tale

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, happened in time, not once upon a time.  It is not a story of fictional characters but real people, flawed people who betrayed and abandoned him.  It is not a story of a victory won through violence or vengeance, but with the words of peace spoken by the one who shows his fatal wounds, now healed to those who abandoned and denied him.

The resurrection is an explosive event that has influenced our history and fashions us in hope and the knowledge that death is powerless to love and mercy.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a fairy tale - but its truth continues to permeate all of our lives, even our fairy takes.  I recently watched Disney's latest fairy tale, "Frozen," and this truth was there.  Spoiler Alert.  

Queen Elsa has accidentally afflicted her sister Anna with a spell that has frozen her heart and soon will take her life.  The only thing that can save her is an act of true love.  But just as an act of love seems to draw near, the afflicted Anna runs to stop the blow of a sword that will kill her sister the Queen.  Her courage saves Elsa, but time has run out for Anna, she is frozen and takes her last breath.  But watch what happens. 

You sacrificed yourself for me?  That is the question we speak aloud to our Lord today.  It is the question and the truth that permeates our fairy tales and our everyday lives.  That God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that we might have life.  Happy Easter.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Whose fault is it?

A few weeks ago, after celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation with our Religious Education students I was fielding questions from them.  After a question about the crucifix, one young person asked me, whose fault was it that Jesus was crucified.  I was caught off guard and tried to quickly form an answer that the children would understand.  First I mentioned Judas, then the Jewish leaders who did not understand Jesus and then I mentioned the Romans who feared a revolution.  But then I caught myself and simply said, "It doesn't matter."  It doesn't matter, I said, because it is not as important as the result.  What matters is that Jesus rose from the dead, that crucifixion did not destroy him or the Father's plan for our salvation.

So often in life when we experience a tragedy, we react by trying to determine fault.  While understanding the cause of one's sorrow is certainly helpful in preventing another failure, the pursuit of fault never brings healing in of itself.  Knowing who is to blame and punishing those who are responsible are steps in a process of justice but are not necessarily helpful in healing the wound.

A priest friend often responds to a failed situation by saying, "its my fault," even if it clearly isn't and the notion of the problem being his fault is absurd.  He responds this way because, he says, getting blame out of the way allows us to move on and solve the problem.  As we begin this Holy Week, I think this approach makes sense.

Whose fault is sin and suffering in the world?  God the Father does not answer the question but submits the Son to the cross, so that innocent one pays the price of  punishment for the fault and the sinner can now be redeemed.

Whose fault is the crucifixion?  It is our fault, yours and mine.  We were not there historically but we share in the same sins that lead the innocent one to be put to death.  When we admit our fault, confess our sins and seek absolution we are healed from the wounds of our sin.

The Exsultet which is the proclamation sung at the Easter Vigil, states very beautifully, "O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!"  This is our spirit as we begin Holy Week.  We enter with hearts and minds not seeking a justification that comes from blame but instead we seek to rejoice over a justification that comes from love.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do You Accept? One year later.

As we approached the first anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, I knew that I wanted to offer some kind of reflection on him and the phenomena that the first year of his pontificate has been.  I was not interested in offering some kind of analysis of his impact or a presenting a survey of the various ways in which his words or actions have been received.  In my wonderment of what was intriguing me to say anything, I found myself focusing my thoughts on the man himself and what this year has been for him personally. 

When I was growing up I liked games shows with celebrity contestants as well as talk shows because I was intrigued by the fact that these stars were real people and I wanted to know what they were really like.  In Pope Francis, I think we have had the opportunity to know "the real man."  In both his prepared remarks and his unscripted comments, the Holy Father has shown an appreciation for the every challenges of discipleship.  He balances his public appearance with a public glimpse of normal routine life.  And because of all that, I found myself thinking back to a year ago and wondering, what was he thinking as it was clear his life was about to change. What was he thinking as the Dean of the College of Cardinals asked him, "Do you accept?"  I can't know what he was thinking but I do know what he saw during those moments, Michelangelo's great fresco, "The Last Judgement."

I have been blessed to visit the Sistine Chapel twice in my life.  My first experience was like many tourists, not knowing where to look while you are quickly ushered through.  The second time I went, I made a choice that I would spend my brief time focused on the this scene of The Last Judgement. I could not help but be overwhelmed by it.  It was not a static two dimensional painting that I saw, but an image of great movement; people being swept up to heaven with the Lord's right hand and others sliding into the netherworld after confronting the forearm of his left.  "Which direction am I headed?"  I asked myself.  In one united gesture, the resurrected and glorified body of Christ says, "Come inherit the Kingdom, to you did it for me." and "Depart to you who did not do it for me."  With this image before him, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio said, "Accepto" in acceptance of his election as Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe it is with this image in mind, that Pope Francis has lived this first year of his pontificate.  He has asked us in his preaching, teaching and action if we are willing to accept the standards of this Last Judgement.

"Who am I to judge?" is possibly the most quoted statement of the Holy Father thus far. Many have used it to say that the Holy Father felt that he, and therefore no one else, had the right to make a definitive statement about sin. His answer was not, that there is no judgement, but that he is not the judge.  It is the Son of Man, Matthew's gospel says, that will come in glory and judge on the standard of what we have done for Him.  I don't know what he was thinking when he accepted the call to serve as Pope but I do know that in his year as our Holy Father, Pope Francis has sought to bring us to a favorable final judgement by directing us to the least among us.

"Do you accept?" is the question of discipleship.  Do you accept the mandate to do for me, who did it for you?  Do you accept the challenge to die to self service and selfishness.  Do you accept the admonition to do for the least not because you recognize Christ in them but more importantly when you can't see the good in them?  Do you accept the cross of laying down your life for the will of the Father and the care of His people?

I can only wonder how hard it was for Pope Francis to say "Yes," but I know for certain how hard it is for me to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  I truly believe that our world today has made it harder and harder to say, "Yes," to this standard of judgement.  The threat of terror and a failing economy force us to worry more about ourselves. A plague of objectification afflicts us due to the proliferation of pornography.  Even our technology has developed cameras for our phones that make it easier to take pictures of ourselves and therefore be less focused on remembering our moments with others.  

I think Pope Francis understands how hard it is for us to accept the standard of the Last Judgement.  A year ago I prayed that the new Pope would make me a better person and a priest.  In coming to "know" him, I know that he has accepted the mission to help me understand the measure by which I will be judged and has challenged me to say, "I accept."