Sunday, September 28, 2014

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ez 18:25-28
Ps 25
Phil 2:1-11
Mt 21:28-32

In August 2011 I was in Saigon, Vietnam.  The high point of ten days there was a visit to the Jesuit novitiate where I spent over an hour with the 29 novices.  After about twenty minutes speaking to them about the nature of tertianship, the long retreat, and a few other topics relevant to Jesuit novices, I threw things open to questions. The first question was a challenge: “Father, of the three vows: poverty, chastity, and obedience, which is the most difficult?”  I looked at my questioner, sighed and said, “Some days, all three of them” and went on to dissect each vow before stating that, of the three vows, obedience is the most difficult, a feeling shared by many religious of other orders. Obedience was the most important of the three vows for St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus.  It was the vow on which he expended the most energy in the section of the constitutions dealing with the vows.  Obedience is a prominent theme in today’s readings

The second half of the first reading is familiar from the Liturgy of the Hours.   “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at . . . .He humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Jesus’ obedience to the Father’s will was perfect obedience.  It was an obedience that we humans are, for the most part, incapable of attaining, though that is not an excuse for not trying.  Obedience is the point of today's Gospel reading.

These verses appear late in Matthew’s Gospel just after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  In the days between that entry, paved with palm branches and hosannas, and the arduous journey carrying the cross, Jesus engaged in a number of debates and discussions with the chief priests and elders. These debates helped to seal His death warrant.  He was cutting too close to the bone for the authorities to bear.  There is a reason for the saying, “the truth hurts.”  Sometimes it hurts the one who tells it.  Through the use of parables Jesus pointed out the contradictions between what the priests and elders preached and how they lived.  He demonstrated how they heard John’s call to repentance but failed to heed it.  He pointed out their fundamental disobedience to God’s will.

The second son, the one who said he would go to work in the vineyard but did not go, represents those who proclaimed the law but failed to follow through on its principles and demands. They are the hypocrites. They are the actors who play a role they do not believe in.  Many of them are now officials in all levels of government from small municipalities to the highest national levels, the very highest.

The first son, who initially refused to work in the vineyard but then obeyed the father’s request, represents the social and religious outcasts of the time, the sinners, who, despite not following the law in the beginning, heard John's call to repentance and eventually heeded it.  They are like those of us who, after many attempts, finally quit smoking, or get sober, or stop gossiping about our neighbors, or resist taking Christ’s name in vain, or . . . fill in the blank.  It took them time.  But, they eventually heard the message of obedience to the will of God. They heard message to repent for their sins and acted on it.

How often have we acted like the second brother?  How often have we promised to do something and then reneged on that promise?  How often have we made a commitment and then not honored it?  How often have we said we will avoid sin, and then happily went about committing the same ones?  How often have we acted like the first brother who refused the request but who, perhaps as the result of a guilty conscience, quietly went and did what we were originally asked to do? 

The most likely answer to both questions is often.  We can all accuse ourselves of mouthing principles that we fail to practice, the “do as I say not as I do” syndrome.  However, we can all take comfort in the fact that sometimes, after an initial misstep or series of missteps, we get it right and follow God’s will for us. 

We heard in the responsorial psalms,
“Good and upright is the Lord;
thus he shows sinners the way.” 

We need only heed the message, and follow the way.

We also heard,
“The sins of my youth and my frailties,
remember not;
in your kindness remember me,
because of your goodness.” 

Even when we have acted like the second son in the parable, when we have been hypocritical or disobedient, it is not too late.  We heard the promise in the first reading that, if anyone turns from wickedness and does what is right and just, his life shall be preserved, he shall live and not die.

Truly the Lord is good and upright.
The first photo is of the 29 Vietnamese novices.  Their questions were also to the point and a real challenge. 

Detail of a baptismal chapel gate in a 12th century church in Lyon

The gladiola has never been a particular favorite, probably because it seems invariable in funeral bouquets.  I had a standing order with the florist in Plymouth when I ordered flowers, "No Gladiolas."  But, they are rather attractive in their natural setting.  These were in the cloister garth of the community in Lyon, a community in an old Visitation monastery.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, September 22, 2014

25th Monday in Ordinary Time

Lk 8:16-18

“To anyone who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he seems to have will be taken away."  This is not the only time we hear these sentiments in the Gospel.   The recurrence of this thought suggests that we must pay attention to what Jesus is saying. 

On the surface these words sound like the antithesis of a preferential option for the poor.  In general wealth begets greater wealth and poverty begets worse poverty.  However, while Jesus sometimes uses financial images, here He is referring not to shekels but to faith. 

Just as wealth begets more wealth, active faith, faith that drives one’s life, multiplies itself to greater faith. But, just as the wealthy investor must work hard to generate more wealth, occasionally taking significant risks, faith only increases when it is used and put to the test, particularly when that test is not of our own choosing. 

Putting the light of faith under a basket obscures it from others and, more significantly, obscures it from oneself.  Can anyone afford to be a Catholic of convenience?  Should anyone allow the light of faith to shine only when it is acceptable to others, or politically correct. Should one's faith be hidden when it might be challenged?  Or if it might potentially offend someone?  Is it true faith when one is diffident about morality, ethics or naming sin for what it is because the cocktail conversation crowd wouldn't approve?    

Maintaining financial wealth is not easy.  Maintaining one's faith is not easy either.  The choice is stark. Conceal one's faith or allow it to shine.  It is not a risk free option.

It is nice getting back to celebrating Mass regularly.  Am on various schedules today through Wednesday and then on Sunday.  

The first role of film I ever with my first camera was black and white.  It is a wonderful medium in that it affects the eye and the soul in a different way than color.  It is less distracting, allowing one to focus on the shape, light and shadow rather than color.  These are the result of a fantastic Saturday morning when I went over to Vieux Lyon at about 6:30  and wandered for four hours at which point tourists began to clog the streets.  

The Eglise Saint-Georges was about 1/4 mile from the community.  It is the only church in Lyon in which the Mass is celebrated exclusively in the extraordinary form.  I went there often as I could not make Mass in the community because of school.  

The Basilica ND de Fourviere looms over the city to the west.  It can be reached via a short walk from Saint-Georges and a funiculaire, a cable car that ascends the very steep mountain.  

The Cathedral Saint-Jean-Baptiste is almost directly below ND de Fourviere and about 1/4 mile from Saint Georges.  It wasn't as if there were no options for Mass any day of the week. 

The court building is very close to the Cathedral overlooking the River Saone. 

These balconies were catching the early morning sun. 

I was fascinated by the facade of this apartment building.  Each of the five floors had as different take on the windows.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

24th Tuesday in Ordinary Time

Lk 7:11-17

The narrative of the Widow of Nain is unique to Luke’s Gospel.  There is nothing close to it in the other synoptics or John.  It begins with one of the most heart-rending scenes in all of scripture.  There are two significant aspects to this miracle that are rarely noticed or commented upon.  But they are obvious when pointed out.

First, this is one of the rare healing miracles in which Jesus took the initiative.  No leper asked him for healing.  There were no friends lowering a stretcher through a roof.  There was no request of any kind.  “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.”   Then Jesus stopped the funeral procession and said, “Young man, I tell you arise.”  It is easy to understand Jesus' unrequested intervention in the pathetic scene.

There is nothing more difficult for a young physician (something I once was), or for an old physician (something I now am) than being with a parent whose child is dying or who has just died, regardless of the circumstances.  It doesn’t matter if it is the three year-old in a young family, or a seventy year-old child of nonagenarian parents.  The pain is indescribable.  The impact on the physician is extraordinary. 

The second significant aspect is that this is a healing miracle in which there is no mention of sin. In many of the healing miracles the healing if effected with the blessing, you're sins are forgiven, sin no more.  This may be even more significant than Jesus’ unsolicited action because it tells us of God’s loving mercy. The death of a child, the suffering of one's child raises the unanswerable question that mankind has struggled with for millennia, and will continue to struggle for the next few millennia: How is it possible for God, who we are told is kind and loving, to permit a child to suffer or die?

Particularly in the case of the young child, because we tend to equate suffering with sin, we wonder what could the child have done to deserve this?  The question implies that an adult may have done something to cause his or her own suffering. Talk to those who survive a lifetime smoker who died of lung cancer.  Many will blame the deceased for causing his  death.  But a child.  Did he sin?  Did his parents sin?  No.

One of the most painful scenes in Albert Camus’ great novel The Plague is the protracted agony and death of a young boy.  Because he had received a vaccine his course of suffering and dying was particularly prolonged.   Each of the main characters was more shaken by the child’s agony and death than by the sufferings and deaths of any of the adults.  The child’s excruciating pain caused a severe crisis of faith for the Jesuit, Father Paneloux.  Fr. Paneloux did not recover from this crisis before his own death from plague not long afterwards. 

Who was not praying for a miraculous response to the primitive vaccine?  How many parents today have prayed, or are praying, for a miraculous response to a last ditch and perhaps experimental treatment for their child?  We are seeing this reenacted today in the context of Ebola.  This is where the lack of mention of sin comes in the healing is significant. 

The great theologian Karl Barth contends that the important thing about the needs in the miracles stories is not that they are sinners but they are sufferers.   

Not that they are sinners but they are sufferers. 

The widow of Nain was suffering in ways that we cannot comprehend today.  She had not sinned but she was suffering indescribable pain nonetheless.  Jesus relieved that suffering.

Not that they are sinners but they are sufferers. 

This is a statement worthy of a long period of contemplation during today’s examen.

It is great getting back to celebrating daily Mass in scattered venues, Framingham, Waltham, the community here (next week) and others.  One of the most difficult things about being in French-speaking countries for three months was my inability to preach.  The first month I could barely do anything in French.  Things are a bit better now but there is a long way to go.  Am taking a bit of a vacation from French and will return in about a week.  

The photos attached are from Dublin.  They are all the same subject, The Samuel Beckett Bridge.  The bridge is new.  It opened in 2008 after two years of construction.  There is one photo of it in the previous set but it is worth showing some others.  I took the photo in the previous entry on Sunday when Paul and I were walking along the river.  I went back on Wednesday after Paul returned to the U.S. to take more targeted photos, a process that took over an hour.  One of the challenges for a photographer is not boring friends to death as he is taking multiple photos of the same thing.  Photography is a solitary hobby.  

I like this bridge because it is asymmetrical, like the Zakim Bridge in Boston.  The resemblance to an Irish harp is obvious.  Fortunately there are small islands for pedestrians at the ends of the bridge so I wasn't standing in the middle of traffic.  

This is the bridge from the north.  The port is on the other side.  A bit of a cruise ship is visible.

This is a view of the western side of the bridge looking east (I think, my sense of direction and orientation is very suspect).  

The view through the porthole that is visible in the first photo at the bottom of "harp."  

Eastern side of bridge looking up the harp.  Note the seagull.  Couldn't do anything about his presence in the photo.  

Eastern side of bridge looking at the strings of the harp.

Reflection of the bridge in a kiosk.  One of my favorite types of photos is reflections.  This one is nicely distorted.
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Memorial of St. Peter Claver

1 Cor 6:1-11
Ps 149
Lk 6:12-19

Today’s Gospel describing Jesus calling his disciples is particularly appropriate for the memorial of St. Peter Claver, a man who lived as a disciple of Jesus until his last breath. 

Claver was born in Catalonia, Spain in 1580.  Almost nothing is known of his younger years save for the fact that at age 13 he had already decided he wanted to be a priest.  Three years later he began to study at the University of Barcelona where he met the Jesuits for the first time. He entered the Society of Jesus in August 1602 and pronounced first vows two years later. 

Peter Claver’s spiritual director while he was in philosophy studies was Alphonsus Rodriguez.  It was Alphonsus who, in response to Claver’s desire to do great things for God, suggested that he consider going to the New World where there was much to be  done. Claver arrived in Cartagena, Colombia in the summer of 1610 after a six-month long sea voyage.  He went directly to Bogota to complete his theological studies. He was ordained a priest in 1616 at the age of 36. 

It is an understatement to describe Claver’s work over the next 35 years as extraordinary.  He ministered to what one historian described as “the world’s most unfortunate creatures.”  They were men and women brought to Cartagena from Africa to be sold as slaves.  As soon as a slave ship arrived in port he greeted and boarded it along with several interpreters.  He gave those on deck whatever biscuits and fruit he could beg from the townspeople and then descended below the deck to minister to the sick and dying.  Despite the stench which sent the crew scurrying within minutes, Peter remained beneath the deck for as long as it took for him to care for the sick and baptize the dying.  He instructed the slaves in the Catholic faith and baptized them.  As his biographer notes, “These baptisms were so numerous that shortly before his death and in response to a Jesuit brother’s question about the number he had performed in Cartagena, Peter humbly answered, “a little over 300,000.”

He never left Cartagena.  He never took a vacation.  For thirty-five years, before he was felled by disease himself, resulting in four years as a bed-bound invalid, Peter Claver ministered to the most deprived, neglected, and ill-treated in the world.  He died on September 8, 1654, was beatified in 1851 and was canonized on January 15, 1888, on the same day as his spiritual director St. Alphonsus Rodriguez.  Like Peter, James and John, Peter Claver heard the call to give up everything and follow Jesus. That he did so is cause for rejoicing. 
The homily is a bit late as the feast was on 9 September.  There was a bit of jet lag, a potentially serious problem with getting photographs off the external drive that was just resolved this morning, and much else to be done.  I will write more about the experience in Chad in time.  It was intense and, as noted earlier, sometimes emotionally battering.  Need to work on the photos a bit as well.  

Dublin was easier.  Arrived there on my birthday but was so tired after the packing and grueling trip from N'Djamena that the celebratory Guinness had to wait until the following day when Paul, a friend since one hour after becoming a freshman at Penn State, arrived at the Jesuit house where he stayed for five days.  The game was great.  I didn't realize I could  still jump as high as I did after the game-winning field goal went through.  Did not take the camera as I did not want to be burdened with it.  

The weather was a bit chancy.  Not a lot of sun.  There are a few things I would have liked to have photographed but more light was necessary, as in sunlight.  But, that is Dublin.  

Beginning with disembarking at Dublin Airport the festivities surrounding the Penn State game were obvious with balloons and banners.  The theme carried throughout the city.  Approximately 23,000 Penn State fans attended the game.  It was nuts!  These are some of the decorations in town in the Temple Bar area.  Not sure the artist did a very good job of making the football player look like a lion.

Wish I had the guts to climb up and take this down.  Would have made a lovely room decoration.

We were really made to feel welcome.

A lovely corner pub. 

 The  prettiest tap line since the Rockettes.

The community was two blocks from Stephen's Green.  The green is reminiscent of Boston's Public Garden but about three times larger.  We had to cut through there to go to the Temple Bar area, Grafton Street (tacky beyond belief), to get to the river and to walk home from Croke Park, the site of the game.   Young and in love seems to be the theme here.

The Samuel Becket Bridge near the port.  It is meant to be in the shape of an Irish harp.  Took a number of other photos when I went back there alone after Paul left.  Will post some of them later. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD