Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Homily for the Solemnity of All Saints

Rv 7:2-4, 9-14
Ps 24: 1bc-2, 3-4ab, 5-6
I Jn 3:1-3
Mt 5:1-12a
The practice of venerating and invoking the intercession of saints is an ancient one in the Church. Veneration of the saints was known by the 4th century when it was a local phenomenon that grew by popular acclaim. Eventually the veneration of saints degenerated into superstition. It still appears superstitious to many. And, the unhappy truth is that there are superstitious customs that have nothing to do with sanctity, faith, or saints. Burying a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the lawn so as to sell the house is bizarre, at the very least. However, the Saints are important to our spiritual health. Their lives are guides for living the Christian life. They are our models of Christian life. They are our intercessors at the throne of heaven.
The Church sets the first day of November as a holy day of obligation in honor of all the saints. The Solemnity of All Saints honors ALL saints, those who have been formally canonized and those known only to God. The readings help to explain why, and what, sainthood is. 
The first reading from Revelation is fascinating. Revelation is the most wildly misunderstood and misused book in all of scripture. It is part of the difficult genre of Biblical literature known as apocalyptic. Note: it is not Ancient Near Eastern science fiction. Apocalyptic literature was meant to give hope during times of persecution. It was written in a such a way that it was understood by those who were persecuted while remaining unintelligible to those outside. Something like the way teenagers speak when their parents and teachers are around.
It is a difficult literature. The symbolism is dense. The meaning of some of the symbols and allusions is, and will remain, unknown. Numerology is part of that symbolism. The numbers cannot be taken literally. Just as Chinese hotels may omit floors or rooms with the number four because the pronunciation of four sounds too much like the pronunciation of death and many American hotels do not have a 13th floor, there were meanings attached to numbers in apocalyptic that went beyond the signifying an amount.
Sainthood, seeing the face of God, is not limited to the 144,000 described in Revelation. At least not as an absolute number. Certain fundamentalist sects would argue against that statement to the death, but that is their problem not ours. 
In Revelation the number 1000 signifies an immense number, the equivalent of "a bazillion" today. Remember, hyperbole is not a 20th century American invention. One hundred forty-four is the square of twelve, a number that carries its own symbolism within the tribes of Israel. Thus, 144,000 signifies a multitude beyond counting, an infinite number, that exceeds even the current U.S. national debt or the tuition at Boston College. 
Though few of us will be canonized we are all called to sainthood. Despite the claims of the rapturists and other odd-ball Christian and pseudo-Christian sects, there is room for everyone. Who can hope to be numbered among the saints? Who can hope to ascend the mountain of the Lord? One whose hands are sinless, whose heart is clean, who desires not what is vain. 
As John wrote in his letter, God the Father has bestowed such love on us that we are the children of God. We are his beloved because of Jesus’ radical self-surrender. That radical self-surrender brought sinful humanity to redemption. His act opened the path to those who wish to ascend the mountain of the Lord. 
The stepping stones of that path are outlined in the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, which is far and away the most well-known part of the significantly longer Sermon on the Mount. Read through these “Blessed are” statements some time today. They are an expansion of the psalmist’s answer to the questions: "Who can ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?" The Beatitudes tell us how to be among those whose hands are sinless, whose hearts are clean and who desire not what is vain. 
We do not know what we will be. We do not know what it will be like to be in God’s presence. We do not know what it will be like to be numbered among the saints. But Matthew tells us it will be wonderful. There is no reason to quibble with that. 
I'd been in Slovenia for about six weeks by All Saint's Day. Fr. Jože Roblek asked if I wanted to go to Preddvor with him. He grew up in nearby Bašelj. The drive was under an hour. We stopped at the farm his sister still manages. She cooked lunch. Those of you who grew up in Polish families in Plymouth can imagine the size of the lunch. Afterwards we concelebrated Mass at the parish church in Preddvor, his family church. It was a most remarkable day. 
Slovenians honor their dead in solemn fashion. All Saint's day is a holiday observed with Mass and visits to the family plot in the cemetery. I was blown away. The photos today show Bašelj and some of the church in Preddvor. I will post more photos and some details about the Mass in Preddvor with the homily for All Souls.

The farm in Bašelj.  We never lacked for eggs in the community given the number of chickens.

The welcoming committee

Fr. Jože's sister cooking.  Superb cook.  Had the chance to say hello when she came to a celebration at the church the day before I returned to U.S. this most recent trip.

The village of Bašelj (pronounced, more or less, BOSH lee) which has a population of less than 350.  

Most of the village.

Desert.  I went for a walk before lunch.  Good thing.

The church in Preddvor.

The church yard.  This photo demanded a black and white conversion. 

The back of the church.  It  was jammed for the All Saints Mass with people in the aisles and standing on the steps.  Photos from the cemetery on Friday with the All Soul's Day homily

The mountains from the church yard. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ps 126
Mk 10:46-52

"Master I want to see."  

"I want to see."

What did Bartimaeus' voice sound like?  Was it high or low, loud or soft?  What was the tone of his voice? Was it angry and demanding or desperate and pleading? What did his face look like?  What was his posture?

Enter into this narrative as if you were in the cast of a movie about Jesus.  Place yourself in the scene.  Spend as much time as you wish recreating it.  This composition or creation of the scene, this placing yourself in the action is one of the fundamental practices of Ignatian contemplation as described it in the Spiritual Exercises.  Be there in as much detail as you can create or as long as you can tolerate. 

What do you feel?  What are you thinking?  What is going on inside you?

We are all Bartimaeus, at least some of the time.  We are all blind to God's presence in our lives, at least some of the time. That blindness may afflict us suddenly as we stand at the bedside of a dying spouse or parent. That blindness may hit as we gaze uncomprehendingly at a flooded home. Bartimaeus' plea, "I want to see" may emerge from our lips in different words: The angry WHY of the suddenly bereaved, the desperate 'Help Me' as the cancer pain becomes worse. 
We ask:  Where is your mercy?  Where is your power?  Where . . . . .is your love?  Where . . . . are. . . . you  . . . ? We are all Bartimaeus.  We are all, at some point, that man sitting at the roadside blind, disoriented, confused and desperate to see, desperate to understand. 

One of the challenges of getting old is seeing. Or rather loss of the ability to see in the same way we saw at twenty-five.  Cataracts. Macular degeneration.  Diabetic retinopathy.  Glaucoma. They all impair the ability to see. But even in uncomplicated aging, the normal changes in the eye result in diminished vision.  By age sixty the retina receives only receives one-third the amount of light that it did at twenty-one.  That is why gray-haired old dudes like me always have the high beams on;  'cuz we can't see with low beams.

Think about being in a strange city at night.  Or imagine a lost tourist in Boston at night.  We see things differently when struggling to figure them out, when we are trying to make sense of what we are doing, when we can't fully comprehend what is happening. Sometimes we discover things we wouldn't have otherwise seen had we not been lost, confused, or frightened. Sometimes we discover things in our metaphorical blindness, that would have been impossible to notice in the noonday sun.  Discovery happens when you open yourself up to see, when you are forced to look around. 

Even when we are not blind to Jesus, we can always find ways to see Him better.  Perhaps it is a matter of  cleaning our glasses.  It may be necessary to get a stronger prescription.  Or we may experience the equivalent of  the startling improvement in vision after cataract extraction and lens implant.  With prayer, with the sacraments, with contemplation on God's word, we can see even better.

Whenever you hear a narrative of Jesus' healing miracles, it is important to remember that those miracles did not create faith in a vacuum.  They were not like David Henning's magic tricks. The healing miracles were not feats meant to awe, amaze, confuse, or impress an audience. With one or two exceptions in all the miracle narratives, faith in Jesus' ability to make him whole, faith in Jesus' ability to return her to society, prompted the request to Jesus. Thus we heard Bartimaeus say: "I want to see."  Jesus said nothing about vision to Bartimaeus. "Go . . your faith has made you well." That's all.  A simple command and reassurance.  "Go, your faith has made you well."

We heard in the psalm: 
"they left in tears
I will comfort them
as I lead them back
I will guide them." 

Sometimes we need Jesus to find us when we are lost, when we are blind when we are confused or angry or hurting.  All of us go out in life full of tears, carrying seed for the sowing.  All of us go out in life to engage in backbreaking, exhausting and painful work. That is the reality of life. It is the burden we bear as humans.  But as we come back rejoicing and bringing in the sheaves we realize what God has done for us, and we know what God will do for us.

"Master, I want to see."

That would be a fine prayer today and all of the coming week. 


A perfect autumn lunch at a monastery.  A loaf of bread, a bottle of wine, and some apples. 

Autumnal ivy at Ljubljanski Grad (Ljubljana Castle)
+ Fr.  Jack SJ, MD

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Funeral Homily for Sr. Eleanor Klaber, VHM

11 October 2018
Isaiah 25: 6-9
1 Corinthians 2: 6-10
John: 15: 9-17
It would take a long time to narrate the details from the life of a woman who lived ninety-two years. It would be impossible without taking a lunch break in the case of Sister Eleanor, a woman who allowed few details or events to escape her notice or go unrecorded. Of her ninety-two years Sister lived 60 of them as a professed Visitandine, having said yes to her vocation in 1956 when she entered and professing vows in 1958. 
At Mont de Chantal in West Virginia and later here in Georgetown, Sister was something of an historian who kept a journal of everything that happened. She delighted in sharing some of those stories with me when I lived on the other side of the wall and had the opportunity to visit regularly. She was a very enthusiastic conversationalist. Sister was very much a people person. Her photo could be above the definition of "people person" in any edition of Webster's. She was very faithful to prayer, particularly prayer for priests, seminarians, and vocations to the priesthood. Father Tim, who proclaimed the gospel a few moments ago, was one of her "boys," as she called them. As a beneficiary of many of those prayers over the past eight years or so I thank her from the bottom of my heart. It is comforting to know that her prayers have gained an even greater power now. 
Sister Eleanor's decline was gradual. Her death was not unexpected as it came about as a combination of chronic diseases and the expected ravages of old age. The progression from walking unaided, to using a walker, to the wheelchair, was gradual but steady. Things moved more rapidly during the summer when she entered hospice care after being discharged from hospital. As the summer came to an end her stated goal was to live until her 92nd birthday in September. She expressed regret to Mother Berchmans that she would not be able to greet her guests at her funeral. I was not surprised to hear that when Mother shared that comment. No matter if a death is unexpected or not, whether it occurs in old age or middle age, the death of another is always sobering. For those privileged to be present at the death of another, the moment of movement from life to eternal life is awe-inspiring. 
Isaiah assured us in the first reading that the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples, that the Lord of hosts will wipe away the tears from all faces, that the Lord of hosts will destroy death forever. These words of prophecy are on the mark. They surpass the mark. The prophecy that death would be destroyed forever was brought to fulfillment in the new covenant, sealed in the Body and Blood of Our Lord. Because that covenant overthrew death, our sorrow today, our sorrow at every death, is tempered with consolation, our grief is eased with joy. However, sorrow and grief are only tempered and eased. At best the sharp edges are smoothed off a bit. Sorrow is not abolished. Grief does not magically disappear.
A death in a religious community ripples out like a pebble tossed into a pond. A sister's absence in choir, at Mass, at table, and at recreation will be impossible to ignore. In the case of Sister Eleanor, the absence of her enthusiasm about everything, and her characteristic giggle will be especially palpable. Grieving and adjusting to Sister's death will take time. There is no way to speed up the process.
Death has a different meaning for those who believe in Christ. It is no longer to be feared. It is no longer a descent into nothingness. It is not, as some pathetic cynical types like to snort, just a return to the food chain. 
As Sister's coffin was covered with the pall it was sprinkled with holy water to the words, "In the water of baptism Eleanor died with Christ and rose with him to new life." Those who die in Christ die to death itself. Those who die in Christ enter into new life after only the briefest of moments. There is a mere breath, a tiny interval, in between life to eternal life. There was just a sigh, before sister entered into something none of us can know until we too have come to the end of our lives on earth.
The late Jesuit priest-psychiatrist, Fr. Ned Cassem, wrote several short meditations on death, including this one: "Death is not depressing. It's inspiring. It makes one sad but being sad is different from being depressed. If there is a lot of sadness it is a measure of how much the person was loved." Were we to turn on a sadness meter right now the indicator would make several complete revolutions around the dial before settling into place (assuming the main-spring first didn't break first). Sr. Eleanor was loved and she was lovable. Love is her legacy, the most appropriate legacy for a Visitandine. 
A woman who took great delight in small things, she managed to carry enough supplies in the basket of her walker for an assault on Mt. Everest. I am grateful for the copy of The Imitation of Christ that Sister gave me a few years ago. It was, of course, buried somewhere in that walker basket when I visited one day. 
Death is a gift to those who are graced to be with another who is dying. Another quote from Fr. Cassem, "If you confront death with somebody you love who is dying, out of that will come learning that transforms your life. It leaves you stronger, braver, and calmer."
At her solemn profession Mass on May 15, 1961, Sister Eleanor was examined with five questions. Though edited for the sake of brevity the questions were: 
 you resolved to unite yourself more closely to God? 
Are you resolved to live this life and to persevere in it forever.
Are you resolved to strive for perfection in the love of God and neighbor after the example of St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal? 
Are you resolved to live a life hidden in God for the salvation of the world? 
Are you resolved to live for God alone in prayer, common life, willing penance, humble work and holiness of life? 
After Sister responded "I am so resolved" to each of the questions the priest concluded with a blessing: "May God who has begun this good work in you bring it to fulfillment before the day of Christ Jesus." Sister Eleanor was granted the blessing of bringing that good work to fulfillment. We rejoice in that gift even as we acknowledge our sorrow at her death.
Funerals are sorrowful occasions. Because we are human they cannot be otherwise. They are times of taking leave of the one who died and confronting the loss of memories each of us shared with her. You will hear in the preface, " . . . for your faithful Lord, life is changed not ended. . . " Funerals signal that life is changed for all of us. However, the sorrow of grieving is tempered by joy in knowing that though we are sinners, we are loved by God. The weight of sadness is balanced by optimism in the mystery and gift of the cross. The burden of grief is eased by faith in the future—faith in the promise of eternal life. Those who believe cannot help but take comfort in their faith in Christ; Son of God and Son of Mary, Jesus, who redeemed us from our sins, Jesus, whose death saved us from death. 
We heard Jesus' words to His apostles in the reading from John's Gospel: "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. . . . Love one another." These words are among the most difficult, poignant, and comforting in all of John's Gospel. Just as we are never separated from Jesus' love, we are never separated from the love of those we call friends. It doesn't matter if thousands of miles lay between, if dementia wrecks mind and memory, or if death has supervened, as it did on Sunday, for Sr. Eleanor May Klaber, of the Visitation of Holy Mary, the love between and among friends never ends. It never dies, succumbs to dementia, or moves away. A long life on this earth has ended for Sister Eleanor. Her new Eternal Life has begun. 
Requiem aeternam dona ea, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ea!
Eternal rest, grant unto her, O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her.

Sister Eleanor was a Visitation Sister for 60 years.  I got to know her when I was at G'town.  She was a delightful woman for whom I was spiritual director for about a year or two and then visited whenever possible when I got to D.C.  From the reports of the other sisters I know she prayed for my daily for several years.  She also asked me to celebrate her funeral Mass, a request she transmitted to the superior when she was dying.  

The photos below are from Walden pond.  I took a Chinese diocesan priest there.  The morning weather was not pretty but suddenly autumn arrived:  The temp dropped, the humidity disappeared, and the sky cleared to what you see in the photos.  Great day.  Fr. Peter noted that when he was studying English the teacher gave them an essay on Walden Pond to read.  He enjoyed the trip.  There were very few people there, I think because of the miserable weather until just an hour before we arrived.  More were arriving as we left.  

A mock-up of Thoreau's cabin at the parking lot across the street from the pond.  It is not large.

The inside of the cabin.  Most of it. 

Fr. Peter.   This is all of the cabin.

Two fishermen.  Walden is open for fishing, swimming, and boating without motors.  NO jet skis. 

Fr. Peter.  It was cold.  I'd packed an extra sweatshirt. 

A still life.  Note the Patriots coffee cup (for tea). 

The leaves have not yet peaked.  Probably next weekend. 

Very few people.  Passed perhaps a dozen while we were there. 

Nat King Cole singing "Autumn Leaves."  Stay with that thought.

This guy was playing computer games on his phone. 

Some manipulation made it look a lot later in the day than it was. 

Another "late day shot

 Blue heron.  I don't normally shoot birds.  He took off but I didn't get much of a shot.

The sky was perfect, unlike a few hours earlier. 

A red leaf on a stone background. 

Walden is only about 2 miles around.  We took it slow walking mostly along the beach. 

Leaf floating in the water. 

An almost-silhouette.  I took this to recreate a similar photo from Australia years ago. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Monday, October 1, 2018

An Anniversary or Two

1 October 2013 was a spectacularly beautiful October day that was sunny and  dry. It included a sky with scattered puffy clouds and a gentle breeze.  It could not have been any better.  Two days after returning from an eight-day retreat at St. Joseph Trappist Abbey in Spencer, MA two days earlier I was waiting in front of the Campion Center infirmary to meet Adolfo Nicolás SJ, Father General of the Society of Jesus. He had just begun a visitation of the Society's educational institutions for Jesuits in formation in the U.S.  At Campion he was going to visit the men in the infirmary, address the men of the New England Province, and celebrate Mass.  During the Mass he would receive my final vows as a Jesuit. 

Unlike other religious orders in which vows are pronounced after the homily a Jesuit pronounces his vows, both first and final, immediately before communion kneeling in front of the Body and Blood of Christ.  

No more than thirty days before his final vows a man is required to make an eight-day retreat, a general confession, and write and probate  his will, thus relieving himself of all property.  He must also write three copies of the vows on special acid-free paper.  Those who have experienced my penmanship will not be surprised to learn that I practiced a lot before writing on the papers that would be sent to the community file, the provincial file, and to Rome. 

All the details had been checked and rechecked.  The confession was made. (The notes I'd written for that 90 minute marathon were soaked in water, compressed into a ball, and hurled into the middle of a pond on the monastery grounds.) The retreat had been splendid.  Everything was ready.  

There are moments of the vows that I remember with clarity and others that seem, even now, a bit surreal. Fr. Provincial Sheehan and I concelebrated Mass with Fr. General.  Just before the Our Father I moved from behind the altar to a prie-dieupositioned in front of the altar on which one of the three copies of the vows was resting.  I knelt and, after the congregation of about 200 Jesuits and a few others recalled its unworthiness to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord, began to read the vow formula.  After receiving communion I returned to my chair.  

Following Mass Fr. General, seven other SJs, and I returned to the sacristy where it was time to kneel for the "simple vows," five additional vows that are made in the sacristy in the presence of other Jesuits.  Usually it is all the SJs in attendance.  Given the number at the Mass that was going to be impossible.  As I explained, getting two hundred Jesuits to be quiet at the same time would prove to be a difficult task anyway.  After Fr. General, who received those vows as well, the most important witness was George Murray, SJ, MD who had been my fellowship director in consultation psychiatry at MGH some fifteen years earlier. He had accompanied me every step of the way from picking me up at Logan on entry day in 1997 to vesting me at ordination in 2007.  Six weeks later he was dead.  I celebrated and preached his funeral Mass.  

There is one other 1 October anniversary to be noted.  Today is the anniversary of the death of Fr. Jimmy Martin, SJ, a native of Plymouth, PA (yes, dear Old Shawnee).  To my knowledge Jimmy and I are the only two men to have entered the Society from Plymouth. What makes Jimmy's death memorable is that he died at age 105 years, 1 month, and 1 day.  He was mostly compos mentisuntil the last few months before his death.  

Despite having moved from Plymouth to Hanover when he was nine and then later to Philly where he graduated from St. Joe's Prep, he retained fond memories of Plymouth.  His mom had belonged to the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Gaylord Ave.   According to him, his father was walking by one day and heard a woman's beautiful voice singing.  He met her, they dated, and he proposed.  His mom converted prior to marriage.  In another conversation Jimmy told me how he had learned to play tennis on the courts behind the courthouse in Wilkes-Barre.  I'd completely forgotten about those courts as they had been replaced by parking many years earlier.  

There is much to write about Jimmy.  He was a delight.  His death was peaceful.  He'd developed pneumonia over the weekend and remained unresponsive most of the time.  At about 5:30 on Monday afternoon the nurses in the infirmary called.  They felt that death was imminent.  I examined him.  It was. I went to the chapel where Mass was just ending to inform the superior.  He announced Jimmy's impending death.  Twenty men went from the chapel to his room (it was large).  One of the men began the prayers for the dying. Just as Phil intoned the final amen Jimmy heaved a deep sigh and his soul departed.  I pronounced him dead and then went for a walk, the better to mull over his long life.  

I am grateful that the two anniversaries coincide as Jimmy's example of fidelity to Jesuit life for 86 years (!!!!!!) is an example inextricably bound to my final vow anniversary. I am grateful for both.  

Photos of final vows and the man who, at the time the photo was taken, was the oldest Jesuit in the world. 

The vow program.  Because Father General was receiving the vows there was a photographer present.  He was excellent and completely unobtrusive.  I don't remember seeing him in the sacristy despite the tiny size.  

 The beginning of Mass at the end of what was a rather long procession.

Provincial Myles Sheehan, SJ proclaiming the gospel during the Mass.

Father General giving the homily.

I may be the only Jesuit in the New England Province who pronounced first vows, celebrated his first Mass, and pronounced final vows in the same chapel.

Pronouncing vows.

Pronouncing the simple vows.  Good view of the back of Murray's head

Father General signing the vow documents.  By the time we were done each of us had signed six times.

Signing the documents.

Father General speaking with Murray.  This is the last photo ever taken of him.  The photographer's presence is only apparent in the flash in the mirror.

Jimmy Martin, SJ was only 103 when this photo was taken in 2005.

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD