Sunday, January 27, 2019

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Neh 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10
Ps 19 8-15
Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21

A basic truth when studying scripture is that one cannot understand the New Testament without first understanding the Old.  It is impossible to know the New Testament without knowing the Old Testament, that long compilation of the history of the People of the Covenant and an unsurpassed treasury of prayers.  It was the only scripture Jesus knew.  He cited it often. 

Nehemiah was written in the fifth century before Christ.  It details the story of a people returned from long exile.  They were confused. They had no knowledge of the Torah. They were oblivious of the covenant between God and his people. When Nehemiah learned that the wall surrounding Jerusalem had been destroyed he vowed to rebuild it.  When the wall was rebuilt all the people: men, women, and children above a certain age, were summoned before Ezra who read and interpreted the Torah to them. The people wept when they heard words of the Law.  They wept because they realized their guilt in not upholding the law of the Lord.  They were overcome with sorrow. However, Ezra did not condemn them.  In his mercy he told them not to weep, but to eat, drink, and celebrate because the day was holy to the Lord.  

Paul's letter is important. It is particularly important in view of today's hysterically delusional social climate.  Each of us has been given unique gifts.  We have not been given identical gifts.  Our task is to discover and develop the gifts unique to each of us rather than pining for those we do not have and will never be able to develop.  

“. . . a body is one though it has many parts . . .” This is an important idea to which Paul will return. 

Certain sectors of society deny the possibility, to say nothing of the reality, of differences and distinctions.  Indeed, there are concerted attempts to erase them, even when those differences are biologically determined and cannot be legitimately modified or maintained. 
We see in this nothing more than an extreme version of particularity with a grandiose and narcissistic sense of specialness.  Each individual or faction insists that his, her, or their specialness is THE most special and thus deserving pride of place.  Statements to the contrary generally result in the equivalent of a shrieked,  "My equality trumps your equality" followed by the invention of a new 'ism' or 'phobia' to throw about. If all goes well the tantrum will be followed by a ranting talk show appearance demanding an apology complete with public penance. 

As recent events have shown, we, as a society, have made no progress since the Salem Witch trials that took place a mere 75 miles north of here.  Indeed, American society seems to have regressed to the same mean as Salem's hysterical accusers of 1692.  When feeling is allowed to trump fact, when political correctness is given precedence over basic science, when the unsubstantiated accusations by an agenda-driven media are uncritically accepted, we are in serious trouble as a society.  

Medical students hear amusing anecdotes about the struggle for supremacy within the body.  Most can never be shared in sacred space. The general outline is an debate in which each of the body's organs or organ systems is arguing which of them is the most important;  which is THE most critical to the life, comfort, and well-being of the individual.  But you know what?  There is no supreme organ or organ system.  No capo di tutti capi.  There is no pope of the body.  Each of the body's systems is equally necessary for normal function and survival. The lungs cannot do the work of the liver.  The liver cannot do the work of the heart.  And the poor pancreas cannot be a kidney no matter how much it might want to self-identify as one.  And nothing can cover or protect the body except the skin.  If any vital organ or organ system is seriously damaged, the entire body is at risk of death.  It is that simple.  

None of us is the social or biological equivalent of a stem cell that is pluripotent.  None of us can be anything we want to be, depending only upon our dreams, our passions, or, to use an unfortunate term from the past, following our bliss.  We cannot decide to be whatever we "identify ourselves to be" particularly when that violates both natural law and the dictates of human physiology.  

The saying "you can be whatever you want to be" is one of the greatest lies in the history of lying.  We all have specific genetic endowments.  We all have assets and liabilities.  We are all limited in some ways and strong in others.  We are all fallible in some areas and more than competent in others. The only thing we have in common is that we are sinners.  No exceptions.  

We are all sinners loved by God.

That is the only equality we will ever know.

Ljubljana has been on my mind a lot.  Finally realized today that three years ago I was on a three week look-see visit, my first, to discern if I could go back and work.  I made the decision in about 36 hours.  Returned to U.S. in early February, right after Ash Wednesday, and returned in September for ten months.  LJ at night is a magnificent place for photography.  Hope to get back this summer 

The Triple Bridge leading to Prešernov Trg (trg means square or plaza).  This is the very heart of the old city. 

The lover's locks on the Buucher's Bridge.  Thousands upon thousands of them. 

A party on Plečnik's colonnade, one of my favorite spots in the city.  

The full extent of the colonnade.

Prešernov Trg with the triple bridges and the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation.  I did my annual retreat with the Franciscan community there.  It was 1/2 mile from the Jesuit community in which I lived.  

Glassware at night is an unbeatable subject. 

A December night.  It was frigid.  The temp was dropping by the minute.  My hands were already hurting though I was only three or four hundred yards from the house, i.e. I had just gone out.  Lasted about an hour and then had to return to concelebrate the 7 PM Mass.  It gets dark in Eastern Europe very early in the winter. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Homily for the 46th Annual March for Life

Homily for the 46thAnnual March for Life 

The 46th Annual March for Life is taking place today, Friday 18 January, in Washington, D.C.  The march began as a response to the Supreme Court's disastrous Roe vs. Wade decision that signed the death warrants for millions of children in the womb. It was the first push that sent American Society down the slippery slope of killing the imperfect, the undesirable, the unwanted, the unplanned, and now the inconveniently sick and elderly. 

What was euphemistically called "physician-assisted suicide" became, through the manipulation of language, "physician-guided death." It is now being called "physician prescribed death."  Exactly when did old age, terminal illness, or imperfection become a capital offense demanding a prescription to die?  I did not attend med school--Temple Med class of 1975--and complete seven years worth of residency training to be able to write the prescription:  "Kill grandma or grandpa as desired.  Call me for instructions."  

In the spring of 1978 I spent six weeks as a visiting house officer with Dr. Cicely Saunders at St. Christopher's Hospice in London.  St. Christopher's was not the first hospice in England.  Dr. Saunders, however, brought the hospice concept to international notice and awareness.  And it spread widely.

She was a fierce opponent of what was then called euthanasia.  She said in an interview: "Impending death is no excuse for ending life. Rather than rushing to kill the dying in the name of ending their suffering, we should focus on practical measures for alleviating their pain and spiritual means to make their final moments worth living." She was quite the contrast to Lord High Executioner Jack Kevorkian.

Kevorkian, died at age 87 . . . . in a hospital bed . . .  of natural causes. Kind of ironic dontcha think?  He was a pathologist. Pathologists don't usually see patients with body temperatures higher than that of the ambient air.  Indeed, they alone, among physicians, do not do an internship with living patients and their families.

Kevorkian's initial seven or eight patients were women who are probably more likely to choose to be "offed" so as not to burden anyone.  There was a photo of one of those patients, perhaps the first, waving fondly to her family as she entered the death chamber.  She was in an early stage of Alzheimer's.  The photo was disturbing. It raised questions.  Was this her free choice?  Were her thought processes already skewed by the disease? Did the family play a role in manipulating her decision?  Did anyone try to discourage her?  Was she depressed?

In his encyclical Evangelium VitaeSt. John Paul II, Pope, condemned "therapeutic interventions--which accept life only under certain conditions and reject it when it is affected by any limitation, handicap, or illness."  

It pains me to admit that physicians and medical schools are a significant part of the problem.  In ancient time physicians who pronounced and lived according to the Oath of Hippocrates were called "Hippocratic Physicians."  It was not a universally administered oath at the time.  Not all physicians took it nor abided by its precepts.  Today, reciting the so-called Hippocratic oath is, at best, a trite medical school graduation photo-op.  It is unrecognizable when compared to the original.  Some of the bowdlerized oaths seem to focus mostly on never violating HIPPA or not doing anything illegal, a definition that is at best elastic these days.

The promises live ethically and morally have been deleted. Thus, new physicians no longer agree: "Into whatsoever houses I enter, . . .I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman," 

Today's young doctors do not say: "I will use treatment to help the sick . . . but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course . . . . Similarly I will not give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion. But I will keep pure and holy both my life and my art."  

The Hippocratic oath was composed between the third and fifth centuries B.C. thus the current whining about a judge who belongs to the Knights of Columbus and the extreme teachings of the Catholic Church is invalid in this argument.  The sanctity of life was very much respected by pagans. 

John Paul pointed out in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae:  "A danger today is the tendency to disguise certain crimes against life in its early or final stages by using innocuous medical terms which distract attention from the fact that what is involved is the right to life of an actual human person."

Iceland has almost completely eliminated Down's Syndrome through selective abortion following intrauterine testing.  Genocide would be the appropriate term.  Physician Prescribed Death is a another example of semantic manipulation.  Killing the sick is a much more accurate term.  Abortion is a more accurate description than the pastel tinted euphemism "Women's Health."  

Unfortunately, there will be a 47th, 48th, and even 55th Annual March for Life.  The need for such witness may be even more desperate over the coming years. 

We pray for those who are marching, the legions of young people treading the streets of the District of Columbia at great cost and inconvenience to themselves.

We pray for the victims of these unnatural deaths and the hidden collateral damage to the families that participated in such abominable procedures. The cost to them is much higher than anyone realizes.

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, 
et lux perpetua luceat eis. 
Requiescant in pace. 

"Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, 
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace." 


Meant to post yesterday on the day of the march but got a little distracted.  Gave it at Mass at Carmel terrace.  

 The cross on the summit of sv. Višarje in Italy, just across the border from Slovenia. 

+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Epiphany of the Lord

Is 60:1-6
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13
Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
Mt 2:1-12

One of the challenges to getting through the Christmas season is the amount of sickly sweet imagery that clings to the narrative of Jesus' birth.  These include images of a toddler-sized newborn baby and depictions of Mary in blue and white watered silk encrusted with pearls, rhinestones, and glitter.  Morbidly obese Santas, reindeer, elf cards, and chubby angel creatures are beneath contempt. The images imposed on Jesus' birth are frequently painful and embarrassing. Much too often we hear about "The Magic of Christmas."  Or "Christmas is for Children."  Christmas is not a holiday for children.  It is a holy day for all people of the world.  Christmas is not a David Henning magic show.  It is a holy and sacred season.

It is not a panacea for sorrow.  No one is required to be happy at Christmas.  Too often the sorrowful, the dying, and those who are struggling with the realities of life, are told that if they surrender to the magic of Christmas they will feel better.  Families, friends and neighbors of those grieving another's death oftentimes insist that a large dinner at someone's house will make all cares disappear, or, at the very least, begin what is called closure, a made up word and concept that is at best a pseudo-psychological phantasm. It does not exist. Unfortunately,  Epiphany is not exempt from the gooey sweetness.  

Epiphany derives from the Greek:  epi: forth and pheinein: to show.  Thus Epiphany:  to show forth.  Among the dictionary definitions one finds, "a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something, . . .a sudden intuitive realization."  An intuitive realization of Jesus as Messiah is the perfect description of this feast.  But, then there is the problem of "the kings."  

The word "kings" does not appear in Matthew's Gospel.  Those who bore the gifts are called magi.  Some translations use wise men.  No matter the translation, they were not monarchs. The word kings came into use only around the sixth century.  Matthew used the plural but did not give a number. There could have been as few as two or many more than three.   Because the gifts were described as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, tradition holds that there were three magi.  Despite the custom of Kasper, Melchior, and Balthazar their names are not included in scripture. In the end, the number of magi, their names, and their kingly or non-kingly status, are all irrelevant distractions.  

However, the magi are important.  They are very important. They are important because  they represent the first Gentiles to worship Jesus.  They were the first Gentiles to recognize Jesus. They were the first Gentiles to experience the sudden realization of that for which the world had waited. Their epiphany was not exclusive then. That epiphany, that revelation, is not exclusive now.  We will hear of more epiphanies in the cycle of readings this liturgical year.  There are many epiphanies scattered throughout our lives, if we are willing to notice them, if we are willing to see them through the eyes of faith. 

The reality of Christmas and Epiphany, the place of the Nativity of Our Lord in the history of salvation, is more easily found in today's Gospel. "When King Herod heard of this he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him."  In private he instructed the magi, "Go and search diligently for the child.  When you have found him, bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage."  This, from an increasingly crazy megalomaniac with a cruel streak!  

Herod's jealousy and the duplicity underlying his conversation with the magi gets closer to the reality of the Nativity of Our Lord than do the lyrics of  "O Little Town of Bethlehem" or "We Three Kings of Orient Are."  We see the first shadow of the cross in Herod's evil desires.  We see the path from Bethlehem to Calvary traced out in Herod's malevolence.

The first reading from Isaiah assured Jerusalem that the glory of the Lord would shine upon her.  We hear echoes of the covenant, of God's promise to His people.  In the context of the prophecy from Isaiah, the reading from Ephesians is consoling because it assures the Gentiles that they--that we--are included in the promise.  We are reminded of that inclusion daily in the words of consecration that you will hear in a few minutes: "This is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins."  

"for you and for many." 

Once we wash away the treacle, once the sloppy sentimentality is discarded, once the word magic is forever disassociated from Christmas, we can begin to understand the Nativity of Jesus.  We can begin to understand the real Christmas story,  a story that did not end when the magi returned home, wherever that might have been.  

Several times a year, as I did here on Christmas morning, I cite a haiku from Dag Hammarskjöld's small journal Markings.  In literary terms it is unsurpassed in how it fulfills the description of haiku as a form that:"expresses much and suggests more in the fewest possible words."  Hammarskjöld captured the entire meaning of Christmas and the entire arc of the New Testament in seventeen syllables.

There is nothing gooey, sticky, sappy, or treacly about it.

There is no magic of Christmas in it. It is not just for children. It does not suggest a celebration of food, booze and consumer insanity.  It has nothing to do with a holiday.  It has everything to do with a holy day.  It defines a holy season that does not end for another week. It is for all people, for all times, in all places. 

"On Christmas Eve Good Friday
was foretold them 
in a trumpet fanfare."

We cannot and we must not
separate the wood of the manger from the wood of the cross.

Neither event was magical. 


Celebrated the 8 AM Mass at St. Mary's Hall on the BC campus.  About two hours before Mass I was saying morning prayer and drinking coffee when the realization hit.  Twenty-two years ago on Epiphany my novice class piled into two cars after lunch for the one hour plus change trip to the retreat house at Gloucester, MA where we would begin the long retreat two or three days later.  A completely life-changing experience.  

A man makes the long retreat, the full 30-day Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, twice in his life in the Society.  Once as a novice and the second time as a tertian, the last step in a man's formation before he is called to final vows.  Though both retreats are conducted in the same manner the experience is vastly different when they are compared.  

The statue of St. Ignatius in the rotunda at Campion Center in Weston, MA.  Shot from the second floor.  The statue is most likely larger than life-sized as Ignatius was apparently short, something that was true of most people in that era.  

A close-up of the book in his hands.  Ad Mariorem Dei Gloriam is the Latin motto of the Society: To the Greater Glory of God.  The shorthand version that we often use is AMDG. 

A photo of a cloister in Slovenia.  It encapsulates my experience of both long retreats made fourteen years apart.  It would take a very long time, many words, and the risk of sounding inarticulate, to describe how.  I will let things rest with the statement that the photo encapsulates the experience.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD