Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Homily on the Memorial of St. Alphonsus Rodriquez,

Monday's Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude celebrated two saints, who, despite being among Jesus' twelve apostles, remain obscure. Today is the memorial of another obscure saint. This one is a Jesuit. Despite his obscurity, he is a model for all of us both lay and those living under vows. Alfonsus Rodriguez was born in 1533 and died in 1617 is notable only because of his ordinariness, simplicity, obscurity, and mediocrity.

Born into a comfortable merchant family in Segovia, he quit school after his father's death to learn and run the family business. He married at 27. By 35 he was widowed, had buried his three children, and lost the family business. A complete failure.

He asked to enter the Society of Jesus when he was 37 but was rejected because of poor health and poor education. That did not stop him. He spent the next two years crouched at a grammar school desk learning the Latin and Greek he needed to enter the Society. He entered as a brother novice. He rejoiced and said, "I will never again follow my own will for the rest of my life." Would that all religious--including this one--could say that and truly mean it the way Rodriguez did.

He was made porter at a Jesuit college on Majorca spending the next 46 years in this unseen, grueling, and humble occupation. As one biographer noted, "He greeted everyone who came to the door with a smile; treating each one as if "God Himself" were standing there." When he died his diaries revealed that he was a man of deep prayer and mystical experiences.

Students at the college, of course, knew what a powerhouse Alphonsus was. They regularly sought him out for spiritual direction and advice. One of those seeking his counsel was a confused Jesuit scholastic who wanted to do great things for God but didn't know how. Rodriguez advised him to go to the New World. That scholastic, Peter Claver, labored for 39 years in Cartegena, Colombia ministering to Africans brought to the port on slave ships. Rodriguez and Claver, one who spent almost a half century answering the college door, and the other who labored half a world away, were canonized in the same ceremony in 1888.

Rodriguez died bedridden at age 85 with dementia so severe he could not remember any prayers. Except one. As death approached he gazed at the crucifix he held in his hand and with his last breath he murmured the only prayer he could remember: Jesus.

Poorly educated. A disaster with finances. A lowly porter for 46 years. Demented at the end. An obscure failure.
And a saint.

Rodriguez was memorialized in a poem by the renown English Jesuit poet (and convert from Anglicanism) Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ

In honour of
St. Alphonsus Rodriguez
Laybrother of the Society of Jesus

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;
And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield
Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,
And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.
On Christ they do and on the martyr may;
But be the war within, the brand we wield
Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,
Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

⁠Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,
Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,
Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)
Could crowd career with conquest while there went
Those years and years by of world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.
The photo was one of those chance moments. It was taken through the window in the door of a Catholic Church somewhere in Chang-hwa, Taiwan. Ignatius and I were traveling to Sun Moon Lake. We stopped so he could rest (the driver). Ran into the priest. He took us into the church. And then served us coffee.  He was Vietnamese.  Over the coffee (Vienamese coffee is great but adds hair too your toe nails) the three of us discovered that Ignatius and I had gone to theology school with two Vietnamese Jesuits who were schoolmates of his in Viet Nam.  Small world, isn't it? 

+Fr Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 27, 2019

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Sir 35:12-14, 16-18
Ps 34:2-3,17-18-19, 23
2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18
Lk 18:9-14

Each of the readings and the psalm for today's Mass could be the basis for a fairly long homily.  There is an overabundance of riches for preaching, for teaching, and for meditation.  As was true of last Sunday's parable of the woman and the unjust judge, the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in the Temple, is found only in Luke's Gospel.  Both parables are about prayer.  Last week we heard about the need to pray without ceasing.  Today are told how to pray and how not to pray.  This example is confirmed in the first reading from Sirach. 

Sirach is a unique book. Though written in Hebrew before Jesus' birth it was translated into Greek by the author's grandson and known only in Greek  until the early twentieth century.  Also known as Ecclesiasticus, (not to be confused with Eccesiastes) it is not part of the Hebrew Scripture.  Protestants do not recognize it as authoritative.  However, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do hold Sirach as canonical. The non-acceptance of Sirach by the Protestant Church is a pity. Like the rest of the wisdom literature, Sirach is relevant to our lives in the present.  It is very much worth reading in its entirety.  The reading from Sirach is a commentary on prayer.  Both readings depend on stereotypes to make their points.  That begs the question, what is a stereotype? 

A stereotype is a general statement  applied to a group whose members share a particular characteristic or set of characteristics.  Stereotypes may be used to judge and classify others negatively or to set some groups apart as unique.  Today, it seems that stereotypes are roundly condemned as biased, discriminatory, unfair . . . pick the negative word and fill in the  blank.  But they are not necessarily so.

The problem with condemning stereotypes--a popular form of virtue signaling today--be they positive or negative stereotypes, is that all stereotypes contain an element of truth.  One writer defined stereotypes as statistics in narrative form. All statistics have a degree of truth and a degree of untruth or exceptions when applied to individuals.  Unfortunately, all statistics, from those used in medical research to those describing global warming, to those applied to people, can be falsely manipulated in order to push an agenda or prove a point that is not necessarily true.   

For example, a common stereotype holds that Asian men have straight black hair and are shorter than the average American man.  Statistically this is true.  But then, there is this photo from my ordination.  I am standing next to one of my closest friends on earth, Ignatius Hung Wan-liu, a Taiwanese Jesuit priest who does, in fact, have straight black hair--he actually has great hair.  But, at 6' 3" he is four inches taller--now closer to five--than my statistically average height for an American man.  In Ignatius' case, the stereotypes applied to an Asian man are only partially true.  Thus, caution is necessary  regarding stereotypes or statistics describing just about anything.  

What of the stereotypes that emerge from scripture?  Were all Pharisees arrogant egotists such as the one in the parable?  There is only one answer:  No.  Were all tax collectors humble and self-aware as the one in the parable? No.  No stereotype holds true when applied to every individual.   Thus the challenge in both readings.  

Poverty, marginalization, and oppression do not automatically confer otherwise unattainable virtue on any individual.  Wealth, intelligence, and power are not the invariable marks of a sinner.  The poor can be, and are, sinners on the same plane as the wealthiest.  And the wealthy can be as seemingly virtuous as the publican of the parable.  Sometimes the only difference is the size of the budget.  How would we understand this parable if the roles were reversed?  Would our feelings for the men change if the Pharisee acknowledged his sinfulness while the tax-collector boasted of his fundamental righteousness?  Or, to put it into contemporary terms, suppose it was the tax-collector who had a case of inflated self-esteem while the Pharisee was humble?  

In his commentary on this Gospel passage Luke Timothy Johnson warns that,  "The parable . . . invites internalization by all readers because it speaks to something deep within every human heart.  The love of God can easily become a kind of idolatrous self-love. God's gifts can quickly be seized as possessions; what is given by another can be turned into one's own accomplishment."  

Prayer can become bragging.  He concludes with: "Piety is not an unambiguous posture.”  It is worth remembering this, and perhaps emblazoning it on the lintel of all theology schools.  

The monastic literature contains frequent warnings about taking pride in one’s humility or boasting about one's prayer.  It is a temptation we all face.  Humility and arrogant pride or what is called "virtue signaling" today are separated by a very fine line. 

One is frequently advised in scripture courses and preaching practica to compare different translations when possible.  This is useful in considering Sirach.  The New American Bible translation we just heard reads: “though not unduly partial toward the weak, yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.”  The Revised Standard Version, the version I prefer for daily use, translates the same line differently: “He will not show partiality in the case of the poor, and he will listen to the prayer of one who is wronged.”   Wronged and oppressed have different shades of meaning.

God's mercy does not depend on one's bank account.  God's mercy does not depend on being a member of certain oppressed groups.  God's mercy is available to all those who seek it in prayer. 

Luke's Gospel is sometimes called the Gospel of Prayer. In Luke, prayer is not simply an exercise of piety, it is faith in action. Prayer reveals who we are.  Prayer reveals the nature our relationship with God.  Prayer reveals our relationship with others.  When we pray, we are to come before the Lord in sincerity and truth. In the Lord's light we are called to admit that we are sinners, sinners who are in need of his mercy. 

We heard a consoling truth in the psalm: 
"The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.
The Lord redeems the lives of his servants;
no one incurs guilt who takes refuge in him."

It is worth meditating on that for the rest of the day.
Celebrate Mass this morning at the Monastery of the Poor Clares in Jamaica Plain (part of Boston where my novitiate was).  This was the first time.  Have committed to celebrating Mass there once a month.  It was a very enjoyable experience.  Seeing as I mentioned my buddy Ignatius it seemed reasonable to include the photo to which I referred.  He really is a lot taller than I am. 
 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, October 20, 2019

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ex 17:8-13
Ps 121
2 Tm 3:14-4:2
Lk 18:1-8

The Doors released an album titled “The Soft Parade” in July of 1969. Critics do not consider it one of their best but, for better or worse it was, along with the soundtrack from Easy Rider, the background music for my sophomore year at Penn State.  The Soft Parade remains a favorite. It is perfect for long drives, with or without head banging.  It will be in the album rotation when I drive to Penn State in mid-November. 

The title track began with Jim Morrison announcing in a deep, amplified, and exaggerated voice “when I was back there in seminary school there was a person who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer.”  He repeated, “petition the Lord with prayer” twice with sarcasm dripping from each word.  And then screamed:  “YOU CANNOT PETITION THE LORD . . .  WITH PRAYER.”   Then followed a soft beautiful melody that was incongruous with the intro.

Unfortunately, by the time the album was released the drugs had completely addled his brain.  He would be dead less than two years later, age 27, most likely from a heroin overdose.  

He was wrong.   

You can petition the Lord with prayer.  

You should petition the Lord with prayer.  

You must petition the Lord with prayer. 

The first reading and the gospel tell us how to petition the Lord with prayer.  There is a one word summary: importune

To importune means: to demand with urgency or persistence; to annoy, to beset with solicitations; to be troublesomely persistent.  The entire job description for a two year-old is to importune.  And they do it extremely well.  

Only the first of the definitions; to demand with urgency and persistence, truly fits prayer.  It is impossible to annoy or trouble God with prayer.  What some would think is too much is just barely enough.  The entire psalter, from Psalm 1 to Psalm 150 is one long, continuous, importuning prayer.  

The image in the first reading is fascinating.  As long as Moses’ arms were raised in prayer the Israelites were winning the battle.  When his hands dropped with fatigue the tide would shift.  But Moses had help.  Aaron and Hur supported his arms as long as necessary.  

So it is for us.  We can’t always do it alone in prayer.  That is why we are surrounded by a community of believers.  That is why we should ask for help with our prayer.  That is why we pray for other people. That is why others pray for us.  The community of believers is Aaron and Hur supporting our arms when we are too fatigued, too anxiety-ridden, or too overwrought to pray.  And we do the same for others when we pray for and with them. The community of believers is first and foremost a community of prayer.   Our prayer is important.  Our persistence in prayer is crucial to the ongoing salvation of the world.  Prayer may be the only thing keeping the world spinning on its axis.  

The Gospel is fascinating.  The widow was relentless.  No matter what the unjust judge did she returned importuning until he gave her a just judgment.  The judge’s motivations for giving that judgment were less than honorable.  He was motivated not by a thirst for justice but  by the fear of being struck. The judge's actions recall T.S. Eliot’s observation, 

“The final temptation is the greatest treason, 
to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”  

God can never be unjust.  Jesus asks the rhetorical question: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night?”  In the context of this Gospel passage we already know the answer.    

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 121, is among the most beautiful and poignant prayers in the entire psalter.  

About nineteen years ago Jesuit Father Paul Harmon was addressing thirty Jesuit scholastics, men who were not yet ordained.  This psalm was the topic of one of his talks.  He suggested that when the psalmist looked up to the mountains he saw that he was surrounded by the fires of sacrifice offered to the Baals, the pagan gods.  That compelled him to ask 

“Whence shall help come to me?” 

The psalmist had been abandoned by his people. They were following not the God of the covenant, the one and only true God. They were following the au courant gods, the gods it was politically correct and socially expedient to worship. Things haven't changed much over the centuries.

And then, from the depths of his despair, the psalmist recalled, 

“My help is from the Lord, 
who made heaven and earth.”  

Father Harmon’s explanation, one I’ve not seen elsewhere and cannot find, put this psalm into a new and deeper context.  Rather than a comforting image of looking toward the mountains  to see angels, pretty sunsets, and cottony clouds, the psalmist saw the treachery and betrayal of his own people in the flames and smoke coming off the mountains.  Upon realizing this abandonment he had to look interiorly, he had to pray, to realize that help came not from the pagan baals. Help came not from power, money, social status, or any of the -isms that are the false gods of today.  Help came from the Lord, and only from the Lord, who created both heaven and earth.  

"I lift up my eyes toward the mountains;
whence shall help come to me?
My help is from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth."

Stay with that thought for the rest of this day. 


Wandering around the BC campus yesterday (Saturday 19 October) around lunch time.  There was a football game at noon.  BC defeated NC State.  More critically, Penn State defeated Michigan later that night.  

Shooting through a window in St. Mary's Hall.  Deliberately overexposed in brilliant sunlight, converted to black and white, and then processed a lot.  The results suggests the old Brownie Starflash.

The spectrum in the foreground is an example of lens flare due to the harsh sunlight.  Generally not considered an asset I rather like the effect. 

Leaves in the fountain that sits in front of the Tip O'Neil Library.

Wonder if Greta of the Pigtails would fall into hysterical sobs at this.  I'm certain her handlers would be certain of it.  

I never noticed this crucifixion over the chapel in St. Mary's Hall before.  Part of the reason is that I am rarely in that part of campus.  I will return. 

Converted the above into black and white and processed on the computer.  Very happy with the result. 

Gasson Hall tower shot from halfway up from the football field. 

Lampost, tower, leaves, and sky. 

Shot through the windows in St. Mary's Hall. 

+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Friday, October 18, 2019

Feast of the North American Martyrs

John de Brebeuf, SJ and Isaac Jogues, SJ and Companions (Carmel Terrace)
Patronal Feast U.S. Assistancy of the Society of Jesus
19 October 2019

Today it is the feast of The North American Martyrs, Sts. John de Brebeuf, Isaac Jogues and their six companions.  It is a major feast for Jesuits in the U.S. as these men are the patrons of the American Assistancy (or branch) of the Society of Jesus of which they were members.  The eight men came from France in the early 17th century as missionaries to what became Canada and the United States. They worked for many years with the Huron.  Eventually, however, the Mohawk attacked.  Jogues was tortured and martyred in 1646.  Brebeuf was tortured and martyred in 1649.  The details of their suffering are best left undescribed except by the words gruesome and unspeakably cruel on the part of their killers. 

The readings for this feast were chosen well.  “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Only faith made it possible for these men to endure the sufferings of their mission in the harsh climate of North America,knowing they would never see their families again and the risks they were taking.  Only faith allowed them to embrace martyrdom when it came.  

Jesus placed a choice in front of his disciples in today's Gospel.  Faith placed a choice  in front of Brebeuf, Jogues and their companions.   We face the same choice as the disciples and the martyrs we celebrate today.  The choice between life and death. The choice between faith and rejection of the gift of faith.

“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it. Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Jesus is not speaking about biological life. He is speaking of the life of the soul, the life we actually live.  He is saying that we must undergo a conversion, we must die to worldly desires such as the desires for power, money, fame and possessions so as to follow Him unencumbered. 

Success.  Prestige. Power.  These are not wrong in themselves.  But,  when the desire for these things, when pursuing and having them controls one’s life,  when the attempt to gain the whole world excludes God, when it excludes loving others one must ask if it leads to happiness, or if it leads to death long before the body’s vital functions cease. 

Brebeuf, Jogues and their companions made a choice.  They knew the risk when they came.  They knew the hardships they would endure.  Faith brought them to these shores.  Taking up the cross and following Jesus kept them here.  Faith allowed them to endure unspeakably painful martyrdom at the hands of their captors. 

The saddest bumper sticker one can see on any highway is the one that reads, “He who has the most toys when he dies wins.”  The question of exactly what he---or she--wins is never broached.  What profit is there for me to gain the whole world but forfeit the life of my soul?  

Each of us must answer that question for him or her self.  Each of us must choose.

This week has been marked by a lot of red vestments. Today is no exception. The Jesuits martyred in what became Northern NY State and Canada were depicted in the movie "Blackrobe." The shrine to the martyrs is in Auriesville, NY. Have yet to visit there. 
The two attached photos are from Loyola, Spain. Took them during the conference at which I presented two papers. The mosaic appears to be made of granite tiles, rather thick ones. Would like to know how many tons of stone went into it. That wall/floor is supporting a lot of weight. The stained glass is among some of the most beautiful I ever saw. After finding my room I went into the chapel for some short meditation (it was an awful trip, what I really needed was a nap). The moment I saw the glass I went back to my room down the hall to get the camera.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Thursday, October 3, 2019


Heading into the end of a retreat with priests at Cohasset, a town on the South Shore overooking Cohasset Harbor.  Boston College has Bellarmine House, a conference center and retreat house, that we are using for the priests' retreat.  Gorgeous weather on arrival day (first set of photos).  Then nothing but gray and gloom until sunrise this AM.  Opened eyes, looked out window and shot out of bed.  Was outdoors in minutes . . . without having had coffee.  Stiff wind but it was worth it.  First the sunny-day shots and then this morning. 

The house next door to our place. They have their own access to the land.  And a dock and a few other things.

Bellarmine is an old house.  The glass is old.  It produces some interesting distortions.

Acorns in pastel colors.  This is how I saw them on the ground.  No computer manipulation. 

The Adirondack Chair is not meant for a seventy  year-old man. 

 At high tide the water stretches across the road at the Cohaseet Yacht Club at the entrance to the hill to our place. 

Sea Kayaks.  No way I would ever try to use one of them.

Weeds work well as a photo subject if the light is right. 

 Black and white of the house next door from the porches at Bellarmine.

This morning's sunrise.

Same Adirondack chairs.

Our Lady of the Harbor overlooking the water. 

One of the sailboats at the yacht club. 

A more panoramic view of the boats moored at the yacht club. 

The Quincy Adams estate in the distance.  This is in Scituate.

 The view from the third floor sleeping quarters

Looking out from the balcony

+ Fr Jack, SJ, MD