Tuesday, May 26, 2020

A Reflection for Memorial Day

25 May 2020

The location  of the first observance that eventually came to be known as Memorial Day is a little controversial.  While the government designated some town in New York State as having held the first commemoration of the war dead, anyone from Pennsylvania knows that the custom of placing flowers on the graves of the those killed in war, a custom that that evolved into Memorial Day, was in the village of Boalsburg on an unrecalled date in October 1864.  

Boalsburg sits at the intersection of US 322  and PA 45 a few miles south of State College.  Because two of my closest friends from our years at Penn State have lived there for about four decades, I've lost track of how often I've been there, occasionally spending Memorial Day weekend with Al and Karen when distance was not the obstacle that it is now.  

Memorial Day was not begun as a day for cookouts, road races, traffic jams, and sunburns, nor was it meant to be the first official day of summer.  It came into being to give us the opportunity to remember, acknowledge, and pray for those who died during the civil war, a devastatingly bloody war in which an estimated 620,000 soldiers died.  Today it commemorates all those who died in war.

My mom always referred to Memorial Day by its original designation of Decoration Day. It was, and should be, a time to visit the graves, place flowers and American flags, and, at least in Catholic cemeteries, to leave behind candles in red glass jars in memory of the dead from all wars.  It is a time for public services in memory of those who died.  

There was an annual service in front of the memorial at Plymouth High School that involved the band, multiple clergy, and a variety of veterans' organizations. Most painful to see was the group of Gold Star Mothers.  The pain never left their faces.  There were speeches, prayers to open and close the service, and music, always including the National Anthem.  Though the red and black wool serge band uniforms got mighty uncomfortable in the summer heat, participation by band members was NOT optional.  It was always difficult to hold it together as a lone bugler sounded taps at the end.   

We ask: Why?  We don't ask why war happens.  War is a built-in feature of humankind.  The world has never been free of war, conflict, skirmishes, and battles; it will never be free of war, any more than the world will be free of sin.  
Rather we ask why men and women voluntarily risk and lose their lives to defend that which they and we hold sacred?  There are more reasons than there are men and women in the military.  No matter the reason, the only response we can offer to those who lost their lives defending our country--be it at D-Day in World War II or during Desert Storm--is honor, gratitude, and prayer for their repose and prayers for the consolation of their families.

The changes in the way wars are fought and the reasons underlying wars emerge from changes in society and technology. The WW I trenches, hand-to-hand combat, and bayonets were replaced by planes and bombs with extraordinary destructive potential in WW II.  Today, missiles can be deployed via computer. Weapons of mass destruction and land mines can be triggered by cell phones.  The impact of drones has yet to be fully assessed.  Those who serve now face the risk of sophisticated chemical and biological warfare.  All of these developments have changed the experience of those called to fight wars. 

The philosophical and theological understandings of conflict and war have changed dramatically since the Civil War.  The almost complete disappearance of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from public consciousness is inexplicable.  It is unlikely that either "Over There," George M. Cohan's rousing WW I song or Frank Loesser's "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" of WW II vintage would be hits today. 

A war defines the generation that fought it.  A war also defines the generation, of sons and daughters and even grandchildren of those who served and of those who died.  Before entering the Society of Jesus in 1997, I spent four years as a psychiatrist and occasional internist at the Veteran's Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont. The years were eye-opening and heart-rending. It was not, is not, and never will be, easy to serve.  It will never be easy to recall those friends who died while one lived.  More than a few men broke down in my office as they spoke of fallen comrades and dealt with what has come to be known as survivor's guilt.  I kept a box of Kleenex Mansize Tissue on my desk and a spare box in the drawer.  They went quickly.

When asked to celebrate Mass for Memorial  or Veterans' Day, I invariably take the first reading from Sirach 44:1, 9-13.

"Now will I praise those godly men, our ancestors, each in his own time."  

Another translation reads: 

"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers in their generations."

The ultimate sacrifice that many of those who served in the military made--and will continue to make--can never be ignored or forgotten.  Future plans, family life, education, jobs . . . all  of these are put on hold when one is called or volunteers to serve in the armed forces, and particularly when one is deployed.  Injuries may short circuit futures in ways that can never be surmounted. The risk of death needs no elaboration. 

Again from Sirach: 

"There are some of them who have left a name,
    so that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no memorial,
    who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,"

That is the plight of those who died in battle.  Anonymity.  Hiddenness.   One of the most important monuments in the United States is the Tomb of the  Unknown Soldier.  Perhaps the fame of the veteran is in the hiddenness of the his or her service.  The honor of a veteran is doing a job day-by-day knowing that there will be little to no recognition or appreciation.  The sacrifice of those who died must be acknowledged and their memories kept alive. We learn from those memories.  Thus, It is important to occasionally go to the local war memorial and look at the names.  The one in my hometown of Plymouth, PA remains impressive even though the brick high school that served as a solid background is long gone (and replaced by one of the ugliest buildings imaginable) the well-maintained monument still stands.  If in Washington, D.C. visit the various memorials to the war dead: the massive and almost overwhelming WW II memorial or the stark and emotionally draining memorial to those who died in Vietnam.  

What went through the minds of those men and women who were deployed?  What was it like packing before shipping out?  What was it like saying goodbye with the threat of not returning hanging silently over those words?   What was it like, what is it like, when there is a knock on the door:  "We regret to inform you that . . . ?

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God."  

The Beatitudes are the most familiar portion of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reality is that sometimes peace can only be accomplished or maintained through war.  Sometimes the peacemakers are those who must fight.  Peace may only be possible  when threats from the outside are crushed.  Ideally swords will be pounded into plowshares and spears will be turned into pruning hooks. But at times plowshares must be reworked into swords and pruning hooks back into spears.  

The fundamental human condition is that we are sinners.  At times those sins manifest in actions that threaten the lives and safety of others.  At times those sins ignite the fuse that leads to war.  This has been true since the beginning of time; it will be true until the end of time.  Thus, our gratitude to those who died because of their service and to their families who mourn.  As we remember them we pray:

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."


I would have posted this yesterday on Memorial Day itself.  But, a having the dishwasher and disposal both back up and then waiting for a plumber (who came today).  And, I am not always certain what day it is.  It is not incipient dementia, rather the sameness of the days without my usual schedule of travel and Masses is taking quite a toll.  

The photos below are of the crucifix overlooking the Jesuit cemetery at Campion Center in Weston, MA and the flag that has sat on my desk for over twenty years.  It is small.  Was trying out a new lens.  Pleased with the result and kept the lens.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Acts 1:1-11
Ps 47
Eph 1:17-23
Mt 26:16-20

With the Ascension of the Lord we are reminded that the Easter Season is rapidly coming to an end.  In ten days, on the Feast of Pentecost, we will celebrate the fulfillment of Jesus' promise to send the Holy Spirit, after His return to the Father.  The following day we will resume ordinary time. 

We have been hearing readings from the Acts of the Apostles, the early history of the church, for several weeks now.  Acts of the Apostles was written by the Evangelist Luke, which explains the meaning of the line, "In the first book, Theophilus, I dealt with all that Jesus did and taught until the day he was taken up, . . "  In Acts. the implied second book, we hear much of what the apostles did and taught following Jesus' ascension to the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit.  Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians is also a prayer for us, gathered here today in this place. The prayer touches on the mission Jesus gave his disciples in the gospel reading.  

“May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation resulting in knowledge of him. . . . that you may know what is the hope that belongs to his call, what are the riches of glory . . . and what is the surpassing greatness of his power for us who believe,”  Paul is praying that the Ephesians, he is praying that we will accept and nurture the gift we were given.

As creatures with free will, we are, of course, given a choice, or perhaps it is better to say we are given the freedom to choose whether to accept those gifts, or to reject them out of hand.  There are only two possible choices: Yes or no. There is no gray. There is only acceptance or rejection. 

Jesus' mission to the apostles was plainly stated, “Go . . . and make disciples of all nations. . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you."

We make disciples of all nations and of all people through our presence, through preaching and teaching, and through the example of caring for others in schools, hospitals, and orphanages.  And most importantly, we make disciples of all nations it through the celebration of the Eucharist, the Real Presence of Christ on the altar.  Not a symbol but the real presence. That must be the core of our preaching and our lives.   

This short gospel passage, a mere four verses, ends with one of the most consoling verses in the entire New Testament, "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.".”

What more can we want?  What more can we desire?

". . .  behold, I am with you always, 
until the end of the age." 

The Archdiocese of Boston is one of the few in the U.S. that continues to observe the Ascension on Thursday, forty days after the Resurrection, with Easter Sunday counting as day number one.  Thus, the homily is up today.  Will post the homily for the 7th Sunday of Easter on Sunday.  

The photo below is from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.  I had been on retreat at St. Anselm's Benedictine Abbey in D.C.  It is only a short walk from the Abbey to the Shrine  I availed myself of the opportunity two or three times during the eight days.  This was taken at the entrance to the adoration chapel.  I think it speaks for itself. 

 +Fr. Jack SJ, MD

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:5-8, 14-17
Ps 66
1 Pt 3:15-18
Jn 14:15-21

Acts is Church History 101. The first reading today continues to describe the rapid growth and spread of the Church in its first years. Two weeks ago we heard, "It was at Antioch that they were first called Christians."   

Several days ago we heard Gamaliel's analysis to enemies of the Church regarding how to respond to the Apostles' proclamation of the Good News of Jesus, risen from the dead for our sins.  That analysis still holds.  He said, "So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.  For if this endeavor is of human origin, it will destroy itself.  But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” 

"But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy it." 

Despite the attempts of many throughout the centuries--and in many places today--to destroy the Church, it continues because, and only because, of the Church's provenance from God. The growth of the Church during the time of Philip, Peter and John was astonishing.  The persistence of the Church proves that it is of God. 

We heard in the First Letter of Peter, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame."
That the Church heeds this advice became evident in Boston in May 2014 when a student group at Harvard planned a public "Black Mass," a reenactment of satanic rituals meant to mock the Catholic Church and its sacred liturgy.  (NOTE:  put 'black mass harvard may 2014' into browser for further information.  I got 82 million hits).  

One can only take pride in the response of the Boston Catholic Church and its community  to the blasphemous actions at Harvard as well as its response to the pathetic defense of those who wished to sponsor or approve of the sacrilege. This includes the Boston Globe.   The Globe published a letter by a Miss Sarah Wuncsh, staff attorney for the Massachusetts ACLU coven, who criticized Harvard's president for ultimately censoring the abomination, using the tired free speech argument, which, at least on the internet is applied only selectively.   

Were Catholic students at Harvard to have parodied or, God-forbid even criticized, any number of sexual perversions being pushed today, heads would have rolled, apologies would have been demanded, and at least a few critics would have been put in the newly resurrected stocks on Cambridge Common. 

The Church's response included a holy hour of adoration at St. Paul's Church in Harvard Square.  It was attended by over 1000. It was not the only holy hour in town.  Other churches and several Jesuit communities had similar periods of prayer and reparation for  Harvard's hideous, disrespectful, biased, and, if I may coin a word, religiophobic behavior.  

Sacrilege was countered by prayer.

Adoration was the response to blasphemy.

The desire of Harvard to stage a sacrilegious anti-Catholic ceremony is not entirely surprising.  It, and similar actions throughout the world, represent  the fear of the revelation of the Spirit that Jesus promised in the Gospel. As Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow wrote in his commentary on this particular Gospel passage, the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth because it cannot tolerate the revelation.  The revelation calls the world's values into question, inverts its hierarchies, and overturns its cherished idols.  Apparently this is a real problem at Harvard.   

The Gospel includes parentheses framing the message:  At the beginning: "If you love me, you will keep my commandments . . ." At the end:  "Whoever has my commandments and observes them is the one who loves me."  Obedience to his commandments is the only available means we have of manifesting our love for Jesus.  Nothing else can or will do.  Only by obeying his commandments can we manifest to the world that we live in Christ and he dwells in us. 

As the abominable behavior of the Harvard students six years ago illustrates, we live in troubled and troubling times.  We can only understand and respond to those times, including this time of quarantine and suffering, if we do so in the light of the Christ's birth, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. 


The flowers at BC has been terrific.  The cool temps kept them in bloom a lot longer than years when the spring is balmy.  Four years ago the temps were hitting the 90s in April.  nothing lasted to the end of May.  

Outside the living room window.  Open window.  Lean out.  Shoot. 

Abstract from a window in St. Mary's Hall distorting the reflected tulips

Peach tree blossoms in front yard of our satellite house.

The tree across the street. 

Tulips in front of St. Mary's Hall

Two houses away

The dogwood and the Gasson tower are at least 150 yards apart.  Shooting at the end of the telephoto range for a 40-150 compresses everything and makes it appear as if I were standing under the tree shooting up. 

Near the library. 

Alongside St. Mary's Hall

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, May 2, 2020

4th Sunday of Easter (Vocation Sunday)

57th Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Priesthood and Vowed Religious Life 
(4th Sunday of Easter)                   

Pope Paul VI designated the Fourth Sunday of Easter as the World Day of Prayer for Vocation in 1963. Much in the Church and religious life has changed since then. One thing that hasn't changed, nor will it ever change, is the uniqueness of the vocation stories of men and women who choose to enter religious life or the diocesan priesthood.  

I am writing this homily with two underlying presuppositions: first, discerning a religious vocation takes time, prayer, conversation, and a willingness to risk it all for God; heavy emphasis on all.  Second, as is true of the vocation to marriage or any of the professions considered vocations, living one's vocation is not always smooth. Persevering in a religious vocation also requires prayer, open conversation with others, and, in a variation on risking it all, not looking back with a sense of longing for what one left behind; rather, looking back with gratitude that the sum total of one's unique life experiences, some of which may have seemed absolutely insignificant at the time, led to this particular order, congregation, monastery, or diocese; to this particular vocation.  

Vocation stories are not new.  Abram's vocation gave him a new name--Abraham--as he became the father of many nations.  One of the most beloved vocation stories from the Old Testament is  from 1 Samuel 3:3-10.  The narrative is frequently chosen as a reading at vow Masses, as it was at ours on 14 August 1999. Many will recognize the roots of the popular hymn "Here I Am Lord" within the story. 

The most important vocation story in the New Testament and, indeed, in all of recorded history, is that of Mary, Mother of Jesus, the Theotokos.  Upon hearing the angel's message she responded: 

"Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum."

“Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.  May it be done unto me 
according to your word.”

Vocation derives from the Latin root: Voco, vocare, vocatus.  
To call.  To name.  To summon. To invite. To challenge.  There is obvious overlap in the meaning of each of these words but each also has unique resonances that help us understand the nature of a particular vocation.  What one man or woman sees as a call another may interpret as a challenge.  An invitation and a summons do not call forth the same feelings from an individual.  Each of us had to figure out the subtle shadings on our own. 

Some Vocation Stories. 

Over the past seven years I've come to know Mother Dolores Hart, and the community of Benedictine nuns at Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, CT.  (Except for a virus the-name-of-which-is-not-to-be-mentioned, I would have spent Holy Week there as main celebrant for the liturgies).  Mother's name will ring a bell with those of a certain age as the actress who gave Elvis his first screen kiss and one of the stars of the movie "Where the Boys Are," a movie that played a role in popularizing the idea of spring break in Florida.  Much to the chagrin of Hollywood, she entered the Abbey in 1963. She celebrated the 50th anniversary of her profession in 2016. 

Mother's definition of a vocation is spot on:  “Many people don't understand the difference between a vocation and your own idea about something.  A vocation is a call – one you don't necessarily want. The only thing I ever wanted to be was an actress. 
But I was called by God.”

"One you don't necessarily want . . . . " That resonates with many of us.  Indeed, many of us strenuously fought the sense of being called by God, until we could no longer find reasons to fight.  

The transition from Hollywood and Broadway star to Benedictine nun was not easy.  As Mother wrote about her first night at the Abbey, “I lay awake on the cot for a long time.  I reached out my arm . . .  I could touch the opposite wall . . .  I lay there, terrified by the enormity of the step I had taken. I began praying as hard as I could that, in spite of the isolation engulfing me, the love in my heart was God Himself trying to strike, if not lightning, at least a match.  I cried myself to sleep that night.  I would cry myself to sleep every night for the next three years.”  If nothing else, novitiate ain't easy.

For fans of women's basketball in general and Villanova sports in particular, the vocation story of Michelle (Shelly) Pennefather is worth knowing.  Still the holder of the basketball scoring record for both men and women at 'Nova she entered the Poor Clare Colletines in Alexandria, VA in 1991.  The PCC is an austere order in which the nuns pronounce the vow of enclosure.  They do not leave the monastery for any reason except medical emergencies.  In explaining her intention to a Villanova teammate she said. " . . . I would never choose this for myself," . . . . I would never leave my family and my friends.  But this is what I'm called to do. I know it. God is calling me. And I'm going to do it."  The echoes of Mother Dolores' 'one you don't necessarily want' are loud and clear.  

The sense of being called, summoned, or invited is the mystery behind every religious vocation.  Chase Hilgenbrink, now a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, played professional soccer in both Chile and Boston before entering Mt. St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD (just across the border with PA on Rt 15). to become a priest.  An ESPN article from 2008 when he was a beginning seminarian included the following: "Chase realized that while he was fulfilling his dream of being a professional soccer player, he didn't actually feel fulfilled. He wondered if he was meant to do something else . . . . Eventually, (he) came to a startling conclusion, . . .: I felt that [God] was calling me to the priesthood." This feeling didn't emerge overnight -- "Chase says he contemplated the possibility of becoming a priest for about 2½ years."  It does take time, if for no other reason than to get used to the idea oneself before sharing it with family and friends. 

My own vocation story began not with a bang, a blinding light, or anything else I can pinpoint.  Rather, despite a successful and thriving medical practice, nice house, adequate money and regular trips to Europe--though not Slovenia, that was a gift of being a Jesuit--there was a growing sense of emptiness, a yearning that had to be fulfilled.  I did not have the vocabulary at the time but several years ago realized that I was seeking what Jesuits call the Magis. The more.  The greater.  However, I was unable to define what the more or greater was.  That took time.  It took about fifteen years from that realization until I entered the Society (It is important to note that at no time did I feel the call to diocesan or parish priesthood.  Diocesan priesthood is a different life, a different vocation, and one to which I am neither called nor suited). 

The moment when everything fell into place is a very clear memory: The Friday morning before Thanksgiving 1992. George Murray, SJ, MD, and I were having coffee at Mass General Hospital after rounds.  Nothing unusual about that.  But then . . . at some point he cleared his throat and stammered:  "There is something I have to ask.  You don't have to answer but I have to ask.  Have you ever considered becoming a priest?  Have you thought about the Jesuits?  Have you given up on the idea?"  

George picked me up at Logan and drove me to the novitiate in Jamaica Plain on entry day in August 1997. He vested me at ordination ten years later. I celebrated and preached his funeral Mass in November 2013, six weeks after he witnessed my final vows.  

Not everyone understands a religious vocation.  I told my Department Chief at the hospital a few hours before our monthly all-staff meeting two weeks after I was accepted to the Society. 

At the end of the meeting he said, "Jack has something to tell you."  Big gulp on my part and a stammer.  The silence was absolute until someone, non-Catholic I might add said, "Congratulations . . . I think."  They did in fact get used to the idea in the six months before I left the department. My chief came to the vow Mass two years later and to our ordination eight years after that.  But, it is not always that easy. 

There are stories of ruptured friendships and broken family ties 
because a parent, sibling, friend or colleague did not accept the decision to enter. Some friends and family have refused to attend vow or ordination Masses or, as I encountered with a man from another order in another country, ever visit the community.

Many of us have been hit with arguments about throwing lives away, wasting educations, or the ever-popular whine, “But you would be an awesome parent."

The arguments, the cajoling, and the whining don't dissuade or convince. They disappoint. They hurt. They hurt a lot. 

What should one do if or when a child, sibling, relative, or friend
reveals that he or she is exploring a vocation to religious life or the priesthood?  How does one respond to learning that his best friend or her brother is going to enter a community?

First:  Don't argue, whine, or try to convince him or her that parenthood would be awesome. Don't ask WHY? with "that" tone of voice.  Second: Ask questions such as "what brought you to this decision?" Listen to the answers. Then ask more questions.   If you truly don't understand admit it.  One friend told me that he didn't understand what I was doing but would try to get used to it.  He did, as was apparent by the time I was ordained.  

Finally, on this vocation Sunday, pray that young men and women will say, with Mary our Mother, 

"Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum."

“May it be done unto me according to your word.”

May it be done unto me according to your summons, your call, your invitation.

And, finally, if you know any young man, or are yourself, wondering about becoming a
Jesuit, call me any time. I'm on Facebook.  Send a PM. 


I frequently offer prayers of gratitude for my vocation.  It took several years to realize that it is even more important to offer prayers of gratitude for the vocations of others who have helped nurture, live, and get over the rough stops in my vocation.  George Murray was, of course, very important in all of those dimensions including the rough spots early on.  Below are photos of another Jesuit whose vocation helped drive aspects of mine and to whom I am forever grateful.  

I met Fr. Ignatius Hung Wan-liu, SJ when we overlapped in theology school.  We became friends and remained so.  Before going to Georgetown in 2002 I was allowed to spend three months in Taipei, where he had returned a few months earlier.  Had my mom not still been living I would have seriously considered asking to return to Taipei to explore the possibility of working there.  Several years later he spent part of a sabbatical at Campion Center when I was there.  

When I went to Australia for tertianship I was allowed to stop in Taipei on the way down and the way back.  The provincial had asked if I wanted to stop in Hawaii on the way home.  As I've no desire to ever go there I asked about Vietnam and Taiwan instead.  The photos below are from September 2011 during the return leg of the trip.  

Benediction at Sacred Heart Chapel in Tien Center, Taipei, Taiwan.  

Ignatius is six foot three.  I always wanted to be six feet but never quite made it.  

Took this from the vestibule to the chapel through the frosted glass doors.  

I love visiting Taipei.  It is very congested and densely populated.  Because of the mountains, over half the land is uninhabitable.  With a population of 23 million on an island the size of Maryland, people are squeezed in.   The roads are a series of rabbit warrens with avenues branching off into streets, alleys, and lanes.  With no sense of direction or Chinese language ability, it was a real challenge not so much going out as getting back.  

Just down the street from the community.  

Taken at Guting Riverside Park.  The lighted bridge is a viaduct rather than a people/traffic bridge.  Took this at 11 PM, having walked alone to Guting, a frequent destination as it was nearby, loaded with equipment including a tripod.  There are only two cities in the world in which I would wander alone along a riverfront at night:  Taipei and Ljubljana.  D.C.?  Not on your life.  

Basketball is perhaps the most international of American-born sports.  

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD