Saturday, July 24, 2021

Gettin' Old: Homily for the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly

The Church has designated today as the First World Day for Grandparents and the Elderly.  It is a day to pray for the intention of those who are old, an opportunity to meditate on the great gift of wisdom, and a time to acknowledge the critical role played by elders throughout the world.  Earlier this year Pope Francis announced that the fourth Sunday of July, the Sunday closest to the memorial of Sts. Ann and Joachim, which is tomorrow, will be set aside for this annual observance.


Whether Ann and Joachim were in fact elderly at the time of Mary's birth is a matter for pious speculation. There will be more on that tomorrow.  


It is not easy being old in the young-worshipping, age-denying, and productivity obsessed U. S.  Australian Trappist Michael Casey writes: "Some societies reverence the old, seeing in them the embodiments of ancient wisdom and experience.  We, on the contrary, seem to hanker after illusory youthfulness, so quickly and so irretrievably left behind."  Can't disagree with his assessment.


Among the most insulting of comments directed to an old person is the ever popular and hackneyed, "You're not 83 years Ollllld.  You're 83 years Youuuuuuuuuunnnnng."  A waiter said that to my then 85 year-old mom.  Can't quote her reply in sacred space but I suspect the young man thought twice before saying that again. Insisting that an octogenarian is Youuuuuuuuung efficiently accomplishes two tasks.  It strips the individual of his or her dignity and, more significantly, reveals the speaker's terror of aging, lack of sensitivity, and general unkindness.  


Nothing horrifies Americans more than the thought of aging, the idea of having to live within the physical, cognitive, and functional limits imposed upon us by the aging process. But there are few choices. 


I envied pediatricians only one thing: they have age-linked charts to track a child's physical, psychological, and cognitive development.  One quick checkmark and ya' got that covered. Next patient. 


By way of contrast, the physician specializing in geriatrics or old-age medicine has nothing but a blank piece of paper on which to record the uniqueness that defines the old man or woman sitting on the other side of the desk. No checkmark can summarize the patient's history; no average, below average, or above average designation can describe the narrative of his or her life. 


We become more different as we age.  Department stores group children's clothing by age:  birth to six months, six to twelve months, one to two years, and so on.  I've yet to see a clothes rack designated 65 to 75 years old standing next to the one for 60 to 65 year-olds.  


Some have an easier time with aging than others.  But, our task is not to deny the reality of the old by insisting they are really young despite all evidence to the contrary. If we are to truly honor and respect the elderly we must accept each individual for who, what, and how he or she really is, and not for who, what, and how we want them to be.  


Stanley Hauerwas points out in his book Growing Old in Christ, "one of the problems of our time is the assumption that we can and should live as if we will never grow old." It is an important observation. In chapter twelve of The Book of Job, Job asks, 

“Is not wisdom found among the aged?  

Does not long life bring understanding?”


By denying the reality of age we deny that wisdom, the great gift to those of us who are aging--and with my 72nd birthday screaming down the straightaway toward me, (and upon a quick inspection of my daily medications) I can include myself in that designation. 


Wisdom is a gift to be shared with the young even those unwilling to accept it. 

Wisdom is not innate or genetic. It is acquired through long experience, through success and failure, and most easily by those with a listening heart, and the courage to enter into silence and prayer so as to reflect on one’s life, and that it will indeed end. 


Wisdom has little to do with intelligence or educational achievement.  Wisdom is a force in the world that is critical to civilization, fundamental to being human, and the most significant factor separating us from every lower animal.  Thus, when we insist that an old person is actually young we are denying the individual's existence, disparaging the challenges he or she is facing, and throwing in a complimentary dollop of hostility. 


For many years JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association,  featured cover art with commentary by M. Therese Southgate, a physician who was a self-taught art historian. Some weeks it was the best article in the journal. The May 3,1995 cover was a painting by Henri Amiel who Southgate quoted. "To know how to grow old is the masterwork of wisdom and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."


Others, too,  have reflected on age. The actress Bette Davis was a bit more droll than Amiel: "Old age ain't for sissies"


In his homily on the Feast of the Presentation sometime in the early 1990s Jesuit Father Jim Casciotti observed, "Old age can be a time of bitterness and regret, clinging to the past, and resenting any changes or diminution of independence.  But, to those whose faith has deepened with the years there comes wisdom, integrity, and a sense of providence."


As this annual day for the elderly becomes established in our liturgical calendar, I hope the liturgists have the sense to include in the prayers or readings at Mass Habakkuk's great psalm for the elderly.  I chose it for the first reading at my mom's funeral,  It will be the first reading at mine.  It is a magnificent summary of aging and the great gift of faith:


"For though the fig tree blossom not 

nor fruit be on the vines, 

though the yield of the olive fail 

and the terraces produce no nourishment, 

though the flocks disappear from the fold 

and there be no herd in the stalls,

Yet will I rejoice in the Lord 

and exult in my saving God.

God, my Lord, is my strength; 

he makes my feet swift as those of hinds 

and enables me to go upon the heights."  


Down at the Abbey in CT.  Walked into house to see this reflection of a fireplace in the mirror that has been sitting on the floor for the past two years or so.  

+ Fr.Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, July 17, 2021

The Lord is my Shepherd: Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jer 23:1-6

Ps 23

Eph 2:13-18

Mk 6:30-34


The shepherd was crucial to life in the Ancient Near East. He cared for the flocks that supplied food and wool. He protected the sheep from wild animals and thieves and kept them from getting lost.  The shepherd made certain that the flocks were safe at night and pastured during the day.  It is no surprise then, that the shepherd became a symbol for those with authority over others.  In the Ancient Near East the ideal king was protector, rescuer, and servant of the people.  That ideal was not always met.


Being a shepherd was never easy.  Being responsible for the care, protection and guidance of others is not easy.  It never will be easy.  A good shepherd is a leader but also a companion.  A good shepherd is strong, decisive, and demanding when necessary but gentle and flexible when the situation calls for it. The shepherd keeps the sheep on the right path and seeks out the rebellious ones who stray and become lost. The shepherd loves and cares for the sheep and will lay down his life for them, even the ones who need to be dragged back to reality at times.  Ask any parent.


A parent's vocation is that of shepherd: to guide and protect when necessary, and to keep the kiddos on the right path, while loving and caring for them at all times. The shepherd's responsibilities--and we are all shepherds at times-- are serious and at times burdensome.  The responsibilities must never be ignored or perverted as is made plain in the opening verse from Jeremiah, "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord."


Many of Israel’s kings, about whom Jeremiah was speaking, were unfaithful to their calling. They ignored their roles as shepherds  and rebelled against God by failing to care for those entrusted to them.  The same can be said for many politicians today.  Many of those ancient shepherds had no concern for their flocks but only for themselves.  They ignored the people they were to guide,  allowing them to remain lost and bewildered. Things haven’t changed much. 


Today, there are financial “shepherds” who take good care of themselves with no concern for those whom they serve.  Be it Bernie Madoff and those of his ilk who destroy lives or the Little League president who embezzles funds, the sins are the same though the budgets are different. 


Physicians who knowlingly prescribe ineffective treatments, perform unnecessary surgeries, administer useless therapies, and shill for questionable medications, are no better, as the FDA has recently demonstrated.


Too many news stories describe parents who leave very young children alone and unsupervised. Parents who ignore their responsibilities as they go out to drink, do drugs, gamble, or shop are beneath contempt.


Once we are responsible for the care of others no matter the mode of care, we carry the same responsibilities as the shepherds of the Ancient Near East, and face the same punishment Jeremiah described if we neglect those duties. 


Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my shepherd,'  is probably the most well-known and beloved of the 150 psalms that make up the Church's ancient prayer book.  I will admit that there are times I cannot hear this psalm without memories of the black and white westerns I watched as a kid.  No funeral in Dry Creek Gulch was officially ended until the preacher, wearing a black frock coat, intoned "The Lord is my shepherd . . . " while someone pounded a rough wooden cross into the mound of dirt over the grave while John Wayne stood off to the side, glowered, and caressed his gun.


The images in the psalm speak to our desires for peace, safety, rest, and our wish to be cared for.  The images are comforting and consoling as they invoke the shepherd who gives the sheep rest, cool water, and protection in green pastures.  It is not easy being that shepherd.


The gospel showed that the sheep can be demanding, wanting more than the shepherd can give.  Despite Jesus' fatigue and the apostles' need for rest we heard his response to those who had gone to where they thought Jesus was headed,  “When he saw the crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them . . . . .”  Jesus' hunger and fatigue took a backseat to the needs of the sheep, to the needs of others.  Food and rest would come later.  Placing the needs of others before one's own is part of being a good shepherd in our own vocations, jobs, or occupations or when we are responsible for the care of others.  


Jesus gives us the model of the Good Shepherd.  Our choice is whether or not to  accept or reject that model, whether to choose for or against His example, whether to follow or stray.


Took a Chinese priest friend to Walden Pond two years ago, pre-covid.  It was a great trip  He surprised me when he explained that he had read the book as part of his English studies in China.  Walden is only about 30 minutes away from BC.  I don't go during the summer.  Much too crowded with tourists.  A Wednesday in October is a much better time.  All of the photos below are from that visit.  Fr. Peter is wearing a Penn State sweatshirt because he hadn't brought one of his own, it became quite cool, and, being my mother's son, I took an extra one just in case it got "chilly" (one of her favorite words).  

A reproduction of Thoreau's cabin.  It is about the size of a one car garage as long as that one car isn't an SUV.

Fr. Peter is about 5' 7".  The ceilings are obviously not very high. 

One of the beaches for swimming.  

A direction marker to the cabin. 

I took this photo at noon.  Underexposed it significantly to make it look much later in the day or even in the evening.  The joys of a camera. 

A few moments after the photo above without underexposure. 

Rushes on the shore.  The pond is about 1.7 miles around.  An easy walk.  

Fisherman on the shore. 


+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Spinmeisters and Missionaries: Homily for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Am  7:12-15

Ps 85:9-14

Eph 1:3-14

Mk 6: 7-13


The readings from both Amos and Mark consider the role of the prophet or teacher. Though their roles are not identical, prophet and teacher complement each other and, at times, overlap.  


The Book of Amos is short, only nine chapters.  It is contained in the book of the twelve “minor” prophets.  They are called minor not because it is unimportant or insignificant but because it is brief. Minor refers to the length of the books not their content or impact when compared with the three major prophets: 

The writing of all twelve minor prophets is contained on one scroll that is about the length of a single scroll of any of the three major prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  The twelve were combined so that nothing would be lost.


Amos is an interesting story.  Before he received his prophetic vocation, his call from God to be a prophet, Amos was a shepherd and trimmer of sycamore trees.  He was regular blue-collar guy. This is important to understanding Amos as prophet. He was not a professional prophet whose services could be hired to give prophecies.  His word was not for sale.  


In today's terms he was not a public relations specialist who could spin words and ideas to suit the message his bosses wanted to put out there.  Rather like the U.S. government. He was not a sloganeer who told of a future that could never be even with attractive packaging.  


Because Amos could not be bought he could not be controlled.  However, he was not having an easy time of it. He had given Amaziah a prophecy deemed unfavorable.  Indeed, it was considered treasonous because it would demoralize the people.  For his honesty he was sent into exile.  


Today, as it was in the Ancient Near East, if the truth strikes too close to home, if it is not happy, optimistic, and self-affirming,  if it doesn't meet the current standards of politically correct speech or fit the dominant narrative, even when the dominant narrative is immoral, if sin is called out for what it is, the one who tells that truth is exiled or, in today's modern equivalent, cancelled.  Cancellation, though it is selectively applied,  awaits many modern day prophets who call out sin and immorality for what they are.


Today's professional prophets, i.e. public relations wonks, advertising executives, press agents, and others have done impressive work just in renaming so as to hide the despicableness of the act.  The horror of abortion, has been renamed women's health.  Physician assisted-suicide, is now physician prescribed death. Mutilating surgery has been rebranded as gender affirming. 


Despite the name-changes, they remain evils of great magnitude.  But as was true for the ancient prophet Amos, those who suggests otherwise today, particularly in the bizarre world of academia, and even more bizarre universe of politics will be exiled in some manner. 


Jesus tried to prepare His disciples for the realities they would encounter as they preached the Good News of salvation.  Their message was not going to be accepted without criticism.  It was not going to be accepted without hostility and threat. Their message would result in the conversion of many who heard it, but it would bring persecution and martyrdom at the hands of those who found it threatening.


Like Amos, like the earliest preachers and teachers, many are confronted today with hostility and criticism for preaching the Gospel of Jesus crucified and risen from the dead. Jesus’ charge to the disciples, as he sent them out two-by-two is straightforward.  It can be summarized in two words: “travel light.”   


One commentator notes that the theological significance of this passage is to remind the Church, to remind us, of our origins as a community of missionaries.  The Church's missionary efforts began with the Apostles who followed Jesus, witnessed the Transfiguration, and to whom he appeared after the Resurrection. It has continued in an unbroken line ever since.


Ideally, we are a community called to proclaim the word without fear of the persecution or penalties.  Our task as missionaries, whether we are vowed religious or lay, whether we work in a monastery, a classroom, or live a demanding life within a family, is the same.  That mission is to preach Christ’s Gospel in word and in deed. 


Paul reminds us in the second reading that:  “In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, so that we might exist for the praise of his glory,”


Those who are chosen are sent.  Those who are sent can travel light equipped with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Little else needed.  


Carlo Cardinal Martini, the late Jesuit Archbishop of Milan composed a prayer that echoes these readings: 


“Lord Jesus, we ask you now

to help us to remain with you always, 

to be close to you 

with all the ardor of our hearts, 

to take up joyfully the mission you entrust to us

and that is to continue your presence

and spread the good news of your Resurrection.”


+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, July 3, 2021

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Ez 2:2-5

Ps 123:1-4

2 Cor 12:7-10

Mk 6:1-6


What was the thorn in Paul's flesh?  The second reading raises many questions. It supplies no answers. What was that nagging irritation that kept Paul from being too elated?  What bothered him so much that he likened it to being beaten by an evil spirit?  Don't bother trying to look up an answer. There is no agreement among scholars from Augustine to the present. The hypotheses cover a wide range including physical ailments such as eye disease, recurrent kidney stones, and migraine.  St. John Chrysostom wondered if the thorn was the unending criticism and persecution by Paul's opponents who made his struggle to preach the gospel of the Lord difficult. Some commentators suggest temptations to power, pride, and even sexual lust.   Others wonder if it was the burden of realizing that he was a sinner. Perhaps he was haunted by the guilt for persecuting Jesus' followers or his silent assent to Stephen's martyrdom. The possibilities are endless.  In the end any of our answers or suggestions as to the nature of the thorn will say more about us, and the thorns that dig into our flesh, than they do about Paul. 


How often do we cringe at a memory or wish we could forget how we hurt another?  How often have we given into temptation only to be overwhelmed by guilt afterwards?  The challenge is two-fold: first, to recognize the nature of the thorn that causes our distress, and second, to figure out what we need to do to remove it.


The last verse of the first reading from the Book of Ezekiel is fascinating.  While giving Ezekiel his mission God warns him that it won't be easy, that not everyone will heed the prophecy.  BUT . . . "whether they heed or resist they shall know that a prophet has been among them." This statement is reflected in the gospel.


Whether the people of Jesus' native place listened or closed their ears to the message of this local kid, they all knew there was something different about him.  How else to account for their reactions?  They might not have used the word prophet but there was something they couldn't figure out and, for most of the crowd, couldn't or wouldn't accept. 


The gospel exposes some of the most satisfying yet self-destructive of all sins: smugness and prejudice.  In his commentary on this passage, the late Jesuit scripture scholar, Father Dan Harrington described the crowd’s attitude as the “prejudice of familiarity.”  


Smugness is defined as self-righteous complacency, conceitedness, and even pompousness.  It is closely related to the prejudice of familiarity.  It is the driver behind virtue-signaling. 


Smugness leads some of us to hear this gospel and settle in comfortably with the assumption that: had Ibeen present at this scene I never would have criticized Jesus for being a local kid come back years later.   Inever would have felt that Jesus was the boy from down the street who is so full of himself.  In reality the odds are high that had many of us been standing with the crowd we would have said or felt the same things.  We would have joined in the chorus of disapproval: 


“just who does he think he is?”

“where did that son of a carpenter get all of this?”  

"a little too big for his britches if ya' ask me."


Self-righteousness uninformed by facts can damage relationships with our community, our work, our family life, and just about everywhere else.  Of course, at times we must be skeptical about the new prophet on the scene. There are many charming and convincing sociopaths wandering among us wearing the mantle of prophet.  The dangerous hypocrisy of Elmer Gantry, in the book and movie of the same name, has haunted me for over twenty years. The revival preacher was a conniving shill. 


It is a challenge to first recognize and then heed the “prophets” who live among us, the teachers in our families, the experts about whom we think 

"I remember him when . . . " 

"I remember when she was . . ." 

"I won't believe anything he says, he is a __________

(fill in the name of the political party you most despise)"  

Human nature has not improved in the two millennia since Jesus' birth. 

I'm not optimistic that it will.


Destructive prejudicial pride and smugness cause us to exert premature closure on something we may need to hear.  They are the primary drivers of "cancellation culture" one of the most terrifying trends in the U.S.  Sometimes it is a relief to realize I am much closer to death than to middle age, as some days it seems we are reliving the reign of Jiang Qing, aka Madam Mao Zedong, and her Red Guard, reeducation camps included in the name of sensitivity training and its spawn.  Sometimes it is a relief to realize that as I move through my early seventies I am much closer to death than middle-age.


Smugness causes us to reject truth out of hand simply because we know the messenger or at least know about the messenger.  The prejudice of familiarity and smugness remain particular risks today in society, in families, among coworkers, and for some of us, in our religious communities.


With apologies to Walt Kelly and his most famous Pogo cartoon strip: "We have met the faithless people and they are us." 


There was no homily last week as I was at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Connecticut.  A Chinese priest friend was with me.  I asked him to preach on two of the four days we were there.  Sunday was one of them.  He is an excellent preacher.   Will go back down to the Abbey at the end of this month, alas without Father who has other commitments for that weekend.  

The photos are from Mt. Equinox in Manchester, VT.  One of the best venues I've ever been in for landscape photography.  

Raindrops on roses, daisies, and leaves is one of the most cliched of all photos on photographer web sites.  But it is also fun.  So, I continue to shoot.

The storm clouds to the northwest were ominous.  The light was exquisite.

These were shot in August as the apples were ripening  It takes a little longer at 2600 feet elevation.

One of several lakes on the land. 

The lake is near the guesthouse in which I stay.   Eas to get to any time, unless the dirt road is replaced by mud. 

The Carthusian Motto.  Stat Crux Dum Volvitur Orbis in Latin.

Took this shot in the rain.  The EM1 mk ii camera body is weatherproof.  

+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, June 12, 2021

Mustard Seeds, Kielbasa, and Faith: Homily for 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Ez 17:22-24

Ps 92

2 Cor 5:6-10

Mk 4:26-34


The Bible is many things.  It is a history of the world and a collection of biographies.  It is a rule of life that balances prescriptions and proscriptions, the thou shalls and thou shall nots.  It instructs us in how to respond to God's love and how to treat others.  The psalter is the prayer book that links us to David and to Jesus, both of whom prayed the same psalms we pray today. It is a source of moral teaching and a textbook of faith.  The Bible is also an exquisite form of literature that will never be surpassed.  


Both Testaments use images and multiple literary forms to transmit the rule of life, to teach the prayers,  to model the moral instruction, to make plain the history, and narrate the biographies, in ways that make them indelible and eternal.  


Today's readings, including the psalm,  define and instruct us in the simultaneous simplicity  and complexity of faith using the image of the tree.


Trees supply shade and produce food. They are sources of fuel and things of great beauty;  that beauty is particularly apparent during a New England autumn.  In the deserts of the Ancient Near East the tree marked places where water allowed life to flourish. It is no accident that the tree became the symbol of life. 


The cedar in the Ancient Near East grew to over 125 feet tall and at times twice that. It was a symbol of strength, it was a sign of God's creation. It was a place of safety for the birds that took shelter in its branches, and a place of refreshment for those who sought relief from the heat under its branches.  It was truly a tree of life.  All from a small shoot planted by God on a mountaintop.



Many of Jesus’ parables turn on the question of faith,  how it is nurtured and strengthened; how it directs, or should direct, our lives, how, though given freely and without cost, it requires care and attention if it is to flourish, grow, and continue to sustain us.  Nurturing our faith and living according to that faith is the path to the eternal life promised by Jesus' act of self-surrender.  Like the care of a shoot planted in the ground nurturing faith requires our involvement on a daily basis with prayer, meditation on scripture, and frequent reception of the Eucharist..  


Jesus tells us in both of the short parables in today's gospel that once the seed of faith is planted, it germinates and grows and, when cared for, becomes what it is meant to be.


In the first parable the seed grew though the farmer could not describe how.  Despite being unaware of the early stages of growth, the farmer trusted that it would grow.  And, with time a small seed buried in the ground, nurtured, weeded, and cared for, led to the mature plant of ripe grain ready for harvest.


At only one or two millimeters, or 1/25th of an inch, the mustard seed of the second parable is best described as tiny. 


When I was in high school in the middle of the previous century, Catholic girls wore either a crucifix or a Miraculous Medal around their necks while Protestant girls wore necklaces with crosses or a small crystal globe with a tiny and barely visible mustard seed in the center.  Despite its diminutive size, the mustard seed grows into a very large bush that, while technically not a tree, can grow up to twenty feet high with a twenty foot lateral spread, easily serving as a dwelling for birds and a source of shade and comfort, to say nothing of the many uses of the mustard seed itself--which includes its use as an essential ingredient in truly prime kielbasa.


Just as it takes a long time and favorable conditions for the mustard seed to grow from 1/25th of an inch to twenty feet so it is with faith.  


As we live our faith, cultivate it, and attend to it through prayer, reflection, meditation on scripture, regular confession, and frequent reception of the Eucharist, it matures.  


There are periods of doubt and questioning, particularly when life becomes difficult and dark, or when the situation demands more than we think we can ever give. But, just as we speak of the growing pains of youth, the struggles leading to mature faith are a necessary to our spiritual lives.


As we persevere through difficulties, challenges, and resolve doubt our faith becomes stronger, more resilient, and more able to sustain us.  As our own faith is strengthened through trial it allows us to sustain those whose faith is weak, it allows us to be a shelter for those who need to rest in the branches of our faith when theirs is shaky.  


Paul writes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians,  "We walk by faith, not by sight."  That is the faith of the farmer who plants the seed but sees nothing until it has germinated, taken root, and begun to grow.  Faith is perfectly explained in the Letter to the Hebrews as: "the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen."  Through the eyes of faith we come to see the cross as the tree of all life.  Only through the eyes of faith can we see the cross as the tree through which we were granted salvation and forgiveness of sin. 


The cedar of the first reading, the palm tree of the psalm, and the tree that grows from the tiny mustard seed,  all remind us of the prophecy to restore the House of David.  A prophecy fulfilled through Jesus' obedience to the Father, who, through His death on the cross on the tree of life, defeated death forever.  


The photos are from Horseneck Beach near Westport, MA, a town that sits on the border with Rhode Island.  Have gone down there on rare occasion, usualy in the off-season, to cover Mass.  Made a few trips to the beach while staying at the rectory.  The beach is a state park with no diversions such as restaurants, boardwalks, souvenir shops, or other forms of pollution.  

+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, June 6, 2021

The Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

Ex 24:3-8

Heb 9:11-15

Mk 14:12-16, 22-26


In 2007 the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi, was on Sunday June 10.  The Boston weather that day was as good as it ever gets: blue skies with scattered puffy clouds, pleasantly warm with low humidity, and a nice breeze; the true perfection of early summer in New England.  I remember these details and many others because it was the morning on which I celebrated my first Mass at Campion Center, just twenty-four hours after being ordained by Cardinal O'Malley at St. Ignatius.  Thus, today begins my fifteenth cycle of preaching through the lectionary. 


Solemnities such as this one, the Solemnity of the Holy Trinity that we celebrated last week, and a few others, are different experiences compared with those such as Christmas, Easter, or the Ascension.  They are different because they commemorate a mystery rather than an event.  Christmas, Easter and other feasts commemorate and celebrate specific moments and episodes in our history as Church and as a people.  Each has a narrative flow and a cast of characters. The story can be told and retold.  We can imaginatively place ourselves in the action and participate in that history.  We can close our eyes and see the events unfold. This form of synthetic contemplation is the method Holy Father Ignatius used in his Spiritual Exercises.  


Today however, unlike Christmas, the Resurrection, the Transfiguration and other events, we find ourselves contemplating a mystery of our faith.  Not only 'a' mystery of our faith but, along with the mystery of the Trinity, a central mystery of our faith; the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  We contemplate the gift of Christ, truly and substantially present in our midst in the sacrament.  


It is overwhelming to consider the reality of Christ present in the bread and wine we receive at communion. It is daunting to consider that the Body and Blood of Christ is present in the tabernacle.  Alas, for many too many, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a stumbling block. They can understand symbol.  They can understand sign.  They can even understand metaphor and simile.  But, they can’t understand real. Or perhaps they simply refuse to accept it. 


Each of today's readings remind us of that presence. In an appalling statistic, the majority of American Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Much of the fault for that lies in the laps of priests, deacons, and religious educators who fail to preach and teach this central truth of Catholic faith. 


Historically, blood is the ultimate seal on a promise. The imperfect sacrifices of dumb animals sealed the covenant God forged with Moses.  For this reason, we heard in the first reading how the people vowed, "All that the Lord has said we will heed and do"  as Moses sprinkled them with the blood of dead animals. In the second reading we hear of the perfect sacrifice of Jesus who shed His own blood, "He entered once for all into the sanctuary . . . with HIs own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption." Through his Body and Blood, Jesus is mediator of the new covenant that delivered us from the transgressions under the first covenant and that deliver us from sin.  


A priest need say little by way of comment on today's gospel. It would be absurd to gild this particular lily that narrates the institution of the Eucharist.  We will hear Jesus' words in the formula of institution at the consecration in just a few minutes.  Listen carefully.  We don't hear 'this is a symbol of my body' or 'this represents my blood' or other such Mary McCarthy-like silliness.  Rather, we hear, 


"This is my body." 

"This is my blood."  


words that underlie the great mystery that Flannery O'Connor described in a letter as, "the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."


Today we recall that great gift of the Body and Blood of Christ.  Real.  Substantial. And truly present.  Once we recall that mystery we can only stand in stunned silence and profound gratitude.


My choice for the post-communion hymn at that first Mass fourteen years ago required no thought or decision-making. It was almost too easy. The hymn was custom-written for this feast by Aquinas centuries ago.  


Panis angelicus
fit panis hominum;
Dat panis cœlicus


Thus Angels' Bread is made
the Bread of man today:
the Living Bread from heaven


That Living Bread is true, it is substantial, and it is real.  We need not parse it any further.  We need only receive it with reverence, faith, and deep gratitude.  


I took the photos of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Campion Center in Weston, MA at the request of the former superior who wanted high-resolution shots that he could blow up. The Olympus EM1 mk ii has a function that can create a 50 mp photo. It is a tricky process, requires a tripod, a trigger, and a lot of patience to get the settings.
On 14 August 1999 I pronounced first vows kneeling in front of that altar as Fr Provincial held the Body and Blood of our Lord in front of me. On 10 June 2007 I celebrated my first Mass behind that altar on the Feast of Corpus Christi. On 1 October 2013, once again kneeling in front of the Body and Blood or Our Lord, this time held by Fr. General Adolfo Nicolas, I pronounced final vows. Though the date is unknown, my coffin will lie in front of that altar for the requiem Mass before being taken a few hundred yards down the hill for burial among my Jesuit brohers.

+ Fr Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Requiem Aeternam: A reflection for Memorial Day

31 May 2021

The first commemoration of those who died in war was held in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania in October 1864. That long ago first memorial ceremony was held in a cemetery near what is now the intersection of US 322 and PA 45, a few miles south of Penn State University which had been founded only nine years earlier. 


It is unlikely that the three women who gathered others for that observance, one of whose son was killed and another whose father died in the civil war, foresaw that it would become a national holiday. 


Many Americans of a certain age remember and perhaps use the old term: Decoration Day.  My mom always referred to it that way even after it was officially renamed Memorial Day.  It was, and should be, a time to visit graves and war memorials, to place flags and flowers on the graves of the war dead, to attend public commemorations of the sacrifice made by men and women whose lives were prematurely ended, and, at least in Catholic cemeteries, a time to place candles in memory of the men and women who died in the service of their country. 


Memorial Day is a time to ask why?  The question is not 'why does war happen?'  War is a built-in feature of humans; the world will never be free of war any more than it will be free of sin.  Rather, we ask why men and women voluntarily risk their lives to defend that which they, and we, hold sacred. It is a time to wonder what it was like--and is like--to stand at the induction center, an eighteen year-old high school graduate or a newly minted nurse, being sworn into the military, knowing that he or she might not return.  Today is dedicated to the memory of those who didn't return.  There are more reasons why men and women are willing to risk and lose their lives 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 is gratitude, honor, and prayer.


Memorial Day should not be a day dedicated to automotive deals, clothing sales, cookouts, or that first weekend on the Cape or, for those of you from Pennsylvania, "Down da Shore."  All those things have their place. However,  it is critical that we keep our eyes and hearts fixed on the true meaning of, and reasons for, this day; to honor the memory of those who died protecting us. 


And, as we pray for those men and women, we also pray for their families whose lives were upended and irrevocably changed by their deaths.  The Gold Star mothers.  The dads who never got to play catch with a son or daughter again.   The many who were forced to make pilgrimages to foreign soil to visit the grave of a parent, a sibling, or a best friend buried there, and for those who never knew for sure, and will never know for sure, where a loved one's body is or if it was even buried.  


Be it standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Vietnam Memorial, or the memorial to the War dead in front of where Plymouth High School once stood, the only possible response is to remember, to thank, and to pray: 


Requiem aeternam                      

dona eis, Domine, 

et lux perpetua luceant eis. 

Requiescant in pace. 


"Eternal rest 

grant unto them O Lord, 

and let perpetual light shine upon them. 

May they rest in peace."



+ Fr. Jack, SJ, MD