The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Play ball!

In case you hadn't noticed, Easter Sunday this year is also opening day for Major League Baseball. Click here for a nice commentary on this happy coincidence.

Go Reds!

(That's the Toledo Mud Hens above, by the way, a photo I took from the ballpark in Toledo a couple summers ago when I was on vacation.)

The Surprise of Life

NOTE: The following is Pope Francis' homily for the Easter Vigil.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In the Gospel of this radiant night of the Easter Vigil, we first meet the women who go the tomb of Jesus with spices to anoint his body (cf. Lk 24:1-3). They go to perform an act of compassion, a traditional act of affection and love for a dear departed person, just as we would. They had followed Jesus, they had listened to his words, they had felt understood by him in their dignity and they had accompanied him to the very end, to Calvary and to the moment when he was taken down from the cross.

We can imagine their feelings as they make their way to the tomb: a certain sadness, sorrow that Jesus had left them, he had died, his life had come to an end. Life would now go on as before. Yet the women continued to feel love, the love for Jesus which now led them to his tomb. But at this point, something completely new and unexpected happens, something which upsets their hearts and their plans, something which will upset their whole life: they see the stone removed from before the tomb, they draw near and they do not find the Lord’s body. It is an event which leaves them perplexed, hesitant, full of questions:“What happened?”, “What is the meaning of all this?” (cf. Lk 24:4).

Doesn’t the same thing also happen to us when something completely new occurs in our everyday life? We stop short, we don’t understand, we don’t know what to do. Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us. We are like the Apostles in the Gospel: often we would prefer to hold on to our own security, to stand in front of a tomb, to think about someone who has died, someone who ultimately lives on only as a memory, like the great historical figures from the past. We are afraid of God’s surprises. Dear brothers and sisters, we are afraid of God’s surprises! He always surprises us! The Lord is like that.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won’t be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

But let us return to the Gospel, to the women, and take one step further. They find the tomb empty, the body of Jesus is not there, something new has happened, but all this still doesn’t tell them anything certain: it raises questions; it leaves them confused, without offering an answer. And suddenly there are two men in dazzling clothes who say:“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; but has risen”(Lk 24:5-6). What was a simple act, done surely out of love – going to the tomb– has now turned into an event, a truly life-changing event. Nothing remains as it was before, not only in the lives of those women, but also in our own lives and in the history of mankind. Jesus is not dead, he has risen, he is alive! He does not simply return to life; rather, he is life itself, because he is the Son of God, the living God (cf. Num 14:21-28; Deut 5:26; Josh 3:10).

Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; Jesus is the everlasting “today” of God. This is how the newness of God appears to the women, the disciples and all of us: as victory over sin, evil and death, over everything that crushes life and makes it seem less human. And this is a message meant for me and for you dear sister, for you dear brother.

How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness... and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive! Let the risen Jesus enter your life, welcome him as a friend, with trust: he is life! If up till now you have kept him at a distance, step forward. He will receive you with open arms. If you have been indifferent, take a risk: you won’t be disappointed. If following him seems difficult, don’t be afraid, trust him, be confident that he is close to you, he is with you and he will give you the peace you are looking for and the strength to live as he would have you do.

There is one last little element that I would like to emphasize in the Gospel for this Easter Vigil. The women encounter the newness of God. Jesus has risen, he is alive! But faced with empty tomb and the two men in brilliant clothes, their first reaction is one of fear: “they were terrified and bowed their faced to the ground,” Saint Luke tells us – they didn’t even have courage to look. But when they hear the message of the Resurrection, they accept it in faith. And the two men in dazzling clothes tell them something of crucial importance: remember. “Remember what he told you when he was still in Galilee… And they remembered his words” (Lk 24:6,8).

This is the invitation to remember their encounter with Jesus, to remember his words, his actions, his life; and it is precisely this loving remembrance of their experience with the Master that enables the women to master their fear and to bring the message of the Resurrection to the Apostles and all the others (cf. Lk 24:9). To remember what God has done and continues to do for me, for us, to remember the road we have travelled; this is what opens our hearts to hope for the future. May we learn to remember everything that God has done in our lives.

In this radiant night, let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary, who treasured all these events in her heart (cf. Lk 2:19,51) and ask the Lord to give us a share in his Resurrection. May he open us to the newness that transforms, to the beautiful surprises of God. May he make us men and women capable of remembering all that he has done in our own lives and in the history of our world. May he help us to feel his presence as the one who is alive and at work in our midst. And may he teach us each day, dear brothers and sisters, not to look among the dead for the Living One. Amen.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The joy of the banquet


On this Day of the Resurrection, we recall the overwhelming, unmerited, totally gratuitous, and life-changing gift of grace that God is always extending to us. This is the central theme of Scripture and our faith tradition: God offers us an eternal share in the divine life—beginning right now. Out of love, God desires to lavish us with his goodness, imploring: “Come to the feast” (Matthew 22:4).
However, we often refuse the invitation. Throughout most of history, human beings (particularly in the West) have clung to the notion that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” We don’t understand unmerited, totally gratuitous grace (or any gift that meets such criteria, it seems). We fear what we think it may demand of us. Sure, the “meal” may be great, but when the bill arrives – look out! Perhaps that’s why we so often hesitate or refuse God’s perpetual invitation of grace.
We are much more comfortable with paying the price of admission, earning our keep, or climbing the ladder of success (even if it means stepping over—or on—others in the process). We don’t know how to accept a free gift. We’d rather earn it—or repay it with an even greater gift, so we can come out on top in the equation. That, we understand. We need to be worthy, and if we can’t, then at least we’re not going to be outdone.
But when it comes to our relationship with God, the fact is that we are outdone—and always will be. We can never “measure up” or achieve God’s favor. And the good news is that we don’t have to! God still says, “Come to the feast.” No payment is required; none will be accepted. The only thing we need to do is recognize and accept God’s invitation, and then enjoy the banquet of grace. In such a state of communion, only then will we be impelled to extend God’s graciousness to others through good works—not as repayment, but as a humble gesture of gratitude and the desire to share our joy with others who have not yet tasted and seen that the Lord is good (cf. Psalm 34:8). Grace is a gift to be given away—only to be replenished in even greater measure.
This theme of grace is woven throughout the entire Bible. For example, it is signified by the manna God rained down on the ancient Israelites in the desert despite their grumpy waywardness (as told in the Book of Exodus). Later, the True Bread from Heaven (cf. John 6:32) shared common meals with a multitude of people—particularly those labeled as being unworthy sinners and outcasts. Then, at the Last Supper, he gathered his still uncomprehending and imperfect disciples, took the bread and wine, blessed it, broke it, and shared it with them, saying “Do this in remembrance of me” (cf. Luke 22:14-20).
Finally, as a profound exclamation point, this Jesus, who so often spoke of festive banquets as a symbol for the Kingdom of God, offered his life to the Father on the cross to demonstrate the gratuitous nature of the eternal banquet. He paid the price, once for all, to open the door of the banquet hall—not after we demonstrate that we are good enough to enter, but while we are still sinners (cf. Romans 5:8). As Richard Rohr has written, “God does not love you because you are good. God loves you because God is good.”
Perfection is not required—only humility and faith. And this applies today—not merely in some distant time and place. Today God “prepares a banquet” for us (cf. Isaiah 49:8; 2Cor. 6:2; Psalm 23:5), holding out to us more abundance than we can possibly imagine. God is merciful, compassionate, loving, faithful, and gracious. He loves to throw a party and wants us all there—now and forever. And he spares no expense: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Isaiah 55:1-2).
Let us not fear the invitation, be distracted from it, ignore it, or misinterpret the entire message as another method of calculating payment. Let us recall that three days after he died on the cross, the single grain of wheat planted in the tomb rose as the Bread of Life and fills our nostrils with the delightful scent of the Holy Spirit (cf. John 20:22).
The joy of the banquet is ours (cf. John 15:11). All we must do is accept it and choose to be transformed by the Risen Life of Christ. All are welcome. Admission is free. Taste and see. The Lord is good.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Holy Saturday, Sabbath of Silence

"By your perseverance, you will gain your souls."
Luke 21:19

"You have laid me
in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark,
in the depths."

Psalm 88:6

Good Friday

"Unless a grain of wheat
falls into the earth
and dies, it remains
just a single grain;
but if it dies,
it bears much fruit.
When I am lifted up
from the earth,
I will draw all people
to myself.
It is finished."

John 12:24, 32; 19:30

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

"Do you

John 13:12

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Holy Week meditation

Jerusalem has sinned grievously
and she has become a thing unclean.
All those who used to honor her despise her;
they have seen her nakedness.
While she herself groans and turns her face away.”
Lamentations 1:8

Tenth Station of the Cross: Jesus is Stripped
of His Garments, by Fr. Donald Walpole, O.S.B.

“Clothes make the person,” Mark Twain once wryly observed. “Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

Figuratively speaking, that’s true, isn’t it? As human beings, we tend to clothe ourselves in all sorts of ways of thinking and acting in order to hide our nakedness—both from those around us, and from ourselves. We (and when I say ‘we’ I mean me, too) project or repress our own shame by putting on all kinds of behavioral garments. We hoard and possess and guard. We murmur and gossip, ridicule and resent. We seek approval and cling to expectations. We fail to fuel the fire of good zeal. We become attached to our positions, projects, and programs—or we envy others theirs. We bask in self-assurance and cast the glare of judgment on those outside our own little circle of light.

As human beings, we dress ourselves with such habits and attitudes because they appear to make us more honorable than we know ourselves to be. We do this because we want to have influence, to be in control, to know and to have it all. Clothes make the person.

We don’t want to be naked. To be naked spiritually means to be vulnerable, to surrender, to not have it all figured out, to have nothing. But in the light of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, it also means something else. It means being freed from what weighs us down. It means being stripped of all the ways of thinking and acting that hinder us from truly experiencing and expressing the love of God in our lives.

As much as we desire that, however, we fear the shame of nakedness, of being exposed, of being found out—just as our first parents did. As we hear in Genesis, Chapter 3:

The woman saw that the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye, and that is was desirable for the knowledge that it could give. So she took some of its fruit and ate it. She gave some also to her husband who was with her, and he ate it.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together to make themselves loin-cloths.
The man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man.

“Where are you?” he asked.

“I heard the sound of you in the garden,” he replied. “I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”

God, of course, gives them a chance to confess, to be forgiven, to be naked once again and be bathed in the splendor of divine light as creation intended. But instead, they blame one another. They cling to the garments of sin, to their knowledge of good and evil—a story that humanity repeats with each generation.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of a “dressing-down” knows how painful and humiliating it can be—especially if it occurs publicly, and even if what is said is all truth. The truth hurts. The truth will set us free, as Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel (8:32), but as a number of historical figures have said in various ways and contexts, “first, it will tick you off.”

We don’t like being stripped of our clothing.

In the Tenth Station of the Cross pictured here, Jesus inserts himself into this very situation of being dressed down—though he enters the picture from the opposite direction. As he is stripped of his clothing before being crucified, we are offered a glimpse of the Jesus proclaimed in the celebrated Philippians hymn: “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). Here, Jesus most visibly takes on the condition of fallen humanity—naked, exposed, and shamed. He is reduced to absolutely nothing. God is mocked by humanity’s disbelief.

“All who see me deride me,” declares the station’s Latin inscription, which, of course, we read in Psalm 22. The verse, which finds its prophetic echo in the synoptic gospel accounts of the Passion, continues:

They curl their lips, they toss their heads.
“He trusted in the Lord, let him save him;
let him release him if this is his friend.”

Interestingly, however, there is no sign of resistance, fury, or even fear on the part of Jesus. He offers no response to his own dressing-down, though it is all orchestrated by deceit, jealousy, and hypocrisy. His stance is one of willful acceptance. He willingly subjects himself to this. He allows his divine splendor to be stripped away from him, and he stands before us as the first Adam after the Fall.

And there it is—the point at which he meets each one of us, so fearful of being stripped bare and revealed for who we really know ourselves to be, despite all our attempts to conceal it. By his loving fidelity, Jesus embraces our human weakness to set us free. By letting go of his divinity, he allows us to grasp it. By tracing the steps of humanity’s Fall from grace, he carries us toward redemption, restoration, and resurrection.

Here, Jesus stands in the mirror before us, not only revealing in his person our own shame, but taking it upon himself in place of his stripped divinity. As St. Paul wrote in the Second Letter to the Corinthians, “For our sake God made the sinless one into sin, so that in him we might become the goodness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). It is not mere substitution; it is an empowering partnership in grace. By being forgiven our shame, we are freed to forgive others in turn, to become the goodness of God. This is the Truth, staring us in the face. We don’t need all those clothes to make us human beings. This is the Human Being!

What an awesome exchange that is! We know all this intellectually, of course, but I wonder how often we stop to consider it from an emotional standpoint. We have to know and encounter it not only with our heads, but with our hearts—in our gut. And while having our shame revealed may indeed make us angry or miserable at first, in the end, this kind of knowledge should lead to joy, mercy and peace. THIS IS GOOD NEWS!!! It doesn’t get any better.

But it takes a while to get there, doesn’t it? We are all works in progress, each at different points along the path of conversion. Each day we are called to embrace more deeply this wonderful and mysterious news. We are called to meet Jesus, traveling daily along the road that he treads, while encountering him together in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers (cf. Acts 2:42). As he shed his divinity, we must continually shed our illusion of divinity to take on the glory of his resurrection. Stripping ourselves spiritually is a process, and along the way, we’re bound to discover layers of clothing we barely knew existed.

As I prepared to enter the monastery in the summer of 2006, I began stripping away a lot of things. By that time, I had already embarked on a new way of life after experiencing a spiritual reawakening and a rediscovery of my faith. I had, only by the grace of God, stopped drinking three years earlier. Now, at the age of 40, I was moving into a new, unknown future in religious life, and I had to let go of other things to which I had been clinging. In three months’ time in that summer of 2006, I divested myself of my house and possessions, my career, my investments, my entire way of life. To some extent, I had to let go of family and friends—some of whom could not, for the life of them, figure out what I was doing. Although these relationships were not ending, they were changing. Most difficult of all, perhaps, I had to let go of my canine companion of 13 years.

None of that was easy. Some of it was extremely difficult. But I was moving toward the path to which I felt God was calling me, and so I had to let go of those things. The experience was both exciting and frightening, but all things considered, I had never felt so free.

When I arrived at the monastery that September, I realized, of course, that I would have to make some “adjustments” to this new way life, but at some level, I assumed that I had already stripped everything away. WRONG!!! Most of those things I just mentioned amounted to physical attachments of one sort or another. They weren’t without emotional elements, but they also didn’t strike at the heart of true conversion. They amounted to a good start, but that’s all, really. I had further to go.

I’m reminded of the character of 74-year-old Fr. Francis Fogarty in Jon Hassler’s short story Keepsakes, who finally comes to this realization just before it would have been too late. In the story, Fr. Fogarty is being relieved of his 23-year-stint as pastor of a small parish in the Upper Midwest to become a live-in chaplain for a group of religious sisters. He enlists the aid of an altar boy to help clear his many possessions from the rectory. Together, the two stand in front of an incinerator and feed it Fr. Fogarty’s sermons, letters, hymns, and poems he had written. Watching the papers turn to ashes in the flames, Fr. Fogarty says to the boy:

All my life I’ve been keeping things, but it’s time to discard my keepsakes. For 23 years I’ve been trying to save the souls around St. Henry’s and I haven’t been tending to my own. Look—the part of your past you can get on paper takes about one afternoon to dispose of. The part that isn’t on paper lasts for eternity.

Just a few weeks later, Fr. Fogarty was dead—but not before he had let go of a number of things he had been clinging to physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In the nearly seven years I’ve been in the monastery, I’ve discovered and struggled with—sometimes quite painfully—layer upon layer of additional so-called garments that still need to be torn away. I’ve had to go deeper than mere physical attachments and try to let go of expectations, passions, old ways of thinking and acting, pieces of my old self. By the grace of God, there’s been some progress, I hope, but I’m not completely unclad yet. And so, as St. Anthony of the Desert said, each day I begin again.

Obviously, I don’t do this on my own. While we all have different vocations, come from diverse backgrounds, and wear various garments still needing to be shed, as baptized Christians, we are all called to the same community of faith within the Body of Christ. Faith, I think, is the key word there. As Christians, we are not just any community, but a community of faith that believes in what is represented here in the Tenth Station of the Cross and the entire Paschal Mystery that encompasses it. As I mentioned earlier, this is a partnership of grace empowering us to become the goodness of God.

In his Rule for monks, St. Benedict captures all this quite nicely, and provides us with a straightforward guide on how we are to live this mystery. In his Prologue, he writes, “The Lord in his love shows us the way of life. Clothed then with faith and the performance of good works, let us set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide” (Prologue 20-21).

Through Baptism and the other Sacraments, the Word of God, and prayer, we are clothed with faith to then perform God’s good works. Our own works do not save us; faith does—as Jesus so often points out in the Gospels. When we are clothed in faith and allow ourselves to be slowly stripped of all the ways of thinking and acting that hinder us from experiencing and expressing the love of God, Christ in his own weakness frees us to become the image of his goodness. Benedict devotes a whole chapter in his Rule explaining how this should be expressed—“The Tools for Good Works” in Chapter 4.

While Benedict never refers to the Letter to the Colossians in his Rule, I’ve often considered one particular passage from this New Testament letter as a perfectly concise summary of what Chaper 4 embodies. In a way, it presents the image of what we strive for as a community of faith:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:12-17)

So, as we look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing as such a community of faith, let us ask ourselves what types of behavioral garments we still need to shed so that we may clothe ourselves with love and become the goodness of God. Let us each ask: “What do I need to let go of?” Perhaps it’s an obsessive pursuit of one type or another. Maybe it’s selfishness or anger or an ancient grudge. It could be regrets or expectations. Perhaps it’s a spiritual restlessness to be anywhere but right here, right now. Maybe it’s envy or the need to be esteemed and admired. Possibly, it’s simple willfulness or the refusal to believe that anyone else has something to teach me. It could be any of those things, none of those things, or something else altogether.

Or, to frame the whole thing in a more positive light, who needs something from me—something which must come specifically from me? What is it? An apology? Compassion or patience? Maybe it’s being generous with my time and giving some of it to someone who is in need physically, emotionally or spiritually. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a smile, an expression of gratitude, or a compliment. Whatever it may be, why can’t I seem to be able to give it up? How might I try?

Is this person who needs something from me, perhaps, my own self?

Whatever the case may be, as a community of faith, let us stand and be stripped bare like Christ, like Adam in the Garden, and not try to cover up, hide, or blame. Let us be willing to become spiritually naked—clothing ourselves only in faith as we strive to be bathed in the splendor of divine light through the performance of good works. As the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts, “Let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us, while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2).

Through faith, with our eyes fixed on the face of Jesus, may we simply … let go.

As Susan Howatch writes in her novel Absolute Truths, “[When one is] stripped of all illusions, one can only repent, and in the face of such repentance one can only be forgiven, and in the face of such forgiveness one can only receive healing and bestow it.”

To paraphrase Howatch further: This is how we witness the process of salvation. This is how we witness redemption. This is how we witness absolute truth:

By letting go of the clothes we think make the human being, by giving up the desire to grasp at divinity, to stop hiding our shame. Then, little by little, we will finally recover our true selves--the image of God who knows how to truly win friends and influence people.

Hear this meditation as it was delivered to the monastic community for a Lenten conference (about 20 minutes long).

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

'Be protectors of God's gifts!'

NOTE: Following is Pope Francis' homily delivered today at his inauguration Mass, coinciding with the Solemnity of St. Joseph, patron of the Church. The text is from the Vatican website. -- Br. Francis (the Non-Pope)

I thank the Lord that I can celebrate this Holy Mass for the inauguration of my Petrine ministry on the solemnity of Saint Joseph, the spouse of the Virgin Mary and the patron of the universal Church. It is a signficant coincidence, and it is also the name-day of my venerable predecessor: we are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude.
I offer a warm greeting to my brother cardinals and bishops, the priests, deacons, men and women religious, and all the lay faithful. I thank the representatives of the other Churches and ecclesial Communities, as well as the representatives of the Jewish community and the other religious communities, for their presence. My cordial greetings go to the Heads of State and Government, the members of the official Delegations from many countries throughout the world, and the Diplomatic Corps.
In the Gospel we heard that “Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (Mt 1:24). These words already point to the mission which God entrusts to Joseph: he is to be the custos, the protector. The protector of whom? Of Mary and Jesus; but this protection is then extended to the Church, as Blessed John Paul II pointed out: “Just as Saint Joseph took loving care of Mary and gladly dedicated himself to Jesus Christ’s upbringing, he likewise watches over and protects Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, of which the Virgin Mary is the exemplar and model” (Redemptoris Custos, 1).
How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand. From the time of his betrothal to Mary until the finding of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem, he is there at every moment with loving care. As the spouse of Mary, he is at her side in good times and bad, on the journey to Bethlehem for the census and in the anxious and joyful hours when she gave birth; amid the drama of the flight into Egypt and during the frantic search for their child in the Temple; and later in the day-to-day life of the home of Nazareth, in the workshop where he taught his trade to Jesus.
How does Joseph respond to his calling to be the protector of Mary, Jesus and the Church? By being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own. This is what God asked of David, as we heard in the first reading. God does not want a house built by men, but faithfulness to his word, to his plan. It is God himself who builds the house, but from living stones sealed by his Spirit. Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!
The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!
Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened. Tragically, in every period of history there are “Herods” who plot death, wreak havoc, and mar the countenance of men and women.
Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!
Here I would add one more thing: caring, protecting, demands goodness, it calls for a certain tenderness. In the Gospels, Saint Joseph appears as a strong and courageous man, a working man, yet in his heart we see great tenderness, which is not the virtue of the weak but rather a sign of strength of spirit and a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love. We must not be afraid of goodness, of tenderness!
Today, together with the feast of Saint Joseph, we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power. Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!
In the second reading, Saint Paul speaks of Abraham, who, “hoping against hope, believed” (Rom 4:18). Hoping against hope! Today too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others. To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope; it is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds; it is to bring the warmth of hope! For believers, for us Christians, like Abraham, like Saint Joseph, the hope that we bring is set against the horizon of God, which has opened up before us in Christ. It is a hope built on the rock which is God.
To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!
I implore the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, Saints Peter and Paul, and Saint Francis, that the Holy Spirit may accompany my ministry, and I ask all of you to pray for me! Amen.

-- Pope Francis

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Truth, goodness and beauty

Associated Press photo

Pope Francis met today for the first time with the media, by most accounts revealing a warm, friendly, humble personality with a sense of humor. “You have been working hard, eh?” he said to the reporters who were present. (Shortly after his election, when he had dinner with all the cardinals who had chosen him as pope, he reportedly joked with them, saying, “May God forgive you for what you have done!”)

According to various news accounts from which I have gleaned, the Pope broke from his script today and told reporters why he had selected the name Francis and what it might signal for the Church during his papacy. He said that when it became clear in the conclave that his fellow cardinals were going to elect him as pope, one of the cardinals leaned over and said to him, “Don't forget the poor.”

“That's when I thought of Francis of Assisi,” Pope Francis said. “And that is how the name came to me: Francis of Assisi, the man of poverty, of peace.”

“Oh how I would like a poor church and a church for the poor,” he continued.

Later he had this to say of the Church: "The church exists to communicate this: truth, goodness and beauty personified. We are called not to communicate ourselves, but this essential trio."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam Franciscum

"Let us begin this journey together.
It is a journey of friendship, of love, of trust, and faith.
Let us pray always for one another.
Let us pray for the whole world.
Let us have a big brotherhood."

Pope Francis

As you are likely aware by now, we have a newly elected Holy Father--Pope Francis, who just hours ago was simply Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina. He is 76, a Jesuit, and the first pope to be chosen from a Latin American country. He is the first pontiff to take the name Francis, and by all accounts that I've read, he's considered to be a very simple, humble, prayerful man. This was certainly projected by his appearance on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome shortly after his election, when he began his remarks by leading the crowd in prayer for his predecessor, Benedict XVI, and then said: "I would like to offer you my blessing, but I would like to ask a favor first. I would like to pray to the Lord so that the prayer of the people blesses also the new pontiff. Let us pray in silence your prayer for me..."

He then bowed his head while the hordes of people crammed into St. Peter's Square (and watching on TV elsewhere around the world) silently prayed for their new Pope. I was especially struck by that--a Pope asking the people to pray for him before he imparted his first papal blessing. I don't know whether anything like that has occurred before, but it was a powerful and beautiful moment--one filled with joyful, hopeful silence in God alone. That seems a very bright beginning to me.

[UPDATE/THURSDAY MORNING: I have been the recipient of some good-natured ribbing by a number of my confreres in the monastery over the Pope's new name. At dinner last night, one said to me: "It's a good thing the new pope didn't take the name Francis de Sales, or you would be difficult to live with!" That very well could be. Fortunately, we have not been presented with that reality. Pope Francis himself, on the other hand, spent his first day "on the job" in Rome today continuing to do what he began last night--being himself, and offering a refreshing simplicity and humility in his approach (he even took the bus back to the hotel with the other cardinals after the election rather than the papal wheels!). Such a modus operandi will certainly make things a little difficult for those who are used to "the way we do it." Pope Francis obviously intends to do things another way, and is not much interested or impressed with pomp and circumstance. Read more about his first hours as Pope and his simple approach to things by clicking HERE. -- Br. Francis]

This morning, I was holed up in my cell working on an upcoming conference I'm to give in the seminary, and also trying to get some reading out of the way for the spiritual direction course I'm in. After lunch in the monastery refectory, I decided to take a brisk walk before diving back into it, first stopping at my Abbey Press office to check on a couple things (and water my plants) before heading back to the monastery. As I approached the door around 1:15 p.m. or so, Saint Meinrad Time, Br. John Mark emerged from one of the school buildings and informed me that there was white smoke over the Sistine Chapel in Rome, signifying that a new pope had been elected. This was signficant because--like many churches throughout the world--we planned to join the universal announcement by ringing the church bells here. So the two of us went into the Archabbey Church, where we were joined by several other monks. Together, we rang all six bells for a full five minutes.

So, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to ring in the new pope! At Vespers this evening, the Abbot will make a formal announcement of Pope Francis' election, and we will all sing the Te Deum while all six bells peal again. At the conclusion of Vespers, after the Angelus, the bells will ring again (I will be helping again). So, there's been a lot of bell-ringing today.

In any event, after the first set of bells had been rung this afternoon, I was torn between returning to my work or watching the event live on TV. As much as I really needed to get some work finished, I just couldn't let history unfold unattended, so I joined a few monks who had gathered in the monastery TV room and waited for the official introduction of the new pontiff. I'm glad I did.

When I did return to my room to compose this post, I discovered a number of email and phone messages waiting for me--all exclaiming excitement over the pope's new name--Francis. Of course, I think it's an excellent choice! I must point out, however, out that the Holy Father has taken the name of St. Francis of Assisi. My patron saint is St. Francis de Sales--though his baptismal name was in honor of Francis of Assisi. In a way, I guess I can claim them both.

I do find it interesting personally that St. Benedict and St. Francis (both of the figures mentioned above) have had a great deal of influence on me spiritually these last 10 years as I experienced my conversion, discerned religious life, and became a Benedictine monk. In the spring of 2006, before I entered  the monastery, I had the opportunity to travel to Italy and was in Assisi, where I prayed at the great saint's tomb. Among other things, St. Francis of Assisi is known as the patron saint of conversion, which his own life story reflects. At that same time, I was working at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, and across the street was the very first cathedral in the Diocese of Toledo, St. Francis de Sales Parish (which is now a chapel). St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists. In 2010, shortly before making solemn vows as a monk of Saint Meinrad, I had another opportunity to travel in Europe, and on this occasion, I spent time at both Sacro Speco, where St. Benedict had lived as a hermit, and Annecy France, where St. Francis de Sales lived and is buried. And now, the two popes that have been elected in those 10 years have taken the names Benedict and Francis. And here I am, a Benedictine named Francis. Interesting how things work out sometimes.

The name Francis, I suspect, was chosen by the new Pope for significant reasons that we may not ever truly grasp, but it sends a good signal. As you surely know, it was at the small church of San Damiano near Assisi in the 13th century that St. Francis experienced his calling before a crucifix, which spoke to him these words: "Go Francis, and repair my Church, which is in ruins."

In a homily delivered in 2010, then-Pope Benedict XVI had this to say about the episode: "At that moment St. Francis thought he was called to repair the small church, but the ruinous state of the building was a symbol of the dramatic and disquieting situation of the Church herself. At that time the Church had a superficial faith which did not shape or transform life, a scarcely zealous clergy, and a chilling of love."

Let us pray:

Lord, source of eternal life and truth,
give to your shepherd Francis
a spirit of courage and right judgment,
a spirit of knowledge and love.
By governing with fidelity
those entrusted to his care,
may he, as successor of the Apostle Peter
and Vicar of Christ,
build your Church into a sacrament
of unity, love and peace
for all the world.


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who knows the way?

NOTE: In the monastery refectory (dining room) this Lent, at the evening meal (taken in silence, with table reading) we are listening to The Apostles and Their Co-Workers (OSV, 2007) by His Holiness Benedict XVI. It is proving very reflective on a number of levels. Last evening, a passage from the chapter on the Apostle Peter caught my ear, and I thought it would be worth sharing. It has much to say to us as a culture and as the Church. Perhaps it takes on more significance these days as the Church prepares to choose the next successor to Peter. -- Br. Francis

Peter was shocked by the Lord's announcement of the Passion and protested , prompting a lively reaction from Jesus (Mark 8:27-35). Peter wanted as Messiah a "divine man" who would fulfill the expectations of the people by imposing his power upon them all. We would also like the Lord to impose his power and transform the world instantly. But Jesus presented himself as a "human God," the Servant of God, who turned the crowd's expectations upside-down by taking a path of humility and suffering.

This is the great alternative that we must learn over and over again: to give priority to our own expectations, rejecting Jesus, or to accept Jesus in the truth of his mission and set aside all of our too human expectations.

Peter, impulsive as he was, did not hestitate to take Jesus aside and rebuke him. Jesus' answer demolished all his false expectations, calling him to conversion and to follow him: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men." It is not for you to show me the way; I take my own way and you should follow me.

Peter thus learned what following Jesus truly means...: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospel's will save it." This is the demanding rule of the following of Christ: one must be able, if necessary, to give up the whole world to save the true values, to save the soul, to save the presence of God in the world. And though with difficulty, Peter accepted the invitation and continued his life in the Master's footsteps.

And it seems to me that these conversions of St. Peter on different occasions, and his whole figure, are a great consolation and a great lesson for us. We too have a desire for God, we too want to be generous, but we too expect God to be strong in the world and to transform the world on the spot, according to our ideas and the needs that we perceive.

God chooses a different way. God chooses the way of the transformation of hearts in suffering and humility. And we, like Peter, must convert, over and over again. We must follow Jesus and not go before him: it is he who shows us the way.

So it is that Peter tells us: You think you have the recipe and that it is up to you to transform Christianity, but it is the Lord who knows the way. It is the Lord who says to me, who says to you: follow me! And we must have the courage and humility to follow Jesus, because he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (cf. John 14:6).

-- His Holiness Benedict XVI

Sunday, March 3, 2013

If today you hear his voice...

A couple weeks ago, David Yonke, a friend and former newspaper colleague of mine before coming to the monastery, visited Saint Meinrad. He is now the editor and community manger for Toledo Faith & Values, a hub website for Religion News LLC's community religion news project (which provides non-sectarian coverage of faith and values news from the Toledo, Ohio, region). While he and another friend were primarily visiting simply to "soak in" Saint Meinrad, David put together a nice 2-minute video (above) from the experience. He captured some really nice images, and on the video you can hear the church bells (with a cameo by Novice Matthew, who is ringing them), listen to the monks chant, and simply experience a little slice of life at Saint Meinrad Archabbey. Enjoy.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Lectio for babies

My nephew Evan (8 months) is getting a head start on the spirit of Lent.
Here, he takes up the practice of
 lectio divina (prayerful reading)....
...Of course, sometimes he just likes to gnaw the book. Then again, God
instructed the prophet Ezekiel to "eat this scroll" (Ezekiel 3:1-3).


Ours is an exterior culture. We like to fix things, make things right—things we can see with our eyes, touch with our hands, and deal with in concrete terms. There’s nothing wrong with any of that; there are a lot of things in this world in need of repair. However, there is another brokenness that calls out to us from our innermost depths—that of the human heart, the life of the spirit.

Unseen and largely unnoticed, this “inner dialogue” of the wounded soul contributes greatly to the collective, exterior troubles of the world at large, which are really only symptoms of a much deeper problem.

Doubt. Anger. Malice. Sorrow. Fear. These are just a few of the spiritual trials that afflict the human heart—and if not faithfully and reasonably confronted, they can lead to great distress interiorly and exteriorly, individually and collectively. Our rich Catholic tradition offers us reliable guidance in this respect—not to remove our trials, but to transform them by God’s grace into good, for ourselves and the world around us.

This book contains five pieces originally published by Abbey Press as titles in the Catholic Perspectives CareNotes series. Presented are pieces of valuable insight into some of our spiritual trials, and the inspiration which can lead to renewed and strengthened faith, peace, mercy, joy, and love. We hope that you will read and reflect on them with the ear of your heart, so that God may be all in all (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28).

NOTE: Above is the Introduction to Through Spiritual Trials, one title in the new Path of Life Publications book series called Pathways which I have edited. Each five-chapter volume focuses on themes originally published in the Catholic Perspectives CareNotes series. For more information on each of the three books published in the series thus far, please click on the corresponding title: Through Spiritual Trials; In Times of Grief; and When Life Is a Struggle. -- Br. Francis