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Friday, February 26, 2010

Listening, a Lenten Penance

This Sunday's Gospel (Luke 9, 28-36) gives us an account of the Transfiguration when Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain and revealed Himself to them in His glory. At the end of this experience a voice comes from heaven and says, "This is my Son, my beloved, listen to Him." That command "to listen" is, I believe, a timely on for today, to listen to God and to listen to one another.

We live in the so-called communication age. We can be in touch with one another rapidly via cell phone, the internet and internet based social communication tools such as Facebook and Tweeter. Anyone can get their message out there, including myself with this blog. We're all talking, but are we listening.

In the halls of congress we find republicans and democrats alike yelling at one another and very few of them are really trying to listen to what the other side has to say. This is especially evident in the health care debate. Similar nonsense happens in the Church as well. On TV and radio talk shows allow callers to express their opinion, as long as they agree with the talk show host. One such host has followers who proudly call themselves "ditto heads", meaning that they don't think for themselves but just "ditto" what the host has to say.

To listen does not mean to give another some attention, a hearing, so that we can argue back and prove ourselves right. To listen means to try and we get inside the skin, inside the world of another, to try to experience life from their point of view. In the end we may still disagree but we gain a greater appreciation for the other's perspective.

Listening is a lost art not only on the grand stage of Church and politics. It is sorely needed in interpersonal relationships, especially in marriage.

How about taking on listening as a Lenten penance. Commit to listening more to you husband, wife, parents, children. Listen to someone with different political and theological opinions. Try to understand what leads them to think they way they do. What thoughts, what life experiences have shaped them. Try not to disagree, even if you do, but simply try to draw them out so that you can see where they're coming from. Make an attempt to find common ground even though you may still disagree.

Think of this. The greatest act of listening is the Incarnation where God becomes one of us to walk in our shoes, to experience life as we experience it, to be like us in all things but sin. We cannot imitate that perfectly, but we can aspire to that great act of listening. To truly listen is one of the greatest acts of love that we can perform. So listen, for Lent.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Growing Church

It is very interesting to realize that our Church is growing in numbers in this country even though within the Church there is anger towards bishops and priests and a lot of bickering about liturgy, liturgical language, the role of women, etc. The Diocese of Atlanta has so many new members coming in on Holy Saturday that the Rite of Election will be held this Sunday at the city's Civic Center rather than at the Cathedral to accommodate the large numbers expected to be there. We are the largest single denomination in the US.

Why is this? I think that is because the faithful people who keep showing up as well as the newcomers who are drawn to us see beyond the externals to what lies deeper behind them. They see the Church to which I was referring in last week's entry entitled,the Church I Love. They experience the mystery of people of faith united in Christ.

It has been said that the greatest proof that the Church is guided by the Spirit is the ineptness and weakness of its leaders. Depending on human resources alone we would have gone down long ago. Wouldn't it be wonderful to say that the leaders help the spirit to work. Many if not most of them do but we need more on board.

Priestly Penitence

During the past week my thoughts turned to Lent, which began yesterday. The first thing that came to mind, even before preparing my Sunday homily, was that perhaps we missed an opportunity for healing. We are in the Year for Priests in the Catholic Church. Much good stuff has been said about the priesthood and people have sent me and other priests letters of support and affirmation. For this I am very grateful. Nonetheless with all the news of sex abuse still continuing, this time in Ireland and the covering up of this abuse as well, and the anger that has come from the way that Church closings and mergers have taken place it would have been wonderful to have priests and bishops dedicate the first Sunday of Lent and the week that follows it as a world time of penance by priests and bishops, penance not only for the big stuff mentioned above, but penance for the arrogance, rudeness, lack of availability that we often show to God's people. First of all we could go to the middle of the sanctuary, kneel down, and ask people's forgiveness for our failures, then we could offer acts of repentance such as giving up some free time during Lent to better serve, visiting shut-ins that have been left to the sole care of lay ministers (This is not a devaluing of lay ministers but an acknowledgment that these good people want to see a priest occasionally),having listening sessions with parishioners to really hear their concerns, and many other possibilities according to each situation.

For my part as much as I try to be kind and available there are some moments of abruptness with folks and I could be much more available to people. I am also guilty of some laziness in preparation of homilies, talks, etc. I ask forgiveness for that and for any way that I fail to reflect Christ who came to serve and not to be served and to give His life as a ransom for the many. Maybe next year there can be such a time during Lent. We priests need to do it and the good Catholic people deserve it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Church I Love

This past week I preached a mission at St. Isabel parish on Sanibel Island in Florida. Even after my first Mass there on Saturday I sensed a special spirit in the people there. What it came from was the fact that in August of 2004 the Church there and many of the homes of the parishioners were devastated by hurricane Charlie, the first of several to sweep across Florida that year. Parishioners, many of whom were facing severe damage to their own homes, banded together and saw to it that a new Church was built on the foundation of the old one. As I heard the story of how that happened I realized that more than a building was put up during this time. What happened is that a Church was renewed, a Church made not of stones but of living flesh and blood people.

It is easy to think of Church as institution, as buildings, as bishops, priests and the Pope. So often I hear people raising the question, “Why is the Catholic Church doing such and such?” or “I’ve had enough of the Church being out of touch, etc.” I too often raise such questions, but they need to be directed at the leaders, not at the Church, because the hierarchy, while vitally important to the life of the Church, is not the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ in the world today. It is a living, breathing community of people, united by their Christ, who suffer, struggle and also rejoice together. They come together to rebuild churches, be it in well off Sanibel Island or in extremely poor Haiti. They stand with each other in tragedy and rejoice with each other in good times.

The church is people who have faith, but whose faith is tested when an eleven year old son dies in a car accident, or a young mother dies of cancer. They are hurt by priests who are arrogant, rude and unavailable and by bishops who are more interested in protecting the institution, than in cherishing the mystery of the living Church, because they forget that the institution, though necessary, is there only to serve that mystery.
And where is that Church? It is alive and well. I have seen it over and over again in the over 330 parishes in the US and Canada where I have preached missions. These parishes are rich and poor, urban, rural and suburban. They are made up of English and Spanish speaking, as well has Haitians, Vietnamese and others. This is the Church that I love, the Church that sustains me, and to which I gladly give my life.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Thank You Sister

Many readers of this blog are aware that the Vatican is conducting a visitation of the communities of religious sisters here in the U.S. Some might wonder just what a visitation is. In religious communities of women and men, especially at times of chapter when new leadership is to be elected and/or new policies are to be implemented, someone from outside the community is appointed as a visitator. In the case of us Franciscans it is a friar from another province within the order. This visitator visits each community and each individual friar, listening to the stories of the members, affirming the gifts of each one, but also challenging us to live our life more fully. In recent years I have found these moments to be a blessing. This is what a visitation is supposed to do.

In the case of our religious sisters in the US. the visitator is a sister from Rome, under the direction of a Cardinal who will be helped in her task by a team of sisters. I really do pray and I hope you do as well, that our sisters have a visitation in the sense that I described above. I fear though, that instead of a visitation, there will be an investigation, with the outcome predetermined before the stories are heard.

We are in the midst of The Year for priests, called for by the Vatican. During this year I have been deeply touched by the letters of affirmation that I have receieved from several people, thanking me for my vocation and encouraging me to go on. Perhaps we can contact some of the religious women who have educated us and guided us in other ways, and let them know how much we appreciate them and what they have done for us individually and as a Church. We can also let them know that we are praying for them and that we support them and stand with them during this visitation. Thank you Sister, all of you, for your dedicated lives.