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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In the Blood

Reading the blog of my brother friar Steve Dewitt (A Franciscan abroad, link to the right on this page) brings back memories of my days in Bolivia. I spent a little less than 3 years there between 1981 and 1984, a lot less time than I've spent in other places, nonetheless to borrow a term from Catholic sacramental theology, it left an indelible mark on my soul, mostly for the the better, although there are a few scars as well. Thankfully those have been healed

I think that anyone who spends time away from his or her home country, above all in a poor country, is challenged to stretch, to be open to see life in a different way and to question a lot of the presumptions about life that seemed quite reasonable back at home, and also to appreciate more the many blessings of home.

I could go on at length with various examples, but I'll mention just a few things that come to mind.

1. As a priest and friar I never was big on ecclesiastical pomp and the inner workings of chancery offices and Vatican congregations, but experiencing Church at the level of the campesinos of Bolivia, whose faith is so genuine, real and down to earth, moved me oven further from that dimension of Church, and keeps me grounded in dealing with Church now, helping me to focus on the Church as what is happening in the lives of very real people rather than what is going on at the top.

2. I speak Spanish, perhaps the greatest gift that Bolivia gave me. Sometimes I think that in God's great plan for things that is the reason why I went there. I left Bolivia in a down mood, thinking I had "failed" because my ambition to spend a lifetime there didn't work out. Since returning I spent two years at our largely Spanish speaking parish in Camden, NJ, and now move about the country preaching missions in English and Spanish. With the language comes an openness to the varied cultural differences of the people I meet from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Spanish speaking countries. This has added a richness to my life that would not be there had I not been in Bolivia.

3. My thirst for justice is stronger. I look at issues such as immigration reform, health care, etc. through the lens of my Bolivia years. Likewise my perspective on the present economic downturn is colored by my encounter with a poverty more extreme and severe than anyone here in the US can know.

Again I could go on with more but that could turn into a book. I thought it would be good though to share with you, the readers of this blog, a glimpse into these very important years of my life.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Parish Priest

My summertime experience in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is off and running. Most of you know how much I love being a traveling preacher, a Wandering Friar. It is indeed my vocation within a vocation and I hope to keep on traveling and preaching until I'm unable to do so. That having been said I must say that I love having the opportunity to be a parish priest for a few months here in Wisconsin.

I began traveling from Natick, MA to St. Peter the Fisherman parish in Eagle River, WI, back in 1995. In 1999, due to a shortage of priests here, St. Peter's became part of a three parish cluster with St. Mary in Phelps, WI and St. Albert in Land O'Lakes, WI. Over the years I have grown to feel truly a part of all 3 of the parishes and am warmly welcomed back each year. I enjoy preaching regular Sunday homilies and getting to preside at baptisms, funerals and occasionally a wedding, things i don't get to do while preaching parish missions.

My involvement here has taken me beyond the Catholic parishes to other events in the area. Since 2005 I have been singing with an ecumenical choir at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church here. I love singing and more importantly I have a chance to share faith with other Christians in this nearly 100 member choir. There is a concert from Tuesday through Thursday each year on the last week of July and proceeds from a free will offering go to various local charities. The POPS (for prince of Peace) is a regular part of my summers now as is the American Cancer Society Relay for Life on the first weekend of August. I have been participating in that with St. Peter's team since 2007 after my 2006 diagnosis of prostate cancer.

As I have been sitting here writing this entry at a local wi-fi site several people have stopped to say hello. It's nice to feel a part of the community here and I hope to keep coming back.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Faith and Doubt

The other day I was presented with an interesting question which basically asked if it was sinful to doubt one's faith. My quick response to that is no, doubt is natural and normal, though it would be wrong and careless when presented with doubts not to struggle for deeper understanding.

From my point of view doubt is necessary in order to grow in faith and understanding of the faith. The answers and explanations provided in grammar school often don't satisfy the educated adult mind. I know that it was in the seminary that I began to question some teachings of the Church, as I understood those teachings. Questioning and wrestling with different approaches led me to a deeper understanding of many Church teachings, and a stronger faith in God. Learning that many parts of Scripture were true, but not necessarily historically true, has given me a deeper appreciation of the Scriptures and a deeper conviction that they are the revealed Word of God.One difficulty that we face today however, especially with some of our younger people, is that as they begin to experience doubt they just give up. They don't pursue deeper understanding. Part of this is due to an intellectual laziness on their part, but part of it is due to the fact that many of us Church leaders have never told them that we are available to listen to and discuss their doubts.

Another, and deeper, level of doubt is what happens when we wonder not about a particular Church doctrine, but about the whole thing--Is there a God at all? Is there anything after this life. In the end no expression of doctrine can fully express the great mystery that is God. We are all confronted with a decision to believe, or not believe, that there is a Creator, that there is something more than this earthly life. Though I am a priest I have often visited this question, and always come away with a deeper Yes. Not everyone does however. Though i believe that many of our teachings, while true, are inadequately expressed by an outdated theology and understanding of the universe, I still believe that they point to a deeper mystery which can never be adequately expressed. None other than Thomas Aquinas expresses this at the end of his great work, The Summa Theologica.

A third type of doubt is that created by the bad witness of us Christians, especially those who are leaders. The recent sex abuse crisis is a vivid case in point. This leads people to ask "How can I believe in a Church where such things happen, where priests abuse children and others cover it up?" That is certainly a legitimate question that hopefully leads us to understand that while these things are atrocious and horrible and need to be stopped, the mystery of Church is deeper that the bad example of some leaders. At the same time it helps to realize that this is a true "scandal" in the biblical sense, not because it involves shocking behavior, but because it leads others astray.

There are many wonderful bishops, priests, religious and lay people who provide me with inspiration that strengthens my faith. i pray that more attention can be called to them, especially in the media. At the same time I also believe that it is incumbent on those of us who believe to strive to live lives that reflect those beliefs.

I believe. Amen