Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Blessing of Friends

   I thought that I would take a different turn in my blog posting and give you another glimpse into my life.  As a Franciscan Friar community life is vitally important to me. As important as it is it is also important to have friends outside of the community, friends who are not priests and religious.  In my case I want friends who while respecting the fact that I am a friar are also people who can be real with me and keep me grounded.  I have been blessed with such friends throughout the course of my life.

   I recently had the good fortune of having a visit from my friend Sharon whom I met when she and her family were parishioners in Buffalo, NY.  She now lives in suburban Atlanta and is near her daughter,a son and some of her grandchildren.  I know that eyebrows can raise when a priest talks about a woman friend, but friends, and nothing more,  describes who we are for each other.  Sharon affirms me in my vocation as priest and friar but also lets me know that I need to have a woman's perspective on life once in a while.  She does that at times to my great consternation.  I believe that we celibate men, though we resist it, need to have this perspective. After all 50% of the people we minister to are women.  We need to be called out of the men's club once in a while.  I also have good friendships with several religious sisters.

   Right from the start of my friar life I have been blessed with friendships with several married couples and their families. Many readers of this blog know that I was once involved with the Marriage Encounter movement. I am a better friar and priest because of these friendships.  For one thing it is easy for us celibates to look at marriage through rose-colored lenses.  Spending time with families has brought me face to face with the challenges that marriage and family life presents.  I am especially grateful for the fact that for many years I have been good friends with Joe and Pat, Lou and Carol, Pete and Lu and Bob (recently deceased) and Gail and with many of their children.  I have been described as a kind of extra uncle. All of them are good, supportive friends, but friends who can call me on my shortcomings.

   And so dear blog readers I give you a window into an important part of my life and hope that you, perhaps, might become a good friend to a priest or religious.  It is a necessary blessing for us.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day--A Franciscan Perspective

  Today is the third Sunday of Easter.  It is also Earth Day.  Discussion of care for the earth and its environment unfortunately feeds into a lot of crazy political comment,  Those on the right dismiss it as tree-hugging and those on the left will always find something not quite politically correct in anything that is said. This, however, is not a political commentary but a spiritual one.

   Pope Benedict XVI has been called "the Green Pope" because of his many comments on the necessity of caring for this earth which God has given us.  Blessed John Paul II likewise spoke frequently on this issue. 

   How does our faith speak to us on this topic?  The answer to this question lies in how we view creation and the Creator.  Genesis has been misread, I believe, and this misreading has lead to  a view that God created nature, and then created man and woman. This leads to a poor understanding of Genesis 1:28 with its command to subdue the earth and have dominion over it.  Such an interpretation has led some to justify the plundering of the earth's resources for selfish ends.  Several articles that I have read recently remind us that any granting of dominion and authority to to subdue given to us humans is to mirror God's dominion over us, a dominion which seeks to give life and build up, a dominion which reflects the ultimate ruling of God's reign.

   I have been fascinated by the pictures that have come to us from the Hubble telescope showing the vastness of the universe and the realization that the whole universe has evolved into what now is. (I hope that readers of this blog understand that Catholics have no problem embracing evolution.).  Though things change and new things emerge we are all part of the same matter that burst forth in the beginning from our creator.  

   St. Francis of Assisi certainly did not have the benefit of understanding the universe and creation in the way that we do but his beautiful Canticle of the Creatures which praises God brother son, sister moon, brother wind and sister water shows a realization that we are part of creation.  All created things are brother and sister to us.  We are not separate entities placed above creation.  In case on misread this canticle as the romantic musings of a young thirteenth century hippy frolicking through the fields of Umbria I remind you that he composed this poem late in his life, after much suffering.  It expresses his beleif that in his broken humanity he is a creature, like other creatures, and God is the creator.

   This doesn't mean the we humans are the same as other creatures.  We are the supposedly rational, intelligent creatures who therefore have a responsibility to take care of the gifts that God has given us.  This calls us to see all around us as a gift to be returned to God in at least as good a condition as God first gave it to us.  This includes our own bodies and all the good things around us.

   I am blessed to live within walking distance of Tampa Bay.  There is beautiful tropical vegetation, beautiful birds flying around, an abundance of fish and the frequent citing of dolphins near the shore.  As I take my regular walks by the bay I engage in the discipline of telling myself that I am part of all this, brother to all of this and that God is good. I often do this in Eagle River, WI in the summertime.  Perhaps you might meditate in a similar way where you live, and if you come across an ugly reminder of what we've done to creation you might think of how you can work to makes things better.

Pelicans at rest by Tampa Bay
On one of the lakes in Eagle River, WI

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Doubting Thomas, Freedom from Fear and Faith

Caravaggio-- Incredulity
   Since I'm sure that there will be an abundance of writing available for this Sunday which is now called Mercy Sunday with its focus on Jesus' commissioning of the apostles to forgive sins in His name I would like to call attention to some other facets of this Sunday's Gospel text from John 20, facets which traditionally have been the focus of this Whit-sun or White Sunday.

   In the beginning of the passage from John 20:19-31 we are told that the disciples were locked in a room out of fear. We are told that it is a "fear of the Jews."  I have stated this before on this blog but I feel that I must repeat it once in a while that the word "Jew" in the Gospel of John must always be understood to mean the temple authorities and not Jews in general, much in the way that people sometimes refer to the "Catholic Church" meaning the Vatican or the bishops and not all Catholics.  The real issue here is that they have not yet embraced the peace, joy and freedom of the Resurrection.  The real wall is not the wall of the room, but their fear.  How often does fear paralyze us and prevent us from seeing Christ and from acting in His name.  How often does fear block us from loving others or from simply enjoying life?  Can we allow Christ to break through the barriers of our fears and set us free?

   And then there is our friend the doubting Thomas portrayed in the Caravaggio painting above. I think that Thomas is too often portrayed as having less faith than the other apostles.  The truth is that the apostles were in general pretty weak in faith, abandoning Jesus on the night before his death as we read elsewhere in the Gospels, not to mention Peter's threefold denial.  What we often miss is that Thomas was not there when Jesus appeared to the others.  He at least was not locked in out of fear.  His lack of faith was a lack of trusting his brother disciples. This, I believe, challenges us in several ways.  For one, are we believable in our witness to the faith?  Do we practice what we preach.  I think that Thomas didn't want to risk believing again and that he didn't find what the others were doing too convincing.  In addition, Thomas was off on his own.  It is difficult to maintain faith apart from the community.  This is one of the many reasons why Church is important, to support us in our faith.  As a friar and priest my faith is stronger not only because of the example of my Franciscan community but also because of the example of so many lay people with whom I cross paths.

   The final component of this Gospel text is the empowering of the disciples to forgive sins in Jesus' name.  Without being set free from fear and confirmed in their faith can they exercise this ministry of forgiveness and proclamation the Reign of God.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

He is Risen, Alleluia! Some Thoughts about Easter and the Church and the Role of women.

   A Blessed Easter to all!  Indeed what is it that we are celebrating? Basically we are celebrating the foundation of our faith. As St. Paul tells us "If he is not risen our faith is in vain." (see 1 Cor, 15, 13-15). Not only are we celebrating that He rose from the dead, but more importantly that He is risen and lives even now.

   It is often said that Christianity is based on the Bible. Not entirely so. The Bible, at least the New Testament, is based on the fact that the Risen Christ appeared to people and that they were believed.  That fact alone inspired Paul and the other New Testament authors to tell the story in writing.

   And whose testimony are we to believe?  Surprisingly it is to Mary Magdalene and some other women that Christ first appears. He then commissions them to tell the apostles who at first are skeptical.  Later He appears to the Apostles, to two distraught followers on the road to Emmaus and to St. Paul who did not know him during His earthly life.

   No one saw Jesus rise.  They saw an empty tomb and they saw Him as the Risen One. (See paintings to the left) Two thousand years of Christianity are based on believing the word of these few people.  And so we should we find them believable?   For one thing I don't think that anyone could have made this up.  Jesus was not resuscitated.  Doctors do that on a pretty regular basis.  He was brought to life by God in a new way, with a body but a body that was glorified, a body in which His wounds are visible to the doubting Thomas and who eats a meal with them, but who also passes through walls.  More important  however than this line of reasoning is the fact that He lives through us and when we allow Him to do so our faith is believable to others.  The transformation of the lives of the early followers is what made faith in the Risen One believable.  That is why the Church is hurt so much when there are scandals, when even many in leadership in the Church do not reflect the life of the Risen One who lives not only with God in heaven, but in and through us who believe.

   Also,  it is the Risen Body of Christ that nourishes us in the Eucharist.  I think that many who do not believe in the real presence think that we Catholics believe we are eating of the earthly flesh of Jesus.  We do believe that in the Eucharist He comes to us body and soul, humanity and divinity, but it is His risen body that we receive.

   It is because we believe today the message that those women passed on to the apostles that we are the Church.  Unfortunately I think that most folks think of the Church as a human organization that promotes belief in Christ and a certain code of conduct.  I could never believe in such a Church.  It is only because I believe that Christ is in the world through the Church, through all of us who believe, that I remain.  That is also why we must do a better job of making believable today the truth that those women passed on to the apostles. And obviously we should never downplay the role of women in God's great plan.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Stop Trying to Be Good-A Holy Week Reflection

Salvador Dali's Crucifixion
 As we begin Holy Week there are some thought's in my mind that I would like to share.  Very often I hear people say that you don't need the Church or religion in general in order to be a good person.  I agree with them.  "Why?", you may ask.

   The answer simply is that Christianity is not about merely being good, although most of us were probably  brought up to think that it was about being good in this life so that we could go to heaven. Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we should be bad. I'm just saying that following Jesus has an entirely different goal. In an earlier blog post on prayer (See July 28, 2011) I pointed out that the purpose of prayer is to seek union with God in Christ, not to get God to do things for us, though we may certainly go to God with petitions.  Here I want to build on that idea.

   As St. Paul tells us regarding our baptism that "we have been united with him through likeness to his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection. (Romans 6:5)  At baptism then we are united with Christ.  From this we understand that our goal in life is to allow that union to come to fruition and to be made complete.  We do this not so much by "trying to be good people,"  but rather by allowing the mystery of Jesus' death an resurrection to transform us so that over the course of a lifetime we more and more become living images of Christ.

    Such a lofty goal may seem beyond the reach of most ordinary Christians, but I think that it is attainable because it is Christ who does the work.  Our job, as the third step of Alcoholics Anonymous says is "to surrender our will and our life."  We Americans live in a competitive society and surrender is a hard pill to swallow.  We would rather have rules and keep them and in so doing feel superior to those who don't. Surrender sounds frightening, like jumping of a cliff into the unknown.  In faith however we believe that we are surrendering to One who loves us totally and unconditionally.  In actuality most of us don't jump off that cliff. Instead we jump a few steps at a time, then a few more until at the end we have surrendered completely and cast ourselves into the arms of a loving God.  May we use this Holy Week to gaze upon the cross and surrender, at least a bit more, to such wondrous love.  By the way. If you do that I promise you that you will also be good.

Moving Out and Moving Ahead Cautiosly