Homilies - October 2013

Select a homily to read:
Confirmation at Our Lady, Star of the Sea: October 6, 2013 by Abbot James
Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year: October 13, 2013 by Fr. Boniface
Simple Profession of Brothers Isaiah and Samuel: October 20, 2013 by Abbot James
Talk: Conversion: October 24, 2013 by Abbot James
Thirtieth Sunday of the Year: October 27, 2013 by Fr. Joseph

Confirmation at Our Lady, Star of the Sea

  • October 6, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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The following is a homily given at a Confirmation mass at Our Lady, Star of the Sea in Solomons, MD.

I will, of course, be addressing this homily primarily to the young men and women who are receiving the sacrament of Confirmation today, but I hope that what I say will be of value to everyone. No doubt some of your earliest memories are of gifts that you received at Christmas or on your birthday, so I want to remind you confirmandi that what you are receiving today is itself a gift, and actually one more wonderful than anything that you might once have found gift-wrapped under a Christmas tree or next to a birthday cake. Today’s second reading, from a letter of St. Paul to his friend Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-8, 13-14), began with these words: “I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.” There are probably all sorts of ways to describe the gift he is writing about, but perhaps the best way of all is to see what he says at the very end of that same reading, where he writes: “Take as your norm the sound words that you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us.” To me, those words mean that the gift is above all the Holy Spirit, and that is exactly what I will say to each of you as I anoint your forehead with sacred chrism in the rite of Confirmation itself, for after addressing you by your Confirmation name, I will add the words: “be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Now what does this gift do for you? What does it do for any of us? As a good answer, I think we should look at still another phrase from that letter of St. Paul to Timothy, where he writes: “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice bur rather of power and love and self-control.” Those three spirits—of power and love and self-control—are absolutely crucial for any Christian today, and one way that we can be inspired to let them characterize our own lives is to see how they were lived by some wonderful members of the Church who have gone before us, so let me say something about each one of the three, showing how each was especially manifested in one or another person’s life.

First, power. We might be tempted to shy away from using that word in a positive sense, for power is sometimes understood as implying all sorts of strong-arm tactics: forcefully acting so as to get one’s own way, brutally shunting aside anyone or anything that stands before us as an obstacle. But in fact, every single person whom we revere as a saint was truly a person of power, far removed from the cowardice that is so demeaning to any human being. Let me give you an inspiring example from the life of a French woman who is perhaps not very well-known, at least not in our country, but who was really remarkable.

At my monastery in Washington I teach a course to the seniors in our abbey school, and in just a few weeks we’re going to study the life and writings of Madeleine Delbrêl, who lived mostly in Paris during the first six decades of the twentieth century. Like many young people in France, she grew up in a family that didn’t practice the faith. In fact, her father was so critical of the church and of anything religious that his influence led Madeleine to have almost nothing to do with the church for the first twenty years of her life. Then, however, she happened to be at a dance hall one night and met a group of high-spirited young people in their late teens or early twenties who “danced as well as she danced,… lived as freely as she lived, and even had a better technical and scientific education than she had,” but who also spoke about God as someone “as indispensable to them as the air they breathed.”1 This meeting was Madeleine’s first step on the way to faith. With her new-found friends’ support, she started meeting regularly with a priest who took her through a careful reading of the Bible in such a way that the Scriptures came alive with meaning, and before long she was a deeply committed Catholic and, for the rest of her life, exuded what I can only call “the power of the Holy Spirit.” She opened a series of houses in poor sections of Paris and its environs where the women who lived there had only one rule, the Gospel, which taught them to serve the Lord Jesus in the least of their brothers and sisters. Madeleine and her companions practiced generous hospitality to the poor and homeless, even letting a Moroccan family of twelve occupy the entire second floor of their residence for several months, whereas the family had previously lived in a single room without windows. When the German army occupied Paris during the Second World War, Madeleine would visit Nazi prison camps and detention centers in order to be of help to French men and women held there, disguising herself as an authorized medical assistant or as a prisoner’s relative, even though she risked severe punishment or even execution if caught. That’s the kind of power that St. Paul was talking about in that letter to Timothy, the kind of example that all of us need in order to really live out our faith in deeds and not just in words. Madeleine Delbrêl may one day be beatified and canonized as a saint, but whether or not that happens, she is certainly among those whom the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews calls “a cloud of witnesses,” witnesses and models who strengthen our own faith.

Second, let me say something about what St. Paul calls the spirit of love. Here, too, I’m going to take an example from a French woman, one better known because she is already recognized as a saint: St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Whereas Madeleine lived in the midst of society, as most or all of you will do for the rest of your life, Thérèse lived a strictly enclosed life in a Carmelite convent, and yet her autobiography has inspired millions of people and has been translated into at least a dozen languages. More than anything else, she models for us the spirit of love, all the more strikingly because it was practiced in such unobtrusive ways. For example, in her convent there was an elderly nun who was very cranky, very hard to deal with, always complaining that those helping her get around were going to let her fall down, and so forth. It was to such a nun that Thérèse went out of her way to be especially kind and helpful. About this she later wrote: “When I was guiding Sister St. Pierre, I did it with so much love that I could not possibly have done better had I been guiding Jesus himself.”2 She does go on to say that she didn’t always feel such love in helping Sisters who were hard to get along with, but no matter how she felt, she really did try to serve others as if she were serving Jesus. For any of us, this is a wonderful example of how to practice the most important of all the Christian virtues, love. Some of you may already be having to help sick or elderly relatives or friends, and it may not always be pleasant or come easy, but I urge you to be fully convinced that the gift of the Holy Spirit given in this sacrament of Confirmation will strengthen you to perform such service in a manner befitting a genuine follower of the Lord Jesus.

Third and last, St. Paul writes of the spirit of self-control. This might not sound too exciting, but that great saint actually considered it very important. In one of the few scriptural verses that I’ve ever memorized, he writes in his letter to the Galatians of a ninefold “gift of the Spirit,” rounding out the list precisely with the practice of self-control: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If there were more of this in our American society, we’d all be a lot better off than we are with what some commentators call our “instant-gratification society.” Self-control isn’t just a matter of refusing to do something that would be really unhealthy if not immoral. Even when we want to do something good and virtuous, it will often be more fruitful in the long run if we first have the patience and self-control to get the requisite training. Let me give you another example from the life of Madeleine Delbrêl. After she had become a dedicated member of the church, she wanted to serve people in the best way possible, but she knew that this called for more than just jumping in and immediately doing whatever seemed most helpful to others, so she enrolled in a rigorous three-year course of social work, part of which meant spending time in a foreign country. She worked so hard at this that at the end of the program she got the highest grade possible on her final exam and then, during the Second World War, was asked by the French government to take charge of all the health and social services in the city of Paris, a remarkable sign of the trust that the government had in her. And yet Madeleine constantly insisted that there was nothing extraordinary about her or her fellow-workers, all of whom she referred to as “we, the ordinary people of the streets.” (That’s also the title of her best-known book.)

I should add, by the way, that saintly people like this are not at all gloomy or ultra-serious. Madeleine Delbrêl loved to joke, write funny skits in which she and her friends would be the actors, sometimes dress in ridiculous costumes, and she always preserved a light touch in the way she dealt with others. As St. Teresa of Avila once said, “Lord, preserve us from sad-faced saints.” Good humor is another precious gift of the Holy Spirit, one that we should cultivate along with every other good gift that comes down to us from the one whom St. James, in his epistle, calls the Father of lights. This should be a happy, joyful day for all of you, and I trust you will rejoice with your friends and family throughout this day and, indeed, throughout the year. Once Madeleine Delbrêl turned her life over to the Lord, she said that she had become happier than she ever imagined possible. I know that everyone here at Mary, Star of the Sea parish joins me in wishing such happiness for each of you as you are today sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. May this milestone in your spiritual life be a joyful step on the path that will lead you eventually to the most precious gift of all: eternal life with our loving and saving God.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Charles F. Mann, Madeleine Delbrêl: A Life Beyond Boundaries (San Francisco: New World Press, 1996), 43.
2 Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 2nd ed., trans. John Clarke, O.C.D. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1976), 249.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year

  • October 13, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Boniface

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A teacher once asked her class, “Which is more important – the sun or the moon?” “Why, the moon, of course,” said little Mary (it could have been little Johnny). “Why do you say that?” asked the teacher. “Well,” said Mary, “the moon gives us light at night when we really need it, while the sun gives us light during the day, when we really don’t need it.” When we think about it, the child’s attitude towards the sun may mirror our attitude at times towards God and God’s gifts to us. Mary / Johnny took daylight for granted, forgetting that it came from the sun. In a similar way we can take God’s love and graces for granted, forgetting that our very life and all that we have come from God.1 Our Father Anselm Strittmater, used to say that the problem with Christianity today is that people have been inoculated against it so that they won’t catch the real thing. Although Fr. Anselm’s saying is not the same as that in our story, it does point out that a deep understanding and appreciation of God’s work in us lead to an ever deepening relationship with God.

          In our reading from Kings we find that the Syrian general, Naaman, has been healed of leprosy. The Syrians were not only a foreign pagan peoples but probably at that time hostile to Israel as well. The verses previous to our reading tell us that the prophet Elisha did not address Naaman in person but sent a messenger to tell him to wash in the Jordan. And Naaman was enraged. After all his travels and struggles to get there he expected something dramatic, preferably with incantations and the laying on of hands. It took all the energy of his attendants to convince Naaman to at least try what the prophet had commanded him to do. When Naaman came up out of the Jordan he was rewarded for his obedience. He was not only cleansed of his leprosy, but converted to faith in the God of Israel: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.” And because at that time it was thought that a deity was attached to a particular land, Naaman carted off some earth from Israel so that he could erect an altar on it and offer sacrifice to God in his homeland. With his departure, Naaman disappears from the pages of Scripture and of history. I am sure, however, that his encounter with God through Elisha marked him as a grateful and changed man for the rest of his life. A pagan had been called out of the darkness into the light to become a disciple of Israel’s God. His conversion was to be a foreshadowing of the universal call to faith and salvation.

Samaria and Galilee on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified. Because of the religiously mixed population and lack of orthodox observance of some of its inhabitants, the area’s population was looked down upon by more orthodox Jews.2 We need only think of Nathaniel’s retort to Philip: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” (John 1:46)?

Hoping against hope, these outcasts called out to Jesus: “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!”

It is rare in the gospels that Jesus is called by his name. Usually he is addressed as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Jesus is called by his name only three times in the gospels: when the blind man at Jericho entreats him for his sight, here, and when the Good Thief says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). There is a connection here: Diseases were thought to be the result of sin and the crucified man was executed for his sin. Jesus’ response to the Good Thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise” and what he said to the now cured leper indicate that prayer leads to salvation and opens the way to the kingdom.3

Luke also uses the word “Master” to refer to Jesus’ omnipotence: Peter at the miraculous catch of fish, and on the mountain of transfiguration, the apostles’ plea for help during a storm, and John’s astonishment at seeing someone cast out demons who does not belong to the twelve.4

Jesus simply told the leperss: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” Unlike Naaman who was at first disappointed by a lack of gesturers, the ten simply headed for the required examination and reentry into their communities. How rich is their faith as exemplified by their words and actions! They did not receive their healing while speaking to Jesus but on the way in obedience to his word. Obedience to the Word leads to wholeness and salvation.

But only one returned to give thanks. I don’t think the other nine were ungrateful. They must have been very joyful people, But first things first: first the examination by whoever had charge of these things, and then reunion with their families and loved ones. As understandable as it all is, it was, shall we say, rather self centered. There was no thought of the source of their healing.

The Samaritan’s return is dramatic, energetic and whole hearted: “He returned, glorifying God in a loud voice, and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” Glorifying God, falling prostrate at Jesus’ feet, speaking his praises are all liturgical stances. “Rise,” associated with “your faith has saved you,” is more than merely getting up from the ground. It is reminiscent of being raised from the dead, from death to sin and to a life that comes to those who believe in Christ.5

“Your faith has saved you.” This account of the cleansing/ healing of the lepers is about faith and the universal call to salvation. This theme is emphasized in Luke. Both in the gospels and in Acts he insists on this universal call. Often he points out in his gospel that Jesus himself announced the good news, if not in pagan territory, at least in areas with mixed population and that non-Jews also benefited from his miracles (the cure of the centurion’s slave immediately comes to mind). The book of Acts ends with the declaration of Paul: “Let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles…”6 And we the recipients of this great gift must always be thankful.

All of God’s gifts to us, life itself, flow from God’s great love for us, and it is in the mystery of God’s love for us that we find the answer to the whys of the Word who became incarnate and gave all for us, even his own life.

Gratitude like love leads us outwards and to even greater love. Lack of thankfulness, like a lack of love closes us in on ourselves. Gratitude will open our horizons into an ever deepening faith, an ever deepening love, an ever closer following in the footsteps of Jesus, the Lord.

Like Mary or Johnny, we may become so used to the life giving gifts of God that we neglect their Author. A heartfelt spirit of gratitude will not only deepen our own faith but enable us to share that faith with the world.

Fr. Boniface Von Nell
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1 Mark Link, Challenge 2000, A Daily Meditation Program Based on The           Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius (Allen, Tx, Tabor Publishing, 1993)           128.
2 Days of the Lord: The Liturgical Year, v. 6 Ordinary Time, Year C           Collegeville, Minn., Liturgical Press, 1991)) 254

3 Days of the Lord 254
4 Days of the Lord 254
5 Days of the Lord 255
6 Days of the Lord 256

Simple Profession of Brothers Isaiah and Samuel (29th Sunday of the Year)

  • October 20, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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Brothers Isaiah and Samuel, in asking to make profession according to the Rule of St. Benedict, you are well aware that you aren’t so much making vows to a world-wide religious order as rather to a particular monastic community. Indeed, the very first aspect of profession that Benedict names in his Rule is stability, meaning commitment to a particular group of men, all of whom are intent on the goal that our founder names at the very end of the prologue to his Rule, namely, sharing in the sufferings of Christ so as to deserve to share also in his kingdom.

You are also well aware that such a commitment is to a considerable degree counter-cultural. This was already the case at the beginning of the Christian monastic movement back in the third and fourth century, and it has remained so ever since. Among other things, you are saying “No” to that whole attitude of “greed is good” that has infected the minds of so many of our fellow Americans in recent decades. But it is very important, indeed crucial, to realize that monastic profession is much more a matter of saying “Yes” than “No”—“Yes” first of all to someone, the Lord, but also to values that are very much needed in our country these days.

What I mean is this: In the past few weeks we have seen our entire government stuck in gridlock in a way that has done serious harm to the lives of many Americans and has made us a conundrum and even a laughing stock to people in other parts of the world. Even though the partial shutdown of government has finally ended, the solution is only temporary. To use an image that has become commonplace, Congress has merely kicked the can farther down the road.

Is Benedictine life at all relevant in this situation? I think it is. Consider what one political commentator recently suggested, namely, that the way our elected officials got to this point had less to do with politics than with habits of the mind and heart, and that one of the best things members of Congress could do would be to read and take to heart the Rule of St. Benedict. That commentator argues that monastic life is not some “hopeless throwback to the past” but rather “a window to a future that we desperately need in our society,” a way of life that stresses community over competition, consensus over conflict, service over self-aggrandizement, quiet over chatter, and concern for others over individual gain.1 Each one of those five values is clearly part of the Benedictine way of life. Let’s look very briefly at each:

First, community over competition: In chapter three of the Rule, Benedict says that when there are serious matters to be decided, the abbot is to call the whole community together so that each monk may offer his honest opinion, but the saint insists that “the brothers, for their part, are to express their opinions with all humility, and not to presume to defend their views obstinately.”

Next, consensus over conflict: Actually, the Rule of St. Benedict does not insist on consensus in matters requiring a decision. That same third chapter of the Rule leaves the ultimate decision always to the abbot, even in cases where a majority of the community might judge differently, but over the centuries this proved to be so open to abuse that the constitutions of the various Benedictine congregations throughout the world now specify that on certain matters a majority of the community must be in favor if a particular course of action is to be pursued. Even when the abbot is required only to consult his council of seniors, our English Benedictine constitutions stipulate the following: “The abbot shall summon the council frequently, and always when there are matters of serious importance…. [He] shall pay serious attention to the views of his councilors, and their advice should not be lightly over-ridden, especially if it is unanimous” (Const. 16-17).

Third, service over self-aggrandizement: More than a year ago, in a conference to our community, I pointed out how very frequently the language of “service” is found in the Holy Rule: some form of the verb servire (to serve) appears eleven times, while the related nouns “service” and “servant” appear a total of seven times in this rather short document. In the prologue to his Rule, Benedict calls the monastery “a school for the Lord’s service” (Prol. 45), and at the beginning of chapter five, on obedience, he calls the entire profession of monastic life a “holy service” (RB 5.3), by which he means not only service of God but also of one another. He writes that those assigned to kitchen duties are “to serve one another in love” (RB 35.6) and that the sick brothers are to be “served out of honor for God” (RB 36.4). All of this mirrors the teaching of the Gospel, especially Jesus’ saying that he came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

Fourth, quiet over chatter: Not only is there an entire chapter of the Rule devoted to the importance of silence, but, perhaps more significantly, the very first word of the entire Rule is “Listen,” more specifically “Listen … with the ear of your heart.” So many people nowadays seem to love to hear themselves talk, utterly intent on making sure that their voice prevails. Benedict, however, advises us to be open to the wisdom of others, even saying at one point that the abbot should be sure to listen to the younger members of the community, for the Lord often reveals to them what is best. How different this is from the acrimony that infects much of our Congress today, with all sorts of vilification being thrown across the aisle, so much so that some very respected legislators have even left government service because the atmosphere seemed too poisoned to enable persons of different political persuasions to work together for the common good.

And lastly, concern for others over individual gain: Here we cannot but think of Benedict’s inspiring chapter 72 “On the good zeal of monks,” where he insists that each member of the community is to pursue not what he judges better for himself but instead what he judges better for someone else. And all of this, he writes, is to be done in a spirit of love: love of God, love of one’s abbot, love of one another.

Such love, in the final analysis, ought always to be the primary mark of a monk, as indeed of any Christian. It may not come easily, especially with regard to persons who may be very different in personality or temperament, but let us also never overlook or underestimate what supports we have to encourage and enhance our love of one another. Foremost among these is surely what we do a number of times each day in this very chapel, whether it be the Liturgy of the Hours or the Eucharist. In this respect, let me refer to the teaching of two women that my high-school students have been or will be studying this semester, both of whom had a deep appreciation of Benedictine life. Catherine de Hueck Doherty wrote in one of her books: “We have to begin to love one another in the fullest sense of Christ’s teaching. But to do so we must pray. It is only through prayer that one can follow Christ to Golgotha and up onto the other side of his cross, and to become free through his ascension.”2 And with special reference to the greatest prayer of all, the Eucharist, Catherine’s friend Dorothy Day, who was herself a Benedictine Oblate, once said: “Christ Jesus is present in many ways to his Church…. But He is present most especially in the Eucharistic species…. In Him I can do all things, though without Him I am nothing. I would not dare write or speak or try to follow the vocation God has given me, to work for the poor and for peace, if I did not have the constant reassurance of the Mass.”3

It is surely a blessing for you, Brothers Isaiah and Samuel, to live in a place where your room is only a few minutes away from this chapel, and where you have the privilege of praying several times each day with your brother monks and the possibility of coming here literally any time of the day or night to pray privately. The first reading at today’s Mass spoke of Moses raising his hands in such a way as to help the Israelites in their war against the Amalekites. I admit that this sounds rather magical, but from early Christian times the account has been understood as symbolizing the power of prayer. Indeed, the early Christians often prayed with their hands uplifted more or less the way Moses’ hands were raised there on the mountaintop. In fact, Pope Pius XI once referred to this very account in a document approving the revised statutes of the Carthusian monks. In it, he went on to say: “Those who assiduously fulfill the duty of prayer and penance contribute much more to the increase of the Church and the welfare of humanity than those who labor in tilling the Master’s field, for unless the former drew down from heaven a shower of divine grace to water the field that is being tilled, the evangelical laborers would reap a mere scanty crop from their toil.”4

In accord with those words, I urge you, Brothers Isaiah and Samuel—as indeed, I urge all of us—to be faithful and assiduous in prayer, just as Jesus teaches in today’s parable of the “dishonest judge,” so that through such prayer we may grow in our love of God and one another. Whether or not you agree with that political commentator’s claim that the Rule of St. Benedict is the very best thing the members of Congress could read in order to extricate themselves from the current legislative mess, at the very least you yourselves have the Rule as a sure guide. You have studied it in detail during your year of novitiate, and you now have what I can honestly call the privilege of making your first vowed commitment to it as we turn to the rite of profession.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 Judith Valente, an NPR commentator, referenced in an email from Amanda Skofstad, publicist at Ave Maria Press, received Oct. 15, 2013.
2 Catherine de Hueck Doherty, The Gospel without Compromise, in Modern Spiritual Masters, ed. Robert Ellsberg (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2008), 88.
3 Dorothy Day, quoted by Thomas Michael Loome, “The Real Presence(s) of Christ in the Life and Thought of Dorothy Day,” Houston Catholic Worker, Sept.-Oct. 2013, p. 9.
4 Pope Pius XI, Umbratilem, quoted in Robert Bruce Lockhart, Halfway to Heaven: The Hidden Life of the Sublime Casrthusians (New York: Vanguard Press, 1985), 112.

Talk: Conversion

  • October 24, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Abbot James

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The following is a talk given by Abbot James to the monks on the evening of October 24.

You will all recall from our profession ceremony this past Sunday that Brs. Isaiah and Samuel promised, among other things, conversatio morum. We’ve all heard many times that this term refers basically to the entire monastic way of life but that, in the centuries after Benedict, it was often not understood and so was sometimes changed by scribes to the more readily intelligible term conversio morum, referring in a straightforward way to the need to change or convert one’s former way of life. Even if the change in terminology was in some respects regrettable, stemming simply from ignorance about ancient monastic terminology, it was at least in accord with one of the most central challenges that Jesus gave and still gives to all who would be his followers. His very first words in the oldest Gospel, that according to Mark, are these: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” That word “repent” is in Greek metanoeite, which literally means “have a change of mind” and could just as well be translated as “be converted.” Our entire life should be one of ongoing conversion, of doing what St. Benedict refers to in his prologue when he writes: “The Lord waits for us daily to translate into action … his holy teachings. Therefore our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds. As the Apostle says: Do you not know that the patience of God is leading you to repent (Rom 2:4)? And indeed the Lord assures us of his love, [saying]: I do not wish the death of the sinner, but that he turn back to me and live (Ezek 33:11).” For that reason, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Benedict is primarily calling us to a life of conversion.

Rather than continue on this topic in a general way, I would like to illustrate it with reference to the man who is surely the most talked-about person in the Church today, Pope Francis. It is going to take a while for a really well-researched work to be published about him, but even the books and articles that have so hurriedly been rushed into print give us some precious insights into his own humble and honest acknowledgement of the need for conversion in his own life. All of us can learn a lot from him.

Perhaps the best way to begin is with that interview published in America on September 30 and simultaneously in many other Jesuit publications throughout the world. Early on in that interview, Antonio Spadaro, the Jesuit editor of an Italian Jesuit journal, asked: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” and he got this reply: “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”1 We have, of course, no way of knowing exactly what Pope Francis was referring to, but it could well have referred to certain actions he took as a young Jesuit provincial during the brutal era of dictatorship in Argentina in the 1970s. At that time, a few Jesuits, including two who had been Bergoglio’s former teachers, had set up a new community called Rivadavia in a slum area of Buenos Aires. Among those with whom they worked in the slums was a group with Marxist leanings. Bergoglio was determined to have the Jesuits end this association, both because it was dangerous and because it represented the kind of Liberation Theology that he had been appointed to purge from the order. The men were told that they had to choose either the Rivadavia community or the Society of Jesus.

What happened next is a matter of dispute: whether they were expelled from the Society or whether they simply resigned, although at their provincial’s suggestion. At any rate, Bergoglio then had the archbishop of Buenos Aires withdraw the two priests’ license to say Mass. One of the two later said that this was like a green light for the military to move against them, since they no longer had the clear support of the Church. Three days later they were arrested and brutally tortured, though not killed as so many thousands were in those years, and they were freed five months later, quite possibly because of Bergoglio’s intervention. One of the two died of a heart attack in 2000, the other spent some time in the U.S. and then went to Germany to reside in a Bavarian retreat house, where some years later he and his former provincial met. They concelebrated Mass together, ending with a solemn embrace. An eyewitness at that Mass said that they actually fell into each other’s arms and cried, in a “visceral intermingling of relief, remorse, and repentance.”2

That may well have been part of what Pope Francis referred to when he spoke of himself as a sinner. What we do know is that after some further tumultuous time as provincial he was replaced and sent to Frankfurt, Germany to begin work on a doctorate in theology. Somewhat surprisingly, he soon returned to Argentina and taught for a while in Buenos Aires, but he began to be so critical of various minor details about courses and administration that the new provincial sent him off to the city of Cordoba, where he had no duties other than saying Mass, hearing confessions, giving some spiritual direction, and continuing work on his doctorate (which he never completed). The time in Cordoba, however, seems to have been absolutely central in what could truly be called a conversion. One of his biographers writes of that time as follows:

It was in that wilderness that Bergoglio, a prayerful man who spent at least two hours a day in the presence of God before the tabernacle, looked deep into his own heart and made a radical change…. [He had time] to reflect on his divisive leadership of the Jesuits in Argentina—and on what he had done wrong or inadequately during the Dirty War [at the time of the dictatorship]. He had to confront the fact that, in his inexperience as a young leader, he had allowed the breakdown of the pastoral relationship between himself and the priests in his care….

Bergoglio’s soul was touched profoundly in all this. To understand how deep the examination of his conscience went, it is only necessary to look at his preaching. The need for forgiveness and for God’s mercy has been his dominant theological refrain, both before and after he became Pope. ‘Guilt, without atonement, does not allow us to grow,’ he has said. ‘There’s no clean slate. We have to bless the past with remorse, forgiveness, and atonement.’ The final Lenten letter he left for the people of Buenos Aires before he left for Rome said: ‘Morality is not ‘never falling down’ but ‘always getting up again.’”3

At the time of his installation as pope, he also spoke by television to a huge crowd in the main square of Buenos Aires, and the words he chose are a fine example of what that biographer referred to as the main themes of his preaching. To the tens of thousands gathered at 3:30 a.m. Argentine time, he said:

Dear sons and daughters … I want to ask a favor of your. I want to ask for us to walk together, to care for one another, for you to care for each other. Do not cause harm. Protect life. Protect the family; protect nature; protect the young; protect the elderly…. And draw near to God. God is good. He always forgives and understands. Do not be afraid of him. Draw near to him, and may the Virgin bless you.4

Those words about walking together and caring for one another are a fine summation of what St. Benedict says in the 72nd chapter of his Rule, and the entire trajectory of Pope Francis’s words about “always getting up again” reflects what Benedict writes in his prologue about turning back to the Lord that we may live. Knowing our own imperfections and failings, we can rejoice that the Church has a leader who knows himself to be imperfect but who shows that we need never despair of God’s forgiving mercy.

Abbot James Wiseman
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1 “A Big Heart Open to God,” America Sept. 30, 2013, http://www.americamagazine.org/pope-interview (accessed Oct. 24, 2013).
2 Paul Vallely, Pope Francis: Untying the Knots (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 142.
3 Ibid., 192-93.
4 Ibid., 168-69.

Thirtieth Sunday of the Year

  • October 27, 2013
  • Year C
  • by Fr. Joseph

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If I had to decide which of today's three reading is the most beautiful, I would have to say "the first." There is something most attractive about Sirach's description of the poor widow's prayer piercing the clouds to throne of God, where it remains till God deals with it.

Sirach, one of the so-called Wisdom books, is a long one which deals with many matters: use of speech, choice and treatment of friends, raising of daughters, lending money, and many, many others, but he is smack in the wisdom tradition in his concern for the poor. The wisdom tradition grew out of scribal circles, circles of those learning to read and write, who were generally destined for high positions in the royal court. There was no legal tradition for Israel (lawyers and judges and such); the king was responsible for judgement, but in practice it was mainly in the hands of court officials, so administration of justice was also part of their training. and it is surprising and heart-warming to see how concerned this tradition was for the poor and others whose rights were likely to be trampled on. In the Book of Proverbs, for example, we hear: "He who oppresses the poor blasphemes his maker"; "He who has compassion on the poor lends to the Lord"; "He who shuts his ear to the poor will himself also call and not be heard"; "Injure not the poor because they are poor, nor crush the needy at the gate; For the Lord will defend their cause, and will plunder the lives of those who plunder them." And we find the same sort of thing in wisdom circles outside Israel. For example, an Egyptian instruction: "Do not recognize a widow if thou catchest her in thy field, nor fail to be indulgent to her reply. God desires respect for the poor more than the honoring of the exalted."

Thus we can understand the prophets when they excoriate officials for not remembering and acting on these things in administering justice. For example, Isaiah when he says: "Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter--to those who acquit the guilty for bribes, and deprive the just man of his rights." These officials are guilty of hypocrisy: they occupy positions of authority because of their training but then do things contrary to their training. Isaiah says of such that they "are wise in their own sight, and prudent in their own esteem."

All of this is relevant to today's gospel with Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. These two form an obvious contrast, for a number of reasons. The Pharisee himself begins by claiming the contrast: "I thank you that I am not like other men" and then singles out the tax collector as an example. There is contrast in where they stand, their postures, in what they say. But the most important contrast is the one Jesus Himself declares: the one goes home justified and the other does not.

One failing Jesus cannot abide is hypocrisy. He is gentle with the sinful woman who wept at His feet; He is gentle with the woman taken in adultery. In that case, in fact, He delivers her by uncovering the hypocrisy of her accusers. He does this by the simple expedient of saying, "Let the one among you is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her."

On the other hand He saves His harshest condemnation for the Pharisees. "Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" They fault the disciples for plucking grain on the Sabbath, and they fault Jesus for eating with unwashed hands. Jesus accuses them: " "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self‑indulgence.... Cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean." He accuses them of being white-washed tombs--beautiful on the outside but full bones and every kind of filth.

A large part of their problem is that they did not distinguish between the important and unimportant. In fact it was part of the rabbinic tradition not to distinguish between the lighter and weightier things: everything in the Law was important because it was the Law. So Jesus could rightly accuse them of "straining out a gnat but swallowing down a camel." Because they observed the law with all its minutiae, they thought they could sit in judgment on others who did not.

Our Pharisee of today's parable brags that he fasts twice a week and pays tithes on his whole income. Jesus says: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and fidelity." There are many excellent things in the law: for example, one is not to oppress an alien, one should not wrong a widow or orphan, one should not exact interest on loans; the poor are to be allowed to glean in the fields, you are to help even an enemy, one who hates you, whose donkey has fallen under its load, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Presumably these are some of the "weightier things"--"judgment and mercy and fidelity"--that Jesus says they have neglect.

We ought to be more like the Tax Collector than the Pharisee. But are we? We who are professed religious are in the greater danger. We have publicly embraced a life of perfection by our religious profession, we wear habits to externalize that state, and worst of all, some people out there seem to think we are holy. Well, don't pay any attention to those people. We are what we are and that's it. Again St. Benedict admonishes us not want to be thought holy until we truly are. And any time I THINK I'm holy, I KNOW I'm not!

For the others, the surest sign of being a Pharisee is to be judgmental of others--because they're clothes are too flashy or too dowdy, because the skirt is too short or too long, because they take Communion in the hand instead of in the mouth, or vice versa? Do we judge the homeless man a deadbeat? It's a very tricky business. The other day Pope Francis warned against becoming ideologues. "Ideologies are rigid; there is not Jesus in His tenderness, His love, His meekness. When a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith, he is no longer a disciple of Jesus." Yet the ideologue believes it is precisely his ideology that guarantees that he is good, holy. He has become a Pharisee. Our only safe course is to have the attitude of the Tax Collector and say always, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

Fr. Joseph Jensen
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