Tuesday, October 28, 2014

19 Years

This particular day, brothers and sisters, is a serious warning to me to think very carefully about the burden I carry. Even if I have to think about the weight of it day and night, still this anniversary somehow or other thrusts it on my consciousness in such a way that I am absolutely unable to avoid reflecting on it. And the more the years increase, or rather decrease, and bring me nearer to my last day, which of course is undoubtedly going to come some time or other, the sharper my thoughts become, and ever more full of needles, about what sort of account I can give for you to the Lord our God.

Thus spoke Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) introducing his sermon on the occasion of his anniversary of ordination as bishop (Sermon 339, tr. Edmund Hill, p. 388). Augustine was, of course, a bishop. His responsibilities and burdens as bishop far exceeded my much more modest ones. Still, the sentiments he expressed speak similarly to me on this 19th anniversary of my own priestly ordination.

Looking back at my ordination on a windy autumn Saturday afternoon at Saint Peter's Church in Toronto, Canada, I am amazed at how full these years have been. It is beyond my capacity to try to enumerate all the people and events that have significantly filled these years. The best I can do is to try to remember them all in a global sort of way during my retreat this week with the bishop and priests of the Knoxville Diocese and especially at Mass on this my anniversary day. 

“By virtue of ordination,” Servant of God Isaac Hecker wrote, “the priest becomes a conductor of God’s grace for the people.” 

What a joy and privilege that is! What a joy and privilege it has been for me these 19 years!

Monday, October 27, 2014

On Retreat

Every October the bishop and priests of the diocese go on retreat together. We all go to a wonderful place in North Carolina, which, while I wish it were a little closer, is otherwise an almost perfect place for this purpose. The diocese hires a retreat director, who gives conferences and does the other usual things that are associated with a priests' retreat. We pray Office and Mass together. The food is great, and there is a reasonable amount of relaxed time as well. And, of course, there is the company of one's fellow priests!

In my first assignment, the religious priests were not included in the diocesan priests' retreat. (Perhaps it was presumed our communities took care of all that already.) Here we are, and I am grateful for that. This will be my fifth diocesan retreat with the Knoxville presbyterate, and it is an event I find myself looking forward to more and more each year.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Neighbor

What a scene today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:34-40] presents! Jesus could well be a modern political candidate – or perhaps a delegate at the Synod of Bishops - being pestered by the media, as each group – Pharisees, Sadducees, scholars of the Law - poses some complex question, clearly trying to trap Jesus in his answer!

Like the earlier questions, this was intended to be tricky – tricky because the Law contains 613 commandments. How then to determine which commandment int he law is the greatest? Few, however, would have quarreled with Jesus’ answer, taken straight from the book of Deuteronomy (chapter 6). For centuries, both before Jesus’ time and since, devout Jews have recited those words daily. The lawyer had only asked for one commandment – the greatest one – but Jesus also offered him another – also a familiar one, from the book of Leviticus [Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18]..

Nor was this some isolated injunction. Today’s 1st reading – from Exodus [22:20-26] – illustrates just how demanding the Old Testament is in regard to how to treat one’s neighbor – especially the poor, the weak, the vulnerable. Hence, the Jewish law’s emphasis on just treatment of foreigners and immigrants. Prejudice against foreigners is nothing new, nor was it confined to ancient Israel, of course. The Old Testament repeatedly reminds the people that they too had once been foreigners and were descended from immigrants – as is true of us here today.

So Jesus’ statement that the commandment to love one’s neighbor is like the commandment to love God was not some new invention. It is deeply rooted in the Jewish scriptures, which suggest that, when one wrongs one’s neighbor, one also offends God, in which case God’s justice will make itself felt!

The two commandments are connected, Jesus tells the lawyer. Jesus is here setting out the essential basis for moral living – not something added on to the rest of one’s life, but its essential component. The Bible does not offer quick and easy answers to each and every ethical question that may arise. But what it does do is to describe a relationship between God and us as also among us on which we are challenged to build our individual and collective moral lives.

But who is my neighbor? In Luke’s Gospel [Luke 10:25-37], the lawyer - wanting, we are told, to justify himself - follows up by asking, And who is my neighbor? In this account, there is no follow-up question. Presumably, people took for granted the traditional understanding of neighbor as a fellow-member of the community, a fellow citizen of Israel, someone I am supposed to feel connected to. We can, of course, expand the circle, as Exodus did to include foreigners and immigrants. We can keep expanding the community wider and wider without limit to include ever more people, until we come to consider everyone in the world a neighbor. And, to some extent, that was what Jesus did with the lawyer’s second question in Luke. We are all familiar with his answer – the parable of the Good Samaritan – which certainly suggests a significant broadening in the notion of who my neighbor is.

Still we have to start somewhere. We naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors. Maybe that’s why we get more excited about 2 nurses in Texas who contracted Ebola (and are thankfully now well) than we do about already almost 10,000 cases (at least half of them fatal) in West Africa. Even worse, people often react to real or imagined threats to themselves and their near neighbors in ways which further erode the connections that create and sustain communities. As NY Times columnist David Brooks wrote one day last week: “People seek to build walls, to pull in the circle of trust. They become afraid.”

Again, we all have to start somewhere. So, of course, it will always be the case that we naturally and inevitably think first and foremost of those we have more concrete connections with as our neighbors.  We all start with ourselves and gradually (and with some effort) learn to build bridges outward, starting with family, then moving on to others we share space with or have some common interest with, gradually growing to include all our fellow citizens and, hopefully, even beyond. That is why the commandment says to love your neighbor as yourself. Obviously, we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere starts with ourselves. But a fulfilling human life expands beyond oneself to include others – and then more and more others. The good – but challenging - news that is the Gospel of Jesus keeps expanding the community of neighbors more and more.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 26, 2014.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Isaac Hecker: Priest

Today is the 165th anniversary of Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker's priestly ordination in London on the Redemptorist feast of the Most Holy Redeemer. He had become a Catholic five years before as a result of a prolonged period of spiritual seeking. For Hecker, however, the spiritual search was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was to find. Once the object was found, the search ceased. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never either regretted what he had found or desired to look farther, but rather desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Thus, all of his activity after his conversion was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his personal spiritual search had so earnestly led him, and which would in time transform him into an active, enthusiastic missionary. 

Hecker’s immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in 1843, more than a year before his reception into the Catholic Church, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation [Diary, May 17, 1843]. Then, in 1845, at the Redemptorist parish of The Most Holy Redeemer on New York’s East 3rd Street, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. (In 1732, St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787] had founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer as a society of missionary priests to reach out to the poor urban and rural poor in and around Naples, Italy. One hundred years later in 1832, the first six Redemptorists had arrived to begin work in the United States. The future Saint John Neumann [1811-1860], a Bohemian-born priest of the Diocese of New York  had joined the Order in 1840 and would serve as Provincial Superior of the American Redemptorists from 1847 until his appointment as Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.)

In July 1845, Hecker decided to join his new friends in becoming a Redemptorist. As the story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, the Provincial headquarters of the Redemptorists in the U.S. He showed up at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded him that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot – with none of today's fancy psychological screening processes! He took the train back to New York, said goodbye to his family, and set sail for his new life in Europe. 

As a Redemptorist novice, Hecker felt confirmed in his religious vocation.  In 1846, he wrote to his family: “Now I can say with some degree of certainty that I have found all that I have ever sought. All my seeking is now ended.” 

The path to the priesthood was far from smooth for him, however. According to his own 1857 account: “My noviciate was one of sore trials, for the master of novices seemed not to understand me, and the manifestation of my interior to him was a source of the greatest pain. After about nine or ten months he appeared to recognize the hand of God in my direction in a special manner, conceived a great esteem, and placed an unusual confidence in me, and allowed me, without asking it, though greatly desired, daily communion.… Some fears, however, at not being able to pursue my studies in that state arose in my mind, but he bade me banish them, and my vows were made at the end of the year.” 

His academic difficulties - what he himself described late in life as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors - continued to pose a problem. Hecker, however, remained   convinced that he had a vocation. As he wrote in 1857, "my vocation was to labor for the conversion of my non-Catholic fellow countrymen. This work at first was, it seemed to me, to be accomplished by means of acquired science, but now it had been made plain that God would have it done principally by the aid of His grace; and if left to study at such moments when my mind was free, it would not take a long time for me to acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest."

To their eternal credit, his Redemptorist superiors likewise recognized the authenticity of his vocation. So, after his novitiate in Belgium and some time at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in Clapham; and, on October 23, 1849, he was duly ordained a priest.

Reflecting back later on his difficult experience as a student, he likened himself to the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), famous for how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards. His commitment to the Church as the institutional expression of the Holy Spirit's presence and providential action sustained him in his priestly ministry - even through the suffering inflicted upon him by his religious superiors.

First as a Redemptorist and then as a Paulist, Hecker devoted himself energetically to living out the priestly vocation to which he had been called, until illness drastically limited his activities in his final years. His closest companion in those years, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, wrote that Hecker "knew that this was really a higher form of prayer than any he had yet enjoyed, that it steadily purified his understanding by compelling ceaselessly repeated acts of faith in God’s love, purified his will by constant resignation of every joy except God alone – God received by any mode in which it might please the Divine Majesty to reveal Himself.”


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Voted (Early)

I have already previously (in October 2012) written expressing my ambivalence about the contemporary practice of "Early Voting." (See http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2012/10/voting-early.html). And I have really little to add to what I said there. Yet once again (and for essentially the same practical reason) I find myself taking advantage of the concession of Early Voting. And so, while as an individual I can certainly appreciate the convenience of Early Voting, I cannot resist wondering about its long-term social cost.

Among other things, the act of voting is a symbolic civic ritual, which signifies the voter's participation as a citizen in the society's civic life. Hence, the value of its being public and communal. Growing up, I watched my parents go to the polls on crisp autumn days – first, to register (back then when one had to register every time one planned to vote) and, later, to vote. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” my parents always set a good example faithfully voting in every election. Of course, voting is about expressing one's personal political preferences, but to me voting has always also been about participating in the process, bonding with one's fellow-citizens, and communally legitimizing the winner's mandate to govern – all very important things, that we neglect to our peril!

Nonetheless, I have, on occasion, voted by absentee ballot, when for some reason I was going to be away on Election Day. Likewise, in recent years, I have resorted to the newer and much more convenient practice of Early Voting for essentially the same reason - since I have a community meeting to attend in Washington during election week and therefore cannot vote in person on Election Day. For that reason, I appreciate the opportunity for Early Voting. But I am also conscious of and concerned about the correspondingly diminished significance of the Election Day experience itself. And I can't help but think that the resulting convenience-store approach to voting is in its own way problematic for democratic citizenship. It is like so many other things - self-service gas stations, ATMs, etc. - that our individualistic society fosters, but which may inevitably have a deleterious effect on our society's increasingly fragile  communal bonds.

And so I repeat the question I posed two years ago about Early Voting. Can the symbolic resonance of participating in the electoral process survive being reduced to what seems like yet another convenience-store transaction? As with anything else that has - or once had - a communitarian context and significance, when we align the civic ritual of voting with individual timetables rather than a common calendar, do we, in the long run, run the risk of losing even more of what little we have left of a once much more vibrant civic culture?