Tuesday, June 29, 2010

“Per ensis ille, hic per crucis …”

According to venerable ancient tradition, the city of Rome was founded on April 21, 753 BC, by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus, whose father was Mars, the god of war. Abandoned as infants, they had been nursed by a wolf in a grotto beneath Rome’s Palatine Hill. It is said that the two argued about which hill to build on – Romulus preferring the Palatine and Remus the Aventine. In any case, when Romulus began building his city wall on his hill, Remus ridiculed his brother’s work and then ominously jumped over the wall, thus belittling his brother’s accomplishment. Romulus responded by killing him - thus guaranteeing which one of them Rome would be named after! In time, of course, Rome would become the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest empire the world had ever yet known.

To that same city, some 8 centuries after its 1st king’s murder of his brother, came two men, Peter and Paul, brothers not by blood, but by their common faith in Jesus Christ, who had called them to be apostles. The Christian community they found in Rome was small, socially and politically insignificant - an easy target when the Emperor Nero needed scapegoats to blame for a destructive fire in the year A.D. 64. Among those who gave their lives as witnesses to the Christian faith in that 1st Roman persecution of the Church were the apostles Peter and Paul.
Presumably Peter and Paul could have found ways to avoid martyrdom. Many others did, after all. One famous story recounts how Peter could have fled to safety but returned to Rome and embraced his martyrdom after meeting Jesus on the road. “Lord, where are you going,” Peter had asked. “I am going to Rome to be crucified again,” Jesus responded.

If the small, threatened Christian community of Rome required encouragement and confidence to persevere in their new faith, what more powerful reinforcement could they have had than the witness offered by the martyrdom of those two illustrious apostles - Peter, crucified on the Vatican Hill, and Paul, beheaded on the Ostian Way - who were the Church’s link back to the Risen Lord himself!

In the words of the ancient 5th century hymn - Decora lux aeternitatis auream (ascribed to Elpis, wife of the philosopher Boethius) – which is sung on this annual solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul: Founders of Rome, they bind the world in loyalty; One by the sword achieved, one by the cross his fate; With laurelled brows they hold eternal royalty.

The old Rome, which Romulus had founded – powerful pagan Rome – founded on the murder of one brother by another, was, for all its grandeur, a human city like any other, a warring conqueror city to be conquered in turn by other warring conquerors. The new Christian Rome of Peter and Paul ultimately conquered the old Rome, but in a new way. The powerful pagan Rome, founded on the murder of one brother by another, was itself conquered by the faith that empowered the brothers-in-Christ to die together as witnesses to a new way of life.

This feast of Saints Peter and Paul is, not surprisingly, celebrated with greatest solemnity in Rome itself, where 2 famous churches - St. Peter’s Basilica and the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls - rise above their tombs. On this feast, newly appointed metropolitan archbishops receive from the Successor of St. Peter the pallium, a band of lamb’s wool, blessed in January and placed on St. Peter’s tomb, before being conferred as “a symbol of unity and a sign of communion with the Apostolic See, a bond of love, and an incentive to courage” (Ceremonial of Bishops, #1154). This year, three American archbishops will be among the group receiving the pallium – the new archbishops of Cincinnati. Miami, and Milwaukee.

As we celebrate this day made holy for us by the mission and martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul, let us also, as St. Augustine once said on this occasion (Sermon 295), “embrace what they believed, their life, their labors, their sufferings, their preaching, and their confession of faith.”

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Let the dead bury their dead."

“Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
Nowadays, when originally non-Christian practices like cremation compete in popularity with traditional Christian burial, and after-the-fact “memorial services” often replace real funerals, Jesus’ words might not seem quite so shocking as they must certainly have seemed to people in Jesus’ time. In the ancient world, being properly buried was something people worried a lot about, and giving people – particularly one’s relatives – a proper burial was an absolute, not-to-be-neglected, social and religious responsibility. Possibly one of the most moving episodes in all of ancient literature occurs in Homer’s Iliad when King Priam of Troy sneaks into the enemy Greek camp to beg Achilles to give him the body of the hero Hector, so Priam can give his dead son a proper funeral. Certainly Jesus’ startling words, “Let the dead bury their dead,” must have been incredibly shocking to his hearers – and one hopes that they may still sound shocking even to our modern ears.

In contrast to Jesus, Elijah’s treatment of Elisha in today’s 1st reading (1 Kings 19: 16b, 19-21) certainly appears much more moderate, sensitive, and humane - to our way of thinking. Having thrown his cloak over Elisha, ritually designating him as his successor, Elijah was willing nonetheless to allow him sufficient time to provide properly for his family and his employees. Jesus, at least in this instance, certainly seems much less patient.

In pleading, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father,” the would-be-disciple seems to have been saying to Jesus: “I’ll be quite happy to follow you – but on my own schedule, when my life is all in order and all my affairs have been settled - someday, but not quite yet” (an earlier version of Saint Augustine’s so often quoted 4th-century prayer, “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”).

The problem with that, whether for the would-be disciple or anyone else, is that things don’t always go according to plan. Who knows when, if ever, one’s life will be in order? Who knows when, if ever, one will finally be ready? But God’s call comes when God calls – whether we are ready to respond or not. It’s not our timing that counts but God’s time. Jesus’ shockingly over-the-top statement means that this is the moment and now is the time to respond. God’s time is now. God’s call, when and how it comes, is always now – always in the present, pointing us forward, never looking backward.

That's all easier said than done, of course. Even Jesus’ closest disciples seemed more intent on looking back rather than ahead. Witness their preoccupation with the old quarrel with the Samaritans! Jesus, of course, understood the power of the past, its hold on us, the way it constrains us. But he was free enough to live in the present and for the future, and he wanted his disciples to do the same.

Looking back to what was left behind risks turning one in upon oneself. But becoming a disciple involves getting outside of oneself. Living in the present pushes us forward to the future – free for the fullest possible involvement in God’s great plan for the salvation of the world.

Jesus in the Gospel resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem. That he wanted us to understand how demanding and challenging that journey must be is clear from the answers he gave to those who half-heartedly thought they might like to come along. The demand of discipleship is the challenge to look to Jesus alone and not to what was left behind.

For freedom Christ set us free, said Saint Paul (Galatians 5:1). We are invited to live in that new kind of freedom, free to place ourselves in the service of God’s great plan for the world – by reducing our emotional dependence on all those things that keep us stuck in ourselves, all those things that we have allowed ourselves to become so dependent upon, so anxious about, and which inhibit us from moving ahead. We just can’t look back and move ahead at the same time. We have to choose –between whatever is holding us back and frightening us and the freedom to follow into the future with Jesus.

Homily at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NYC, June 27, 2010.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lessons from the Holocaust Museum

I concluded my sightseeing in Washington, DC, today with a visit to the Holocaust Museum. I had been there previously (more than once in fact), but it is always worth another visit.

Observing the widespread ignorance among so many young people about the Second World War, it occurred to me that the Holocaust Museum needs to be complemented by a really good War Museum. (Think London's Imperial War Museum!) Not only would that be desirable in its own terms, it would also better situate the Holocaust (and other tragedies of the 20th century) in their historical context. The Holocaust, after all, in its final and deadliest manifestations, was itself to some extent a consequence of the war (specifically the German conquest of Poland and parts of Russia, etc, with large Jewish populations) and only ended finally as one of the benefits flowing from the total victory of the Allies and the unconditional surrender of Germany.

That point aside, I was really struck this time by how, in hammering home the issue of the refusal of others to take in Jewish refugees, the museum's presentation effectively makes a connection with the larger dimensions of the constant back-and-forth in the American psyche about new immigrants being welcomed - or not - to this land of immigrants. Of course, open immigration would probably not have saved those in eastern Europe who came under German control only after the war had begun, but it would certainly have helped many German and Austrian Jews to escape before the war actually broke out. Whatever conclusions one ends up drawing about immigration policy today, the museum does help highlight the perennial neuralgic character of this issue - and the disastrous human toll bad immigration policies have produced.

Of course, the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust for citizens and statesmen today must be a perpetual vigilance against the enemies of the Jewish people - whether those who would actually push Israel into the Sea, if only they had the actual means at hand to do so, or those who either malevolently or misguidedly offer them aid and comfort.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Discovering Fr. Kino

I'm taking some much needed vacation time this week in Washington, DC, sightseeing with my sister and brother-in-law and my 2 nieces. The heat is oppressively unrelenting. It's much worse than New York, because in New York the tall buildings always provide some shade. Here the uniformly low buildings mean almost no shade at all! In spite of all that, it's great spending time with my family and reconnecting with the major sites of this city where I spent 4 productive seminary years a quarter of a century ago. (Saying it that way really makes it sounds long ago, doesn't it?)

Yesterday, we did the US Capitol tour. I had been there before, of course - the first time in 1961! But there is always something new to be learned, and in any case this was my first visit to the new US Capitol Visitors' Center, which is really very nice (once one gets inside).

The Visitors Center has some of the overflow statues from Statuary Hall. Sometime after the House of Representatives moved out of its original chamber, off from the Rotunda, and into its current quarters, the chamber it had outgrown was converted into National Statuary Hall. Each state was invited to send 2 statues. It has taken quite a long time for all the states to send in their statues. Meanwhile, the growth in the number of states guaranteed that the orignal House Chamber would be too small for its new purpose as well. So statues are now all over the place in the Capitol - and now in the new Visitors' Center as well.

To make a long story short, I had until yesterday believed that there were only 2 Catholic priests in Statuary Hall collection - Bl. Junipero Serra from California and St. Damien from Hawaii. (Needless to say, 2 out of 100 - 2% - would still be an impressive representation!) So it as quite a surprise to discover a third Catholic priest who has received this special honor - the Jesuit missionary Eusebio FranciscoKino (1645-1711) representing the state of Arizona.

Born in northern Italy (in what were then Hapsburg domains), Kino (the German form of Chino) was a Jesuit missionary in Mexico, including the territory which is today Arizona. The base of the statue calls him "Apostle of the Indians," which no doubt summarizes what he would probably have considered his most important accomplishments, although he also apparently had other secular accomplishments as well.

In these days, when the forces of post-modernity are determined to secularize American society, and aspire to rewrite American history to reflect their secularizing bias, it is good to be reminded of the prominent part played by missionaries in the early history of this country and of the essential role of Christianity (and in particular Roman Catholicism) at all stages in our national history.

(Obviously, the photo above is not Fr. Kino, nor even from the Capitol, nor even from yesterday! That's my sister and I posing in front of the North entrance of the White House!)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Reflections on a Royal Wedding

On this centennial Fathers Day, a cheer or two to the future Queen of Sweden, the Crown princess Victoria, for walking down the aisle at her Stockholm wedding yesterday, escorted by her father, King Carl XVI Gustaf. It seems that in ultra-liberal, post-modern Sweden, her action was somewhat controversial. Apparently, even the Lutheran Archbishop who performed the service had earlier rebuked the Princess!

Current custom in Sweden (so I’m told) is for the bride and the groom to walk in together. To be totally honest, personally, I don’t really care all that much how people get down the aisle. For me, what happens at the altar is what matters, although I aprreciate that for many attendees at a wedding the bridal procession may be what they most want to see.

On the other hand, the symbolism of the separate entrances of the bride and the groom - and their corresponding departure together (as in the picture) - does speak effectively to how marriage creates a new family unit from previously separate ones. To whatever extent such traditional rituals reflect the reality we purport to be celebrating, they are an enrichment to the event, and perhaps need to be treasured more than we contemporaries are in the habit of doing.

In its 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the Second Vatican Council approvingly cited these words from an earlier, 16th-century reforming council, the Council of Trent: “If any regions use other praiseworthy customs and ceremonies when celebrating the sacrament of Matrimony, the sacred Synod earnestly desires that these by all means be retained.”

Friday, June 18, 2010

Shakespeare in the Park

Last night I saw The Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino in the role of Shylock) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Merchant of Venice has long been one of my favorite of Shakespeare “comedies.” Besides the ever-popular dramatic elements of a success-against-the-odds romantic love story, tangled interconnections of characters, scenes of comic relief, and cross-dressing characters in disguise, The Merchant of Venice also dramatizes the complex dynamic between justice and mercy, which lies at the heart of the Christian religious story.

When I was a child, when Shakespeare’s plays were still routinely studied in school, I remember memorizing Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech, a court-room plea for mercy framed in the classically Augustinian language of orthodox Christian theology of grace - Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation - and repeating the lesson of the Lord’s Prayer – we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.

How many times have I preached about forgiveness as the core Christian experience – forgiveness freely received, transforming its recipient and empowering one to leave justice behind and become an agent of forgiveness oneself, doing what one would not normally be inclined to do, what does not come naturally, what comes about only by grace? Portia says it all so succinctly!

(For historical reasons, related to the conflictual context surrounding the separation of Christianity from Judaism and going back all the way to the gospels’ characterization of the Pharisees and Saint Paul’s analysis of the relationship between “Law” and “Gospel,” Shakespeare dramatizes the tension between justice and mercy as a conflict between Judaism and Christianity, a problematic which complicates the play, but which really requires a whole separate discussion).

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A City and Church of Immigrants

It is often said that many New Yorkers seldom avail themselves of New York’s famous sites and attractions – except when t hey have visitors to the city. I suspect that is so often said because it is so true! Well, this week a good friend and fellow Paulist from California is visiting, and he wanted to go to the Tenement Museum – something I have often thought I ought to do but have never done. So this morning we schlepped (a good New York city immigrant word) on the "B" train to orchard Street to the museum, and what a treat it turned out to be!

The heart of the Tenement Museum is a real lower east side tenement at 97 Orchard Street. Built in 1863, this tenement apartment building would over the years be home for nearly 7000 working-class immigrants. The museum operates different tours of different ethnic apartments. On-line, one can register in advance for the tour of one’s choice. Or, like us, one can just show up at the museum’s store at 108 Orchard Street, and reserve a spot on the next available tour. I had hoped we’d be able to get on a tour of the Italian immigrant apartment. (After all, my mother spent part of her childhood in a tenement apartment in “Little Italy” just a few blocks away). As it turned out, the next available tour was the Irish one – the experience of Joseph and Brigid Moore and their children, who lived briefly at 97 Orchard Street in the late 1860s (a step-up into what was then a predominantly German neighborhood, from their first apartment in the principal Irish immigrant neighborhood at that time - the infamous "5 Points"). The one-hour tour of the restored 3-room Moore apartment effectively recreates the Irish immigrant experience, including the Wake of one of the Moore children who died in that apartment a few months after her birth. The Moores were parishioners at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Mulberry Street, the same church where Isaac Hecker was received into the Church on August 1, 1844.

The Tenement Museum is a great way for the grandchildren of immigrants, such as myself, to augment our appreciation of our heritage. It’s also a good way for all visitors to reconnect with the immigrant experience which has been so foundations for American history and without which this would never have become the great country it now is - something we as a nation regularly seem to need to be reminded of.

Since we had almost an hour wait before the tour began, I took my friend on a short walk around the neighborhood, stopping at Most Holy Redeemer Church on East 3rd Street, the great German Redemptorist Church which was Isaac Hecker’s New York home from 1851 to 1857, while he was assigned to the Redemptorist mission-band. The juxtaposition of the two seemed to me a good reminder of the close interconnection both between Isaac Hecker and New York, and between Hecker’s religious experience and the American experience.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Life Lived in Love

Today's familiar gospel story (Luke 7:36 - 8:3) has historically also been the basis for one of the New Testament’s most famous instances of mistaken identity – identifying this story's sinful woman in the city with Mary Magdalene. The confusion may be largely due to the fact that Mary Magdalene is in fact mentioned at the end of the story - not however as the sinful woman but as one of the presumably wealthy women, whom Jesus had cured of evil spirits & infirmities, who accompanied Jesus and the 12 from one town and village to another, and who used their personal resources to provide for the material needs of Jesus and the 12. If nothing else, the story of those wealthy women serves as an apt reminder that, from the start, the Church’s mission has always depended upon collaborators able & willing to help pay the bills!

Another misunderstanding concerns Jesus’ relationship with the Pharisees. Pharisees were pious laymen, committed to living as religiously as possible, devoted to observing all the commandments of the Law, but while remaining in society (in other words, not withdrawing into the desert as certain other contemporary Jewish groups apparently did - and certain Christian groups would later do). Pharisees also had certain distinctive beliefs and practices that separated them from the more conservative, priestly aristocracy, known as the Sadducees. Jesus shared many of their beliefs (for example, belief in the eventual resurrection of the dead). After the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisees emerged as the leaders in post-Temple Judaism, setting the stage for most of the next 2000 years of Jewish life. As such, they were in a sense the rivals of the other group to emerge from 1st-century Judaism, the Christians. Reflecting this family quarrel between the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the majority who did not, the New Testament tends to highlight the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. Even so, stories such as this one, in which a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him, remind us that the actual historical relationship between Jesus and the Pharisees was not always unequivocally hostile.

Needless to say, this was not coffee at Starbucks that jesus was invited to. It was a real meal in the Pharisee’s home, precisely the kind of social intimacy and religious fellowship one did not normally share with just anyone.

Shortly before this, Jesus had been acclaimed as a great prophet. The gospel says this report about him spread in all the surrounding region. I suspect Simon the Pharisee had also heard this and wanted to see for himself. Prophecy had long ago officially ceased in Israel, and it was not expected to reappear until the coming of the kingdom. Hence, the excitement generated first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus. Was Jesus really a prophet? Was he the prophet whose coming was so eagerly expected? And how would one know for sure?

This accounts for the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ apparent acceptance of the sinful woman’s attention. If Jesus really were a prophet, the Pharisee said to himself, surely he would know who and what sort of woman she was! Probably he wasn’t the only one there thinking such thoughts! Such formal dinners were public events with other observers in attendance. The woman’s presence in the crowd standing behind the guests, watching the festivities, would probably have been unremarkable. But, when she started weeping and began to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with ointment, that was not normally accepted behavior at such an event. Whoever she was, if she hadn’t had a reputation already such unusual behavior would surely have given her one! Hence Simon’s reaction, which he politely kept to himself!

We, however, do know what he was thinking. We also know who Jesus really is! “If only you knew who and what sort of a prophet Jesus is,” we want to say to the Pharisee! Instead, we wait for Jesus to respond. Jesus, of course, does know who and what sort of woman is touching him – better than the Pharisee does. Hence, his little parable about the 2 debtors – intended to suggest to Simon that, if only the Pharisee understood his own need for forgiveness, then he too might respond to Jesus just as the woman did.

The point of course is that we are all in need of forgiveness. Simon the Pharisee had taken an important first step in inviting Jesus to his home, but that was as far as he was willing to go. His failure to appreciate his need for what Jesus had to offer – nothing less than the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God – inhibited him from responding to Jesus as the perhaps more obviously sinful (but also more thoroughly repentant) woman did.

When we hear this story, knowing already all that we know about who Jesus really is, we recognize the insufficiency of the Pharisee’s hospitality. But the challenge of such a story is to see ourselves in the Pharisee's place. From God’s vantage point, everyone is like the debtors in the parable, totally unable to repay. Everyone is in need of forgiveness – from God who is willing to write off our debts, reconciling us to himself through Jesus his Son, who has loved us & given himself up for us (Galatians 2:20). So everyone should also really respond to God’s forgiveness as exuberantly and lavishly as the uninhibited sinful woman in the city did. This story is more than a curious tale about an anonymous woman often mistakenly identified with someone else. It is an invitation – more than an invitation, a challenge – to go beyond the Pharisee’s superficial curiosity about Jesus, to come to know who Jesus really is, to realize what he has to offer and to embrace him in a life lived in love.

The story ends with Jesus journeying from one town & village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God, accompanied by the 12 and some women who had been cured of evil spirits & infirmities. What was that already but a gathering of the Church in miniature? What was that already but a gathering of the Church in miniature, what the Church was then and what it must no less likewise be now – a community of forgiven sinners, reconciled to God and to one another, caring for one another and the world around them, in a life lived in love!
Homily given at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, June 12-13, 2010.

Monday, June 7, 2010


This afternoon, I saw the new Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar film, an English-language Spanish production, set in a vividly depicted late 4th-early 5th century Alexandria, as the classical world was finally coming to an end. It tells the famous story of Hypatia, the celebrated female Philosopher-Mathematician, who devoted her life to study and teaching in Alexandria’s legendary library at the Temple of Serapis. Alexandria at that time was a truly turbulent place, where Christians, Jews, and Pagans all lived and interacted. By then, the Empire had a Christian emperor, and the Christians were rapidly growing in numbers and in political power, while the previously powerful pagans were correspondingly in decline. The film powerfully portrays this ongoing tension and the rising conflict among the three groups, all of which are depicted as increasingly “intolerant” (by today’s standards). It dramatically tells the story of how pagan intolerance of Christianity contributed to and was in turn succeeded (and defeated) by Christian intolerance of paganism.

Christians (among them the future bishop Synesius) as well as pagan students attended Hypatia’s erudite classes, until a pagan-initiated street brawl ended in a Christian takeover of the library (c. 391), transforming its temple into a church. Having salvaged what scrolls she could, Hypatia continued her speculative studies in her home, until her purported influence on the Roman Prefect of the city (her former student Orestes) caused her to be murdered by a Christian mob.

The younger Orestes had also earlier aspired to be Hypatia’s suitor. The neo-Platonist Hypatia, however, had no interest in such love and dramatically displayed her disdain for physical sexuality. Meanwhile her family slave Davus both falls in love with Hypatia and becomes a Christian. The story of Davus, which I presume is a cinematic fiction, gives the film a personal, emotional, and erotic edge it would otherwise lack.

As historian H.A. Drake has shown in Constantine and the Bishops (Johns Hopkins U. Pr., 2000), the first Christian Emperor pursued a religious policy aimed at imperial stability and social cohesion, in which Christians and pagans could coexist in civic harmony. Had the political situation not developed differently, how might the relationship among the empire’s religions have sorted itself out? Might the mutual respect among Hypatia, Orestes, and Synesius have provided an alternative model for a society in transition?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Corpus Christi

Undoubtedly, the most distinctive (and probably most popular) custom associated with the celebration of Corpus Christi is the public procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance through the local streets with great solemnity and festivity, as an expression of belief in and devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist.

26 summers ago, I was visiting Montreal with a Methodist friend from the Midwest. It just happened to be the feast of Corpus Christi. As we toured the old city, we found ourselves in a crowd outside the historic church of Notre Dame, where a crowd was waiting for the Corpus Christi procession to begin. Caught up in the mood, my friend and I became part of the throng, following the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets.

Since then, I have experienced any number of Eucharistic (as well as non-Eucharistic) outdoor processions. Perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving, would be the outdoor Eucharistic procession every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under an outdoor tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried outdoors, accompanied by groups of sick pilgrims and their caregivers, to the massive underground basilica, the only structure large enough to contain the vase number of pilgrims present on any given day. Empty, the basilica resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the experience is, as my British friends would say, “brilliant.”

A more traditional word for such a sacred experience would be “awesome” (a word which really used to mean something before its contemporary reincarnation as a synonym for “nice.”) Thus, for example, we used to begin the Mass for the consecration of a Church with the Patriarch Jacob’s words in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God’ this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17].

We build and consecrate churches (with a small “c”), so that the Christian community (the “Church” with a capital “C”) can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, to celebrate the sacraments, and, most especially, to participate in the Eucharist. Christ is present in his church whenever we faithfully gather together in his name. He is present whenever the scriptures are read and explained and the sacraments are celebrated. Above all, he is present in a special and unique way in his Body and Blood - prefigured by the bread and wine offered by the priest and king Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18-20), established as a sacrament by Christ at the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23-26), celebrated daily at the altar, permanently reserved for ongoing adoration in the Tabernacle, and exposed on occasion in a monstrance for public adoration. This celebration of Corpus Christi highlights all of that and invites us all to a deeper devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in this most Blessed Sacrament.

Corpus Christi always reminds me of something else that happened to me that same summer 26 years ago. It’s a story I’m sure I’ve told before, but it’s one well worth repeating. I was in Toronto that summer, as a Paulist seminarian serving at St. Peter’s parish, the very same Toronto parish where, 11 years later, I would finally be ordained a priest. One of my regular student responsibilities that summer was to bring Communion to Catholics in one of the local hospitals. One patient on my list turned out to be an elderly Hungarian woman, who knew no English. Needless to say, I know no Hungarian. So my feeble attempts to communicate were worthless. Bear in mind, that so much of our training in seminary seemed to be focused on how we communicate compassionately, etc. Unable to communicate at all, I felt like a total failure. All I wanted to do was get out of there as fast as possible. But I was trying to be conscientious. So I made one last try to see if at least she wanted to receive Communion. I took out a Host and held it up for her to see. Instantly, her confusion gave way to recognition. She made the sign of the cross and began to pray.

I think the memory of that incident has stuck with me all these years because it probably taught me more about the Eucharist than any of my classes ever did. Simply, quietly, but clearly, it illuminated the inner reality at the root of all our Eucharistic devotions and practices. It illustrated for me how the Eucharist really is Christ’s way of assuring us that he is with us – no matter what. Wherever we go, whatever we do, whatever our successes or failures, rich or poor, healthy or sick, we always have a place at the Lord’s table. In the Eucharist, Christ remains with us, no matter what, blessing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, flesh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us – like the 5000+ people in the Gospel – to eat until we have enough.

There is an ancient expression concerning the Eucharist, associated with the great St. Augustine, Become what you receive. In the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, our Risen Lord, really and substantially present for us in his Church. Becoming what we receive, we ask Christ to do with us what he does with bread and wine. We ask him to take us in his hands, to bless us, and to give us to one another with the same love with which he has given us himself – for the life of the world.

Homily given at St. Paul the Apostle Church, June 5 & 6, 2010.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Year for Priests Finale

This evening, the Oblate Sisters of Jesus the Priest, who are such an integral part of our community life here at the Paulist Motherhouse, hosted a celebration for the Paulist Fathers to mark the conclusion of this “Year for Priests.” Like everything the Sisters do, the celebration was meticulously planned and executed – even to the photographs displayed in the dining room.

We began, of course, with Mass in our beautiful House Chapel. Basing himself on today’s Gospel about the Sadducees’ challenge to Jesus about the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27), our new Paulist President, Michael McGarry, focused on Jesus’ response about God being a God of the living, linking that to the theme of priestly witness to a God who is God of the living and to the spirit of gratitude which must characterize our priestly life and ministry.

Then we had a wonderful dinner with the Sisters and other guests, complete with mariachi music!

Priestly fraternity takes many forms and is experienced in different ways in different places at different times. One particular experience of priestly fraternity, which I have enjoyed now for almost 10 years (and which I am about to leave behind as I prepare to move to a new assignment), has been our common life at the Paulist Motherhouse. The 59th Street House (as it has traditionally been known) is, of course, a “rectory” for those of us engaged in the ministry of the parish. But for all of the 25 or so Paulists who live here at any given time it is our home. By extension, it is also “home” for all other Paulists, who may return here to visit, much as family members may on occasion return to visit the family home. I remember how, when I was stationed in Toronto, I sort of felt that way when I would be back visiting at 59th Street. This was so even though at that time my parents still lived in the NYC area, and their house functioned recognizably as a central family home for me and my two sisters. With my mother and surviving sister and her family all on the West Coast now, 59th Street will likely emerge even more as that one special place to come home to.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Hello, Knoxville!

After 10 years as Associate Pastor at what we Paulists affectionately call our “Mother Church,” St. Paul the Apostle Parish in New York, I have been appointed Pastor of Immaculate Conception parish, Knoxville, Tennessee.

The city of Knoxville was established in 1794. By the mid-19th-century, railroad construction had brought numerous Catholic immigrants to East Tennessee and, in particular, to Knoxville which had become a hub for the construction. Accordingly in 1855, the first Roman Catholic parish in Knoxville was established, under the patronage of the Immaculate Conception. (That ancient doctrine had been dogmatically defined by Blessed Pope Pius IX in 1854). The small original church, which had survived undamaged through the Civil War, was eventually replaced by the present Victorian Gothic structure, dedicated September 19, 1886. In 1973, the Paulist Fathers (who had had an earlier history of mission activities in Tennessee) were invited to Knoxville to serve both the University of Tennessee Catholic community and at Immaculate Conception Church. In 1988, the Diocese of Knoxville was created out of what had been the eastern Tennessee counties of the diocese of Nashville. Immaculate Conception is now a thriving, multi-cultural Catholic parish in the Diocese of Knoxville.

I will have a lot more to say about my new parish after I am actually there!

I plan to visit for several days at the end of June and expect to move there in late July.