Blessed with talents

Barney Casey wasn’t given much in terms of talents, to use the imagery of last Sunday’s gospel parable. He certainly wasn’t given five, and probably not two. It would be reasonable to suggest he was given less than one talent.

But unlike the poor oaf in the gospel, Barney invested that measly less-than-one talent rather well. You could say he utilized his less-than-one talent blessedly well.

Barney was born in late fall of 1870 on a farm near Prescott, Wis., in the Diocese of La Crosse. He was baptized a few days before Christmas at the parish church, overlooking the Mississippi River. Barney grew up in what he called a “one-story mansion,” with one room divided to accommodate his parents and 15 siblings. Barney’s family was Irish, and he inherited traits of storytelling, fiddle-playing and a devout Catholic faith. However, the kids only went to Mass every other week; they alternated Sundays because their wasn’t room for everyone all at once in the horse-drawn wagon. Those who didn’t go to Mass prayed the rosary at home.

When he was 17, Barney went to work as a lumberjack, then a prison guard, a hospital orderly, and a streetcar conductor in upstate Superior. His life changed one day in 1891 when his streetcar came upon a woman being attacked by a man with a knife. That abrupt, direct encounter with violence and anger led him to realize the need for a sharper focus in his life, maybe to go in a different, more clear direction. Ultimately, Barney was convinced that he should be a priest.

He entered the seminary in Milwaukee, but Barney was Irish and all the classes were taught in German or Latin. This would be a hindrance a few decades later for another farm boy, Stan Roether of Oklahoma, who struggled mightily with the language demands of seminary, but went on to ordination, missionary work and ultimately martyrdom among the people war-torn Guatemala. We’ll soon discover a significant, common element to the stories of Barney and Stan.

Barney was sent home from the seminary, but he discovered the Capuchins, a Franciscan religious order, who welcomed him. He was given the name Solanus, and while he’ll still struggled with language and his studies, he was ordained – barely. Fr. Solanus was not allowed to preach or hear confessions. That did not prove to be much of a hindrance, he preached and conveyed God’s mercy in other ways.

Fr. Solanus’ most significant contribution would come in Detroit at the Capuchin monastery. He was given the job of porter, the lowliest, some would think the most meaningless, of all jobs – answering the doorbell, accepting packages, turning away people who didn’t have any business bothering the friars.

It was the door, however, that became the touchpoint of his life. It was to the monastery door that people flocked, lining up around the block, early in the morning and late into the night – to talk with him, to request his prayer for healing, for guidance, for peace. As the Great Depression deepened, people came for food and Solanus began giving away the food intended for the friars; that is until an organized soup kitchen was established. It’s still there, two of them a few block apart, serving 1,800 meals a day. Father Solanus used to say, “I have two loves: the sick and the poor.”

Father Marty Pable, one of many Capuchins who fondly remember Fr. Solanus, recalled, “There was nothing spectacular about him. He had no charisma at all! He didn’t preach. He just had that gentleness, that love, that compassion.”

So, clearly I was wrong, at the outset when I said Barney had no talents. But Fr. Marty also was mistaken when he claimed Solanus was not spectacular. You could easily claim he had the most spectacular of talents: gentleness, love, compassion. Not to mention patience, attentiveness, persistence. He had spectacular talents that he invested wisely – no burying in the field on his part.

And his investment of his talents has been recognized by the Church: Well done, good and faithful servant! Fr. Solanus was beatified Nov. 18 in Detroit, at Ford Field. He was declared to be among the blessed; he may one day be canonized as a saint. He’s the second American citizen to be beatified within as many months. Blessed Stan Roether of Oklahoma and Guatemala was the first.

As Blessed Solanus proves, it’s not about how many talents we have, or how seemingly spectacular or lackluster they might be. But that we honor them, deepen them, share them, invest them in our lives. Our stories will be far different than that of Blessed Solanus, but the words at the conclusion of our stories could be the same: Well done, good and faithful servant!

Blessed Solanus Casey, pray for us!  TL


Celebrating a martyr

Today, 23 September 2017, Father Stanley Rother was beatified  in Oklahoma City. That’s where he was from, but not where he endured a martyr’s death. His ministry and courageous demise are described in this homily I preached in February 2009, the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. The previous month I had been part of a remarkable pilgrimage sponsored by the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers to the shrines of the Central American martyrs, which included celebrating Sunday Mass with Fr. Rother’s community in Santiago Atitlan. I have had the privilege to visit the church and the site of his martyrdom two other times with college students. While Fr. Rother was officially declare a martyr today by the church, the Mayan people of his village and many others have regarded him as such for as long as we’ve known of his witness. TL
Blessed Stanley Rother, pray for us.

Stan Rother was a priest from the Diocese of Oklahoma City but he spent nearly all of his life as a priest in the Guatemalan village of Santiago Atitlan. It’s a curious thing — he had been thrown out of the seminary once because he couldn’t get the hang of Latin, but once in Santiago Atitlan he thrived, not only becoming adept at Spanish, but also at speaking the local Indian dialect. He even oversaw translation of the New Testament into that language.

Upon arriving in 1968, he gave his all to his community of Mayan Indians. They built a hospital, renovated the church, established a parish farm, and celebrated Mass five times every Sunday at various locations, and celebrated as many as 1,000 baptisms a year.
At first the people didn’t know what to make of this tall American priest — towering several feet over his Mayan parishioners — especially one who’d help hoe the corn fields or sit down for dinner on the dirt floors of their crowded, shack-like homes. At first they were reluctant to even welcome him into their homes; they didn’t think themselves worthy of such a prominent visitor. But, he persisted, and now seated among them, at least attempting to speak their language, a bond was formed.

Things changed in 1980. Guatemala’s civil war reached even the remote village of Santiago Atitlan. In October of that year, army forces rumbled into town, troops set up camp in the parish farm and parish leaders began to disappear. One prominent leader, a deacon who ran the parish radio station, was kidnaped and killed.

In January the parish’s leading catechist was ambushed on the stone steps in front of the church. Stan was listening to the radio and heard the commotion. He raced to the plaza just as his friend was being forced into a waiting car as he shouted “Help me, help me!” The cathechist was never seen again. He had disappeared.

Four days later, the army gunned down 17 civilians working in a nearby coffee field. Stan directed that the bodies be taken to the Church for a funeral and burial. It was a seemingly obvious, maybe insignificant, instruction, but in the eyes of the government and the military even that simple pastoral response was viewed as public defiance.
Stan had done other defiant, troubling things too. He had, for example, tried to raise funds to support the eight widows and 32 fatherless children now in his parish as a result of the military’s reign of terror. He’d made no statements, his was not a political agenda, but people knew there was a death list and they knew that Stan’s name was on it.

In late January of 1980, Stan returned to Oklahoma to lie low, to wait for things to cool off in Guatemala. But all the while he shuddered at the thought of his people, of having left them behind. What must they think of their pastor who deserts them when they need him most?  He returned to Santiago Atitlan in April, just in time for Palm Sunday and Triduum. Life returned to what it had been, but life was still uncertain, tense and the dangers were all too real.

On the night of July 28, three tall men wearing ski masks forced their way into the parish house. Stan, anticipating such a situation, was sleeping in a different room of the house every night, so they did not find him in his room. But they did find the assistant pastor’s brother and at gunpoint ordered him to lead them to Stan. Padre, han venido por ti. “Padre, they’ve come for you,” the young man screamed as they approached the room where Stan was sleeping that night. Stan had told friends he would not allow himself to be kidnaped and tortured as so many others had been. In the end, Stan Rother was killed with one shot to his face.

Word of his death spread quickly. The people were enraged. Priests and sisters who assembled at the scene feared the mob’s anger might result in a massacre. A group of Carmelite sisters invited the throng of grieving villagers into the church where they sang and prayed.  The immediate instinct of seeking retribution would subside, but not the anger and the dread of loss. Fr. Stan Rother is still revered and remembered by those people.

I’ll share more about him and the parish in Santiago Atitlan another time, but I wanted to mention him today because his example is so true to what Paul speaks of in his letter to the Corinthians — of living the gospel because that is what we are meant to do, each in our own way — not necessarily as dramatically or tragically as Stan Rother — put to preach and live the gospel nonetheless.

And what did Stan Rother do that was so terrible. He did for those Mayan Indians in Santiago Atitlan what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law in the gospel. Jesus grasped her hand and lifted her up. That’s what Stan Rother did for those people. In sitting down to eat dinner on their dirt floors, he raised them up, he enhanced their dignity, he became a threat to those who wanted to diminish and control them.

There’s something in that for us too. Sometimes we need to be lifted up and encouraged, but we also need to be ready to do that for people who are hurting, who have been shoved aside in some way, who have been led of think of themselves as being of less value than others. We won’t become martyrs in the attempt, but it’s living the gospel of life and hope, which is the gospel Fr. Stan Rother lived, and died living.  TL

With tears

penitentsThis is one of my favorite Ash Wednesday homilies, which I share as we initiate Lent this year. There was a student who took offense at it and stopped worshiping with us.  He thought I was advocating that we initiate an Order of Penitents, which is described here in its ancient context.  I wasn’t and I think that was clear.  And, yet, there was something wonderful and loving – and real – about that, and maybe something genuine about his reaction.  It’s important to note that the penitent, the bishop – and probably several others – approached this ordeal with tears. To be honest, I’m surprised by how long this homily is, but I don’t recall anyone leaving the community because of that.  May we all allow ourselves to realize the blessings of Lent.

A long time ago, about 2,000 years ago, to be somewhat precise, give or take a few hundred years, early Christians gathered on the day to initiate Lent and among those gathered were people known as penitents.

These people had publicly acknowledged their sin and now they sought to be publicly reconciled with God and with the Church. During the second to fourth centuries, these penitents would arrive on Ash Wednesday barefoot, in drab clothes, and they were instructed to keep their heads down.

There’s an ancient text that describes the ritual that ensued. The bishop would process from his chair with servers carrying a cross and candles, accompanied by the choir and other priests, and they would go to the middle of the church. The penitents would then come to the bishop and, according to the ancient instruction, lie prostrate in prayer before the bishop and the assembly. The instruction adds that the penitents should do all of this “with tears.” The bishop placed ashes on the foreheads of the penitents, saying: “Remember you are dust and to dust you will return. Do penance that you might have eternal life.”

The bishop then gave the penitents a special garment and placed the garments over their heads one by one, offering assurances of God’s mercy. The penitents would then prostrate themselves on the floor while the entire assembly surrounded them chanting a penitential psalm. Finally the bishop prayed for the penitents and then took their hands, one by one, and led them from the church. When they were all outside, the bishop said to them “with tears”: “Behold you are expelled today from Holy Mother Church because of your sins.”

But, all was not lost. Hardly. He urged them to hold fast to the promise of God’s mercy and to be busy with fasting, prayer, giving alms and doing good works. They were told to return on Holy Thursday and not to presume to attempt entry until then. Finally, the doors were closed and the assembly returned to the celebration of Mass.

It was, as you might imagine, a very intense, dramatic and understandably emotional ritual and ordeal. But, this was not a lurid spectacle, this was not about gossiping or finger-pointing or humiliation. That was a ritual of brutal honesty with obvious indications of encouragement and love.

It was called the Order of Penitents and this ritual died out in the fourth century, not because it was humiliating, not because it was excessive, not because of its obvious emphasis upon sin. Rather, it disappeared for practical reasons — the church was simply getting too big, too many people, too many sinners; communities were becoming too large to properly tend to the needs of their penitents. It also disappeared because the church increasingly came to privatize sin, to acknowledge and confess it in private as a matter between the penitent and God, and the priest.

Primarily the Order of Penitents died away — the sending of people out of the church on Ash Wednesday — because there also came to be a realization that we are all penitents; our sins may be of varying degrees and consequences, but we have all sinned.
I think it’s hard for us to get beyond what our 21st century sensibilities bring to the experience. It’s maybe impossible for us to get beyond what we perceive as the embarrassment, the personal trauma of this ancient ritual of penitents. But it was not that.

First of all, the people were not “called out” on their sin, as a few people in our church presume to do today — identifying certain peoples’ sins and accompanying punishments. The penitents stepped forward on their own, recognizing the seriousness of their offenses, realizing that what they’d done, the lives they were living, were detrimental not just to themselves, but to their entire community with which they shared life and love. To stand before that community, the love and prayer and support of that community — to stand before that community in the presence of God seemed not only sensible but desirable, necessary.

The church may have come to the realization that we are all penitents, that we are all sinners, that we are all in need of healing and mercy. But we might each realize that more profoundly if we experienced something as intense, dramatic and brutally honest as what transpired in ancient churches on Ash Wednesdays of the past.

The closest we come, I think, in any of our rituals to that experience is what we do today, when we are marked with ashes, when we are reminded of our very earthly origins and endings, when a black cross marks the spot where we were claimed for Christ at baptism, when we acknowledge are sin by virtue of an admonition to turn from sin, to be faithful to the gospel. In the ancient Order of Penitents, the door was not closed and then the penitents forgotten for 40 days. Remember the tearful encouragement of the bishop to them to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. Members of the community gathered with them, to help them pray, to help them re-direct their lives, to remind them of God’s love. And members of the community, with more tears to be sure, welcomed the penitents back among them as they gathered to begin the Triduum on Holy Thursday. As we cannot comprehend the humiliation of Lent’s beginning, we cannot begin to understand the joy of Lent’s conclusion.

It’s rather like that for us, the penitents of our day; that we don’t leave here on Ash Wednesday and then just disappear. We are given the same encouragement to pray, to fast, to give alms, to do good works. We gather as a community of penitents every Lord’s Day for Mass to praise God. The community comes together during this season to pray the Stations of the Cross, the Rosary, to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation. We do all of us this not out of fear or humiliation or regret, but as rituals and actions of repentance, of hope, of faith.

In our shared Lenten journey as penitents, may we realize the healing power of gathering with the people of God and receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist on Sunday, may we celebrate the healing grace of Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation, may we come to the end of Lent, to Triduum, to Holy Thursday, with the realization that we are still penitents, still imperfect, but renewed, refocused and more determined to abide by our answer to turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus. TL

Before, then and now

white-house-fogIt’s been foggy all day here in central Minnesota, my temporary home, which kind of matches my disposition. However, I’d prefer to be in a fog than a funk. The foggy weather has limited outdoor distractions and compelled me to catch-up on some long-overdue magazine reading. This afternoon I crawled through October, November and December, which meant reading about the election before, during and after. Some was terribly dated, too much woefully off target, but much of it still interesting.

Here are a few highlights from America, the Jesuit’s national Catholic magazine:

BEFORE: First is an essay by Elizabeth Dias, a religion writer for Time magazine. I’ve read several commentaries regarding the “spirituality of Donald Trump,” but I’ve found most of them lacking. If you go to the section of this article subtitled “The Prosperity Preachers,” I think we get the best assessment of what makes the new President click when it comes to belief and God. Which only enhances my confusion as to how this fits with all the prayers we’ve heard in Washington the past two days for justice, equality and blessing of the poor.

THEN: Shortly after the election, Jesuit Jim McDermott, in “Our Election, Our President” used an amusing story to convey a harsh and complicated reality.

NOW: Finally, America‘s editors responded on Friday to the disconcerting “America First” angle of the President’s inaugural address. You’ll also find a link to Pope Francis’ congratulatory and homiletic message to President Trump.

The reading is intersting and the insights profound, but, alas, it is still foggy.  TL

Movie of history haunted by today

selmaWhile the movie “Selma,” which I watched tonight, portrays a movement of courage and determination of more than 50 years ago, it is haunted by modern-day attitudes and events.

As Martin Luther King Jr. and others marched from Selma to Montgomery, white counter-protestors shouted hateful epitaphs and waved Confederate flags, the same flag that remains for many in the South of symbol of rebellion and pride. For others, then, it is cause for consternation at best and fear at worst. A portion of the Mississippi state flag still features the “stars and bars.”

Most problematic is the legislation at the heart of the movie, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which cleared the way for African Americans and other voters to participate in the electoral process without exclusionary and arbitrary procedures. A 2013 Supreme Court decision essentially gutted major provisions of the law pertaining to states that had long been in violation of or indifferent to election procedures. Congress, despite the urging of President Obama and legislators from both parties, never reinforced the legislation. As President Obama said at a 2015 event marking the Act’s 50th anniversary, significant threats to voter participation remain. “If, in fact, those practices, those trends, those tendencies are allowed to continue unanswered,” the President said, “then over time the hard-won battles of 50 years ago erode, and our democracy erodes. And that means that the decisions that are made in the corridors of power all across this country begin to reflect the interests of the few, instead of the interests of the many.”

And, finally, there in the movie was John Lewis crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge with Dr. King. A member of Congress from Georgia since 1987, Lewis was in the news this week when he announced he would boycott the inauguration of President Trump. This is the same John Lewis who organized student Civil Rights proponents and endured beatings and serious head injuries in the attempt. The John Lewis who President-elect Trump described in a Tweet as “All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” Lewis’ rationale and claims for sitting out the inauguration are definitely debatable, but “all talk”? “no action”? John Lewis? Really?

All of which is to say, there may have been a victory in the battle portrayed in the movie, but there are reasons to be on guard when it comes to laws that limit who can vote, when, where and how. And not just in the South.  TL

Taking off the wrapper

candy-caneAt our most recent Spirit Breakfast Cafe a boy from the parish came over to where I was eating. “Fr. Tom, this is for you,” he said, handing me a candy cane. I thanked him and said I was going to save it until after all the Christmas Masses were done, then I could really enjoy it, really savor it.

He said, with just a hint of something sinister, “Do you want to know a secret?” Of course everyone likes a good secret, especially one about candy canes, so I asked him to share his secret. “Well, just so you know,” he said, “it lasts a lot longer if you leave the wrapper on and suck on it that way.” But, I protested, you wouldn’t be able to taste the peppermint. To which he replied, “Come on, Fr. Tom, you kind of know how it tastes anyway.”

I wonder if buried in that child’s logic and creativity, there isn’t something slightly true about how we approach Christmas; about how we anticipate it, lionize it, maybe even how we protect what we celebrate: this divine Incarnation, this wonder of God becoming human, this mystery of heaven touching earth.

We kind of know what it’s about – what it tastes like. We like the sentimentality, the music, the stories, the TV specials, the decorations, the memorable moments, the special foods. But in a way that’s all wrapping. None of that brings us much closer to the nitty gritty of what it means for God to be born among us. The wrapping – the stuff we associate with Christmas, the sentimentality — might very well distract us, prevent us, protect us from the more demanding aspect of Christmas, the reality of Christmas.

The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the challenge, the necessary risk that comes if we dig deeper to consider and come to understand whether it matters, why it matters, what difference it makes that God became human, that God became one of us.

The sentimentality might prevent us, protect us from considering the real questions: Does it matter in anyway in my living, day to day – in our living, day to day – that heaven touched earth, that God touched us, that God is among us.

The sentimentality might even distort our consideration of this story we hear each year, allowing us to wrap it with a rosy hue; allowing it to become just another comforting, smile-inducing, sentimental holiday tale — a churchy version of It’s a Wonderful Life or How the Grinch Stole Christmas or A Christmas Carol. All of those stories have a rather harsh, dark dimension if we look closely, but nothing to compare with our story. Despite what we may see in most of our nativity scenes, there is nothing placid or peaceful about our story.

It’s story of a grueling journey dictated by an oppressive regime, presuming to count people who didn’t count, who didn’t matter in the least. A young woman, a man – confused, frightened, exhausted, albeit remarkably faithful and determined – left to seek shelter and give birth in the squalor of a barn. Ultimately, left running as refugees, the ruthless foreshadowing of the trauma to come; the wood of the manger always leading to the wood of the cross, the wonder of the Incarnation to the glory of the Resurrection.

We do ourselves a disservice if we allow that story to be distorted; if we allow gentle carols and warm lights delude us of its stone cold reality.

We do ourselves a disservice if we allow all the trappings of this holy night protect us from exploring the challenge and the promise, the possibility and the wonder of what’s inside the wrapper.

We do ourselves a disservice if we fail to celebrate the potential of God becoming human, of drawing us back to a better way, guiding us toward a different way of being. The potential of a God who we cannot confine to the cradle or the cross or the grave, who we strive to recognize and regard in the most unlikely places, in the most unlikely people.

We do ourselves, and our world, a disservice if we fail to remove the wrapping of Christmas, getting into the depths of what this is about. Because in God becoming human we realize the sacredness of our own humanity, the sacredness of all humanity. In taking off the wrapper, getting into the depths of this mystery, we realize that we matter to God, that all creation matters to God. And once we’ve tasted that, once we begin to tackle that remarkable awareness, how can our lives, day to day, be the same, how can life in any manner be the same, how can the world not change?

On his way out of Mass Christmas morning during which I shared the story of our encounter in the homily that’s become this posting, the boy shouted, “Enjoy the candy cane, Father.” And I’m going to take off the wrapper. TL

A campaign Christmas parable

It’s taken me a while to get this column posted here, and its message might seem rather naïve after a certain video and the ensuing chaos.  I’m also prompted to post it, despite the delay, after watching a video that’s made the rounds of social media featuring a priest preaching on a recent Sunday about the election.  He speaks with amazing certainty and trust as he clearly demands advocacy for one party and one presidential candidate over the other.  His grasp of Catholic moral teaching may be accurate, although I think there is plenty of room for quibbling among reasonably minded people.  His grasp on U.S. political reality couldn’t be more fragile.  We can’t know the outcome of what I propose here, but pondering what I put forth in relation to the two candidates seems far more constructive than suggesting definitive conclusions based on little more than whim and wish.

If the gospel of a recent Sunday (Luke 16.19-31) was proclaimed on Christmas Eve, we’d probably be pretty confused, if not a bit annoyed. Christmas is all about crowded inns, sleepy shepherds and swaddling clothes, not the torment of sores, hunger, a fiery netherworld and a great chasm. Of course Christmas is more about Jesus than all of the other Nativity story details and characters, which gives some credence to a Christmas parable about an indifferent rich man and the beggar lying at his door. It’s another of those parables that gets to the heart of the Christian message, which ultimately is the Christmas message: Calling attention to what we see and pretend not to see, what we do or don’t do, what we presume is the duty of others.

A 19th century English writer saw in this parable from Luke’s gospel the perfect inspiration for a Christmas story he composed about a rich man named Ebenezer Scrooge. In Charles Dickens’ telling, the rich man didn’t cry out to Abraham, but rather he encounters three ghosts who reveal for him the horrors of his ways while he was still living, offering Scrooge an opportunity for redemption. Dickens the social commentator recognized that three spirited figures might catch the attention of not only his story’s central character, but also a society that had become inured to the preponderance and intensity of poverty.

The lesson of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” should not be restricted to Christmas. Indeed the recent re-telling of the parable couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, coming as it does during the Year of Mercy – again, another remarkable Lucan parable that gets to the nitty-gritty of being merciful! – and in the midst of our presidential election campaign. Forget about telling this parable on Christmas Eve, what if the moderator had begun the first debate of presidential candidates, which followed our hearing this story in church, and asking the candidates to give their response: What does this parable of Jesus mean to our country today? What personal message do you find in this lesson? What should this compel from you and from us? I know the two candidates pretty well; I’ve been following them both, in their various guises, for a long time, but I have no idea how they would have responded. And yet I can’t think of questions and answers that would be more consequential to this campaign and how a follower of Jesus might decide to vote.

Ideally, one of them might have spoken to a reality that even Dickens didn’t get at with sufficient precision: This can’t be about taking care of one person. Sure, purchasing a goose for Tiny Tim and his family is nice, but Scrooge also needed to use his wealth and influence to push for reforms that would create a more level playing field, a more equitable system in which the beggar at his door is lifted up by a pursuit of justice rather than incidental charity. Ideally, the candidates might have proposed what we as a society should do in the short term to address the plight of the Lazaruses of our day, but, even more importantly, what must be done to keep the Lazaruses and Tiny Tims of 2016 from falling to such depths.

Certainly this parable conveys lessons of attentiveness and generosity, but that doesn’t get us very far, only to the next Lazarus and the next one and the next one after that. I have to think Jesus had bigger ideas in mind, and it would be encouraging to hear that our presidential candidates did too.  TL