Monday, November 17, 2014

These Walls Can Talk

Michelangelo's Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica

How do you "read" a church when you walk in?

Are your eyes drawn first to the altar and the sanctuary, or to the stained glass windows?  Are you more of a statue or a painting kind of person?  Do you have favorite symbols or saints whose presence lifts your heart?  (One of my nephews is a great fan of St. Bonaventure, and he feels awfully close to Heaven every time he gets to see his old friend!)

We live during an age in which most people are visual learners.  So we should take the opportunity to explore the visible symbols in our local churches, in order to allow ourselves to be drawn closer to the invisible realities represented.  We should strive to develop the spiritual eyesight which is so necessary for Christian discipleship.  And we should look for opportunities to explore the meaning behind such rich signs.

Many representations of saints depict them holding the instrument associated with their death (if they were martyrs), or with some great insight or pivotal moment from their life.  So who's the guy with the grill, or the young man holding the rocks?  With google images now at our finger tips, it's possible to discover answers to such riddles with relative ease.  (These two examples come from the widows in the chapel of the Diocese of Joliet's Blanchette Catholic Center, by the way, and the searches proved them to be St. Lawrence and St. Stephen, respectively.)

How about the tabernacle which holds the Blessed Sacrament or the mysterious and pivotal presence of the altar, which signifies Christ?  Every church is a treasure trove of real signs which help make present the realities that they represent.

So, the next time you head into a new church, see what kinds of connections you can make.  For example:  Is the church cruciform? What about the placement of holy water and the baptismal font?What symbols of the Blessed Trinity are present?  How is the great story of Salvation History visibly represented?

Our churches are heavenly treasure chests in which the Lord himself is especially able to inspire moments of insight and inspiration, in order to send us into the world as talking tabernacles of his love.

Peace and God bless,

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Birth of Counter-Cultural Catholicism

Cultural Catholicism is dead.  Just going through the motions because of ethnic or familial allegiances has proven to be an inadequate response to the challenges posed by radical secularism.

What will replace it is only beginning to emerge, but the birth of counter-cultural Catholicism will undoubtedly require the same the heroic virtue of great Christians from centuries past.  At the very least, this counter-cultural Catholicism will:
  • Not shy away from the call to discipleship, but will purposefully and intentionally follow Jesus, embracing his revolutionary way of life.
  • Not just "sacramentalize" members of the Church, but will promote effective evangelization--helping all Catholics know that the story of Salvation History is their story, that the good news of Jesus is their Good News.
  • Not reduce Christian charity to mere volunteerism or philanthropy, but will see life in terms of a gratuitous gift of one's self--including one's time and money.
This counter-cultural Catholicism will be neither pre-modern and reactionary, nor post-modern and complicit with the nihilism of our time.  Rather, as some observers have noted, it will be "trans-modern." Drawing from the rich treasury of resources within the Christian tradition, it will cut across the assumptions of modernity and open up new horizons for encountering the living God here and now.  Counter-cultural Catholicism will be transformational, changing hearts of believers person by person and so helping to rebuild society.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Naming our Holy Souls

So what's the cast of characters look like on your All Souls Day prayer list?  And are you able to "connect the dots"--in retrospect, of course--regarding how they helped reveal the face of Christ in your life?

Without having to canonize every family member and friend who has gone before us marked with the sign of the faith, the Church's celebration of All Souls Day invites us to commemorate and intercede on behalf of all those who are being purified on their way to full communion with Almighty God.  To pray for such holy souls is a spiritual work of mercy, and the Catechism reminds us that, "Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective" (CCC, n. 958). 
This year my thoughts have returned to a pivotal time and a most memorable group of people.  It was the late '80s in a blighted neighborhood of North Philadelphia.  During a year of service in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I was assigned to work in a day center for adults from the neighborhood who lived in nearby boarding houses and who had a variety of mental and emotional needs.  Many of them were also killer UNO players :)
The Center was housed in the rectory basement of Our Lady of Holy Souls parish.  Little did I know how aptly named the parish was!  It also took me a while to realize that the fun-loving, Philadelphia Philly fanatic, Religious Sister of Mercy named Sr. Mary Agnes (a.k.a. "Sr. Freddy" to her friends) was creating an environment of hospitality and love which reflected our Lord's recommendation.  "When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" (Lk 14:14).

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Our Spiritual Fathers


Some people live under the sign of their horoscope.  But what if, as Catholics, we are spiritually linked to the Holy Father who was pontiff when we were born?

My gut intuition is that our spiritual Holy Fathers have something personal to say to each of their sons and daughters.  So do you know who was pope when you were born?  Do you have a favorite saying or inspirational passage from your spiritual Holy Father?  Are you a Pius XII, a John XXIII, or a Paul VI Catholic (like me)--or are you part of the "Catholic boomer" generation, born during the epic papacy of John Paul II?  Wherever each of us falls demographically, we are blessed to be on an incredible run of holy Holy Fathers, so we can rest assured that they are interceding on our behalf.

Maybe our spiritual Holy Fathers complement the work of our earthly fathers and our baptismal Godfathers, supplementing where there were deficiencies or failures and reinforcing where there were solid foundations laid for us.  In honor of the recent beatification of Pope Paul VI, I'd like to share some "gratitude attitude" for his ongoing role in my life.

After guiding the Second Vatican Council to its conclusion, Paul VI stood courageously and prophetically on at least three major issues which have helped shape who I am:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Of Synods, Sinners, and Saints

"The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization":
The Extraordinary Synod of Bishops 2014
The Pharisees and the Herodians join forces in trying to skewer Jesus on the horns of a dilemma, hoping to cause a schism among his followers.  But what if this is the story line not only of a recent Sunday Gospel (Mt 22:15-21), but also of the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family?

Might we imagine the following variation on the passage noted above:

The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap the Synod Fathers in speech.
They sent their disciples to them, with the Herodians, saying,
"...Is it lawful to reach out to those in 'irregular' family situations or not?"

A simple "Yes" to this question would worry those who are concerned about truth:  Will the Church be faithful to her mission of safeguarding God's unchangeable teachings?  A blunt "No" to this question would worry those who are concerned about mercy:  Will the Church be faithful to her mission of offering God's universal gift of salvation to the world?

In the Gospel account noted above, of course, the Pharisees ostensibly care about observing the letter of the law, and they resent that Jesus invites sinners and tax collectors to a new life.  As collaborators with the Romans, the Herodians are concerned about making accommodations with the worldly powers-that-be, and they resent that Jesus brings a counter-cultural vision of the human person to those whose hearts are yearning for something more.

Both groups resent that Jesus holds truth and mercy together.  When Jesus says, "For the Son of man has come to seek and to save what was lost" (Lk 19:10), he in unafraid of calling "the lost" lost, even as he seeks them out and offers them a fresh start.  Thus Jesus reveals that presenting the truth without mercy is not truthful, just as offering mercy without the truth is not merciful.