Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving With No Idea of Repayment

By chance the other day I came across this column I wrote for the Pittsburgh Catholic on November 28, 1997.  It seems just as appropriate for today as it did back then (except for the reference about commercial activity stopping on Thanksgiving Day--my crystal ball failed to see that change coming).

It's not an official liturgical season of the church, but I like to think that the months of November and December are "the season of giving."

The American national celebration of Thanksgiving is as close as we get to a secular holy day.  Just about every commercial venture stops to allow employees to join their families in shared feasting and giving thanks.

Churches and synagogues host cheerful and thankful worshipers that day.  Ecumenical and interfaith prayer services abound.  More than once after Mass on Thanksgiving Day I've heard people say, "I wish every Sunday could have this same joyful spirit."

Of course, the day after Thanksgiving we are bombarded with advertising.  But buried underneath the commercial avalanche is the Christian season of Advent.

During these days, Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate the gift of  our Savior's birth with our own gift-giving.  Stores and malls take this idea of gift-giving to extremes.  They conveniently forget the reason for the season of giving.

The biblical roots are deep.  In the beginning Yahweh gave breath to human beings and brought them into life. 

Ancient worshipers responded to God's generosity by giving up the first fruits of field and flock.  The Lord gave the law, the path of righteousness, to the Hebrew people.

When the people strayed from the law, the Lord sent prophets.  Because the Jews were once exiles and enslaved in Egypt, they are constantly exhorted throughout the Scriptures to care for the poor in their midst.

Jesus, the faithful Jew, inherits this spirit of giving.  My concordance records the word "give" 65 times in the Gospels.  Jesus gives healing to the paralyzed, blind, lame, even the dead.  He gives food to the hungry multitudes, instruction to his disciples, correction to Peter when this fisherman tries to rework Jesus's teaching.  Jesus gives forgiveness to the woman caught in adultery and the thief on the cross next to him.

Jesus tells us he will give us a new commandment of love and a Spirit of life-giving power.  He gives us his Body and Blood.  He gave his life for us so that all might live eternally.  In the only saying of Jesus quoted outside the Gospels, Paul recalls Jesus's teaching, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."  (Acts 20:35)

Jesus gave to those who could not repay him.  This is true in all of these examples.  He instructs us to give to those who beg from us, regardless of our judgment of their worthiness.  He chides us by asking, "If you love those who love you, what reward is there is that?"  All that the Master asks for is a word of praise to God, not to himself.

St. Paul once wrote, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor 4:7)  A moment's reflection tells us that all that we are and have comes from someone else.

We would do well to recheck our personal Christmas gift lists in light of the challenge from Christ himself.  Are we giving to those who can't repay the gift?

This is already happening through food drives, Jesse or Giving trees, and significant donations to the charities in the name of loved ones.  This year, consider giving as much in response to people's needs as to return the love of family and friends.

In the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph, the innkeeper, shepherds and Magi all gave to the Christ Child without expecting any return.  They witness to us the wisdom of Christ our Teacher, "You received without paying, give without repayment."  (Matthew 10:8)

The word "give" resides deeply in my heart.  It's the reason I gave this blog the title it has.  It's what I received (and can never repay) from my parents, teachers and friends.  Give in greater measure this year in "the season of giving."  And remember, you cannot never exceed the generosity of  God.  

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Prayers for Year of Mercy

Here are two prayers for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.

This one was composed by Pope Francis:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you have taught us to be merciful
like the heavenly Father,
and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him.

Show us your face and we will be saved.
Your loving gaze freed Zacchaeus and Matthew
from being enslaved by money;
the adulteress and Magdalene
from seeking happiness only in created things; 
made Peter weep after his betrayal,
and assured Paradise to the repentant thief.
Let us hear, as if addressed to each one of us,
the words that you spoke to the Samaritan woman:
"If you knew the gift of God!"

You are the visible face of the invisible Father,
of the God who manifests his power above all
by forgiveness and mercy:
let the Church be your visible face in the world,
its Lord risen and glorified.

You willed that your ministers
would also be clothed in weakness
in order that they may feel compassion
for those in ignorance and error:
let everyone who approaches them
feel sought after, loved, and forgiven by God.

Send your Spirit and consecrate every one of us
with its anointing,
so that the Jubilee of Mercy
may be a year of grace from the Lord,
and your Church, with renewed enthusiasm,
may bring good news to the poor,
proclaim liberty to captives and the oppressed,
and restore sight to the blind.

We ask this through the intercession
of Mary, Mother of Mercy,
you who live and reign
with the Father and the Holy Spirit
for ever and ever.

Pope Francis has a personal devotion to Mary under the title of Undoer of Knots.  Here is a prayer to her:

O Virgin Mary,
faithful Mother who never refuses to come
to the aid of your children;
Mother whose hands never cease to help,
because they are moved by the loving kindness
that exists in your Immaculate Heart,
cast your eyes of compassion upon me,
and see the snarl of knots that exists in my life.

You know all the pains and sorrows 
caused by these tangled knots.

Mary, my Mother,
I entrust to your loving hands
the entire ribbon of my life.
In your hands there is no knot
which cannot be undone.

Most holy Mother, pray for Divine assistance
to come to my aid.
Take this know [mention your personal need here]
into your maternal hands this day.
I beg you to undo it for the glory of God,
once and for all,
in the name of your Divine Son, Jesus Christ.

Like so many people, I had never heard of the devotion to Mary, Undoer [or Untier] of Knots until Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., was elected pope two years ago.  When he was doing doctoral studies in Germany in the 1980s, he saw this painting.  It is titled "Wallfahrtsbild," and was done by Johann Georg Melchior Schmidtner (1625-1707) in 1700.  It hangs in the Church of St. Peter am Gerlach in Augsburg, Bavaria.  When Father Bergoglio returned to Argentina, he brought a postcard of the painting with him, and began to promote devotion to Mary under this title.

In the painting, Mary is holding a rope of knots, which she unties.  Her foot rests on the head of a "knotted" snake, a clear reference to Satan from the creation story in Genesis.  This image of Mary is a reference to St. Irenaeus of Lyons in his "Adversus haereses."  The saint creates an analogy between Eve and Mary, describing how "the knot of Eve's disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary.  For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, thus did the Virgin Mary set free through faith."

Jubilee Year of Mercy

In the spring Pope Francis startled the Catholic Church by announcing an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.  Jubilee years have been celebrated every 25 years by popes since 1300.  The most recent one was when Pope John Paul II celebrated with greater fanfare the Great Jubilee of 2000.  In this Extraordinary Jubilee Year Pope Francis is calling the church "to contemplate the mystery of mercy.  It is a wellspring of joy, serenity and peace."

From the first sentence of the Bull of Indiction ("Jesus Christ is the face of the Father's mercy.") I was entranced by the pope's vision for this year.  This is the first jubilee which is not tied to the every-25-year pattern (or to anniversaries of the death and resurrection of Christ, as celebrated in 1933 and 1983).  

This special year will begin on Tuesday, December 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and run until Sunday, November 20, 2016, the Solemnity of Christ the King.   With this starting date, the pope is not only honoring Mary, he is reminding the church about the Second Vatican Council, which ended on that date 50 years earlier.  On that day Pope Francis will open a "Holy Door of Mercy" at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  But this Jubilee Year is different.  The pope wants all Catholics, and Christians everywhere, to do works of mercy locally.  So in another first the pope asks every local bishop to also have a "Holy Door of Mercy" opened in their cathedral.  Bishop David Zubik will ceremonially open this door at St. Paul Cathedral, Oakland, on Sunday, December 13, with a Mass at 2:30 p.m.

Second, the pope is calling for all of us to carry out corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  

The corporal works of mercy:

  • feed the hungry
  • give drink to the thirsty
  • clothe the naked
  • welcome the stranger
  • heal the sick
  • visit the imprisoned
  • bury the dead
The spiritual works of mercy:
  • counsel the doubtful
  • instruct the ignorant
  • admonish sinners
  • comfort the afflicted
  • forgive offences
  • bear patiently those who do us ill
  • pray for the living and the dead
Each of us, in our own ways, can perform these works of mercy in our families, neighborhoods and parishes.

Third, the pope suggests that we carry out pilgrimages.  No necessarily to faraway places, like Rome or the Holy Land or Marian shrines such as Fatima (Portugal) or Guadalupe (Mexico), but locally.  It's certainly possible to visit another church other than your own parish.  In our neck of the woods, these are beautiful and nearby buildings:  St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh; St. Paul, Butler; St. Ferdinand, Cranberry; St. Anthony Chapel (where there are 5,000 relics of saints), Troy Hill/North Side; Sacred Heart, Shadyside; St. Mary of Mercy, Downtown Pittsburgh.  Outside of our diocese there are St. Columba Cathedral and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel basilica in Youngstown, and St. Joseph Cathedral in Wheeling.

In this year of mercy the pope urges all to receive the sacrament of confession (reconciliation).  Certainly our parishes offer many opportunities to receive this sacrament, whether on the weekends at regularly scheduled times or penance services with individual confession during the seasons of Advent and Lent.  We priests are also happy to hear any confession of a person who is home-bound, in a nursing facility or hospital at a time beneficial to them.

Another new wrinkle the pope proposes is sending out "missionaries of mercy."  These are papally designated priests known for the preaching skills and compassionate embrace of mercy.  Nobody is real sure how these are designated or what ministry they will carry out, but they are to be sent out in Lent 2016.  

Most of all this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy give all of us encouragement to reflect on how important mercy is in the ministry of Jesus.  We can reflect on these bible passages:  Psalm 136 ("For his mercy endures forever"); Luke 15:1-32 (parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the loving father with two sons); Matthew 18:22 ("forgive 70 times seven times"); and 1 John 4:8 ("God is love").  As disciples of Jesus, we are asked to examine our consciences to see how we can grow in being merciful to ourselves, to others, and to the structures and cultures of our times.

Let me invite you to go on the Vatican's special website ( ) for the Jubilee Year of Mercy resources.  Here you can read the papal bull "Misericordiae Vultus," which is truly rich spiritual reading from the pope.  Pray that all of us can be "merciful like our heavenly Father."  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land III

My previous post was a little formal describing how the geography of the Holy Land was "a fifth Gospel" to me.  That was partially because I wrote it for our diocesan newspaper, the Pittsburgh Catholic (in which it was published November 20; see ).  Here let me tell some informal stories about our wonderful pilgrimage.

*Overall the pilgrimage was a fantastic experience.  We had warm sunny weather throughout. (I never wore the Steelers jacket I brought with me.)  It was so sunny, that upon returning to New Castle parishioners said I had a sun tan.  Our group of 34 pilgrims got along well.  Our diocesan guide, Helene Paharik (who works with Bishop Zubik as an associate general secretary for the Diocese of Pittsburgh), was an excellent and enthusiastic interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures.  Her love of the land, and her joy at leading our pilgrimage, was infectious.  All logistics went well.  No one got lost or hurt.  We never felt threatened in Israel (despite the fears of our family members).

*Our tour company, Unitours, provided a local guide.  Jerry is a 40 year old American Catholic who emigrated to Israel ten years ago and married a Jewish woman from Morocco.  He had two children, and his wife was 8 3/4 months pregnant.  He was a fountain of information--historical, archaeological, biblical, political, cultural.  However, his wife gave birth to a baby boy on the Friday of our trip.  So while Jerry when home to be with his wife and children, for three days we had Isaac, a native of Israel who was more formal.  Isaac also had a sly sense of humor.  When we went to the Dead Sea, he told us that our bus driver was actually 900 years old, because he swims in the Dead Sea several times a year, and the minerals from that very salty lake keep him young.  Sammy (Osama) the bus driver roared.

*We had daily Mass in the holy sites.  Each one was special, as we celebrated the Mass prayers for that particular site (and not of the universal liturgical year).  We had two outdoor Masses (under a tree steps away from the Mount of Beatitudes church; and along the shore of the Sea of Galilee); we celebrated the Annunciation of Mary in Nazareth, the prayer of Jesus atop Mount Carmel; Christmas in the Nativity Church in Bethlehem, the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the Passion of Christ in the Gethsemane Church, Easter in a chapel of the Holy Sepulcher Church, and the Emmaus post-resurrection story in Emmaus Church.  We also read and prayed Gospel passages on the bus as we approached the different churches and towns, along with Helene's insightful commentary.

*Israel is a first-world country.  We enjoyed all the creature comforts of a new retreat center (Pilgerhaus at Tabgha) a stone's throw from the Sea of Galilee, and the four star Dan Hotel in Jerusalem.  We had sumptuous buffets for breakfast and dinner each day.  Special meals we sampled were St. Peter's fish from the Sea of Galilee (head, tail, eyeball and all!), lots of Middle Eastern hummus, falafel and pita bread, and cheeseburgers at the Elvis Diner in Tel Aviv.  We found Elvis in the Holy Land!

*We had fun on the trip.  The pilgrims found out that it was my birthday during our tour.  So our Muslim bus driver and our Israeli Jewish guide worked with a Muslim baker to surprise me, a Catholic priest, with chocolate birthday cake on the Sabbath in Jerusalem (when all the bakeries were closed).  It was delicious.  Yes, I did have a second slice for breakfast the next morning.

When we took a boat ride on the calm Sea of Galilee we belted out "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore" and "Amazing Grace," with a harmonica accompaniment by one of our pilgrims.  Several of us floated in the (ten times saltier than ocean) Dead Sea, and coated ourselves with its healing mud.  No incriminating photographs remain, however!   

*We were serious too.  Pilgrims got first-had information about the fractious political situation and conflict between Palestinians and Israelis from Palestinian non-violent peacemakers in Bethlehem and from the Latin Patriarchate's Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali.  Christians are an oppressed minority in Israel and throughout the Middle East.  We also had the sobering task of visiting the Yad Vachem museum of the Holocaust.

*Archaeologists have contributed much to contemporary understanding of the books of the bible and the culture in which Jesus lived.  This was especially true at Capernaum, where St. Peter's family house and compound are located.  Another recent non-biblical "dig" was Qumran, on the shores of the Dead Sea.  We saw an actual Dead Sea scroll (from about 100 B.C.), one of about 800 which were found between 1946 and 1994.  We walked through the remains of buildings of the Essene community which generated the scrolls.  This strict sect for men only was active during Jesus's time.  Scholars speculate that St. John the Baptist may have briefly joined the Essene community at Qumran before beginning his own ministry along the Jordan River.

*We did not stop at the Jordan River.  It is, in good Pittsburghese, a "crick" [creek].  Yet as it leaves the Sea of Galilee it gives life to hundreds of acres of fruits and vegetables, as the Israelis have "made the desert bloom" through advanced irrigation practices.

*I had not done my required spiritual retreat this year.  So I decided I would treat the pilgrimage as my retreat.  The pace of the days allowed for both communal prayers (Mass and other services) and personal prayer.  The whole trip was filled with special moments of grace, as we literally walked in the footsteps of Jesus and prayed in churches which were 250, 400, even 1,000 years old.

*As our country celebrates Thanksgiving next week, I give thanks to God for the huge gift of this spiritual pilgrimage, which helped us pilgrims to "learn Jesus, love Jesus and live Jesus" more.

Pilgrimage to the Holy Land II

Andrew Lloyd Webber is best known as the composer of such musical blockbusters as Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Cats. But when I was a college seminarian his most attention-getting creation was Jesus Christ Superstar.  In ways we cannot appreciate today, this "rock opera" shocked audiences with its sympathetic depiction of Judas, Mary Magdalene crooning "I don't know how to love you," and presentation of Jesus as a reluctant rock star.  When the movie version of the record came out, we seminarians eagerly went to see it.  We were worried, however, whether the seminary's priest leadership would criticize us for watching the movie.

I still remember how surprised I was when Father George Saladna, seminary vice rector and a true scholar of the Sacred Scriptures, calmly accepted the news that we saw the movie.  "It's a fifth Gospel," he said.  Noticing our puzzled looks, he explained, "The four Gospels are the church's official accounts of Christ.  But there are many ways of depicting who Jesus is." 

That phrase, "a fifth Gospel," was much on my mind as our Pittsburgh pilgrimage group recently (October 26--November 4) walked in the footsteps of Jesus in Israel.  For the geography of the Holy Land became for me a fifth Gospel, giving fresh insight into Jesus and his saving ministry.  Let me share five points.

Jesus was a country boy.  Jesus was raised by Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, a tiny village in "the Galilee," the region around the Sea of Galilee (also known as Genneseret, or the Sea of Tiberias), a freshwater lake five miles by 14 miles large.  Pilgrims looking for desert found green grass and many trees in the Galilee hills, fed by streams from Mount Hermon to the north.  Inhabitants of the Galilee region were disparaged as "hicks" with a funny accent by more sophisticated city dwellers in Jerusalem 60 miles south (see Luke 22:39).  Our group celebrated Mass outside of the Mount of Beatitudes Church overlooking the Sea of Galilee, on a sunny picture-perfect day.  One could easily imagine Jesus feeding the 5,000 on a nearby hill, and praying to his heavenly Father in such a beautiful place.

Jesus worked in cities.  The Gospel of Mark calls Jesus a tekton in Greek.  We've heard this usually translated as "carpenter"; a better translation would be "worker," whether in wood, stone or metal.  There would have been little available work in his tiny village for him and Joseph.  Scholars speculate that the two of them went to larger communities around the Sea of Galilee for employment, such as Tiberias or Sepphoris (which is, very interestingly, never mentioned in any of the four canonical Gospels).  In these cities Jesus would have likely picked up some knowledge of the Greek language, as he dealt with traders and travelers from the north and east. His native tongue was Aramaic, and he knew Hebrew which he employed when he prayed the Psalms in the synagogue.

Jesus walked everywhere.  The hills of the Galilee are similar to the hills of western Pennsylvania.  However, Jesus didn't have the privilege of riding in an air-conditioned motor coach like we 21st century pilgrims did!  When we went to Mount Tabor, to celebrate Mass in the Church of the Transfiguration, we marveled at Jesus's stamina to climb the steep path up the 1,500 foot mountain.  The gospels tells us that Jesus preached in cities we did not visit on our pilgrimage--Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean coast, and Caesarea Philippi to the north--which were 20 or more miles from his home base of Capernaum.

Jesus knew fishermen.    Matthew tells us that at the beginning of his ministry Jesus left his hometown of Nazareth and moved to Capernaum (4:13), a much larger town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Capernaum was wiped off the map by invaders in the 6th century, but archaeologists have found what they believe are the remains of Peter's house and a nearby synagogue where Jesus taught and did many healings.  On our pilgrimage we prayerfully visited the ruins, and a contemporary church which was cantilevered over the site ten years ago.  It gave us new appreciation of the close relationship Jesus had with the fishermen brothers Peter/Andrew and James/John.  

On my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1989, the Franciscan friar who was conducting the archaeological dig had only reached through the ruins of a 5th century church to a 4th century church.  I was amazed on this visit how much more the scientists had uncovered.  I was also startled to see the contemporary church, covering the ground, sitting like a flying saucer spaceship over the ruins.

The day after our group visited Capernaum, we saw the so-called "Jesus boat," a 27 foot fishing boat from the first century.  It was recovered during a drought three decades ago and is now nicely displayed in a museum on a kibbutz.  This one is probably not Peter's actual boat.  But viewing it allowed us to picture Jesus falling asleep in the stern during a storm, and Peter gathering a great catch of fish at the command of Jesus.  In my imagination whenever the stories of Peter and his boat were read, all I could see was a canoe.  I wondered, how could 153 fish, plus several co-workers of Peter, fit in such a tiny thing.  Now, seeing the 27 footer, it was far easier to picture those stories.

Jesus was a frequent pilgrim to the holy city of Jerusalem.  The four canonical gospels differ on how often Jesus walked to Jerusalem from Nazareth/Capernaum.  Mark and Matthew, once.  Luke, twice (once as a 12 year old with his parents, once as an adult).  John, at least three times.  Why?  Because John mentioned Jesus being in Jerusalem three times to celebrate the Feast of Passover.  

The church has never pronounced on which number is historically accurate.  I've tended to agree with the evangelist John, because of Jesus's seeming familiarity with the city, as well as his friendship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany.  This also would mean that Jesus's ministry was at least 2 1/2 years in length, not one year.

The second half of our pilgrimage was in Jerusalem.  Our motor coach took the "Jordan road" south from the Galilee.  This is a modern two lane highway that paralleled the Jordan River, and was close to the probable route Jesus took.  We went to Jericho, the oldest known place of human continuous habitation in the world, and then turned up the 4,000 feet mountain to the holy city of Jerusalem.  

In Jerusalem, we prayed at the Western Wall of the Second Temple, walked the Way of the Cross ("Via Dolorosa") through crowded alleys, and celebrate the Eucharist (in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) footsteps away from the hill of Golgotha on which Jesus was crucified.  We marveled at 2,000 year old olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the probable site of the prison where Jesus spent Holy Thursday night/Good Friday early morning after his arrest (the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu).  We pilgrims prayed at holy sites where pilgrims from all over the world have prayed for two millennia.

When I returned home after my first pilgrimage to the Holy Land, I told people seeing the geography made reading the Gospels change for me, from black-and-white TV to color TV.  Now that I have returned home, the analogy is the same, just that it has been elevated to a 75 inch flat-screen 3D TV.  I continue to "see" new images when I read or pray or proclaim the Gospels, because of this pilgrimage.

The geography of the Holy Land is truly a fifth Gospel, which allowed us pilgrims to draw closer to the Jesus of the four Gospels and the Christ whom we worship and follow today.