When Cousins Visit, Things Happen!

By , May 31, 2011 4:46 am

Today, we see conflict in the sacred liturgy. We are still in the Easter season but today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, realizing that the first signs of Christmas are nudging up against the ongoing celebration of the Resurrection.

This happens occasionally in the liturgical year because we have to scramble so many different celebrations, spread over 2,000 years, in a mere 365 days. Today is one of those days. The Church stops and remembers a beautiful scene in the life of our Blessed Mother when she went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. The day has been called the Feast of the Visitation. How many times have we been praying the rosary in a rather distracted fashion and one by one we ticked off the joyful mysteries. Speaking only for myself, I know that I would call out the title, “The Visitation,” but most of the time could not get my mind around it all that clearly. Let’s try today.

Mary is a very young girl, probably only 16 or 17, and she has just had this extraordinary message from an angel telling her, and she is a virgin, that she is going to carry a child and that this child would be, in some sense, the Savior. If that astonishing message was not enough, Gabriel also tells Mary that her older cousin who lives outside of Jerusalem is also six months pregnant. The text tells us that “Mary set out…in haste into the hill country to a town of Judah where Elizabeth and Zachariah were living.”

Okay, so much for the text. Let’s try to visualize that – a young girl who had plans for her life suddenly finds them extraordinarily changed in a mysterious way that she does not understand and that, in some sense, her cousin, Elizabeth, is involved in the same overall program. In the text, we know nothing of any companions so we can assume that Mary went alone on country roads to find her beloved relative. Imagine how her mind must have been spinning trying to figure out the whole thing. Even though she did not understand everything that was going on, she had a consuming faith that motivated her to respond positively to the message she had received from the angel. Her faith is made stronger when she comes into Elizabeth’s house. When Mary was in Elizabeth’s presence the as yet unborn John the Baptist stirred in his mother’s womb and Elizabeth, being filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Who I am that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Like the average person who grew up a Roman Catholic, I probably said that line in the Hail Mary a million or two times. Would that I could say what Elizabeth has said. Would that I could mean it with clarity and a profound faith. Every time we receive communion, what is true of Elizabeth is true of each one of us. Who am I that the Lord should come to me? Domine, non sum dignus. Lord, I am not worthy. While it would be normal to be overcome with awe, an even better response is a joyful acceptance of this central point of our faith. God loves us, he has visited us, he invites us, he is with us, he is within us.

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Do We Really Remember?

By , May 30, 2011 4:41 am

Today is Memorial Day, a special day of remembrance that began shortly after the Civil War as Americans began to fully realize the amount of suffering, agony and death that had been expended in order to keep the nation united. The day is used to show special appreciation for ALL who have given their lives in the service of their country.

But what do most of us think of Memorial Day? That it is a three-day holiday, the beginning of their relaxed summer season, the beginning of vacations, water skiing, extra time for golf, etc., etc. Should we not change this tendency? We have 364 other days to celebrate and enjoy the freedom and life that we have because of the sacrifice of those who have fallen. Shouldn’t this day really be a very special and serious day of reflection? There is nothing wrong with a happy summer outing but shouldn’t we also put in time to thoughtfully and prayerfully remember the heroic suffering that has made our freedom possible? Shouldn’t we in a very special way pray for the future well-being of our country?

The purpose of Memorial Day is to honor the 1.8 million Americans who have given their lives for our country. Let’s don’t let them be crowded out by a picnic.

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Confirmation: Not a One-Time Event

By , May 28, 2011 5:40 am

6th Sunday of Easter

Today, the Church presents us with a wonderful vision of life in the early Church. We have to use our imaginations a little bit and try to visualize how the followers of Jesus were struggling trying to straighten things out between their religious roots and the teachings and actions of Jesus, and put the two together in a harmonious whole. The first reading describes Philip being extraordinarily effective as a missionary north in Samaria, where the people had Jewish roots and blood, but had not been faithful to the Mosaic Law. Nevertheless, converts to Jesus came in large numbers. The sick were cured. All in all, it was a happy scene.

Next, the leaders in Jerusalem hear about conversion in Samaria and they send Peter and John north to sort of examine the condition of the Church. They seem to have been surprised that these new converts had been baptized but had not as yet received the Holy Spirit. Then, you see the first implication of the Sacrament of Confirmation – the giving of the Holy Spirit to those already baptized.

The text states that, “The pair (Peter and John) imposed hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” We need to be constantly reminded that Confirmation is not a one-time event, but it establishes a new relationship between ourselves and our commitment to spread the message of Jesus Christ.

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A Priest Forever!

By , May 27, 2011 5:03 am

Maybe not forever, but at least 55 years! Yesterday I celebrated my 55th anniverasary as a Catholic priest. On May the 26, 1956, along with a dozen classmates, I lay prostate on the floor of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Galveston, Texas, and was ordained to the priesthood of the Roman Catholic Church. I rose to face what I could not imagine- an extraordinary life filled with faith, love, conflict, misunderstanding, poverty, litergical celebrations, and divisiveness that so tragically marks the human condition.

I found that my priesthood lent itself easily to all of those situations. I have never known a set of circumstances, new opportunity or even tragic situation that the fact of my priesthood could not lend itself beneficially to the moment.

I loved the work, and God knows there was enough of it! It has often seemed to me that while the modern world organizes itself around the 40 hour work week, the priests I knew either worked 80 hours or 10. In a large parish, you never really get “off duty”, but of course, you can hide. When that happens, it’s a tragic, misspent life.
Most people love their days off, and live for that glorious vacation of several weeks in the summertime. Did you ever think that if a parish priest is going to take a day off, he has to leave the rectory, and cannot enjoy a stay at home vacation? Many priests have this in common with doctors! When people approach you with a crisis, you cannot say “I’m sorry, it’s my day off”. Therefore, the only real way to have a bit a privacy is to be elsewhere. Please realize this, and bite your tongue before you tease your priest on Sunday morning and comment “today is your only day to work!”

Back to my 55 years, though. While I have worked in many parishes, I was only the pastor in three of them, but I also served in some very interesting administrative roles at the diocesan, state and national levels. All in all, those 55 years were a magnificent mix of human experiences, endured most of the time with laughter and optimism.
I’m on to year 56!

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Now There Stands a Senator!

By , May 26, 2011 5:36 am

In the Senate in the United States, 99 members belong to one or the other of the two political parties. One single senator stands alone as an independent. He is Bernie Sanders, one of the senators from Vermont. I have endeavored to follow Senator Sanders closely over the last few years and I am always impressed with his freedom and independence and his willingness to take on any issue. Currently, his prime concerns (and they should be the concerns of all of us) are:

First, the economy. Day after day, Sanders speaks of the need to return the country to full employment. Employed citizens pay taxes – not only pay taxes but also don’t require unemployment assistance. Every new job is a double whammy as far as the budget is concerned. Sanders urges the Congress to revitalize the middle class and that we need to create millions of good paying jobs in short order. A determined investment in our crumbling infrastructure would be a great first step in this direction – rebuilding our roads, bridges, water systems, schools, public transportation systems, etc.

Secondly, he points out that we could create millions of good paying jobs by transforming our energy system into sustainable energy. He also bemoans our disastrous trade policies which resulted in the loss of millions of jobs which have been moved overseas.

Third – deficit reduction. Bernie Sanders is as strong as any other official about the need for deficit reduction. However, he points out that the deficit has risen principally because of the Bush tax breaks for the rich, two wars, Medicare Part D drug program, and the Wall Street bailout. The senator rightly notes that the 2011 budget recently passed by the House would throw over 200,000 children off Headstart, reduce or eliminate Pell Grants for 9 million low-income college students, deny primary healthcare to 11 million patients who utilize community health centers, slash Social Security. In other words, the justifiable goal of reduction is to be secured and accomplished by taking necessary assistance away from the poor and the elderly while, at the same time, rewarding the wealthy.

Maybe the most important struggle being waged by Senator Sanders is his brave defense of Social Security which he accurately describes as having successfully lifted tens of millions of elderly people with disabilities, widows and orphans out of poverty over the last 75 years. He points out that under the guise of fighting for deficit reduction the Republicans are unleashing an unprecedented attack against Social Security. “Make no mistake about it. The attempt to destroy Social Security is an ideological struggle on the part of Republicans in Congress and the Wall Street backers…it has nothing to do with deficit reduction.”

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Bernardin Revisited

By , May 25, 2011 5:31 am

Fifteen years have passed since Cardinal Joseph Bernardin ended his extraordinary life as priest, bishop, cardinal and leader of the Church in the United States. Bernardin was extremely popular, more accurately, venerated in his own segment of the vineyard; namely, the Archdiocese of Chicago. However, he was also a strong voice and a trusted leader for many among the American bishops. It was his guiding hand that led the bishops to adopt the challenge of peace in the 1983 pastoral letter on nuclear defense. Finally, it was Bernardin who articulated the “consistent ethic of life” which has been a sound moral guide as the nation and the Church struggled with pro-life issues.

Now comes the rewrite! In the February issue of the conservative magazine, First Things, George Weigel unveils his less than complimentary evaluation of Cardinal Bernardin and announces the end of the “Bernardin era.” Weigel is himself a well-respected writer and journalist. According to Peter Steinfels, writing in Commonweal magazine, Weigel has consistently adapted facts and figures to fit his own frame of reference and analysis.

For most of us who knew and worked with Cardinal Bernardin, we associate him most of all with collegiality and consensus. Those are qualities that were vitally needed in the Church during the difficult ‘80’s and they are needed even more today. Weigel uses those terms in quotation marks and implies that they are really a cover or masquerade for a lax accommodation with America’s secular society. Steinfels summarizes Weigel’s comments as “pejorative political imagery, unfounded claims and convenient omissions, give a thoroughly distorted picture of what he labels the Bernardin era.”

I had the privilege of working with this extraordinary man, both on his staff in Washington and while serving in the Office of Bishop. I had a loving sense of respect for him then and even more today. I am sorry that George Weigel feels compelled to rewrite history on the basis of what he hoped that it had been.

Steinfels closes by saying that, “Weigel is not merely touching up history but performing plastic surgery.”

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St. Austin’s in Austin

By , May 24, 2011 5:21 am

St. Austin’s parish in Austin was established back in 1908 when the Paulist Fathers first came to Texas. In my opinion, the founding pastor showed real imagination in naming the church St. Austin’s. The city itself takes its name from Stephen F. Austin, one of the leading figures in the establishment of Texas. However, that name goes back to the 6th century because it is also the popular name of St. Augustine of Canterbury. So the parishioners of St. Austin’s parish can claim both Stephen F. Austin, the founder of Texas, and Saint Augustine (Austin), the apostle to the English.

Augustine was sent from Rome to England to bring Christianity to the Anglo Saxons. At first he had very little success in the foundations for the Church, but the foundations he built for the Church were strong and in the next generation most of England would be baptized into the Catholic faith.

Sadly, we are a country that has only a limited interest in history but I think anyone in Austin should be proud of the heroic work of Stephen F. Austin when he and his father first decided to bring immigrants into Texas. We should also be proud of Saint Augustine who left the comforts of central Italy to establish the Church in the difficult environment of England.

Let’s hear it for Austin!

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Marriage, Divorce & Catholics

By , May 23, 2011 4:14 am

Every country on earth develops laws and statutes to govern the inner life of that country and the country’s relationships with other nations. We are all very used to this obvious fact but we should also stop and think about the reality that cultures, organizations and associations also develop policies to govern the internal life of its members. They may not use the word “law” but they have the effect of law inside the organized entity. This is true of business associations, labor unions, fraternal organizations and it is certainly true of the Catholic Church.

I mentioned recently that because of the scrambled situation we have today, in terms of marriage and divorce, the Catholic Church has over the last hundred years or so developed a rather detailed system of law governing marriage, divorce, annulments, etc. To effective promulgate these laws and see that they are committed fairly and justly, the universal law of the Church calls for every diocese to have a Tribunal. These Tribunals are set up to handle other complex issues within the Church but for the vast majority of them their agenda is primarily marriage cases.

The universal law of the Church teaches that when a Christian man and a Christian woman enter into marriage for the first time, intending to bind themselves until death and open to the possibility of children, then the Sacrament of Matrimony has been celebrated and that sacrament generates a bond that will last until death. However, what if one of those conditions for matrimony is missing? After the tragic break-up of a marriage, spouses frequently contend that one or another was missing. In order to respond to that, these Matrimonial Tribunals, with trained Church lawyers and judges, will hear a case, study it and give a verdict. This is not a pleasant work area. The Tribunals are dealing with a marriage that has failed, the charges and counter-charges have a great deal of pain and disappointment and I am sure that those serving on the court wish that the issue would go away. However, the fact is that people do have a right to attempt to prove that a failed marriage was not sacramental and therefore that they are not bound to it. This is all fairly straightforward if everyone involved is a Catholic. It can really get difficult when mixed religious backgrounds are involved. While the Church teaches that marriage is a sacrament and therefore the Church has jurisdiction over sacraments, the fact is that marriages are public events in civil society and the state has some jurisdiction as well!

This is far too complicated to deal with in a one day session so I am going to take up different cases where the Church, after thorough investigation, will declare a marriage to be null and void from the beginning. Remember, the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage binds until death so the general use of the term divorce does not exist. However, if an essential component of the Sacrament of Matrimony was missing from the beginning, then the Church will issue a declaration of nullity or an annulment.

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Getting to Know the Shepherd

By , May 21, 2011 5:33 am

The joy of Easter continues as these weeks of liturgical celebration lead us to the Feast of the Ascension and then on to Pentecost Sunday. This weekend, we celebrate the 5th Sunday of Easter and the sacred texts turn our attention to the concept of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Over the centuries, the Church has used many images to convey the ideal relationship between ourselves and Jesus Christ. One of the most popular and most common is the idea of Jesus the Shepherd. This flows principally from the fact that he described himself as being the Shepherd.

In the first reading from St. Peter’s first epistle, states that through his suffering and death Jesus reaches out to us and draws us to himself as a shepherd would draw in straying sheep. Peter states, “Now you have returned to the shepherd the guardian of your souls!”

The Gospel is that delightful text from the tenth chapter of St. John where Jesus describes himself not only as a shepherd, but a brave shepherd and defender of his followers. Reminding us that the world is filled with thieves and marauders, we are not to worry because his strength is with us and will continue as long as we are faithful. This relationship is not merely one-sided. Jesus reminds us that while he knows his sheep that we are also to KNOW him. Our minds and hearts are to center on the historic reality of God present in the human story in the person of the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Jesus is with us, he is our Shepherd, but we must follow his leadership with faith and determination.

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The Church and Working People

By , May 20, 2011 5:35 am

One of the sad realities that I personally have had to deal with in my late years is the gradual lessening of the strong relationship that once existed between the Catholic Church and labor unions in the United States. The story of organized labor’s efforts to better the working conditions of its people in this country is a story that is filled with idealism, courage and occasionally blood. Because of their size, the railroad workers were one of the first to get legislation that enabled them to organize themselves effectively. It was not, however, until the Wagner Act of the mid-‘30’s that labor achieved a solid legal right to exist and organize. That right would be largely undercut by the passage of the Taft Hartley Act in the 1950’s. I’ve mentioned this before but organized labor is but a shadow of its former self.

There is, however, one exception and that is the organization of public employees unions. They have experienced very strong growth over the last 30 years and that has been seen as a threat by many who oppose any efforts of working people to organize to better their own pay and working conditions.

I have been saddened by the lack of any real visible support from bishops as state governments in the Upper Midwest have aggressively moved to remove their rights to collective bargaining. There was a statement here and a mild protest there but, for the most part, there has been silence.

Blessed Pope John Paul II was really very strong in this area. He wrote two encyclicals on the rights of labors to organize and was the driving force behind the growth of solidarity in Poland which ultimately led to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I had the privilege of being a speck in the crowd of 700,000 in Gdansk who stood cheering the Pope as he spoke out for the rights of workers in Poland and across the world.

One of the reasons of the distancing between the Church and labor is that the great majority of American priests in the United States come from affluent homes. They did not see their fathers come home battered and dirty from exhausting jobs in mills and factories. They did not see the price that had to be paid in order to improve working conditions for laborers. Therefore, the natural tendency to support labor is absent. However, as the flow of wealth in this country continues to move to a tiny, tiny percentage of our citizens and as the conditions of the middle class grows steadily more difficult, we may see priests and bishops rediscover the richness of the Catholic heritage in this area.

Onward through the fog.

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