Monday, December 31, 2007

So, What's New for You in 2008?

Let's look beyond "resolutions" for the New Year. They have their place. They can be great motivators. I must admit, though, as I get older I find fewer and fewer of them come to fruition. Not just for me, mind you! But for others, too.

How about decision we need to make this coming year? Decisions we may have delayed or ignored. Maybe we have dawdled with choosing something very important.

Perhaps a good question for this New Year of the Lord 2008 is: How is God calling YOU to live in 2008? What is God telling your heart?

This is a good time to take stock of your own vocation! How did God call you this past year, in your daily life, in your work, your study, your relationships, your family? How did you respond to the Lord this past year 2007?

There's a lot out there reviewing 2007, isn't there? Major political and historical events, celebrity events, sports events, personages who have passed away. We can actually become saturated about "them".

But what about YOU? How are you either willing to respond favorably to the Lord Jesus or avoid him this coming year? Will you say "yes" to his call this new year? His call may simply be to be attentive to the poor and the needy around you. God rarely calls us to high drama! It's usually pretty normal fare.
But you just might want to take a few minutes before the festivities begin and the New Year gets undeway to consider what Jesus is saying to your heart.

God grant you peace and every good from the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption BVM Province!

Old Year Out -- New Year In!

Another year of the Lord comes to completion and a new one is about to begin. Why "year of the Lord"? Because that is what A.D. means -- "anno Domini" (year of the Lord). It is a testimony of faith in the Incarnation of the Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is our salvation.

While an early Medieval monk named Dionysius miscalculated (by 4 or 6 years!) the actual date of the birth of Jesus, we have been using this designation for centuries to describe the passage of time.

Still, not everyone is a Christian believer and so many have found the terminology BC (before Christ) and AD (anno Domini [year of the Lord]) to be objectionable. So, a more acceptable term has been used: BCE ( "before the common era") and CE ("common era").

I think it is a "trans-religious" and "trans-cultural" term that works when we are dealing with folks from other religious traditions or non-religious traditions which do not profess faith in Jesus as Christ (Messiah) or Lord.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Witness in the Cathedral during the Christmas Octave!

As you probably know we are in the Octave of Christmas (eight days of Christmas Day). So great is the festival of the Incarnation of the Eternal Word of God that we celebrate the single event for eight days.

During these eight days of Christmas we have celebrated St. Stephen the Proto-Martyr and Deacon ("first born" into heaven after the Resurrection through martyrdom), St. John the Apostle and Evangelist ("beloved disciple" of the Lord, according to the Gospel of John), the Holy Innocents ("first witnesses" who unwittingly shed their blood for the Lord during his life) and today, a commemoration, in honor of St. Thomas Becket, martyred Archbishop of Canterbury), 1118-1170.

I would like to comment on St. Thomas Becket. There was a film made in the early 1960s called "Becket" starring the late Richard Burton in the title role and Peter O'Toole as his nemesis, King Henry II. It's a good film, but rather condensed as far as history is concerned. There are many sites on the Internet you can look up for historical details.

For the purpose of this Blog, I would like to reflect on Thomas' own conversion from being a rather arrogant man to learning humility and courage by his willingness to take on the yoke of archiepiscopal office.

St. Thomas Becket, 1182-1170
Martyred Archbishop of Canterbury

Please note that he was killed before the birth of St. Francis of Assisi (1182), and so this has nothing immediately to do with the Franciscan movement. Rather, it seems that Thomas was more influenced by the Benedictine tradition of monasticism, although he never professed religious vows.

Thomas underwent an ongoing conversion. First, he reluctantly accepted the archiepiscopal office and see from his friend King Henry. Apparently the election was "irregular", which Thomas later would confess to Pope Alexander.

Initially Henry thought he could control his new primate of England, but as matters between Church and State, and Thomas and Henry, became increasingly sticky and hostile, the king regretted having made his one-time friend and former Chancellor of England to be Archbishop or Canterbury.

When Thomas did meet with the pope in Rome to appeal his case and confessed the apparent irregularity, he thereupon resigned his office as archbishop. At first the pope accepted his resignation, but later on changed his mind and reinstated Thomas by returning him his bishop's ring and telling him that he was to do God's work back in England.

After a lengthy interval, Thomas and Henry made some peace and Thomas received permission to return to England to serve as archbishop. While Henry was in France, though, his advisers informed him that he would have no peace and only rivalry for authority as long as Thomas was left alive. Then the king made his infamously historical statement, which his barons took as both rebuke and directive, "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

The barons understood this as a royal edict and proceeded to murder Thomas in Our Lady's transept of Canterbury Cathedral as Vespers were underway and darkness covered the land. He was canonized two years later, and Henry also did penance for his implication in the archbishop's death.

Contemporary depticion of the Martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket

Our Christian vocation, which we receive from baptism, is to give witness to our faith in our daily lives, whether convenient or inconvenient.

Our vocation is to live and proclaim the truth in love (cf. Eph. 4:15), and that truth is a person, Jesus Christ!

Even during Christmastime, this requires a conversion on our part, doesn't it? From what to what?

More than a preparation for new year's resolutions, it seems to be an opportunity to call upon the Lord, like Thomas Becket did, and ask the Lord where he wants us to change! Christian life is ongoing conversion; our common Christian vocation is ongoing conversion.

Thomas allowed God's Word, the Holy Scritpures, to take root in his heart and to change his life, his attitude, his perspective and his very lifestyle!

I encourage us to take this to the Lord in prayer and let him show us. Do we need more courage in the face possible unpopularity? Do we need more compassion in the face of poverty or other people's disabilities? Do we need to work through forgiveness of someone who has betrayed us?

Let's ask the Lord for the courage of St. Thomas Becket, to let the Incarnate Son of God change us so that our lives may more fully reflect his life in us!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 4 – and Final: Merry Christmas!

Well, are you ready for Christmas? Cards sent, presents purchased and wrapped, travel plans made, cookies and baked goods prepared? Little children excited about the arrival of You-Know-Who on Christmas Eve?

Even more important, though – are YOU ready? How has Advent been for you? Were you able to participate in your parish’s Penance Service and celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Have you noticed a positive change in your life since the first candle of the Advent Wreath was lit more than three weeks ago? Have you become aware of where the Lord is calling you to change?

Icon of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ

Since the last entry to this blog, we have celebrated the Winter Solstice (21 December), the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. On that day the “O” antiphon was “O Radiant Dawn” (sometimes also called “O Dayspring”). Then on Saturday it was “O King of the Nations” and Sunday, “O Emmanuel”.

The countdown for Christmas comes to a close today, Christmas Eve.
With all kinds of “holiday” music at shopping malls and on the radio and TV shows (“A Christmas Story”, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life’), we can forget that we really are preparing to celebrate the Messiah’s birthday.

With this last day before Christmas Day, the Eve of the Nativity of the Lord Jesus, what is the gift that you need from the Lord?

Do you need an open heart? An open spiritual ear? A willing spirit to respond to his Word, like the Blessed Virgin Mary or John the Baptist?

What might you still need to surrender to God’s redemptive grace before you can adequately celebrate Christmas? Perhaps today, even in the midst of last minute preparations, you can spend some quiet time with the Lord and ask him what it is you need from him. He might surprise you! (I think he usually does!)

God bless you this Christmas, and all your loved ones. God bless your travels with peace and grace; God bless your gatherings with joy and friendship; God grant your worship with new power and keen awareness; God grant your Christmas with profound awe and wonder of his love and salvation.

Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia! ¡Feliz Navidad! Fröliche Wiehnachten! Mele Kelikimaka! Vesely Vianoce! Buon Natale! Christos Rozdajutse!/Slavite Jeho! Linksmu Kaledu! Nollaig Shona Dhuit! Sretan Bozić! Maligayamg Pasko! Chung Mung Giang Sinh! Mo’adim Lesimkha! Niibaa' anami'egiizhigad! ºKrismas Njema! I'D Miilad Said! Joyeux Noël!

In whatever language – Merry Christmas!
Christ is born! Glorify him!

O Rising Dawn, radiance of light eternal and Sun of Justice; come, and enlighten those hwo sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

O King of the Nations and the Desired of all, you are the cornerstone that binds two into one. Come, and save poor humanity whom you fashioned out of clay!

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the nations and their Savior: Come, and save us O LORD our God!
(Languages used above: Polish, Spanish, German, Hawai'ian, Slovak, Italian, Carpatho-Rusyn, Lithuanian, Irish, Croatian, Tagalog [Philippines], Vietnamese, Hebrew, Ojibway, Ki-Swahili, Arabic, French)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 3

Yesterday’s Advent "O” Antiphon was “O Root of Jesse” and today’s is “O Key of David”. As you can see, these are Old Testament designations of the Messiah, the Anointed of God.

Fr. Camillus Janas, OFM and Fr. Michael Surufka, OFM praying and anointing infirm parishioners at St. Stanislaus Parish, Cleveland, OH

From early times the Christian community has understood Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ (Messiah) and Lord whom God sent for our salvation (see Acts 2:36).

Over and over again in the Gospels, especially Matthew and Luke, we have references to the prophets of Israel being fulfilled in the person, life, ministry and paschal mystery of Jesus Christ.

We profess in the Nicene Creed every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God . . . On the third day he arose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures . . .”

Today’s Gospel, though, focuses on Mary’s call – her vocation – to be the Theotokos (the one who bears God, from the Third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus in AD 431). This is her unique role, her unique ministry in the history of the human race. No one before or since has been called to be Theotokos!

The First Reading today is from Isaiah 7:10-14, in which the Prophet is instructed by the LORD to speak to King Ahaz of Judea to seek a sign from the Most High. The king balks, and the LORD reprimands him. He then provides a sign – a young woman (in Greek, virgin) will conceive and give birth to a son, who shall be named Immanuel (God is with us; literally, “with us is God” in Hebrew).

An ancient Christian icon of Mary as Mother of God (Theotokos) is Our Lady of the Sign, in which Immanuel is shown in her womb.

Greek Icon of Our Lady of the Sign

St. Francis of Assisi called upon all believers to practice penance and produce worthy fruits of penance; that is, to live holy lives in accordance with the Scriptures and the very life of the Lord Jesus Christ. He teaches us Franciscan friars, all members of the Franciscan family (religious and lay people alike),

Oh, how happy and blessed are these men and women when the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon them (cf. Isa. 11:2) and He will make His home and dwelling among them (cf. Jn. 14:23). They are children of the heavenly Father (cf. Mat 5:45) whose works they do, and they are spouses, brothers, sisters, and mother of our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Mat 12:40) . . . [We are] mothers when we carry Him in our heart and body (cf. 1 Cor. 6:20) through divine love and pure and sincere conscience and [when] we give birth to Him through [His] holy manner of working, which should shine before others as an example (cf. Mat. 5:16).” (First Version of the Letter to the Faithful, 5-7, 10)

Such is the Christian vocation and the Franciscan vocation. In our Assumption BVM Province, way back in 1987 (20 years ago!), we drew up a Mission Statement, part of which reads, “Our mission in the Church is to make visible the presence of Christ in the world.”

Bro. Andrew Brophy, OFM, serving God's People at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Greenwood, MS

While Mary’s vocation as Theotokos was certainly singular, we are no less called by God through our Savior Jesus Christ to “bear God” in our world. And we make him visible through holy lives, as St. Francis exhorted and St. Clare of Assisi affirmed.

What are some ways that God is calling you (and me!) to “give birth” to Jesus Christ realistically in our world today? What are the penances and the fruits of penance in which the presence of the Lord Jesus is made visible in and through our lives?

O Root of Jesse, you stand for ensign of humankind; before you rulers shall keep silence, and to you all nations have recourse. Come, save us, and do not delay!

O Key of David and Scepter of the House of Israel: you open and no one closes; you close an no one opens. Come, and deliver from the chains of prison those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas Countdown, Part 2

Today’s “O” Antiphon is “O Lord of Might”, from the Hebrew, Adonai (the respectful name for the LORD in Hebrew).

This is the title that the LORD gave to Moses (cf. Exodus 3) when he called him from shepherding his father-in-law’s flocks in the land of Midian to be the deliverer – and lawgiver – of the Children of Israel.

Two things need to be kept in mind as we continue our Christmas Countdown.

The first is remembering our sacred heritage. Just yesterday at Mass we heard the genealogy of Jesus according to the flesh (so Romans 1:3) from the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-17). And we remember our own sacred heritage -- the one that the Lord has given to us through our family and through his Church (we call this Tradition).

The second is how we respond to God’s call in our own lives, that is, our vocation. This week, in particular, the Gospels refer to a number of calls – Zechariah, Joseph (the Annunciation in Matthew) and Mary, the Blessed Mother of God (the Annunciation in Luke). Look at how each responded to his or her vocation.

They each were perplexed and uncertain. Each chose to believe the message given, even if (with Zechariah) there was some doubt at first. They chose to believe that the God of Israel, who promised and fulfilled the promises from one generation to the next would again fulfill the promise – this time of sending the long-awaited Messiah!

Franciscans prepare for Christmas with particular relish as we set up our Christmas cribs after the example of St. Francis of Assisi at Grecchio way back in the early 1220s. We joyfully celebrate the Incarnation of the Word of God in human history, believing in God’s great love for us and all creation (the whole world) for having sent us his only-begotten Son (see John 3:16).

As Christians we believe that the Law of Moses and the ancient Covenants God established (beginning with Noah, then Abraham, then Moses and again David, concluding with the prophetic hope of a new and eternal covenant [cf. Jeremiah 31]) are fulfilled in the coming of the Lord of Might, Adonai, the one we call Jesus Christ!

He who revealed himself to Moses in the Burning Bush and gave the Law (Torah) to Moses at Mt. Sinai is the same who became incarnate for us and for our salvation.

How do you sense the Lord of Might (Adonai) calling you? How do you respond? Let's re-read the Gospel stories of Joseph’s dream (Matthew 1:18-23), Zechariah’s call (Luke 1:5-25; 57-79) and Mary’s call (Luke 1:26-38). And let's ponder how God is speaking to us as Advent is drawing to a close and Christmas is quickly approaching!

“O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel,
you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush
and on Mount Sinai gave him your Law.
Come, and with an outstretched arm redeem us!”

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Countdown

T:he Lord Jesus Christ, the Wisdom of God -- "O Sapientia!"

We are quickly approaching Christmas Day! Liturgically, we “count down” to Christmas from 17-23 December each year. We use the “O” Antiphons.

Perhaps the hymn that is most associated with Advent is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. It is based on a 9th century Gregorian chant. It was used by Benedictine monks originally and was initially intended only for the final days of Advent. However, as it became more popularly used in the modern era, it also became extended throughout the Advent Season.

Today is the first of the “O” Antiphons – O, Wisdom! O Sapientia! These antiphons are used as the opening and closing antiphon for the Gospel canticle for Evening Prayer (Vespers), called the Canticle of Mary, or by its Latin name, Magnificat.

In considering one’s vocation in life, it is always important to seek the Lord’s wisdom. The Book of Wisdom from the Old Testament acclaims God’s wisdom. Like the Book of Proverbs, Wisdom is personified. The early Church saw Jesus Christ as the Wisdom of God and used this book as a reference to the Lord Jesus (esp. Wis. 2:12-21). In the Scriptures, wisdom is a hallmark of the person devoted to God; it is a gift from on high (see Isa. 11:2; 1 Cor. 12:8 and Jas. 1:5). And the person who chooses the path of the Lord chooses wisdom; God's Word is wisdom (see Psalm 119) and they who seek it, follow it and live it are wise! Jesus uses this motif when preaching (cf. Matt. 7:24-27).

The quality of wisdom is opposed to folly; that is, wisdom vs. foolishness. Seeking a vocation is basically seeking God’s wisdom in life. “Lord, what do you want me to do?” as opposed to, “Lord, help me do what I want to do!” Such a prayer is by no means passive. Rather, it is an act of trust in the day-to-day happenings of our lives.

As Franciscan friars we seek God’s wisdom for our decisions. But even at a deeper level, like St. Francis of Assisi before the Cross of San Damiano, “Lord, what you have me do?” In his famous Prayer Before the Crucifix, St. Francis asked the Lord for the grace needed (". . . true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge . . .") to lead a wise life in following the Lord and living for him alone.

We all need to seek God’s wisdom in order to truly live the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a manner that is pleasing to the Father and relying on the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit.

“O Wisdom, you came from the mouth of the Most High,

and reaching from beginning to end,

you ordered all things mightily and sweetly.

Come, and teach us the way of prudence!"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe, on Juan Diego's tilma ,in the Basilica in Mexico City

La Virgen Morena is the famous celebration of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. She appeared to Juan Diego at Tepeyac, near the former Aztec capital and holy sites, over a series of days in December 1531, about 10 years after Hernán Cortéz and the Spanish conquistadores vanquished the once-proud Aztec people and several the other native peoples of México.

She spoke to Cuauhtlatoatzin, his Nahuatl (Aztec language: “one who speaks like an eagle”) name, in his native tongue, not in Spanish. Similarly, she appeared to him as one of his own, not as a European. She was swarthy, la Virgen morena (the dark-skinned Virgin).

The image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is very rich in symbols. Hers is an “icon”, if you will, not made by hands. Her image was miraculously imprinted on Juan Diego’s tunic, the tilma (a piece of clothing fashioned from the fibers of the maguey plant).

Unbeknownst to Juan Diego, when he displayed his tilma with the freshly picked roses, Bishop Juan Zumárraga, OFM (1st bishop of Mexico and a Franciscan friar and priest) was astonished, as were his friars!

The wonderful result of this heavenly visit was a powerful wave of evangelization. Millions of indigenous peoples, Aztec and beyond, professed faith in Jesus Christ and embraced the Catholic faith through the proclamation of the Gospel and were baptized. The story of the Blessed Mother’s arrival to their land and her message swept the land around Mexico.

Here was someone with whom the native peoples could identify. And still do to this day! When I am among Mexican Catholics, in their homes, businesses and even cars, I see Mary’s image, la Guadalupana! The story and her image are deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Mexican Catholics. And, December 12th is a national holiday in all of Mexico! Ser mexicano es ser guadalupano (to be Mexican is to be a devotee of Guadalupe!).

As we celebrate her feast day today, let us recall that Mary, the Mother of God, continues to intercede for us (as the position of her hands displays) and especially considers the poor and the downtrodden to be her special children. She is the pregnant Mother (the black sash around her waist) who came to a conquered people, the Aztecs. It was to them, not their conquerors, that she gave her message; to a peasant, not to an aristocrat or friar or bishop; in Nahuatl not Spanish.

To me, at least, it becomes another example of “minority” – the quality which was so dear to St. Francis of Assisi and which he tried to inculcate among his brothers, to whom he gave the name “minors” (friars minor – lesser brothers). The fruit of minority is solidarity. And this is our vocation as Franciscans!

We are preparing to celebrate the great festival of the Incarnation -- Christmas -- when the Word of God takes on human flesh, in solidarity with us. So great is God's love (see John 3:16).
God in Jesus Christ identifies with us! He becomes flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, blood of our blood. Is this not true of what we celebrate sacramentally in the Eucharist, when we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus? The Lord himself feeds us with himself.

We ourselves might be quite surprised how the Lord desires to enter into our lives, to be in solidarity with us. Through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, our Lady of Guadalupe, may we all come to know the power of God’s grace in our very real human experience.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What’s With All the Killing?

Prayer Service after shooting incident in Omaha, NE

An Amish school near Lancaster, PA in 2006, Virginia Tech this past spring, and now just recently a shopping mall in Omaha, NE and a church and missionary school in Colorado Springs, CO. It seems too frequent now – deliberate shootings at innocent people. It seems there have been increasing numbers of shootings most often random.

What is happening?

Wounded victim being removed from the mall in Omaha, NE

I don’t presume to have an answer, but I’d like offer some thoughts on the matter.

First, it seems that all the assailants are, at the very least, psychologically disturbed. From the evidence I have read, they tend to be loners and disconnected from human interaction.

They seem to have found some kind of weird “connection” with people by killing them!

Perhaps the “connection” is really about power.

The individuals involved in these violent acts also seem to have no concept of how these acts hurt not only their victims, but the families of the victims and their own families!

There doesn’t seem to be any sense of conscience; hence, no remorse.

It seems to be a question of power – power over others whom they perceive at least represent those who have wronged them, excluded them, betrayed them or otherwise ignored them. It appears to be a rage that turns into a vicarious vengeance.

And it also seems to be nihilistic. There seems to be no apparent thought (who can interview someone who has committed suicide after the killings, or who has been slain?) about their future, either temporal or eternal.

There is apparently nothing for them – no hope, no apparent relationships to hold them, no reason to go on. And where, if it exists at all, does faith come into the picture?

The young man who opened fire on the horrified shoppers in Omaha and then killed himself apparently left a suicide note which concluded, “Now I’ll be famous.”

A very touching scene for me, at least, was an image of the prayer service at a local Catholic Church in which people lit candles in memory of the slain, and someone included the assailant’s name among the deceased.

Young people among horrified shoppers at mall in Omaha, NE

In this Season of Advent we read and hear the marvelous Scripture passages, especially from the Prophet Isaiah, which foretell the reign of Messiah, when there will be an end to violence and peace will flourish. But we continue to see the evils of violence all around us!

Name of assailant is included among the names of the nine deceased persons at Prayer Service, Omaha, NE

What is this all about?

We Christians affirm that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah and the Lord. We also claim to believe, as we profess in the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

What we claim is mighty bold – we claim that we believe, in prayer and our celebration of the Sacraments, that God is establishing his kingdom among us, even in the midst of warfare, terror and violence.

We Franciscan friars say to a mad world that seems more and more nihilistic and sees no purpose for existence that life is a gift from God and precious to God, even the life of someone who commits unspeakable violence and affronts common human sensibilities with senseless rage. We struggle to focus on Jesus Christ, even when tempted to surrender to the insanity of violence or the stunning silence of apathy.

Like our founder St. Francis of Assisi, who loved Jesus as the Center of his very life, we believe and proclaim that real power comes not from doing violence against another, whether a vendetta against another or others. Yes, one may have power to take another person’s life. But for what? Death? Then what?

Instead, real power comes from God who is the Author of Life. And this power is to give life, to forgive, to renounce grudges, to seek out those who are oftentimes abandoned by society, who are “benignly neglected” because they are different or odd or just don’t “fit in” to our notions of belonging. Maybe even those who reject society because of mental illness or other affliction.
Would someone’s outreach to these loners have possibly stopped a massacre? I don’t presume to know an answer to that. And I don’t think trying to assign guilt is helpful.

Rather, it seems to me, the Christian vocation – and as a Franciscan friar and priest of the Catholic Church I particularly feel this – our life in Christ is to allow God’s grace, already within us from our baptism and confirmation, and from our reception of the Holy Eucharist, to become visible in our society.

That can readily become healing in our world. To take the Lord at his Word and believe those powerful texts of Sacred Scripture, like St. Francis and St. Clare did, and to believe that God is, indeed, effecting them in our lives – that is the hopeful message of Advent.

How can we respond as Christians to such evil? How do you think God is calling you to respond? How do you think you can bring God's hope into this world?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

St. Juan Diego (Cuauhtlatoatzin)

This Sunday, 9 December, is the Second Sunday in Advent. We continue our preparation to celebrate the Lord’s birth in human history even as we anticipate his return in glory.

This date is also important, because it is the memorial (outside of Sunday, of course!) of Juan Diego, the Aztec peasant whom the Blessed Mother of God chose to carry her message to the Spanish bishop of Mexico.

St. Juan Diego, official image from his canonization

She appeared in 1531 to Juan Diego, and spoke to him in his native Nahuatl language. He is the first indigenous Saint of the Americas canonized by the Catholic Church. He was canonized in 2002 by the late Pope John Paul II who had a special fondness for the Mother of God under the title of Our Lady of Guadalupe and for the Mexican people.

The Mother of God spoke tenderly to Juan Diego, whose Nahuatl name was Cuauhtlatoatzin, which could be translated as "One who talks like an eagle". The irony in this is that Juan Diego was a poor peasant of the recently conquered Aztec people and he was no public speaker.

The native peoples were often enslaved by their Spanish overlords. Some had converted to Catholic Christianity, but not very many. These were a proud people who, though broken militarily and even in spirit, would not succumb to the new religion and customs of the conquistadores. Cuauhtlatoatzin, however, did embrace the Lord Jesus and the Catholic Faith brought to his land by the Spanish missionaries; he was baptized Juan Diego.

While Juan Diego was no orator, the Blessed Mother called upon him to speak to the Spanish Bishop-elect, Juan de Zumárraga, OFM, a Franciscan friar and priest, now Bishop of Mexico, a rather prestigious position. When the first Franciscans arrived in Mexico in 1524 they sought to evangelize the native peoples. They had little success at first, but they also sought to protect them from their Spanish overlords. One of the bishop’s titles was “Protector of the Indians”.

According to the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Bishop Juan de Zumárraga was not inclined to pay much attention to this peasant native nor certainly to abide by his directives to build the Mother of God a chapel as Juan Diego indicated, according to the message Juan Diego received from the Lady. He hardly felt like "one who talks like an eagle!"

Nevertheless, as the story goes, the Lord prevailed by providing Juan Diego with roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on his tunic, or tilma (the original tilma, made of biodegradable cactus fiber, with image still hangs in the new Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City).

St. Juan Diego holding his tilma with the roses and the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe

In conformity to the Scriptures and to Franciscan spirituality, God chooses the poor and despised (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29) for his own purposes. This is the value of what St. Francis of Assisi would call “minority.” Hence, he called his brothers “friars minor”, or “lesser brothers.” And in doing so, God chose to eventually raise his servant, Juan Diego, Cuauhtlatoatzin, to the altars of the Church by his canonization over 450 years after his death in 1548.

St. Juan Diego is a powerful example to us of how God chooses the lowly and exalts them and confounds those who are considered great in the eyes of this world, just as Mary’s Magnificat proclaims (Luke 1:46-55).

Friday, December 7, 2007

Immaculate Conception Often Misunderstood

Mary, the Immaculate Conception

As a Catholic priest I have been surprised by the number of Catholics who seem unaware of what the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is all about.

Many seem to think that it refers to Mary’s conception of Jesus, but that is celebrated on March 25th, the Annunciation of the Lord to Mary.

As a Franciscan friar, I am delighted to celebrate this solemnity, together with all the members of the Franciscan family, because she is the patroness of the Order of Friars Minor!

The Eastern Churches call this the Feast of the Conception of St. Anne, referring to the mother of Mary (traditionally called St. Ann) conceiving Mary in her womb. The Eastern Christian approach seems a bit clearer in so far as we are referring to Mary being immaculately conceived in the womb of St. Anne. Nevertheless, the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception is about Mary being conceived without original sin.

The English were already celebrating this festival in the 12th century. The Franciscans of the Middle Ages took up this teaching and the Franciscan friar and priest Blessed John Duns Scotus, a brilliant theologian at the end of the 13th century, gave sound underpinning to the teaching of the Immaculate Conception.

He emphasized God’s goodness and love for us by sending us Jesus by teaching that God preserved Mary to be the Mother of God from the very beginning of her life, at her conception, from all sin. Hence, Mary is conceived without original sin, unlike the rest of humanity, so that she could bear God Incarnate in her womb.

Blessed John Duns Scouts, OFM (ca. 1265-1308)

Not only that, because Jesus Christ is the only Savior of the world, and God is not bound by time and space like his creatures are, the merits of Jesus’ obedience on the Cross and the salvation he won for the human race, were pre-eminently given to her prior to the events, so that she could fulfill her singular vocation as Mother of God.

This teaching was not universally accepted and many prominent Medieval theologians disagreed. However, the Franciscan school persisted, believing that this was a very positive approach to God’s Providence and salvation history.

While not a Franciscan novelty and believed in by many for ages, the teaching of Mary’s Immaculate Conception gained greater and greater acceptance over time because it
was understood to magnify the truth of the Incarnation as professed in the Creed. (Some feared that it would super-exalt
Mary as a kind of deity; that was not the intention).

Finally, in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared Mary’s Conception in the womb of St. Anne to be Immaculate and to be henceforth considered an infallible dogma of the Church.

Of course, this became widely popular after the apparitions of the Mother of God at Lourdes, France, to the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous (later canonized a Saint), when “the Lady” (Mary) declared to the youthful Bernadette in her Pyrenean dialect that she was, in fact, the Immaculate Conception! (The Lourdes Hymn, Immaculate Mary, celebrates Mary's Immaculate Conception.)

The Catholic bishops of the USA declared Mary as immaculately conceived to be the patroness of the nation already in 1846. Hence, it is celebrated almost always as a Holy Day of Obligation in our country, like tomorrow!

What a wonderful festival to keep! God is faithful to his promises, even from the beginning until now. He promised us a Savior, and he delivered, through the Immaculate Virgin Mary. Having preserved her from original sin, God has crushed the power of the enemy through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ and has defeated the ancient curse against us. We are no longer cursed – we are blessed!

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Lights in the Darkness

Advent Wreath

I think it’s curious that December becomes a month of increasing darkness and at the same time a series of light festivals. Both religious and secular communities celebrate the growing darkness, eagerly awaiting the return of the sunlight and springtime! At least up here in the northern hemisphere! (in the southern hemisphere they’re in spring and getting ready for summer).

Tonight the Jewish community begins the ancient festival of Hanukkah which is the commemoration of the rededication of the Temple (see 2 Maccabees 10;1-8) Western Christians mark the four Sundays preceding Christmas with the lighting of the successive candles of the Advent wreath. And for eight days following Christmas many African-Americans celebrate traditional family and tribal values with Kwanzaa, again, lighting a series of candles.
Hanukkah lights

St. Francis of Assisi took significant time in prayer and preparation for the great festival of the Incarnation, Christmas. He knew the darkness that could penetrate one’s heart, and he knew that Jesus Christ, the Light of the World alone could enlighten him. He prayed before the San Damiano Cross, “. . . enlighten the darkness of my heart.”

We who are baptized have been enlightened by Christ. That is why we are given the baptismal candle, which is lit from the Easter Candle at each baptism. We have been delivered from the ancient curse of evil and sin, the Powers of Darkness. We have been brought into the Kingdom of Jesus, God’s incomparable Light (cf. Colossians 1:12-14).

Friday, November 30, 2007

Come, Lord Jesus!

The ancient cry of Israel, our elder brothers (and sisters), as the late Pope John Paul II called the Jewish community, has been for the fulfillment of the Holy Covenant.

We Christians believe that the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the Prophets is in the coming and person of Jesus of Nazareth whom we call Messiah (anointed) and Lord.

And yet, not in all its fullness!
An Orthodox Jewish man praying at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem

We await the Lord's return in glory. And, so, how do we do this?

This Advent is an opportunity to grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord -- by focusing on the Scrptures of the Old Covenant that we hear proclaimed daily at Mass, and particularly at the Sunday Eucharst.

During Advent we join as members of the entire Church of God and cry, "Come, Lord Jesus!" The ancient cry of the Church, even from apostolic times in the Aramaic of the Apostles and early disciples of Jesus, is Marana tha! (Come, Lord!).

St. Francis of Assisi taught his friars that we should prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, the great festival of the Incarnation, by fasting from All Saints' Day (1 November) all the way through Christmas Eve. It's in our Rule of 1223 how the friars are to prepare. While we Franciscan friars are not required to maintain a strict fast, we are encouraged to prayerfully and physically prepare for the celebration of the Messiah's birthday.

Like our elder brothers and sisters in the faith, the Jewish people, we pray the psalms and listen attentively to the Word of God, those ancient prophecies from so long ago, believing that this very Word of God is active and living. Unlike our Jewish kin, though, we eagerly anticipate the return of the Messiah!

Icon of Our Lady of the Sign (cf. Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23)

The way that St. Francis called us friars minor, and all in the Franciscan family, to celebrate this Season of Advent is rather countercultural. When so much of our culture wants more and sees the "holiday season" as more and more about profit, sales, being financially solvent (e.g. "Black Friday") -- and advertisements (especially aimed at children) are about more and more toys, electronic gadgets and the like, St. Francis calls his brothers to fast!

Granted, Advent in the Roman Church is not penitential like Lent is. Still, it is an opportunity laden with all kinds of ways to grow in our relationship with the Lord. It is an opportunity . . . if we take it!

So, how about sitting down with the Bible, refrain from TV, computer games, text messaging and the like, and carefully listen and read the prophecies of ancient Israel. You can find their references in your parish's Missalette; sometimes even in your parish bulletin. That the Scritpurre passages are fulfilled in Jesus Christ is certain; still, we await his return in glory, when his Word will be completely fulfilled.

As the priest says after we pray the Lord's Prayer at Mass, ". . . as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ!" Amen. Come, Lord Jesus (cf. Revelation 22: 20b). Marana tha! (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:22b)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Great Gathering of Catholic Youth in Columbus, OH

On November 8-10, about 23,000 teen agers from around the USA descended on Columbus, OH for the biannual National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). From Dubuque, IA, Kansas City, KS, Green Bay, WI, Albany, NY, Houston, TX -- young people, their chaperones and youth ministers gathered for a festive three days to pray together, meet one another, and grow in their Catholic Faith and identity.

Franciscan Vocation Booth with Fr. Don Miller, OFM and Fr. Kim Studwell, OFM
NCYC 2007, Columbus, OH Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC

Fr. Don Miller, OFM from St. John the Baptist Province (Cincinnati, OH) and I stationed the Franciscan Friars' booth for the duration of the conference. Bro. Jack Carnaghi, OFM and Fr. Johnpaul Cafiero, OFM of Sacred Heart Province (St. Louis/Chicago) joined us for Friday. Fr. Don took several pictures, including the shot of the conference here.

The event began, sadly, with a fatal hit-and-run accident of a young lady from the Las Vegas, NV delegations, Veronica Gantt. Their delegation understandably returned shaken and horrified, with grief counselors awaiting their reutrn arrival. The conference continued, with daily reminderes of the tragedy appropriately mentioined -- intentions for Mass, intercessions at prayer times and a place to write messages to Veronica's family and friends.

The theme of this year's NCYC was "Discover the Way". The morning prayer sessions I found to be vibrant, uplifting and energizing. Young adults led the morning prayer and featured speakers gave stirring testimonies of how God worked in their lives through seemingly impossible situations.

Throughout the NCYC, young people visited the area called "Adventureland" where the vocation displays were (strategically!) located. Loads and loads of youth and their chaperones stopped by. Several actually engaged in conversation, either out of curiosity or because there was some kind of interest in religious life. Many youth and adults had questions.

Adventureland at NCYC 2007.
Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC

Fr. Don and I, and Bro. Jack and Fr. Johnpaul on Friday, walked among the youth, both inside the vendors' area and beyond. Fr. Don and I helped with confessions during the time, too.

Many young people and their chaperones participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Reconciliation Room, NCYC 2007, Columbus, OH
Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC

Friends of the Franciscan friars also had their vocation booths -- the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc, WI. I work periodically with these Sisters in promoting our Franciscan way of life.

Fr. Kim Studwell, OFM with Srs. Julie Ann Sheehan, OSF and Mary
Ann Spanjers, OSF, (Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity)
NCYC 2007, Columbus, OH. Photo courtesy of Fr. Don Miller, OFM

Some others were present, including the Daughters of Divine Charity (FDC) whose foundress, Mother Franziska Lechner, is up for beatification. Sr Carmella Chojnacki, FDC, at their USA Motherhouse in Akron, OH and some of their Sisters represented their community well. She graciously supplied several photos here. And the Capuchin Francisans from the St. Augustine Province in Pittsburgh, PA attended.

Sr. Mary Ann Spanjers, OSF speaking with youth at NCYC 2007
Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC

Sr. Carmella Sr. Chojnacki, FDC at NCYC w007 Columbus, OH Fr. Kim Studwell, OFM speaking with Fr. Tom Betz, OFM Cap. at the
Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC Vocation Booths, NCYC 2007, Columbus, OH
Photo courtesy of Fr. Don Miller,OFM

The NCYC 2007 was a blessed event, even through a tragedy. I think it was good for young people to be kept aware of Veronica's death without becoming maudlin about it. A final image of the concluding Sunday Vigil Eucharist on Saturday evening, 10 November, may give an idea as to the magnitude of youth from all over the USA and clergy participating. I confess I wasn't there for the closing Mass. However, thanks to Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC, who was there, we have this (I think) powerful photo of youth and adults worshiping God and celebrating the "source of and summit" of our faith, the Holy Eucharist!

Concluding Eucharist at NCYC 2007, Columbus, OH
Photo courtesy of Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC

Thanks, Fr. Don Miller, OFM and Sr. Carmella Chojnacki, FDC for generously sharing your photos of the great youth gathering of NCYC 2007 in Columbus, OH! God bless you both and prosper your ministries and communities!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Praised Be You, My Lord for our Sister Mother Earth

A feature of current Franciscan spirituality and theology is trying to move St. Francis of Assisi out of the "birdbath" and into concrete and real human experience.

Who hasn't seen the image of St. Francis with birds perched on his shoulder, petting a deer or other such animal? While these can be wonderful images, especially for children. they can also do a disservice by "taming" this very wild saint of God!

Simply put, St. Francis believed that God's power and grace were evident in all creation because he had redemptive vision. This means that he believed the prophecies of Isaiah, which we often read during the Season of Advent (e.g. Isa. 11:6-9), were fulfilled -- and being fulfilled -- because of the Incarnation of the Son of God in human history and the saving event of the Paschal Mystery -- Jesus' passion, death and resurrection.

Believing that salvation was a real experience, St. Francis loved creation because it glorified God and because through creation God's glory was manifest to human beings. Of course, for St. Francis, this reaches its apex in the human creature. Francis is faithful to the biblical narrative, which we find in Genesis (1:27), that states that humanity is created -- male and female -- in God's image! And even more so, that image, marred by sin, is restored through the obedience of Jesus Christ. Hence, he was also faithful to the teaching of one of the very early Fathers of the Church, the martyred bishop St. Irenaeus of Lyons, that "The glory of God is the human being fully alive!"

Thus, St. Francis of Assisi rejoiced that salvation was indeed happening! It was happening in his own life and in all of creation; that the teaching of St. Paul the Apostle (Rom. 8:19-23) about all creation groaning for the revelation of the children of God (i.e. those redeemed by the Blood of Christ) was indeed coming to pass. That is why the Poor One of Christ (Poverello) could boldly cry out that the sun was his brother, the moon his sister, the fire his brother, the water his sister, and Mother Earth his sister (cf. his famous Canticle of the Creatures).

This gives, of course, a whole new impetus to the Franciscan push to respect creation as the handiwork of God and intimately connected with our salvation story. Believing, like St. Francis, that the salvation of all creation is a work in progress is to take a bold step in faith out into our sinful world which tends to see creation merely as a commodity to be exploited only for human consumption. It is to stand against the misinterpretation of Genesis 1:28b-30 when the Creator entrusts His dominion to human stewardship -- men and women have dominion over creation, yes, not to destroy this household of our Sister Mother Earth, but to honor and respect the elements, the resources, the minerals, the water, the air -- all of it -- for the glory of God and for the benefit of all humankind and, indeed, all creation.

For us Franciscan Friars, the integrity of creation is not simply a matter of being "green" or being accused of "tree hugging"! Far more than that, it is looking at creation, like our holy founder, with the eyes of a mystic to perceive God's presence and activity. It is not sentimental romanticism -- it is hard-core faith that the promises of God are being fulfilled -- even now -- in and through all of creation!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Franciscan and Jesuit Witness Against US-Sanctioned Torture

As followers of Jesus Christ, the Gospels impel us to speak and act on behalf of truth. Some of these are as simple as writing emails, letters to the editor or other outreaches protesting a breach of justice or promoting what is good and true. Sometimes the actions are more prophetic, such as we see among the holy prophets of the Old Testament who boldly spoke on behalf of God's truth and against falsehood and injustice (e.g. Jeremiah and Amos).

Our country has embarked upon a dangerous practice, call it what you will, of sanctioned torture, since 11 September 2001. In the name of security and anti-terror, we have seen its fallout in such hideous images from the Abu Graib prison outside of Baghdad, the complaints arising from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and other issues of "rendition" of prisoners ostensibly captured regarding terror. While we do not deny the reality of terror and those who commit those awful anti-human and anti-life actions, we also stand against the denial of human dignity of prisoners as well. Hence, the need to actively do something!

One such example is the article below -- Fr. Louis Vitale, OFM, is a Franciscan friar and former provincial minister of St. Barbara Province, headquartered in Oakland, CA. His compatriot is a Jesuit priest, Fr. Steve Kelly, SJ. They protested together at the military compound at Fr. Huachuca, AZ, outside of Tucson, last November 2006.

We Franciscans of the Assumption BVM Province support them as they suffer the predictable consequences of imprisonment for their prophetic action on behalf of justice and peace, their action of protest considered a crime against the US government.


On October 17, 2007, the first anniversary of the signing of the Military Commissions Act, Fr. Steve Kelly and Fr. Louie Vitale were sentenced to 5 months in prison for their nonviolent witness against torture at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona in November of 2006. They were taken into custody immediately. (More information at

Please support them - Write a note of support to: (Make sure you include the #)

Stephen Kelly #00816111CCA
P. O. Box 6300
Florence, AZ 85232

Louis Vitale #25803048CCA
P. O. Box 6300
Florence, AZ 85232

They were taken to a privately run detention center in Florence, Arizona the day of their sentencing. It is not known if, when or where they may be transferred. If the priests are moved, your letters addressed to Florence will be returned to you. You may then send letters to them c/o The Nuclear Resister, PO Box 43383, Tucson, AZ 85733 and their mail will be forwarded to them.

If you are mailing something to them at this prison, please know:- All books and magazines must be sent by the publisher or directly from a book store.- Non-copyrighted documents in manila envelopes are fine, but to expedite it, print on the manila envelope "paperwork enclosed."*

Fr. Kelly and Fr. Vitale ask that every woman and man of conscience do all that they can to protest the injustice of torture and to end U.S. policy that sanctions torture.

They encourage people to participate in the protests at Ft. Benning, Georgia and Ft. Huachuca, Arizona on November 17 and 18, or consider having a protest in your community. visit (protest at Ft. Benning) and (protest at Ft. Huachuca)- Visit and sign the petition to repeal the Military Commissions Act and use the handy form to customize a letter that will be emailed to your Senators.* Their commissary needs are taken care of but contributions for prison support expenses are welcome.

Checks can be made payable to the Nuclear Resister (please put Torture on Trial on the memo line) and mailed to the Nuclear Resister, PO Box 43383, Tucson, AZ 85733. Donations can also be made securely online at the Torture On Trial website at*

Prison visits are being coordinated by Br. David Buer. Visiting hours at the detention center in Florence are limited, and occur very early in the morning. It is very important to contact David if you are interested in visiting either of the men, so he can make sure that no one travels all that way only to be turned away because there is already a visitor there. You can contact David at <> or call (314)803-6735.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Statement of the Franciscan Friars, Province of Saint Barbara regarding the sentencing of Father Louis Vitale OFM:

On November 19, 2006, Father Louie was among others protesting military "interrogation training" at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. It is our understanding that Father Louie was arrested at Fort Huachuca when he attempted to speak with enlisted personnel and deliver a letter to the commander denouncing the immoral teaching of torture there, and that he has now been sentenced for a total term of five months.

Father Louie's religious superior, Father Melvin Jurisich OFM, Provincial Minister of the Province of Saint Barbara, commented on the sentencing:

"Father Louie's Franciscan brothers fully support his actions at Fort Huachuca because we know they are consistent with his life-long dedication to work for good and oppose evil. He does so in the spirit of prayer and nonviolence. He is doing what he believes Saint Francis of Assisi would do if he were at Fort Huachuca. We stand by Father Louie during his time of incarceration, and we know that even in jail he will continue to work and pray for peace."

Friday, October 19, 2007

Visiting the Friars at a "Live-In Retreat" Weekend

Last weekend, 12-14 October, four men from various parts of the country gathered at St. Joseph Friary in Chicago, IL to visit the Franciscan friars of the Assumption BVM Province and learn who we are and what we do.

From Dallas, TX, Grand Rapids, MI, Milwaukee, WI and even Chicago, IL, they traveled to the Inter-provincial Post-novitiate Formation house located in the heart of the Hyde Park neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. It is located just a few blocks from both Catholic Theological Union (CTU) and the University of Chicago.

Fr. Joachim (Kim) Studwell, OFM with Greg Hendricks of Michigan and Andrew Gill of Texas at "The Port Ministries", Chicago, IL

Fr. Bernard Kennedy, OFM, Bro. David Kelly, OFM and Bro. Tommy Mandello, OFM offered their guests superb hospitality and refreshment. The friars began on Friday night by sharing their respective vocation stories -- how God called them in rather ordinary lives to become friars minor. The community's postulant from Milwaukee, Galen Osby, also joined the men on their "Live-In Retreat" weekend. Fr. Joachim (Kim) Studwell, OFM, Vocation Director for the province, led the weekend retreat.

Early the next morning they headed to the novitiate, San Damiano Friary, in Cedar Lake, IN for morning prayer, Mass and breakfast. Fr. Ed Tlucek, OFM, the Novice Director, gave them a rather thorough introduction to the year-long living experience of the novitiate. Then they visited another friary very close by, Lourdes Friary, and were treated to a delicious lunch.

Once they returned to Chicago, the group visited "The Port" ministries in another neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, Back of the Yards, among the very poor. David Krug, SFO (Secular Franciscan Order) guided us on a tour of the facilities and discussion about the various ministries.

Matthew Brophy of Wisconsin, Fr. Kim Studwell, OFM and Andrew Gill of Texas at "The Port Ministries", Chicago, IL

After a bit of a rest, we went to the famous "Connie's Pizza" for supper and met up with Bro. Craig Wilking, OFM, who later on shared his unique vocation story and current ministry as a nurse among the indigent and homeless poor on Chicago's North Side.

Later that night, Fr. Kim met with the retreatants individually to review their experiences and their perspective of the retreat and particular vocation discernment.

Finally, on Sunday, we traveled to Whiting, IN, to St. Mary Assumption Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy (Ruthenian), since the province is bi-ritual (Roman and Byzantine Rites). After brunch, we returned to St. Joseph Friary for wrap-up, evaluations and concluding prayer in the chapel.

It was a good experience retreat. This is not a "theory" retreat, but an opportunity to go and visit the friars, meet them, and if possible see where the serve God's People. We welcome others who would like to investigate our community and "Live-In" with the friars for a weekend.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Poison of Violence and Its Antidote

We all know we live in a violent world. We can just watch "Animal Planet" and see how animals can be violent to one another, whether hunting or among their own kind (contrary to popular opinion, by the way) battling for mates, hierarchy or food.

(Photos from Cleveland Plain Dealer, 10 October 07)

And then we see how we human beings can treat one another. And not just in warfare, but people commit violent acts even in our cities, our places of business and our homes.

Just today we learned of another school shooting -- this time in the inner city of Cleveland,
Ohio. The alleged assailant attacked several people with his gun and then apparently turned the weapon on himself commiting suicide. How terrible for the students, the faculty, the staff, the young man himself -- and his family. It is a poison which infects our speech, our behavior and our attitudes to one another.

What can we possibly do about this? I don't presume to have any easy answer. As Christians we claim that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. We read God's promises in the Bible, such as, ". . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares . . . one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again." (Isa. 2:4b,c).

We see in St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), the founder of our Franciscan Order, a model of peacemaking based on the Gospels, especially the Beatitudes of Matthew, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." (Mt. 5:9).

There was an episode, for example, toward the end of St. Francis' life, when the bishop and the mayor were at odds in a bitter feud. Francis had recently composed the Canticle of the Creatures, and added a verse specifically for this occasion, which he had a couple friars sing in the public square, "Praised be You, my Lord, through those who give pardon for Your love and bear infirmity and tribulation." This simple gesture from the Poverllo apparently quelled the violent hearts of the leaders of both parties so that, in tears, they reconciled on the spot!

It seems that the antidote to the poison of violence begins when we recognize that we are capable of doing violent acts. Anyone can hurt another (we probably are all guilty of that!), and in so doing, whether in cold silence in our hearts or in inflammatory speech, we have committed violence.

The next step is to realize we have choices -- we can retaliate when a wrong is done to us, or respond as Jesus teaches in the Gospels (e.g. "Love your enemy!"). In prayer, we ask the Lord to change our hearts. This doesn't mean our anger or indignation will magically evaporate; rather, we learn to work with the anger.

We have an opportunity to forgive! We pray it in the Lord's Prayer, ". . . forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

So, simply put, I cannot deal with the violence out there if I don't deal with the violence in my own heart! St. Francis himself advised his brothers who preached God's Word, "Be sure you have peace in your own heart before you preach it to others." Peacemaking is our Christian vocation, and as Franciscan friars, it is at the heart of our vocation to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Poverello of Assisi: St. Francis and his feastday, 4 October 2007

Most High, glorious God,

bring light to the darkness of my heart

and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity,

sense and knowledge, Lord,

that I might carry out your holy and true command.


St. Francis composed this simple prayer apparently early on in conversion experience. He would pray this before the Crucifix of San Damiano on the hill outside of the city of Assisi. San Damiano was a hostel for pilgrims en route to Rome, but had fallen into disrepair from neglect. It was before this Crucifix that Francis heard the Lord Jesus speak to him and say, "Francis, go repair my Church which you see is falling into ruins!"

Francis initiated his church-rebuilding campaign shortly afterward, thinking originally that it was to this chapel and a couple others that he was called to physically renew and repair. However, it wasn't till later on, as he reviewed his life, that he realized that the Lord had called him to a renewal of the People of God, not just stone and mortar!

Above I used the word "conversion" -- what was that all about? Francis (Giovanni Baptista Bernardone) was reared in a Catholic household, the elder son of the Bernardone family. He was known to be generous to the poor; he was also known to be lavishly generous to his friends for parties! So, you can imagine that he was popular.

But after his excursion into warfare (Assisi v. Perugia -- Perugia won), he became a prisoner of war in the dungeons of Perugia, where he apparently contracted a form of tuberculosis and nearly died. After being ransomed from the prison by his father, Pietro, Francis returned to Assisi a changed man. He tried another venture in warfare, but turned back after a disturbing dream. He began to reconsider the direction of his life. That is when we began going to San Damiano to pray before the Crucifix, alone in a lonely place -- to confront his inner self and to meet the Lord. Such is the stuff of discernment.

It was out of this interior struggle and encounter that eventually led Francis to renounce the world and to become the poor man, the poverello of Assisi, a "fool for Christ", who wanted to live for Jesus alone. And so he embarked on the greatest adventure a human being can do -- to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

Crucifix of San Damiano

"Francis, go repair my Church which you see is falling into ruins."

Friday, September 28, 2007

Living Witnesses -- The Sturggle for Democracy in Myanmar (Burma) and the Buddhist Monks

Sometimes people question the relevance of religious life. These past couple weeks we have seen the effective witness of Buddhist monks who together protest the brutal and repressive regime in Myanmar (Burma).

Today's Situation:

These images, just taken this past week or so, give a vivid description of the power of collective witness, when people non-violently gather to change their society.

With the monks leading, the people joined in the protest to change their society toward a democratic nation. The people have been inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, a woman pro-democracy leader, who has been under house arrest for several years.

As you can see in this photo on the lower right, the military finally broke in with force to quell the pro-democracy marches in the city of Yangon. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Buddhist monks were arrested this past week in their monasteries late at night to break the movement. Many were beaten by government forces. Some even apparently were killed. This outrage, along with the wanton violence against the ordinary citizens who protested, has been denounced the world over by civic and religious leaders alike, including our own nation.

Christians the world over stand in solidarity with the people of Myanmar in their struggle for justice, for peace and for democracy. Likewise, as Franciscan friars, we pray for the well-being of all the people affected. And we think particularly of the monks, especially those who are under arrest and who suffer violence for justice's sake.


Franciscan friars, among other religious men and women, and thousands of lay people, non-violently protested the repressive regime of the late Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in the mid-1980s. They, too, were met with beatings and arrests. Nevertheless they prevailed in keeping with their purpose of non-violent protest on behalf of democracy, justice and peace. The late Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila and an outspoken critic of the regime, encouraged the religious and faithful to exercise their conscience and to protest the injustices of their government. This was very effective in helping to topple the Marcos government in a mostly non-violent series of protests.

from Wikepedia on Jaime Cardinal Sin
[Cardinal Sin] became witness to corruption, fraud and even murder at the hands of the regime — events that pushed Filipinos to the brink of civil unrest and even war. Sin appealed to Filipinos of all religions to follow the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and use peaceful means to change the political situation in the Philippines.
At the same time, President Marcos and
First Lady Imelda Marcos, let Sin to side with the regime. President Marcos ordered his generals to deploy against the marchers, however, tanks and troops were stopped in the streets with people on their knees praying the Rosary and singing English language translations of sacred hymns. Some soldiers decided to join the marchers.

Filipino Franciscan friars, together with some American-born friars, participated in these events. One of those US friars was our own Fr. Hugh Zurat, OFM, who served many years in the Philippine missions. In the light of what is occurring in Myanmar, he recounts vividly the events of the Peaceful Revolution of the 1980s that sent Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos packing and brought in Corazon Aquino as the new president and an era of liberty and democracy. This revolution predated the demise of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe by a few years.

We Franciscans, along with other religious, have been involved in promoting human rights as an outreach of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Synod on Justice and Peace stated in the early 1970s, "Justice is constitutive of the Gospel."

Responding Now:

Again, as Catholic Christians and as Franciscans we stand in solidarity with the Buddhist monks and the people of Myanmar (Burma) as they non-violently confront their violent regime. We hold them in prayer that God bless them and that they are successful in their struggle for a democratic nation that respects human rights and all life, in the promotion of what is good, what is just, what is true and what is right.

The Buddhist monks have been very courageous and effective living witnesses in standing up for justice and promoting a society that supports and defends human rights.

May we Christians, who claim Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth and the Life, be and do the same.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Franciscan Vocation Directors Meet in Florida

Franciscan friars serving as vocation directors throughout the United States, and also England and Ireland, and who represent the different branches of the Order, gathered for three days from September 17-21, 2007 at Franciscan Center in Tampa, FL. Don't worry, we didn't get a lot of sun! The weather was comfortably warm, but cloudy and damp.

The friars, pictured above, came from the Observant movement (the Friars Minor -- OFM), the Conventuals (OFM Conv), the Capuchins (OFM Cap) as well as the Third Order Regular (TOR) Franciscans and the Society of the Atonement (SA), also called the "Graymoor" Franciscans.

(In the photo above, I am on the far left.)

The Conventuals wear the grey habit, the Capuchins wear the brown habit with attached hood (capuche), the TORs wear the black habit and the Observants (OFM) -- that's our group! -- have the brown habit (light and dark) with the detachable hood. The Graymoor friar has a brown-grey habit.

Fr. Dominic Monti, OFM, a Franciscan historian from New York, gave some great input regarding the vocation ministry. St. Francis called the Holy Spirit the "General Minister" of the Order -- the entire brotherhood depended and still depends on the operation of the Holy Spirit.

St. Francis, in his Testament (written very shortly before his death), reflected on his life and how the Lord guided him throughout his life. He relied completely on the Lord's inspiration and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Francis sought to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Contemporary Franciscans also seek to live the Gospel of the Lord -- but in the 21st century, not the 13th. So, we too must rely on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, to inspire us today and to guide us today in living the Gospel of the Lord Jesus.

The friars were great encouragement for one another, deepening our spiritual bonds through prayer, fellowship, good laughter and stimulating fresh ideas to energize us to joyfully promote our way of life as Franciscan men.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

"How Did You Know, Father?"

Every so often, when they are away from their peers or potential eavesdroppers, young men will ask the question, "Father, how did you know that you wanted to be a Franciscan friar or a priest?" I must admit, it's not an easy question to answer. I suppose it's like a parent trying to answer the question, "How did you know that Mom/Dad was the right one for you?" It seems easy enough, I suppose, but really isn't.

It's not because I don't know exactly -- it's more like, how do you explain a mystery? And a vocation is a mystery! For me, at least, there was no "magic moment" of Aha! It was more gradual. I am very visual, and I think part of my childhood attraction was the Franciscan habit. But the story of St. Francis of Assisi caught my imagination and heart even moreso!

I was fascinated by St. Francis' relationship with the Lord Jesus -- with his deep attraction to prayer, his holy boldness in preaching the Gospel, and his willingness to joyfully love his opponents who, quite frankly, thought he was nuts. I wanted to be like the "Poverello" (little poor man in Italian). I wanted to live for Jesus Christ!

When I was a teenager (way back in the 1970s!) I became involved in an area-wide youth group in metropolitan Pittsburgh, PA. It was led by one of our friars, Fr. Augustin ("Gus") Milon, OFM. And it was through him that I ended up becoming a Franciscan friar myself. I was drawn to prayer, to preaching and eventually to work among the poor.

I guess I just connected with the Franciscan charism (gift of the Holy Spirit), but before I even knew that there was a Franciscan charism! Maybe it grabbed me? See what I mean? It's difficult to explain. It really is a mystery.

But through prayerful discernment with other Franciscans over time it became increasingly obvious to me that this was where I belonged. God works with what attracts us. The Gospel of Jesus, the whole Bible, the Mass and Sacraments of the Church, the life and writings of St. Francis of Assisi, the habit, prayer, preaching -- all these attracted me to the Order of Friars Minor. It was something consistent and persistent in my life.

How about you? What attracts you? What does the Lord use to attract you to himself? To his Church? To ministry?

(In the above photo from August 2006, Bro. Jaime Hernandez, OFM from Guadalajara, Mexico and I are at "The Fest", a vocation event held annually in the Cleveland, OH area.)