Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lent in the Valley (Rio Grande, that is!) -- from Bro. Jason Welle, OFM

My first Lent in the Rio Grande Valley has been quite the experience so far! After two years of seminary studies in Chicago, I’m doing a one-year internship at Sacred Heart Church, a poor downtown parish 8 miles from the Mexican border, in preparation for my solemn vows.

Bro. Jason Welle, OFM (on the far left) in Chicago, IL

While my Spanish is far from perfect, our wonderful parishioners have been very accepting of me, as they were to the three Franciscan friars I live with, when they first came to McAllen, Texas, a year and a half ago. Ash Wednesday was one of the busiest days of the year, with three packed services in the church, plus a special service in the parish hall for our CCD program.

Most of our parishioners are Hispanic and the ashes are a very important symbol to them, so Br. Paul and Galen, a postulant for our Franciscan community, made the rounds to area hospitals and nursing homes, distributing ashes and bringing holy communion to those who couldn’t make it to church. Now, our various Lenten programs are in full swing, including “Disciples in Mission,” a weekly Bible study program utilized by parishes throughout the diocese.

Before Lent, our parishioners organized themselves into small groups according to language and what time they could meet; now, they gather weekly to read the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday and share their faith. This program, as well as penance services, the Stations of the Cross, and next week’s parish mission, are some of the ways Catholics here have chosen to draw closer to the Lord this season.

I really didn’t know what to expect when I arrived here in September, other than heat, humidity, and breakfast tacos. But Fr. Tom, our pastor, and all of our parishioners have helped me grow in my Franciscan vocation, helping me see the ways I might be called to serve Catholics in the Valley during this year. I have become very involved in our religious education program, leading a bible study for adults, a bible study for teens, and CCD classes for fourth graders and fifth grades. I also play guitar and sing with all four of our parish choirs, two in English and two in Spanish.

The support and encouragement of the friars I live with has been a great blessing—we’re often out and about doing different things, but gather every morning and evening for prayer and meals, swapping stories about ministry in a culture so different from the Midwest. The last six months in parish ministry have definitely strengthened my desire to make my permanent commitment to the Order of Friars Minor. I don’t know if I’ll ever be living in the Valley again, but I’ll bring the memories, the blessings, and hopefully some of the Tejano music, to wherever I’m called to serve.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Respecting Our Planet -- Sister Water

St. Francis of Assisi composed the famous Italian poem, Canticle of the Creatures in the 13th century. He was apparently suffering from an eye affliction and could no longer enjoy what he extolled. Nevertheless, taking his cue from Psalm 148 and Daniel 3 (the Canticle of the Three Youths), he praises God for all created things. Later on he would add his praises to God for those who bear infirmity and who forgive; likewise, toward the end of his life, he praised God for "Sister Death".

He audaciously calls creatures "brother" and "sister." For Francis, this is not sentimentality. Rather, this is a declaration of faith in God who creates and who re-creates fallen nature -- and especially humanity -- in Jesus Christ! In Romans 8:18-23 the Apostle Paul explains to the Christian Church the redeeming work of Christ for all creation. In fact, all creation groans in labor pains for the revelation of the children of God (humanity restored in Christ)!

Furthermore, we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17 and are reminded that all who are in Jesus Christ are a new creation. The Book of Revelation teaches us that Jesus Christ brings about a "new heaven and a new earth" (21:1) and that he promises to make all things new (21:5).

These texts echo the Old Testament prophecies from the Book of Isaiah about a new creation (65:17-18), which like Revelation promises fulfillment by the Lord. The writings of Isaiah also promise restoration of creation (2:1-5 and 11:6-9).

As Christians we proclaim that this has occurred because of Jesus Christ and through him! In fact, it is the mystery into which we are baptized, sealed with the Holy Spirit in Confirmation/Chrismation and in which we participate in the Holy Eucharist and renewed in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That which has already happened is being fulfilled in the life of the believer and in the life of the community of faith, the Church!

This was St. Francis' vision. God restoring all things in and through Christ (cf. Colossians 1). Now, you might ask, all very well and good. But, what has that got to do with Lent? Good question!

Actually, a lot! Lent is the time of the Church year, a privileged time at that, in which we undergo the sacred journey of a retreat together. As this blog has stated previously, it is a time of change of attitude. About everything . . . including our relationship with the earth!

Scientists revealed a new map on Thursday (14 February 2008) that shows marine ecosystems around the world that have been affected by human activities. High impact areas are shown in red, followed by dark orange, light orange, yellow, green and blue, which signals low impact. (, Friday 15 February 2008)

Before I am dismissed as a "tree hugging Franciscan" by some -- please note, this is about God's Earth of which we are inhabitants, but certainly NOT owners! As Franciscan friars, a significant part of our concern for proclaiming the Gospel is justice, peace and the integrity of creation. It is not some "liberal" or "conservative" propoganda. This is really very Gospel-centered and Gospel-oriented.

The map above gives a pretty good (computer-generated) indication of the status of our oceans -- what is healthy; what is unhealthy; what needs vast improvement; what is critical. While some may dismiss the issues of "global warming" and the like (I've heard that brought up more than once here in frigid Wisconsin!), nevertheless, we need to check our attitudes toward the earth.

Are we aware of the fishing crisis? Of the crisis regarding the amount of cargo that spill from ocean-going freighters into the seas? Of the "algae blooms" in both fresh-water systems and the devastation to coral reefs and other ecosystems in the oceans, especially those relatively close to our shorelnes?

This is not a trivial addendum to the Gospel nor to living and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus. Rather, it is a matter of our Christian integrity. If the fishing stocks are depleted, for example, what will millions of people have to eat? Not to mention the disrupted ecosystems in the ocean and their effects upon human habitation and survival.

So, perhaps a good reflection for us this Lent is our common -- and individual -- attitude toward the earth, especially the "precious and chaste" gift of "Sister Water" (the words in quotation marks are those of St. Francis of Assisi in his Canticle).

What is my attitude toward this vital gift of the "blue planet", as it is called? How do I praise God, like the psalmists, St. Francis of Assisi and countless believers, for water? Do I respect this gift? Do I remember to thank God for every sip of water and every use of it I make?
Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water, which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste. from the Canticle of the Creatures by St. Francis of Assisi

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving -- Doing Lent! Part 1

The ancient and traditional practices of Christians during Lent are prayer, fasting and almsigiving. Why do we "give up" things in Lent?

Way back in the early Church there emerged practices for Christians to accompany those who were preparing for the Sacraments of Christian Initiation (what has been restored in the Catholic Church since the Vatican Council II -- RCIA [Rites of Christian Initiation of Adults]).

The text called The Didache was a very early Christian treatise (late 1st century -- early 2nd century). Curiously, this parchment was only rather recently discovered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), at the Phanar (the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople) by a Greek Orthodox scholar in the late 19th century!

It apparently was originally a Jewish booklet for righteous living that Christians borrowed and made additions. Among the Christian additions are how to do baptism and how to do eucharist! In one sentence for the baptismal instruction it indicates that the Christian community is to prayerfully accompany the catechumen (one to be baptized) with fasting.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Embarking on the Great Fast

Did you receive ashes this past Wednesday? Lots of people here in southeastern Wisconsin did not due to the huge snowstorm from Tuesday evening through Wednesday night! However, that shouldn't stop us from entering Lent.

As the People of God we embark upon a Sacred Journey each year. A Holy Retreat, as Pope Benedict XVI reminded the Catholics in Rome at St. Sabina Church this Ash Wednesday night. (He receives ashes, too, by the way!).

In the Eastern Churches it is called the "Great Fast" (in Poland, a Western Slavic country, it is called "Wielki Post" -- great fast, also). This is the time we as a community undertake the traditional penitential practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (giving to the poor). These ancient biblical traditions (which are also echoed in Islam, especially during Ramadan) call us as Catholic Christians to renew our baptism. We purposely abstain from certain things so that we may avail ourselves to God and grow more closely in the likeness of Christ Jesus (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18).

We the baptized receive the ashes on our forehead (or sprinkled atop our heads, as according to local custom) being signed to call us to deeper repentance, to grow deeper with those who are preparing for the Sacraments of Christian Initiation. To grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord; to grow deeper in our love of God and neighbor. Especially the poor. Especially to be reconciled with our enemies.

We heard in yesterday's First Reading from Isaiah 58 the call to the "true fast" -- not just abstaining from foods and delights as though we were trying to please God merely by our penitential practicies or try to curry favor with God. Rather, true penance is a change of life; that is, to live justly and conduct ourselves as a redeemed people. To live lives of integrity that corresond to our baptism. That is the Great Fast -- to turn away from sin and to believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

As Franciscans we participate in this Great Fast, whether Roman Rite or Byzantine Rite, according to our respective Church customs. We are Men of Penance who wear the habit of penance. Our life is about conversion, daily conversion to the Lord. And both St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi took this Holy Season very seriously in their own ongoing conversion to the Lord and his manner of living.

Please note the following:
In case you are not aware, Catholics of the Roman (Latin) Rite abstain from meat (i.e. beef, chicken, lamb, goat, pork, turkey -- basically any animal with lungs) on ALL Fridays of Lent; and on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Likewise, all between the ages of 18-59 are required (unless medically unable to do so) to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as penitential practices. This means eating only ONE full meal those two days of the year. Byzantine Rite Catholics have different customs, according to their particular laws (i.e. Ruthenians, Melkites, Ukrainians, Romanians) -- to abstain from meat AND dairy products especially on Wednesdays and Fridays of the Great Fast.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Welcome to Lent 2008! It's More than "Giving Up"

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your goodness; in your abundant compassion blot out my offense." Psalm 51:3 (The "Miserere" Psalm)

How many of us plan to "give things up" for Lent? Maybe we've been thinking about chocolate, or soda pop, or snacks between meals. Maybe we've thought it's a good time to actually fulfill those New Year's resolutions we were so determined to do on 31 December!

However, it seems to me, this misses the point of Lent. Lent is the time the entire Church -- East and West, Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox (although on a different calendar) -- journey together prayerfully toward the great celebration of the Lord Jesus' Paschal Mystery. It all aims toward the Sacred Triduum (Three Days) of the end of Holy Week toward Easter.

The Roman, or Western, Tradition solemnly begins Lent on Ash Wednesday with the marking of ashes on the forehead or sprinkling ashes on the top of the head (as is done in parts of Europe). The Byzantine Tradition begins on the evening of Cheese-Fare Sunday (this past Sunday) with Forgiveness Vespers, a penitential ceremony at the end of which the priest and congregation mutually ask forgiveness of one another and embrace one another in peace.

It is the time of the Great Fast, a time to refrain from regular life and to purposely prepare to deepen one's relationship with the Lord together with the entire Church. What a great retreat -- and we get to do it together with all our brother and sister Christians around the world! Praise God!

But, as I stated above, it's more than "giving up" something. It really is a matter of growing in Christian maturity, letting Jesus Christ genuinely be who he says he is in our lives. He is Lord, he is Savior, he is Master, he is the Good Shepherd, he is Son of God, he is Bread of Life, he is Resurrection and Life, he is the Way, the Truth and the Life -- and the list, of course, goes on.

So Lent is not a matter of taking advantage of a church time to lose weight, or exercise, or other such practices about us. It's about focusing on the Lord Jesus.

This is what St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi both understood intuitvely and practiced. The earliest Franciscans were known as the "Penitents of Assisi". Penance was a popular devotion in the Middle Ages, even into the Modern age. Some of the physical rigors we would consider odd or even bizarre today.

But the overall purpose of the penance that Sts. Francis and Clare practiced was to turn their minds and hearts to the Lord. That's the purpose of Franciscan penance; that is the purpose of Christian penance! It is to deliberately rid ourselves of unnecessary distractions (TV? ipods?), that which can separate us from the Lord, at least for the period of this retreat of forty days. And it is to face the temptations in our lives, by God's grace, and know the victorious power of the Lord's love over them. Even when we fail!

St. Francis of Assisi, as a young man, praying before the San Damiano Crucifix: "Lord, who are you . . .? And, who am I . . .?" His prayer in this run down chapel was pivotal in his conversion to the Lord. This was where he heard the Lord Jesus speak to him from the Cross and say, "Francis, go repair my Church, which you see is falling into ruin!"

As we turn to the Lord we are changed! The fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-23) become more evident in our lives. The image of the Lord Jesus becomes more manifest and visible in our attitudes, our ways of speaking, our ways of acting and interacting.

This was what was so attractive about St. Francis and the Francisans, both men and women. Although quite imperfect, they were willing to grow in holiness as men and women of penance. It is about becoming conformed to the Lord Jesus.

In a word, we are undergoing conversion! Conversion from our selfishness to the Lord's own selflessness through acts of generosity and almsgiving (outreach to the poor); from self-preocupation to concern about what the Lord wants for us through self-abnegation (fasting); from vanity and self-absorption to deeper love of God and neighbor through prayer.

Bro. Deacon Jerome Wolbert, OFM in McKees Rocks, PA

Holy Ghot Byzantine Catholic Church, McKees Rocks, PA
(It's not really in the clouds! There are lots of buildings around.)

In August, I was appointed to serve as deacon at Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church (link to in McKees Rocks, PA, near Pittsburgh. I arrived just before the parish celebrated its 100th anniversary. Holy Ghost parish has many young families--children and teenagers.

(link to )

As we approached the feast of St Nicholas, the children and teens presented a program with readings and carols to help us prepare for Christmas. In January we hosted a gathering for the Byzanteens. Teens came from as far as Charleroi, PA to play games and attend Divine Liturgy together.
Sunset over the Ohio River, from Downtown Pittsburgh, PA, in the direction of McKees Rocks

While I was finishing my studies, my ministry was mostly serving at liturgy and preaching weekly. One thing I appreciated most about my studies was studying the Bible. Knowing how to read the Bible carefully with understanding is very helpful both for my personal life and for preparation for preaching. Now that my studies are complete, I am helping out at the parish in other ways as well, including helping make pirohi, which the parish sells to raise money.

Fr Ron--the pastor at Holy Ghost--and I also visit people in nursing homes and hospitals.The brothers I live with have a wide variety of ministries--social justice, hospital and police chaplaincy, sacramental service to Roman and Byzantine Catholic parishes and convents. The many experiences of the friars give us different perspectives on the Church and the needs of people. A number of people in our neighborhood appreciate that we keep our chapel open during the day, providing a quiet place to pray.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life

Tomorrow, Sunday 3 February 2008, is the annual World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life. This usually falls on the Sunday closes to the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple (which is today, Saturday 2 Feburary). And, tomrrow happily coincides with the (optional) memorial of the Armenian holy bishop Blase of Sebaste -- the traditional blessing of throats!

Contemporary image of Saints Clare and Francis of Assisi surrounded by men and women Franciscans and Sisters Moon and the Stars and Brother Sun, from Francis' Canticle of the Creatures

All Christians are "consecrated" to the Lord through the Sacrament of Baptism, so what does this mean, "consecrated life"?

The term "consecrated life" became a popular term for religious life during the pontificate of the late Pope John Paul II, when he wrote a treatise called Vita Consecrata (consecrated life in Latin) in the early 1990s.

Yes, all Christians are consecrated to the Lord in baptism -- the various passages in the New Testament (especially the letters of St. Paul the Apostle) testify to this truth. We are told we are a "temple of the Holy Spirit", "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ", "born again", "a new creation", "a royal priesthood, a holy nation and a people which belongs uniquely to the Lord" and "the People of God".

But since the very beginning centuries of the Church, particularly in the Christian East, there has been a continual movement of certain men and women who discerned they were called by the Lord to a different sense of "vocation" than their peers. We have some evidence of this prior to the fourth century, but the two classical personages of this movement were St. Paul the Hermit and St. Anthony of the Desert (also called "the Abbot" and "the Great") of Egypt.

Originally they went into the desert to "escape the world". This meant that they wanted to consecrate their entire lives to the Lord through prayer, silence, mortifications, penances and work. They believed that living "in the world" was a great distraction and so they wanted to be free of all distractions, following the example of the Lord Jesus who, after his baptism, went into the desert for forty days and nights.

Many did so for the purpose of leading a penitential life. Perhaps they had committed grevious sins and determined that their only hope for salvation in the Lord was to avoid all possible contact with their former lives and begin an entirely new life away from the world. Others simply wanted to live for the Lord Jesus alone -- in prayer and with work.

The movement would eventualy spread throughout the Christian world -- Persia, Greece, Italy, Ireland. Great saints emerge from this movement, countless saints. Over the course of centuries, Western monasticism would develop into what we know as religiious life in our day and age. Rather than stay in monasteries, many men and women discerned their vocation to serve among the poor, to educate, to assist the sick and the dying, to preach, to go among non-believers as missionaries or to preach among the baptized, calling them to deeper relationshiop with the Lord and to conversion.

Our own Franciscan movement, begun with Sts. Francis and Clare in the early 13th century helped change religious life from the monastery to the city and beyond. All of these are examples of "consecrated life."
Bro. Mario Nagy, OFM, of the Assumption BVM Province, on mission in Siberia, Russia, receiving the first (simple) profession of a Russian Franciscan novice

Quite simply, it is discerning the Lord's call in our lives to deepen our baptismal consecration. This disceernment into religious life includes looking critically at our world (not to be negative but to see it as it really is, from the Lord's perspective, through prayer and familiarity with Holy Tradition [including Sacred Scripture]).

The Vita Consecrata takes many forms in the Catholic Church. As Franciscan friars, we seek to serve the Lord and his Church by striving to live and proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ like St. Francis of Assisi, our founder, and his early band of "Penitents of Assisi". These he would name, "friars minor", or lesser brothers.
By responding to the Lord's call in faith, that is, a Franciscan vocation, we trust the God is calling us to live in fraternity as brothers, to pray together according to the norms of the Catholic Church (Roman and Byzantine [Ruthenian] Rites), to grow in our relationship with the Lord through personal prayer, days of recollection, spiritual direction and retreats and to become appropriately educated and trained so that we may adequately serve in various capacities. All of this is encompassed with the desire to identify with the Lord Jesus who "became poor for our sake so that we could become rich in the mercy of God". This is what both Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi desired with all their hearts.

They listened to the Gospels and responded to them, even imperfectly, because of their love for Jesus and his People, the Church. That is what imples us, like St. Paul wrote the Galatian Christians in the New Testament. The love of Jesus Christ impels us to seek him as our greatest good in consecrated life as vowed religious. This we believe is fulfilling our baptismal vows and consecration to the Lord -- to God's glory and for the life of his People.