Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008!

From wherever you are reading this, we in southeastern Wisconsin are having a very white Christmas. It could change, of course! The snow is sloppy wet and the temps seem to be going up. But, then again, we're expecting another 3 inches or so today. Glory to God!

We Franciscans are preparing to celebrate along with the rest of the Christian world (which follows the Gregorian calendar), the birthday of the Lord Jesus Christ, the great celebration of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

It really is a glorious celebration, which St. Francis rated very high. One of our friars, Fr. Roch Niemier, OFM was recently taped about the first Franciscan celebration of the Lord's Nativity in Grecchio, Italy in 1223. You can find it on YouTube and at our Web site,

However you and your loved ones celebrate this holy day and feast of feasts, may the Lord Immanuel bless you greatly as you commemorate the Word made Flesh in human history. How wonderful is our God!

Merry and blessed Christmas!

!Feliz Navidad! Buon Natale! Froeliche Weinnachten! Joyeaux Noel! Wesolych Swiat Bozego Narodzenia! Sretan Bozic! Vesele vianoce! Nollaig Shona Duit! Mele Kelikimaka! Linksmu Kaledu! Christos Rozdajetsja! Slavite jeho!

(Spanish, Italian, German, French, Polish, Croatian, Slovak, Irish, Hawai'ian, Lithuanian, Church Slavonic)

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Wonder of Lights -- A Blessed Hanukkah!

As Christians are bustling preparing for the annual celebration of the Messiah's birth in just a few days, our "elder brothers (and sisters)", as the late Pope John Paul II referred to the Jewish community, are celebrating the annual festival of lights called Hanukkah.

This commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple after the Maccabean revolt about two hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ. The Seleucid Syrian Greeks under King Antiochus IV Epiphanes had taken over the region of Palestine after the time of Alexander the Great. The king sought to impose Greek customs upon all his subjects in the Middle East, including the Jews.

This included the gymnasium (in which participants played athletic games in the nude, according to the Greek custom), which was rendered abominable to Jewish sensibilities. Furthermore, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, considering himself divine, sought to force the Jews to abandon monotheism and support the Greek polytheistic tradition by placing a statue of Zeus in the Temple in Jerusalem!

Many Jews agreed to accommodate to "keep the peace" and some had the mark of circumcision covered, a very painful process that resulted in hiding a man's distinctive Jewish character. The Seleucid Hellenized Syrians also sought to have Jews abandon other practices of the Law of Moses, including the refusal to eat pork.

Eleazar, an old man, became a martyr for staunchly refusing to give into the pagan demands that he violate the Law which God had given Israel (cf. 2 Maccabees 6:18031). There is also the famous story of the seven brothers who were slaughtered in front of their mother for also refusing to surrender to the demands of the Gentiles, the mother being the last to be murdered (cf. 2 Maccabees 7:1-42).

Surprisingly, the Maccabean revolt succeeded in driving out the Seleucid Greeks and re-establishing a Jewish entity. They purified the Temple by ritually cleansing it of idolatrous defilement and rededicating it. There are two variations to the story (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:52059; 2 Maccabees 10:1-9), both recalling God's faithfulness to the Jewish armies and to rededicate the Second Temple for its holy and noble purpose, celebrating for eight days and this to be commemorated for perpetuity.

The celebration begins, then, on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev, according to the narrative. Since the Jewish calendar is lunar and not solar the dates change.

Tonight marks the beginning of the Third Day of Hanukkah (see above) with the lighting of the Hanukkah menorah (eight branched candle specifically for this feast). It is not only a feast for the children (and the accompanying gift-giving and playing with the dreidle [a traditional top for games]) but a feast for all the Jewish people to remember once again God's faithfulness.

God delivered Israel from the slavery of Pharoah; God delivered the Israelites from their many enemies; God raised up King David and the Prophets; God brought back the exiles from Babylon to the Holy Land; God gave us Jesus, his only-begotten Son (cf. John 3:16) from among Israel in the flesh (cf. Romans 1:2-3; Matthew 1:1-17).

This feast, by the way, is recounted in the Gospel of John (cf. 10:22). As Christians we believe that Jesus has fulfilled the Law of Moses and the Prophets and that he himself is the fulfillment of all the Jewish feasts. In fact, Jesus Christ is the Light of the world! (cf. John 8:12).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Advent Swiftly Passing -- What's My Attitude?

Some musings of a Franciscan friar in a Midwestern winter:

Here in southeastern Wisconsin we are getting both frigid weather and new snow fall. Last week when we were preparing to celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe it was quite cold! This past weekend the temps went up into the 40s F, and then they plunged into the single digits. Wow! What a contrast.

For me in the northern part of the Midwest it seems to take more time to adjust to the fluctuations of weather. When it's cold and stays cold I seem to be fine; when it's warmer and stays warmer I'm OK, too. But when it goes up and down my body seems to get rather confused!

Maybe that's just how our lives are -- adjusting to the fluctuations that happen beyond our control. Economic downturn, violence both near and far, insecurity at work, a loved one's illness. I don't think it means we're "powerless", at least not completely so.

As Advent is quickly moving toward the great celebration of Christmas next week, it might be an opportunity for us to consider how we respond to the changes in our lives, the changes about which we have very little, if any, say.

Yes, there are many things in life that we do have control over -- what we put into our bodies, what we watch on TV and in the movies, the people we call friends and with whom we associate outside of work and school.

But, taking a look at this past Sunday's Second Reading (1 Thess. 5:16-24) from the Roman Rite, it speaks a lot about our attitude in life. "Rejoice always;" "pray without ceasing;" "give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus."

We might be tempted to think this is sweet religiosity or pious prattle until we confront that our life in conversion really is becoming more and more like Jesus Christ! As we yield to the operation of the Holy Spirit in our lives we begin to notice a change. We are becoming more like the Lord in our attitudes. Just take a look at what St. Paul writes about the fruit of the Holy Spirit (BTW, it's singular "fruit") in his Letter to the Galatians 5:22-23.

That's our attitude in the face of uncontrollable events. Not a sense of desperation. Not cynicism. Not even resentment. But an atttiude that God is greater than whatever happens, though for now, at least, it might seem overwhelming. The Christian vocation sees God at the center, at the periphery and throughout the experience.

Advent swiftly passes; tempus fugit as the Latin proverb states (i.e. "time flies"). Still, what's my attitude this Third Week of Advent?

Monday, December 8, 2008

Holy Russia and the Franciscan Friars

With the passing of Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia I thought it opportune to mention the relationship between Orthodox Russia and the Franciscan Friars.

The relationship between the Orthodox East and the Catholic (and Protestant) West has been contentious for many centuries. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Moscow's metroplitanate declared itself the "Third Rome", to the consternation of the first Rome -- in Italy -- which was in the throes of its own crisis, the Great Schism among competing men bearing the title "pope" of Rome.

Russian Orthodox clergy bid farewell in Moscow to the late Patriarch Alexiy II

Also, due to various Western incursions, such as the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, Napoleon's invasion of Russia in the early 1800s and, most recently, Nazi Germany's invasion of Russia and Soviet-controlled lands (e.g. Ukraine, Lithuania) at the time during World War II-- have made Russia historically sensitive to and suspicious of Western advances (i.e. Western Europe and North America).

So, when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s and the glasnost and perestroika policies of Mikhail Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, opened the former USSR to expressions of democracy -- including freedom of religion -- the Franciscan Friars (OFM) saw this as an opprtunity of God's grace and providence and so decided to reach out to Roman Catholics in the former Soviet Union who were not previously able to freely express themselves or practice their faith.

This included persons who were ethnically Poles, Germans, Slovaks, and Lithuanians who were, at least, nominally Catholic before their parents' and grandparents' forced migration to the regions of Siberia.

This, however, was met with suspicion by the resurgent Russian Orthodox Church which accused the Roman Catholics of proselytism (i.e. the practice of seeking converts). Our General Minister at the time, Fr. Herman Schaluk, OFM and members of his General Council visited the late patriarch in Moscow to assure him that the only intention of the friars minor was to minister to those who were already Roman Catholics and not to actively seek new converts to the Catholic Church.

Bro. Mario Nagy, OFM (right) of our province receiving the renewal of temporary vows of a young friar in Ussurysk, Siberia, Russia in 2006

The Franciscan friars went to the former Soviet Union and, in various countries, have done a significant outreach and ministry among those Roman Catholic descendants of Europeans displaced during the regime of Joseph Stalin.

Bp. Henry Howaniec, OFM (born of Polish parents in Chicago, IL), a member of our province who served at our General Curia in Rome for many years volunteered to serve in Kazakhstan and was named by the late Pope John Paul II to be bishop of the Catholic diocese in Almaty. (Having reached his 75th birthday, Bp. Henry submitted the mandatory request to the Holy See for retirement.)

Bro. Mario Nagy, OFM (pictured above), also from our province -- who had served for many years in our former missions in the Philippines -- likewise volunteered and lived and served in far eastern Siberia (not too far from the border with North Korea)! Due to increased restrictions on foreigners by the Russian government, Bro. Mario has come back Stateside to help here in the US.

Fr. Blase Karas, OFM, born in Poland before World War II and, as a child, was a refugee under Stalin's USSR in Siberia (Poland was divided between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union during World War II). He returned to Russia, this time to serve in central Russia in the western Siberian city of Novosibirsk. He has returned to the States and is working among Eastern European immigrant men recovering from alcohol addiction in Chicago, IL.

As instruments of peace, the Franciscan friars -- following the example of our holy founder, St. Francis of Assisi -- seek to respect the integrity of the Orthodox Church of Russia and to serve among those people who are Roman Catholic as well as those -- even indigenous Russians -- who choose on their own (not through proselytism!) to be received into the Catholic Church.

Russian Orthodox faithful in Moscow mourn the passing of Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia

And so, we mourn with our Russian Orthodox brothers and sisters, both in Russia and abroad, the death of their Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia. May God grant his servant blessed repose and eternal memory. And may there be increased trust and charity between the Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church, in the name of our one Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Eternal Memory -- the passing of Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia

His Beatitude, Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia (1929-2008)

Our profound sympathies to the members of the Russian Orthodox Church and all Orthodox Christians on the passing of His Beatitude, Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia yesterday, 5 December 2008.

Patriarch Alexiy's history is, like most human histories, checkered. Born of German extraction of parents who were devout Russian Orthodox Christians, he grew up in Estonia during the violent era following the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II of Russia (+1917) by the Bolshevik Revolution which ushered in the communist regime known as the Union of Soviet Socialistic Republics (USSR).

He was ordained a priest in 1947 and eventually was ordained a bishop, being elected in 1990 to the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Russia, just as the Soviet Union was collapsing. Patriarch Alexiy was responsible for the resurgance of both the placement and respect of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian society. He also worked diligently with the flegling struggling democratic Russia of Boris Yeltsin and, subequently, Vladimir Putin.

Former President and now Premier Vladimir Putin of Russia embraces Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia during the Divine Liturgy

His Beatitude has been accused of collaborating with the KGB when the USSR was still extant. Some noted that the once secret files of the former secret police force (for which Vladimir Putin worked) have supported this allegation, although there was no arrived conclusion.

Nevertheless, Alexiy worked diligently at re-establishing the Russian Orthodox Church from its debilitated state under the oppressive communist regime. While severely punished in the early days of the Soviet Union, it was more tolerated toward the time of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s.

One of the successes of Alexiy's patriarchate was the reconciliation and reunion with the Russian Orthodox Church Aborad (ROCA). This body had split with Moscow over the patriarchate's accomodation to Soviet persecution of the Church -- banishment to the gulags and execution of bishops, priests, monks, nuns and laity. The patriarch at the time apparently made concessions to the Soviet government which drew the wrath of Russian expatriots and exiles around the world.

Hence, many formed the parallel Church meant to restore the Orthodox Faith of Russia all the while mistrusting the Church leadership in Moscow as being agents of the KGB. In 2007, Patriarch Alexiy II met with Metropolitan Archbishop Laurus of the ROCA in the partiarchal cathedral in Moscow (with Mr. Putin attending) and signed the official document of reconciliation, embraced with the sign of peace and concelebrated the Divine Liturgy.

Metropolitan Abp. Laurus of the ROCA and Patriarch Alexiy II of Moscow and All Russia at the celebration of reunion and reconciliation in the patriarchal cathedral in Moscow, Russia in May 2007

St. Nicholas of Myra -- Model of Charity and Promoter of Justice

Today, 6 December, the Christian community throughout the world celebrates the memory of our Holy Father Nicholas, Bishop of Myra.

Having lived and served in what is today Turkey, his bones are now interred in Bari, Italy (a rather convoluted history).
St. Nicholas, the "inspiration" for what we call "Santa Claus" and in other countries "Father Christmas" or "Papa Noel", is also a model of charity and a promoter of justice.

Among the most famous of the stories of his life and ministry in 4th century Asia Minor was the rescue he performed -- quietly, behind the scenes -- of the three daughters of an older man who had fallen into financial ruin. As payment for his debt he was going to be forced to hand his three daughters over to prostitution. The holy bishop got wind of it and, under the cover of night, placed three bags of gold secretly for the older gentleman to spare his daughters.

A lesser known story about St. Nicholas was that he had been a confessor (i.e. one who confessed one's faith through persecution without having suffered martyrdom [e.g. imprisonment, torture]) during the last empire-wide persecution under Emperor Diocletian. When Constantine ascended the throne and issued his famous Edict of Milan in AD 313 it paved the way for Christians to worship freely and openly practice their faith.

However, there was also another looming issue in the Roman Empire, especially in the East, and this was the Arian heresy (the priest Arius of Alexandria basically taught a doctrine of Christ that amounted to a denial of his full divinity).

At the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in AD 325 the Council Fathers consented to a Creed (called the Nicene Creed, and later ratified at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in AD 381) that definitively address Christian faith. This is what we in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches profess at our Sunday Eucharists. They also condemned Arius and his doctrine.

According to one tradition, the holy Nicholas of Myra stood up and approached the preist Arius and then slapped him on the cheek and so condemned him! While we wouldn't find that particularly "ecumenical" and certainly not polite in our 21st century Western culture today, it is important to remember that St. Nicholas lived in a different culture, a different time and a different era in human history, even Christian history.

His charity and his justice are demonstrated in his faithfulness to the truth of the Gospel, his ecumenicity with the entire Church and his pastoral foresightfulness in responding to a very unjust situation afflicting his flock that would have led one of his people to submit to trafficking in the sexual exploitation of women -- prostitution.