Thursday, January 29, 2009

Momentous Days and Heady Events in January 2009

Within two days in January 2009 two spectacular and outstanding events occurred in Washington, DC. The first African-American president of the United States of America was sworn into office and the thirty-sixth anniversary of Roe v. Wade was commemorated.

Each event gathered thousands upon thousands to our nation's capital to bear witness.

The first, on Tuesday 20 January, to see a man who rose from relative obscurity in Illinois and who became a US Senator from that State to run for and achieve the highest elected office in the land.

The second, on Thursday 22 January, was to demonstrate on behalf of the inalienable right to life of the unborn and to commemorate the millions of unborn children who have perished in this nation over the last thirty-six years.

However, a bit of a conflict emerges. The first Black US president in our nation's history is also avidly pro-choice! He has both spoken and acted on behalf of a woman's "right to choose" to have an abortion.

The US Catholic bishops have found themselves in a bit of a quandary. While it is a time for celebration for the historic event of the first it is also a sobering reminder of the need for work for the second.

As Franciscan friars, we try to see all events as opportunities for God's grace. The waves of boistrous applause and cheers on the National Mall that frigid Tuesday displayed a unity of peoples of all races, ethnic backgrounds and socio-economic realities. The March for Life two days later expressed a profound frustration at the current reality of both the US government's change of policy to liberalize abortions and a hope. The hope is born, really, of the Gospel of Jesus.

That is what we Franciscans proclaim -- the Gospel of Jesus Christ! While we can celebrate on the one hand with peoples of various religious and historical backgrounds we also can speak the truth of the invioable right to life for every human being.

With the US Catholic bishops we can call for an ongoing dialog so that, according to our newly inaugurated president, "abortions become rare." We certainly hope that this is not empty rhetoric. We also pray for a change of heart -- from an apparent obstinancy toward the right to life "in utero" to embracing these unborn fetuses as human persons, given life by their Creator.

This, of course, calls everyone in the Right to Life movement, Catholics and other Christians and those of other faith traditions or no faith tradition, to take stock of what can be done to promote human life throughout so that, indeed, abortions not only become rarer, they become non-existent.

Pre-natal help for expectant mothers; care for children who are born to mothers who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol; care for mothers who are incapable, for whatever reason, to care for their own children; increasing responsiblility among all people in the USA toward sexual behavior, regardless of one's religious affiliation; a civil debate about women's concerns regarding their bodies and human reproduction; the reality of the devastating effects of medically induced abortions on the human fetus, the mother and other family members; and so much more.

Perhaps we can take President Obama's inaugural address to heart "to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off" and begin again. St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying something similar toward the end of his life. "Brothers, let us begin, for up till now we have done very little."

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Weekend to Remember: MLK and Interfaith Cooperation

From Bro. Jason Welle, OFM -- St. Joseph Friary, Chicago, IL (recently solemnly professed friar minor of the Assumption BVM Province; student at Catholic Theological Union [CTU] and preparing for ordination)

For the month of January, I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to spend some time working with the Interfaith Youth Core, a non-profit based here in Chicago. IFYC was founded to promote religious pluralism, meaning proactive cooperation between persons of different religious convictions, to build a healthier and more peaceful world.

Their staff is a fun and interesting mix of Christian evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, and young adults from other traditions. I’ve come to believe deeply in one of founder Eboo Patel’s fundamental insights: institutions matter. Agents of intolerance and hatred in our world seek out young people to indoctrinate them; if we consider ourselves agents of peace and cooperation, we must seek to mentor, guide, and shape the young people of our world in ways that will enable them to share the space and resources of our world as brothers and sisters.

On Sunday I participated in Poetry Pals, a program that brings grade school children from different religions together to read and write poetry. Jewish and Christian kids came together at the synagogue across the street from Barack Obama's house and read parts of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech, then wrote poems about their dreams for the future of our world. It was a very moving experience--even though these kids have only gotten together a couple times, you can clearly see the friendships forming and the bridges building!

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (+1968) who along with many others struggled for Civil Rights for African-Americans in the late 1950s into the 1960s

We get together again next month…and I’ve been coerced into bringing my guitar so that we can sing together for that one… Later that day, I went up to the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston for a showing of Encounter Point, a documentary about Israeli and Palestinian peace groups. Teenagers from the Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park joined teens from JRC and led a discussion afterwards about the factors inhibiting peace, both here and abroad.
St. Francis of Assisi before the Sultan in Damietta, Egypt during the Fifth Crusade (by Giotto, 13th cent. in the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi, Italy)

It was very meaningful to me to participate in the event as a Franciscan. Our friars have been such an important presence in the Holy Land for centuries, and a Palestinian Muslim pointed me out and told the story of St. Francis visiting the Sultan during the fifth crusade, without me saying a word! The teens were moved by the afternoon--not just the film itself, but the wonderful hospitality we received at the synagogue.

I didn't realize until I was driving home that on Sunday, I think I visited more synagogues (two) than my parents have in their entire lives! We're forming teens for whom it's not strange to reach out and visit someone else's place, and for whom it's not strange to invite someone else to their place. Hospitality is a core value that must transform the current narratives; I'm thrilled that the JRC helped us take a step in that direction.

IFYC uses service learning as a primary method for building pluralism: bringing young people from different religious traditions together for service projects, followed by discussion and reflection on the values and stories from their traditions that promote and give meaning to that service. In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., we promoted several service projects across Chicagoland.

On Monday, I joined several other IFYC staff and two dozen teens volunteering for Open Books, a nonprofit social venture that operates an extraordinary bookstore, provides community programs, and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond. We gathered at their off-site warehouse, where they store many of the donated books they receive before processing them for resale. We sorted hundreds of boxes of book into different categories and re-boxed them in a more manageable form, saving the Open Books staff weeks of work and speeding the time when we can get these books into the hands of eager readers!

Part of the joy of the afternoon came in a couple funny things that went wrong...the pipes had frozen in the building, so we had to use a bathroom at a Dunkin Donuts down the street. We ran out of packing tape halfway through the afternoon and had to make a run to the store. But the beauty of it was that the volunteers didn't mind! We just kept sorting away, and we had so much fun chatting about all the many strange titles passing through our hands that the time sped by!

The group with whom Bro. Jason Welle, OFM spent time remembring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago, January 2009

It was an honor to remember Dr. King, such a forward-thinking and learned man, by participating in a program to advance literacy among youth and adults. Service doesn’t take its meaning solely from what we’re able to accomplish, but from the friendships we forge in the process.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Week of Prayer for Vocations -- 2009

St. Francis of Assisi praying before the Cross of San Damiano about his vocation
Giotto, 13th cent. Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi

This week is the annual time of prayer for vocations to the religious life and ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.

Vocation comes from the Latin word "vocare", meaning "to call." There are several Scriptural references telling us about God calling individuals. Abraham, Moses, Naomi, Samuel, Mary, the Twelve Apostles, St. Mary Magdelene, St. Paul (Saul) the Apostle. These are but some names (one could think of Samson, Esther and St. John the Baptist, too).
God continues to call men and women to the consecrated life within the Church. Even from the earliest times in the history of the Church God has been selecting individuals for himself. Most are called to the married life and to be consecrated to the Lord within his Church through this vocation.
At the same time, God has faithfully been calling certain others to the prophetic way of life. People are not called for themselves, however. Looking at the Sacred Scriptures and the lives of the Saints, it becomes very obvious that God calls people to himself for the life of the world. The ancients and the moderns both had to learn that God calls us for others, for his Church.
Abraham is called to be a blessing (cf. Gen 12); Moses is called to lead Israel from slavery (cf. Ex 3); Mary of Nazareth, is called to be the Mother of God and to bring the Word of God incarnate into the world (cf. Lk 1); St. Mary Magdalene is called to be the "apostle to the apostles" (cf. Jn 21; Pope John Paul II); St. Paul is called to be the Apostle to the Gentiles (cf. Acts 9).
St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare of Assisi were each called to be a force of renewal in the Medieval Church. The Franciscan family continues to try to respond to God's call to proclaim God's grace in our broken and wounded world. Each generation needs the saving and healing power of Jesus Christ because the human reality remains the same although it may take a different form from generation to generation.
In the midst of human suffering we Franciscans are still being called to be bearers of Jesus' Good News and to proclaim his peace and good to a cynical generation, to be men and women who help to repair the Lord's house -- his People!
How is God calling you? What is his "vocare" for your life? Are you willing to listen? Like St. Francis and St. Clare, will you ask him, "Lord, what do you want for my life?" If you do, don't worry, your life will change -- it will be the adventure of faith -- for good!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Franciscan Friars Gather to Prepare for the Order's 800th Anniversary

The Franciscan family around the world is gearing up to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Rule of St. Francis of Assisi this coming 16 April 2009. That's the traditional date given for the vows of our holy founder in 1209 before Pope Innocent III at the St. John Lateran Cathedral in Rome.

San Damiano outside the walls of the city of Assisi where St. Francis heard the Lord Jesus call him to repair his home.

Members of the various American provinces of the Order of Friars Minor have gathered in Las Cruces, NM at Holy Cross Retreat Center for a week-long retreat being given by Fr. Michael Blastic, OFM of Holy Name Province in New York City.

The US provinces represented are Our Lady of Guadalupe (Albuquerque, NM), the hosting province, Sacred Heart (St. Louis, MO), Holy Name Province (as above), the Commissariat of the Holy Land (Washington, DC), St. John the Baptist Province (Cincinnati, OH), St. Barbara Province (Oakland, CA) and my province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Franklin, WI). There's also a friar from the St. Mary of the Angels Province in Krakow, Poland who is studying in Washington, DC!

It's a good refresher for all of us Franciscan friars, both young and old, veterans and newly professed friars to consider their respective vocations as friars minor ("lesser brothers"). Fr. Michael Blastic recommended and provided gratis for the friars a relatively small book called, A Study of the Rule of 1223: History, Exegesis and Reflection. It is published by the Holy Name Province of Franciscan Friars.

The San Damiano Cross (now housed in the Basilica of Santa Chiara within the City of Assisi), about six feet tall, which spoke to St. Francis of Assisi calling him to repair his house.

It's been a good reflection, as I stated above, to consider our vocation -- our call from the Lord to be lesser brothers in a viiolent world fraught with greed. Fr. Michael has been juxtaposing the reality of 13th century Assisi with our own reality of early 21st century USA. Lots of similarities! Human life deals with the same or at least similar realities and challenges.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Holy Theophany! Christ is Baptized -- in the Jordan!

Today and tomorrow the Catholic Church of the Roman Rite celebrate the Baptism of the Lord Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by the hand of the great Forerunner, Prophet and Baptist John.

This celebration in the Eastern Churches, especially those of the Byzantine Rite (Rusyn, Melkite, Romanian, Ukrainian, Bylorussian, Russian and Greek -- those in communion with the Church of Rome) call this the Holy Theophany of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The Eastern Orthodox (those Eastern Byzantine Churches not in communion with Rome -- Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, Constantinople, Ukraine, Cyprus, Albania, Romania, Bylorus and Antioch in Syria) also call this feast the "theophany"", but celebrate it on a different day according to the Julian Calendar (predating the calendar we use today in the West, the Gregorian Calendar from the 16th century).

The word "theophany" means the manifestation of God, and differs from the Western Church (Roman Catholic and those of the Protestant Reform which follow a liturgical calendar) "epiphany". For Western Christians the Epiphany celebrates the manifestation of God through the visitation of the Magi -- Gentiles coming from the East, according to the Gospel of Matthew.

Theophany refers to the manifestation of God in the flesh at the Jordan River when the Most Holy Trinity is revealed for the first time -- the Son is baptized in the River by John the Forerunner; the voice of the Father is heard over the waters; the Holy Spirit descends upon the Son in the form of a dove.

In the Eastern Catholic Churches (most of which follow the Gregorian calendar), the celebration of Holy Theophany falls on January 6th; in the West this is the traditional date of Epiphany. For both Eastern and Western Catholics, this is a traditional date for blessing homes.