Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thomas Merton & Blessed Pope John XXIII

Today is the 45th anniversary of Thomas Merton's death.  I've written elsewhere about Merton's impact on me in my early 20's.  After reading The Seven Storey Mountain when I was 23, I scrambled to read everything I could by Merton, and was particularly taken with his journals (I still consider his autobiographical writings to be his best stuff).  I was so smitten with Merton, in fact, that in a moment of youthful exuberance I had a drawing by Merton tattooed on my shoulder; the drawing is of a monk. (On a side note, my kids love this tattoo and address the monk on my shoulder simply as "Tom".)

I now find myself at Bellarmine University, at which the Merton Center - the official repository of Merton's literary and artistic estate - is located, and I live a short 45 minute drive from the Abbey of Gethsemani, which I visit regularly, often with students.  Honestly, I can't believe my luck.

I'm currently working on a project on Cyril of Alexandria that I hope to finish very soon, after which my goal is to devote far more time to reading and writing about Merton.  Not long ago I went to a lecture by Michael Higgins on Merton and Pope John XXIII.  It led me to look up some of Merton's thoughts on Pope John XXIII in his journals, and I was struck by how much his reaction to John XXIII mirrors the reaction of so many to Pope Francis.  On this "Feast Day" of Merton, therefore, I thought I'd quote his thoughts on the soon to be canonized pope, both at the beginning of his pontificate and at the end.

Less than two weeks after Pope John XXIII's election, Merton writes:
John XXIII seems to me to be a most wonderful Pope and I love him already very much - he is a kind of simple person with a lot of good sense and all of a sudden he seems to me, for this, for his simplicity, to be a great man and I cannot help feeling right away that perhaps he is a saint.  My kind of saint - who smokes a cigarette after dinner. (I have got over the idea that this would immediately disqualify him - that went out ten years ago.)
And upon learning of John XXIII's death, he writes:
May he rest in peace, this great and good Father, whom I certainly loved, and who has been good to me, sending me the stole and many blessings.  And I don't think he has stopped being a father to us, to me.  He will one day be canonized, I think (if we last that long), and I do not hesitate to ask for his intercession now.
On this Feast Day of Fr. Louis of Gethsemani, I do not hesitate to ask for Merton's intercession:

Fr. Louis Merton, ora pro nobis!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

"I was called a 'socialist'"

I'm reading Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest at the moment.  I'm not very far into the novel yet, but there's a dialogue between the young 'country priest' and M. le Cure de Torcy early in the book that reminded me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Particularly, it would appear, when it comes to assessing papal documents.

The two are having a conversation about the poor, and at one point M. le Cure de Torcy tells the young priest about the publication of Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum in 1891, a central document in the history of Catholic social teaching.  His account reminded me of recent reaction by some on the right to Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium:
[T]hat famous encyclical of Leo XIII, 'Rerum Novarum,' you can read that without turning a hair, like any instruction for keeping Lent.  But when it was published, sonny, it was like an earthquake.  The enthusiasm!  At that time I was cure de Norenfontes, in the heart of the mining district.  The simple notion that a man's work is not a commodity, subject to the law of supply and demand, that you have no right to speculate on wages, on the lives of men, as you do on grain, sugar or coffee - why it set people's consciences upside-down!  I was called a 'socialist' for having explained it in the pulpit to my mining fellows, and the pious peasants had me sent off to Montreuil in disgrace.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Pope Francis the Marxist

I normally don't care what Rush Limbaugh or Fox News have to say about the world.  But, as a result of simplistic readings of Evangelii Gaudium, both Limbaugh and Fox News have come out swinging against Pope Francis.  Limbaugh, as many know by now, suggested last Wednesday that Pope Francis was preaching "pure Marxism."  And today, Adam Shaw, who normally writes video game reviews at, attacked the Pope for what he considers his economic naïveté:
"[Francis] shows himself painfully misguided on economics, failing to see that free markets have consistently lifted the poor out of poverty, while socialism merely entrenches them in it, or kills them outright."
At the heart of their critiques of Francis is the idea that the pope is presenting economic ideas completely out of keeping with prior Catholic teaching.  The reality, however, is that, as Robert Ellsberg (editor of Dorothy Day's journals and letters) wrote yesterday, "little distinguishes Pope Francis from the prophetic utterances of his predecessors."

I have neither the time nor the expertise to provide an in depth argument demonstrating how Pope Francis' economic ideas (which make up only a very small portion of an incredibly rich and complex text, I should add!) conform to prior church teaching.  A few years ago, however, I compiled a list of quotations from various papal documents of the twentieth century which provide some insight into Catholic understanding of economic ideas.  This list is not exhaustive, nor, frankly, does it do any justice at all to the incredible complexity of Catholic social teaching on the economy.  I am, to be honest, somewhat reluctant simply to provide a list of quotations.  'Proof-texting' is one of the worst forms of argument, and I do not wish be guilty of such an argument here.  But in posting these quotations, I simply make a very small gesture toward the notion that the kinds of economic ideas Francis put forward in Evangelii Gaudium certainly have precedent.

But don't take my word for it.  Read the church's social documents yourself.  The USCCB has a helpful link to all the documents here.  Here are some of the pertinent quotations:
It follows from the twofold character of ownership which we have termed individual and social, that individuals must take into account in this matter, not only their own advantage, but also the common good. To define in detail these duties, when the need occurs and when the natural law does not do so, is the function of the Government (Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno).

 [T]he civil authority is entirely ordained to the common good of all...The common good concerns the whole person, the needs both of body and soul. Hence it follows that the civil authority must undertake to procure it by ways and means proportionate to it: while respecting the hierarchy of values, they should promote simultaneously both the material and the spiritual welfare of the citizens" (Blessed John XXIII, Pacem in Terris).

Private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditional right. No one is justified in keeping for one's exclusive use what one does not need, when others lack necessities....If there should arise a conflict between acquired private rights and primary community exigencies, it is the responsibility of public authorities to look for a solution" (Paul VI, Populorum Progressio).
Government leaders, your task is to draw your communities into closer ties of solidarity with all men, and to convince them that they must accept the necessary taxes on their luxuries and their wasteful expenditures in order to promote the development of nations and the preservation of peace" (ibid.).
[C]ertain concepts have somehow arisen out of these new conditions and insinuated themselves into the fabric of human society. These concepts present profit as the chief spur to economic progress, free competition as the guiding norm of economics, and private ownership of the means of production as an absolute right, having no limits nor concomitant social obligations. This unbridled liberalism paves the way for a particular type of tyranny, rightly condemned by Our predecessor Pius XI, for it results in the international imperialism of money" (ibid.).

Lowering the level of protection accorded to the rights of workers, or abandoning mechanisms of wealth redistribution...hinder the achievement of lasting development" (Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 32).
[I]t must be borne in mind that grave imbalances are produced when economic action, conceived merely as an engine for wealth creation, is detached from political action, conceived as a means for pursuing justice through redistribution" (ibid., 36).
Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics" (ibid., 37).
 All images from Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reactions to Pope Francis' Evangelii Gaudium

I finished Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, last night.  I wish I had time to write about it, if only because writing helps me understand more fully that which I'm writing about.

Unfortunately, since it's the end of the semester and I'm therefore in grading hell, I won't get a chance to write about it until the New Year.  Perhaps the best way to encapsulate my own reaction to the text is by linking to the gif genius of Mary is my Homegirl (if you haven't had a chance to check out her blog, do yourself a favour and click on the link above).  She records her reactions to Evangelii Gaudium here and here.

Image from

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pope Francis and Traditionalist Roman Catholics

Pope Francis is a popular figure these days.  But while many are taken with Francis, there is one group of Roman Catholics that feels less than enthralled - traditionalists.  The New York Times published an article recently, entitled "Conservative U.S. Catholics Feel Left out of Pope's Embrace," that recounts the frustration some in the U.S. church have with Pope Francis' lack of focus on the primary 'culture war' issues - abortion, gay marriage, etc. - as well as frustration with what some called his "imprudent" and "naive" comments about homosexuality and atheism.

There's a traditionalist website that I look at every so often called Rorate Caeli where reaction to the pontiff has generally not been positive.  Rorate Caeli has raised concerns about the Pope's more informal way of speaking off-the-cuff, and particularly about the Pope's apparent unconcern with liturgical beauty, beauty that traditionalists hold dear.  Most of the site's criticisms of the Pope have been measured, but they have been direct.

While I am not a traditionalist, I do have a deep love of liturgy and am always moved by the beauty of the Tridentine mass.  I understand the emphasis my traditionalist brothers and sisters place on the transformative power of beautiful liturgy, and I get their frustration when others don't share their concerns, particularly when one of those others appears to be the Pope.

My sense is that few non-traditionalist Catholics really understand their traditionalist brothers and sisters.  When I take my students to a Tridentine mass on a field trip (which I do for my History of Christianity class), most experience this mass as foreign and boring, and are shocked when I tell them that there are a sizable group of people who very devoutly advocate for more widespread celebration of the mass in this way.  And I've heard other Catholics summarily dismiss traditionalists as backwards.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the necessity of not marginalizing those with opinions and ideas different than our own, arguing that we must take seriously Pope Francis' exhortation that "It is everybody's church!"  And Rorate Caeli yesterday published a post that shows Pope Francis once again demonstrating what acceptance of the other could look like.

Mario Palmaro, a traditionalist Italian Catholic who has been very critical of Pope Francis, received a phone call from Pope Francis on All Saints Day (November 1).  It would appear that Pope Francis called Palmaro because Palmaro is gravely ill, and the Pope wanted him to know of his love.  What is interesting to note is how Pope Francis responded to Palmaro when the latter brought up his criticism of the pontiff.  Palmaro said the following (taken from the Rorate Caeli website):
Pope Francis told me that he was very close to me, having learned of my health condition, of my grave illness, and I clearly noticed his deep empathy, the attention for a person as such, beyond ideas and opinions, while I live through a time of trial and suffering.
I was astonished, amazed, above all moved: for me, as a Catholic, that which I was experiencing was one of the most beautiful experiences in my life. But I felt the duty to remind the Pope that I, together with Gnocchi, had expressed specific criticisms regarding his work, while I renewed my total fidelity [to him] as a son of the Church. The Pope almost did not let me finish the sentence, saying that he had understood that those criticisms had been made with love, and how important it had been for him to receive them.  [These words] comforted me greatly.
The last part is worth repeating.  The Pope said "that he had understood that those criticisms had been made with love, and how important it had been for him to receive them."  I noted in my last blog post that it is a temptation to all of us to want to find ways to silence those whose political and/or theological opinions differ from our own, but that to succumb to this temptation is to marginalize others who have a rightful place in the church.  Pope Francis made it clear to Palmaro not only that he recognized that his criticisms were made in love, but that such criticism is essential within the church.  He made it clear, in other words, that whether we agree with each other or not, we each need to allow the other to have a voice.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Pope Francis - "It is everyone's Church!"

The gospel reading for yesterday's mass was Luke 14:15-24, in which Jesus tells a parable about a man who threw a feast and invited many people.  When those people refused to attend, the man proceeded to invite "the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame" to his feast.  In his homily on this text yesterday, Pope Francis focused on the idea of Christianity as a feast, emphasizing the centrality of community.  He also spoke about those who are invited into the feast that is Christianity, and as he has done so frequently in the eight months since his election, he talked about the Church in terms of radical inclusivity.  "You can't pick and choose," the Pope said. "The Church is for everyone, beginning...with the most marginalized.  It is everyone's Church!"

The following video gives an excerpt from the homily, and you'll find the text of the homily below the video (the text is from and the video is from Rome Reports).

A Christian is one who is invited. Invited to what? To a shop? To take a walk? The Lord wants to tell us something more: You are invited to join in the feast, to the joy of being saved, to the joy of being redeemed, to the joy of sharing life with Christ. This is a joy! You are called to a party! A feast is a gathering of people who talk, laugh, celebrate, are happy together. I have never seen anyone party on their own. That would be boring, no? Opening the bottle of wine . . . That’s not a feast, it’s something else. You have to party with others, with the family, with friends, with those who’ve been invited, as I was invited. Being Christian means belonging, belonging to this body, to the people that have been invited to the feast: this is Christian belonging.”
Turning to the Letter to the Romans, the Pope then affirmed that this feast is a “feast of unity.” He underlined the fact that all are invited, “the good and the bad.” And the first to be invited are the marginalized:
The Church is not the Church only for good people. Do we want to describe who belongs to the Church, to this feast? The sinners. All of us sinners are invited. At this point there is a community that has diverse gifts: one has the gift of prophecy, another of ministry, who teaching. . . We all have qualities and strengths. But each of us brings to the feast a common gift. Each of us is called to participate fully in the feast. Christian existence cannot be understood without this participation. ‘I go to the feast, but I don’t go beyond the antechamber, because I want to be only with the three or four people that I familiar with. . .’ You can’t do this in the Church! You either participate fully or you remain outside. You can’t pick and choose: the Church is for everyone, beginning with those I’ve already mentioned, the most marginalized. It is everyone’s Church!
Speaking about the parable in which Jesus said some who were invited began to make excuses, Pope Francis said: “They don’t accept the invitation! They say ‘yes,’ but their actions say ‘no.’” These people, he said, “are Christians who are content to be on the guest list: chosen Christians.” But, he warned, this is not sufficient, because if you don’t participate you are not a Christian. “You were on the list,” he said, but this isn’t enough for salvation! This is the Church: to enter into the Church is a grace; to enter into the Church is an invitation.” And this right, he added, cannot be purchased. “To enter into the Church,” he added, “is to become part of a community, the community of the Church. To enter into the Church is to participate in all the virtues, the qualities that the Lord has given us in our service of one for the other.” Pope Francis continued, “To enter into the Church means to be responsible for those things that the Lord asks of us.” Ultimately, he said, “to enter into the Church is to enter into this People of God, in its journey towards eternity.” No one, he warned, is the protagonist of the Church: but we have ONE,” who has done everything. God “is the protagonist!” We are his followers . . . and “he who does not follow Him is the one who excuses himself” and does not go to the feast:
The Lord is very generous. The Lord opens all doors. The Lord also understands those who say to Him, ‘No, Lord, I don’t want to go to you.’ He understands and is waiting for them, because He is merciful. But the Lord does not like those who say ‘yes’ and do the opposite; who pretend to thank Him for all the good things; who have good manners, but go their own way and do not follow the way of the Lord: those who always excuse themselves, those who do not know joy, who don’t experience the joy of belonging. Let us ask the Lord for this grace of understanding: how beautiful it is to be invited to the feast, how beautiful it is to take part in it and to share one’s qualities, how beautiful it is to be with Him and how wrong it is to dither between ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ to say ‘yes,’ but to be satisfied merely with being a nominal Christian.
 Image above from

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Voiceless Drone Strike Victims

Nabila Rehman, 9, holds up a picture of the drones. Notice the empty seats behind her?
I don't often comment on here about specific political issues, though I sometimes write on theological ideas and themes that have political implications.  But I find myself deeply bothered by an event that occurred last Tuesday, about which there was minimal coverage in the American media.  On October 29, a Pakistani family came to Washington, D.C. to present to a Congressional hearing about the devastation they experienced when a drone attack killed their mother and grandmother.  You can read about this hearing on the Guardian website here.  I was initially surprised and pleased that Congress had set up such a hearing, encouraged that Congress was actually going to start paying attention to the fact that hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed by American drones in a program that began under Bush but has been ramped up under Obama.

Then I learned that only 5 Congresspeople showed up for the hearing.

As an outsider living in the United States, I have to admit my utter incomprehension that our Congresspeople, and a certain percentage of the citizenry, can get enraged by efforts to bring affordable health care to millions of people (granted, of course, that those efforts have been a mess), but don't appear to care at all that our government is killing innocent people in our name.  I also have to admit frustration with those who support our president so fervently as to be willing to turn a blind eye to the devastation that Obama's drone policies bring to our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and Pakistan.

I'd encourage you to watch a report on the hearing here, and I would encourage you as well to write your representatives to ask them why they did not attend this hearing.  I will be doing so.

And might I also suggest that you write to thank the representatives who actually showed up? They were Rush Holt of New Jersey, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, John Conyers of Michigan, Rick Nolan of Minnesota, and Alan Grayson of Florida (Grayson actually organized the hearing).

Monday, October 28, 2013

"Let the children come to me" - A Child with Pope Francis (*Updated: October 29*)

In late September Irish journalist Gerald O'Connell made the following beautiful observation on Twitter as he watched the pope greet the marginalized in Sardinia:
The pages of the gospel came alive again yesterday during an address Pope Francis gave to families.  I don't know all the specifics, but apparently a little boy (pictured above) ran up on stage to Pope Francis and started playing, as little boys are want to do.  Pope Francis simply embraced the boy and allowed him to play while he continued speaking.  To see the pictures is to see Luke 18:16 in action:
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God."
The pictures are moving, so I've embedded some of my favourites below from the Facebook page.  *Update #1*: There's now a video on Rome Reports that summarizes the purpose of the event, at the end of which reference is made to the little boy.  The video is below.

*Update #2*: Buzzfeed has a page that contains even more pictures and gifs of the little boy.  Click here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

"Touch 'em all, Joe!" - 20th Anniversary of a Home Run

On this night twenty years ago, my beloved Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series on a walk-off 3-run home run by Joe Carter.  Carter's home run was capped by the signature call made by the late Tom Cheek, the Jays' radio play-by-play man at the time.  Whether you're a Jays fan or not, a baseball fan or not, this home run call is something special.  Enjoy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

"Ideology Frightens" - Pope Francis on Faith and Ideology

Pope Francis' daily mass homilies continue to be windows that provide key glimpses of the pope's mindset as he guides the church.  To get synopses of his daily homilies, go to the Vatican's main news site,, where there is a specific site devoted specifically to these homilies here.

Yesterday's homily was a whopper.  As became abundantly evident in his interview published by America, Pope Francis has little patience with a Catholicism that places 'rules' above the human person and above love.  Francis insists that the person must always be seen and accompanied in love.  This, for Francis, is the starting point before anything else.  The Pope hammered home this point again yesterday with a homily on faith and ideology.  I find his words compelling, but I know that there are undoubtedly others who do not for reasons that I do not want to discount.  I'm posting a video of the homily, as well as the homily itself, for the sake of dialogue and understanding.  So...feel free to give your take below.  Both the video and the text are from Rome Reports.

The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology. And ideology does not beckon [people]. In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost the faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought… For this reason Jesus said to them: ‘You have taken away the key of knowledge.’ The knowledge of Jesus is transformed into an ideological and also moralistic knowledge, because these close the door with many requirements.
The faith becomes ideology and ideology frightens. Ideology chases away the people. It creates distances between people and it distances the Church from the people. But it is a serious illness, this ideology in Christians. It is an illness, but it is not new, eh? Already the Apostle John, in his first Letter, spoke of this. Christians who lose the faith and prefer the ideologies. His attitude is: be rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness. This can be the question, no? But why is it that a Christian can become like this? Just one thing: this Christian does not pray. And if there is no prayer, you always close the door.
When a Christian does not pray, this happens. And his witness is an arrogant witness...These do not pray, abandoning the faith and transforming it into moralistic, casuistic ideology, without Jesus. And when a prophet or a good Christian reproaches them, they the same that they did with Jesus: ‘When Jesus left, the scribes and Pharisees began to act with hostility toward him’ – they are ideologically hostile – ‘and to interrogate him about many things,’ – they are insidious – ‘for they were plotting to catch him at something he might say.’ They are not transparent. Ah, poor things, they are people dishonored by their pride. We ask the Lord for Grace, first: never to stop praying to never lose the faith; to remain humble, and so not to become closed, which closes the way to the Lord.
Image from BBC News

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pope Francis and Blessed Pope John XXIII on the Church & the World

I had the opportunity last night to hear a lecture given by Dr. Michael Higgins, an esteemed Catholic scholar who studies Merton in addition to a multitude of other figures.  His lecture was on points of connection between Blessed John XXIII and Thomas Merton, but included some interesting comparisons between John XXIII and Pope Francis.

One of the texts Dr. Higgins quoted last night was from John XXIII's opening speech for the Second Vatican Council, and specifically the often-quoted section of the speech having to do with the Catholic church's attitude toward the world:
In the daily exercise of our pastoral office, we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too
much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life. They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty.
We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand.
In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.
After hearing again Pope John XXIII's words, I immediately recalled an important section of Pope Francis' interview with America:
[T]here is a temptation to seek God in the past or in a possible future. God is certainly in the past because we can see the footprints. And God is also in the future as a promise. But the ‘concrete’ God, so to speak, is today. For this reason, complaining never helps us find God. The complaints of today about how ‘barbaric’ the world is—these complaints sometimes end up giving birth within the church to desires to establish order in the sense of pure conservation, as a defense. No: God is to be encountered in the world of today. (emphasis mine)
A little over a month ago I attended a conference at which one Catholic biblical scholar gave a talk that consistently referred to contemporary 'culture' and 'world' derisively and with scorn, as if the world was diametrically opposed to the values and ideas of the church and could therefore provide nothing of value.  I have to admit that I simply don't understand this perception of the world.  It doesn't accord with my own experience, but more importantly, it doesn't accord with the way in which the church has viewed the world throughout its history.

And it would appear that Blessed Pope John XXIII would have no truck with this sentiment, nor will Pope Francis.

Image of Blessed Pope John XXIII from The Washington Post website.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pope Francis on Kissing and Caressing Jesus' Wounds

The image of St Francis kissing the leper has been consistently in my mind since last Thursday's celebration of Francis' Transitus. In a reflection on St Francis I gave at our celebration of the Transitus here at Bellarmine University, I mentioned how moved I've been to see Pope Francis emulate St Francis in his interactions with people, often embracing and kissing the ill and marginalized.

Last July, during one of his last morning masses before his summer vacation, Pope Francis gave a homily on the apostle Thomas and his need to touch the wounds of Christ.  I didn't notice this homily back in July, but it has since been brought to my attention.  Exceptionally beautiful, but also very challenging.  Francis here puts a mirror up to all of us, and asks us how willing we are to kiss and caress the wounds of Jesus in our wounded brothers and sisters.

Video of the homily is below, as is a translation of the homily.  Both are from

[Thomas] was stubborn. But the Lord wanted exactly that, a stubborn person to make us understand something greater. Thomas saw the Lord, was invited to put his finger into the wounds left by the nails; to put his hand in His side and he did not say, 'It's true: the Lord is risen'. No! He went further. He said: 'God'. The first of the disciples who makes the confession of the divinity of Christ after the Resurrection. And he worshiped Him
In the history of the Church there have been some mistakes made on the path towards God. Some have believed that the Living God, the God of Christians can be found on the path of meditation, indeed that we can reach higher through meditation. That's dangerous! How many are lost on that path, never to return. Yes perhaps they arrive at knowledge of God, but not of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. They do not arrive at that. It is the path of the Gnostics, no? They are good, they work, but it is not the right path. It’s very complicated and does not lead to a safe harbor.
We find Jesus’ wounds in carrying out works of mercy, giving to our body – the body – the soul too, but – I stress - the body of your wounded brother, because he is hungry, because he is thirsty, because he is naked because it is humiliated, because he is a slave, because he's in jail because he is in the hospital. Those are the wounds of Jesus today. And Jesus asks us to take a leap of faith, towards Him, but through these His wounds. 'Oh, great! Let's set up a foundation to help everyone and do so many good things to help'. That's important, but if we remain on this level, we will only be philanthropic. We need to touch the wounds of Jesus, we must caress the wounds of Jesus, we need to bind the wounds of Jesus with tenderness, we have to kiss the wounds of Jesus, and this literally. Just think of what happened to St. Francis, when he embraced the leper? The same thing that happened to Thomas: his life changed.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Visit from "Sister Death" - The Transitus of St. Francis *Updated with a cartoon*

I had the honour tonight to give a brief reflection on St Francis at a celebration of his Transitus in our beautiful chapel here at Bellarmine University.  We have three Franciscan friars from Kerala, India working in our campus ministry office, and they graciously asked if I would say a few words before the story of his death was recited.  I'm posting my reflection below.

St Francis of Assisi is, as you know, one of our most popular saints.  We place statues of Francis in our gardens, we bless our animals on or near his feast day, and we make pilgrimages by the millions to Assisi to pray in the presence of his holy relics and to soak in something of the life of this great man.  When we picture St Francis of Assisi, most of us undoubtedly have an image in our minds of a meek and kindly man with a bird perched on his shoulder.  And it was because we have this image of the kind and gentle St Francis that so many of us were excited last March when Cardinal Bergolio was elected pope and took “Francis” as his papal name, the first bishop of Rome ever to do so.
But I can’t help but wonder if we drastically misunderstand St Francis by ‘taming’ him in the way that we do.  For when we tame St Francis we tame Jesus.  It’s no accident that, on this celebration of the Transitus of St Francis, we read the story of Francis’ death alongside of the narrative of Jesus’ passion.  While we are all to be icons of Christ to others, while we are all to manifest Jesus’ gentle love, some have done this better than others.  And there have been very few indeed who have so vibrantly and beautifully manifested Christ-likeness as St Francis did.  Yes, it very good to remember the Francis who preached to the animals and to remember the unity that we humans have with Sister Mother Earth, with Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and with all who share our created existence.  But we mustn’t forget that St Francis, in his example and his teachings, advocated a truly radical way of relating to God and to one another.

We mustn’t forget the vigour with which Francis fully embraced Lady Poverty, giving up his desire for this-worldly ambition and prestige, giving up an attachment to wealth and property, giving up an attachment to things, in order to devote himself fully to God and to others.  He understood fully that Jesus Christ reveals to us a God who is primarily characterized not as all-mighty and all-powerful.  Francis saw, rather, that Jesus reveals a God who embraces Lady Poverty because humility and an utterly generous love characterizes God completely.  The same kind of all-consuming love demonstrated by God in creation and revealed most fully in the person of Jesus Christ, is the kind of love for God and for others that Francis himself tried to emulate in his life.

But living out a life of generous love is not an easy task, for such love calls us to abandon much of what we consider most important and calls us to embrace fully (and sometime literally) those who are generally excluded by our society and even by our church.  Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has endeavoured in the short time he’s been our Pope to emulate in his words and actions precisely the kind of generous love shown by his namesake, St Francis.  And we love to see this.  I have personally been moved, sometimes to tears, when I’ve watched Pope Francis greet pilgrims after his general audiences.  One time I saw him quickly tell the driver to stop the pope-mobile so he could go down and greet a physically and mentally disabled man.   And I saw Pope Francis, without any hesitation at all, embrace this man and kiss him.  The look on the man’s face when he had been kissed literally brought me to tears, and as I’ve thought about that embrace and kiss, I’ve thought that what I witnessed was nothing other than what St Francis did when he kissed the wounds of lepers.  Now all of this is beautiful to see…but it’s beautiful to see from a distance.  Our reactions change dramatically when we come to realize that what Pope Francis and St Francis are saying is that we must follow their lead.  It’s comfortable to watch others do the dirty work of love.  It becomes decidedly less comfortable to know that we ourselves have to do this dirty work. 

But it was because he loved so fully that St. Francis was able on this night to welcome Sister Death warmly, and so to fly to the embrace of the God who is love. I pray that we might follow his lead in his life and his death.

*Update* After reading my reflection above, a friend of mine sent me the following cartoon about our image of St Francis.  Excellent!

Caravaggio's "Ecstasy of St Francis" from the Web Gallery of Art

Image of Pope Francis from