Sunday, July 29, 2012

Winning Isn't Everything

   Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

The 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin
are generally remembered for their controversy.
Hosted by Hitler’s Nazi party,
the original intention was that no Jews or blacks
be allowed to participate in the Games;
at the threat of international boycott,
the organizers relented.

But there’s a little known piece of 1936 Olympic trivia
which has recently caught my attention.
It seems that two Japanese athletes—
Shuhei Nishida and Sueo Oe—
tied for second place in the men’s pole vault.
Rather than continue 
to compete against each other in a jump-off,
the two drew lots for the silver medal.
Nishida won, and Oe took the bronze.
But when the pair got back to Japan,
they had their medals cut in two and then joined together
so that each had a medal which was half silver and half bronze.

For the next few weeks,
the eyes of the world will be fixed on London
and the Olympic Games now underway there.
The Olympics would not be the Olympics, of course,
without competition…but—as stories like that
of the Japanese pole-vaulters remind us—
competition is not their ultimate purpose.
The purpose of the Olympics is not the awarding of medals—
though it is right for us to celebrate excellence and achievement;
no, the purpose of the Olympics
is to bring the world closer together:
first by uniting athletes across competitive borders,
and then by better uniting their nations
in mutual understanding and respect.

If strict competition isn’t the ruling principle
even of the Olympic Games,
then maybe there are some of the other areas of life and society
where we need to reexamine our purpose and priorities.
I think of global economics,
where the gap keeps growing between rich and poor;
where nearly a billion people go to bed hungry each night
while there’s more than sufficient food to feed the world.
I think of national politics,
where the focus has shifted from what’s best for the country
to who wins and who loses—no matter the cost.
I even think of the Church,
where conflicts escalate on so many issues
ranging from liturgy to lifestyles.
But for all the struggle to come out on top,
why does it seem we’re not getting ahead—
in fact, that we’re loosing ground?
Is this what it means to take first place?

Consider how that little boy
brought forward by Andrew on the mountainside
could have easily looked at his little lunch and said:
That’s mine!  I earned it.  I brought it.  Get your own!
But instead, he placed his few loaves and fish in Jesus’ hands
and watched a miracle unfold:
not only that there was more than enough food to go around,
but that, by sharing this simple meal,
a ragtag crowd come from all over
had been changed into a community
reclining on the grass to picnic together in this out of the way place.

“I urge you,” Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians,
“to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received.”
He’s encouraging us to be the very best!
But Paul here doesn’t advocate a fiercely competitive spirit
where triumph comes at great expense to others;
rather, he’s summoning us to a humble striving
that preserves unity and strengthens the bonds of peace.  

Just imagine how different our times would be
if we each did our very best every day—
not for our own glory, but for God’s!

In 1936, a world on the brink of war
desperately needed the example of two Japanese pole-vaulters,
telling it that there’s something much more important than winning.
In 2012, when so many things still divide us,
the world very much stands in need of the same message.
May this message come not only from the Olympic Games,
but even more from those of us who are disciples of Jesus Christ:
who have in common one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
Continually brought closer together in one body by the Eucharist,
may our increasing unity give living witness
to the one God and Father of all.
Yes, we may need to lay aside some of our competitiveness…
…but let’s not neglect to go for the gold!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

St. Ann

As I mentioned last year, St. Ann has a pretty special place in my this afternoon, Fr. Tom and I make a quick pilgrimage to her shrine in Isle LaMotte, Vermont.  It wasn't the prettiest day to enjoy the view there on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain (the overcast skies were bringing us just a little bit of much needed rain), but it was well worth the drive, nonetheless...

Good Saint Ann,
pray for us!

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Hope you can enjoy a day of rest...

   Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson 
went on a camping trip.
As they lay down for the night, Holmes said:
“Watson, look up into the sky 
and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.”

"And what does that tell you, Watson?"

it tells me that there are millions of galaxies

and potentially billions of planets.
it tells me that God is great
and that we are small and insignificant.
it tells me that we will have 
a beautiful day tomorrow.
What does it tell you, Holmes?”
“It tells me, my dear Watson, 
that somebody has stolen our tent.”

I spent this past week 
“camping,” after a fashion,
serving as the chaplain to 70 teenaged campers
and the staff at Camp Guggenheim.
It wasn’t exactly vacation:
I offered daily Mass, heard confessions,
led prayer, helped with workshops,
and took part in all the many 
summer camp activities
which kept me up well past my usual bedtime.
But it was a refreshing change of pace, nonetheless,
that gave me the opportunity
to climb a mountain, get out in my kayak,
eat a few more ice cream cones 
than I probably should,
and even stop to look up 
and marvel at the stars.

Coming back from these days—paradoxically—
both a little more sleepy and a little more relaxed than usual,
I smiled widely to come across the following reflection yesterday morning:

Modern life is lived at high tension;
its pace is intense and nerves get frayed.  
Whatever it costs,
we must learn how to stop, when we need to,
and draw a quiet breath.…
[W]e must still learn how to relax…

In order to acquire this art,
we must learn particularly how to take advantage
of the little opportunities life has to offer
and become children at heart again.
We must not live at such an intensive, hustling pace
that we no longer have time to…have time.
To be relaxed makes one accessible to others.…

We must learn, or re-learn, to have time.
Our Lord himself did not want his apostles
to live in a state of perpetual tension.
He urged them to “come away into a quiet place”:
“rest a little”, he said to them
on days after they had finished their apostolic missions.  
In the wilderness and in solitude,
he revealed to them the best of himself and his message.…

We stand in need of rest;
rest in the ordinary sense of the word,
and also rest in God.  
We must find a place for him in the bustle of the day;
a place for private prayer, for slow and meditative reading.
We need this “oxygen.”
No luxury this; it is one of our vital necessities.…
In the midst of work,
we must keep our hearts open to God.
It helps so much to keep things in their proper proportion
if we keep a window open to heaven.…

We need to get our breath back.
That is why the Church is so insistent
on Sunday being kept as a holy day;
a day for public worship, certainly,
but also a day of rest.…
We must stop,
like the [mountain] climber who has reached a high peak,
to take breath for a moment, admire the view,
fill our lungs with fresh air and go on to the next peak.…
Do not let us neglect to fix our gaze on the sky
until we can see the stars there.
We make much better headway here on earth
when we have a sense of direction
and move forward with a firm step on solid ground.
Looking at the heavens is the form of relaxation
we can least dispense with
if we want to keep things in their perspective
and make the world a better place to live.  (Christian Life Day by Day)*

Those words are so apropos today!
Incredibly, they were written by 
Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens of Belgium
all the way back in 1961—
a time to which we very well 
might look back now 
as a far simpler one…

During these last several days,
our hearts—like Christ’s—have been moved with pity
at news of fatal car accidents and damaging storms
here in the North Country,
and the senseless shooting in Colorado that tore apart
what should have been an enjoyable evening at the movies.
Things can seem completely run amok—
people running about like sheep without a shepherd.
How crucial for us to remember
that Christ Jesus came preaching peace—
peace to those both far and near!
We need to stay in touch with that peace.
We need to re-learn how to relax—
not just because we want to be rested when we get back to work,
but because “to be relaxed makes one accessible to others,”
and accessible to God above all else.

On these clear summer nights,
let’s all take some time to step out and look up at the stars,
catching our breath and—even for just a moment—
resting in the God who made them.

*The entire book is available online here;  
these passages are excerpted from chapter 27, "Learning to Relax," which begins on page 95.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


On his way out of church this morning, a visitor stopped to say, "Thanks for nothing, Father!"

Stay cool...

   Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I had several ideas for a homily 
floating around in my head
when it hit me:
since it’s so blasted hot around here this weekend,
I ought to preach about nothing.
Now, before you get too excited,
I don’t mean no homily at all;
I mean a brief one on nothing.

St. John Vianney—
the patron saint of parish priests
whose image is right here beside the pulpit—
once said:
I have been privileged to give great gifts
from my empty hands.

You’ll notice in the gospel
that Jesus sends out his twelve Apostles—
his first priests—empty handed
no food, no money, no change of clothes. 
(Jesus did, however, say they were to wear sandals…
…so I’m carefully following 
his instructions this morning!)

Given the crucial nature of this mission,
why are they sent—apparently—with nothing?

Fr. Tom (right, with modern "sandals") and I in the
sacristy before Mass yesterday evening at 90° F
Well, because they are sent to preach…
…but theirs is to be 
Jesus’ own message of repentance,
and not some new teaching
which they themselves have devised. 
And because they are sent to drive out demons…
…but they can only do so in Christ’s name,
rather than their own. 
And because they are sent out to heal…
…but they are to use an intermediary—
oil for anointing—
since they, too, are but instruments
of Another’s power to cure both body and soul. 

You see, the Twelve go out with nothing—
nothing of their own, at least—
to make it perfectly clear 
that what they have to give
does not in any way come from them.
And just what is it they have to give?
Every spiritual blessing in the heavens,
lavished upon us 
out of the riches of God’s grace.

Like the Apostles, all of us—
yes, we priests in a particular way,
but every single follower of Jesus, as well—
are summoned and sent out to proclaim his gospel,
to drive out the spirit of evil from this world,
and to restore the sick to health.
So if you’re feeling inadequate
or ill-equipped for the job at hand,
have no fear;
you’re probably right where you should be,
since what’s most needed to accomplish this mission is nothing:
not our talents or skills or abilities,
not popularity or power or pedigree,
but our nothingness.

What a privilege to be chosen to give such great gifts
from these, our empty hands!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

His & Hers

In honor of this blog's anniversary, I've got a little present to share with all of you.  You may recall that my friend Dan had been serving a tour of duty over in Afghanistan and sent me a most fascinating gift. Well, Dan has safely (thank God!) returned home to his family...and sent me another care package about a month ago--this time, with a piece of headgear that I could be photographed wearing without causing either cross-cultural or cross-dressing scandal.  The hat is called a "pakul" (or "mujahideen cap") and, together with the accompanying "man scarf," is as popular in Afghanistan as a baseball cap is here in the States.  Dan was kind enough to include directions on how to properly roll the cap and wear the scarf.  I could not, however, find instructions on how to take a picture of me in them that didn't look either rather frightening or mostly ridiculous...

Thanks again, Dan!  I miss your blog...but we're so glad to have you back safe and sound!

A Prophet?

It was a year ago this past week that I started blogging.  One can clearly see from the counter below that there've been nearly 18,000 visits to the blog since then.  What you can't see is that nearly 2,000 of those visits have been from people searching for Bart Simpson.  Whodda thunk mentioning him would open such doors for evangelization?

However you got here, thanks for visiting!

   Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A bishop was interviewing a seminarian,
asking where he might someday like to be assigned as a priest.
The seminarian said, rather boldly,
“Oh bishop, anywhere but Smallville.”
“Well, why not there?” the bishop inquired.
“You see,” the seminarian answered, “that’s my hometown—
and we all know that ‘a prophet is never honored in his native place.’”
“Don’t worry, my friend,” the bishop replied.
“Nobody is ever going to mistake you for a prophet.”

I quite clearly remember
during my days as a student at Wadhams Hall Seminary
going on a mountain climb in the Adirondacks
with several other students and members of the faculty.
When we’d reached the summit
and were resting there on the warm rocks,
the conversation somehow turned to particular challenges in ministry.
One of the priests shared—
I can still hear it like it was yesterday:
“One of the hardest things to do as a priest
is to be priest for your family.”

And in my experience, anyway, time has proved him right.

Some of it’s just plain practical.
I have a whole bunch of cousins,
and every time I turn around another one of them is getting married,
another one of them has had a baby.
Very early in my priesthood,
I had to make it clear that I simply could not be present
for every wedding and every baptism,
since I have weddings and baptisms aplenty in the parish.
Now, they’ve never complained to my face…
…but I’ve heard it through the grapevine
how this one or that has been less than understanding of my absence.

Of course, there are deeper issues, too.
My heart breaks as I see family members and close friends
who have stopped going to Mass;
or who have moved in with a partner—or even started a family—
without the benefit of the sacrament of Marriage;
or who have adopted a way of life
openly at odds with the faith in which they were raised—
the faith to which I’ve devoted my entire life.
Without a doubt, my love and affection for them endures…
…but what should I say?  What shouldn’t I say?
How can I lovingly be their son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend…
…and also faithfully be a priest of Jesus Christ?

It’s a challenge, indeed!
And it’s one I’m not sure I always get right.

A recent exchange with a friend was a good reminder
that this isn’t only a struggle for us
who are “professionally religious.”

I’ll call him “Adam.”
I met him when he was getting ready for his wedding.
Adam wasn’t raised in a very religious household—
and hadn’t been going to Mass for many years—
but his finacée was a rather devout Catholic.
And to his credit, Adam realized
that if he was going to ask the Church to give its blessing to his marriage,
then he’d ought to become a better member of it.
To see him reconnect with his faith
was a truly wonderful thing to behold!

Now—a number of years later—Adam’s father is dying.
He wants for his dad the same thing he found for himself:
to rekindle a relationship with God,
especially in this crucial hour.
Adam freely admits: he’s not as good a Catholic as he could be.
He doesn’t always make it to Sunday Mass with his wife and daughter.
So he’s not coming at this from some position of great self-righteousness.
He just knows—firsthand—what a difference faith in Christ makes.
Adam has tried to talk his dad into a visit from a priest…
…but without any success just yet.
Needless to say, he’s pretty disappointed.
But at my urging, Adam’s praying…and hasn’t given up hope.

We might all marvel at the way missionaries travel to far distant lands
and proclaim the gospel to nonbelievers.
But it’s an even trickier thing, I think,
to share our faith with those who are closest to us.
We can see in the gospel how Jesus’ own relatives and neighbors
were at first astonished by his teaching…
…but their astonishment quickly turned to taking offense.
They thought they knew everything about him.
Maybe they also thought Jesus owed them some special favor,
since they shared a hometown and a history.
He was amazed at their lack of faith
not mad, I don’t think, but sad:
disappointed, like me and like Adam,
because he loves them so very deeply,
and wants only what’s best for them,
and knows full well what they’re missing.

The challenge that faces the Church today
here in the western world
is of reacquainting people with faith in Christ—
not people who have never known him at all,
but people who have never really known him well
and who have to come to take him for granted.
Our society has become a lot like Jesus’ native place.
We think we’ve got him all figured out…
…when, in fact, Jesus is little more than a “familiar stranger” to most.

Not because we’re any better than anybody else,
but because we love those who are near and dear to us
and because we love our faith,
let us recommit ourselves—each and every one of us—
to this critical work of the new evangelization.
With all gentleness, and with great compassion,
let us speak and act out of the courage of our convictions.
Then maybe—just maybe—we’ll be mistaken for a prophet.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Let Freedom Ring!

is not the right 
to do what we want, 
but what we ought.

       —Abraham Lincoln

Almighty God, Father of all nations,
for freedom you have set us free in Christ Jesus.

We praise you and bless you for the gift of religious liberty,
the foundation of human rights, justice, and the common good.

Grant to our leaders the wisdom to protect and promote our liberties;
by your grace may we have the courage to defend them,
for ourselves and for all those who live in this blessed land.

We ask this through the intercession of Mary Immaculate, our patroness,
and in the name of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
with whom you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012


I'm still a little sleepy from this weekend's celebrations...but it was worth it!

   Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

I spent Friday evening and all day yesterday
at Camp Guggenheim—our diocesan summer youth camp
on the shores of Lower Saranac Lake.
(That’s why I’m a little more bleary-eyed than usual this morning.)
This is the fortieth anniversary of the camp program,
and staff members from every season since 1972
gathered together to celebrate.
I was a counselor there myself from 1994 to 1996,
and this year will be the seventh
that I serve for a week as chaplain.
I count it a great privilege to be part of Guggenheim’s history;
I count it a great blessing that it’s been part of my own.

It was fascinating these last couple of days 
to watch the mix of people during the festivities.
I, of course, enjoyed catching up with old friends
with whom I worked so closely almost two decades ago.
But it was also good to hear firsthand stories
from those who had been there in the beginning—
to see how the original dream was still coming alive.
And it was good to visit with more recent counselors
whom I had previously known as my campers
(…although doing that makes me feel kind of old).
From where I stood, anyway,
this overlap and exchange among the different generations
was a rather beautiful thing to watch unfold.
Many of us had never met before,
but we had so very much in common—
and not just the shared experience of a special place.
Our talk wasn’t particularly pious,
our time not all spent in prayer,
but it was our mutual faith in Jesus Christ
that lay beneath all the laughter and reminiscing—
the faith which has been Guggenheim’s very reason for existence
throughout these forty years.
No one can be a stranger
when they share that connection.

This Sunday, our gospel is two-for-one:
two stories, two healings.
In some ways, the central figures couldn’t be more different:
one a little girl, the other an adult woman;
one the beloved child of a fairly prominent family,
the other marginalized by her illness
and the poverty it has brought her.
But their stories are put together in a sort of sandwich:
one inserted between two pieces of the other.
This is a mark of good storytelling;
consider of how often—in a novel or on TV or in the movies—
the plot cuts back and forth between one scene and another.
But I think that what we have here in the gospel
is more than a technique for increasing the drama;
I think that what we have here
is a way of revealing a much deeper bond.

                                                                                      Jesus wants to be sandwiched into our lives:
                                                                                      to be inserted between all the other ordinary pieces of them.
                                                                                      He wants to be very personally connected with us.
                                                                                      This is so clear in the way that Jesus interacts with the sick.
                                                                                      When Jairus begs that his daughter be healed,
                                                                                      Jesus could have simply said, “Let it be done!”
without ever following this man to his family
and entering into their home and into their grief.
And when the hemorrhaging woman touched his cloak,
Jesus could have easily let her quietly “steal” this cure,
instead of searching her out 
in the midst of the pressing crowd.
Yes, their prayers—in both cases—
would still have been answered…
…but there would have been no real connection,
no personal rapport, no building of relationship.
And since Jesus’ ministry
wasn’t so much about the health of the body
as it was the health of the soul,
this simply would not do.
Jesus had come not only to rescue us 
from human sickness;
he had come to rescue us 
from the isolation, the division, the separation,
which are the result of human sinfulness.
                                                                                      In the beginning, God created and fashioned us for life;
                                                                                      in Christ Jesus, God re-creates and raises us
                                                                                      to a new and more abundant life—one which is undying—
                                                                                      by connecting us with himself
                                                                                      and likewise connecting us with each other.

Here at Mass, we do more
than brush against the hem of Jesus’ robe:
we hold his risen Body in our hands.
Here at Mass, Jesus does more
than pay a brief visit under the roof of my house;
he comes to stay under the roof of my heart.
As he once did for those two women—
one young, one old—
Jesus does for you and me:
sandwiching his way into our everyday lives,
healing those parts of us touched by death,
and putting us together with him 
in a way not easily undone.
In so doing, we find ourselves deeply connected—
not just with Christ, but with one another;
our stories, our lives, become completely intertwined.
What I saw playing out 
at Camp Guggenheim this weekend—
what has touched and transformed
thousands of young people there these last forty years—
is, in truth, the reality played out
again and again in the Eucharist.
Look carefully, and a deep bond is revealed:
uniting us in a common faith, 
and so too in our responsibility
to see that each member of the human family
has everything it takes to be really and truly alive.
Even if we have never met before,
we who follow Jesus have the most essential thing in common.
No one can be a stranger here
when we share this Holy Communion,
when we share this connection.
From where I stand, anyway,
the overlap of relationships and exchange between us
is a rather beautiful thing to watch unfold.