Archives: February 2014

The Way of Jesus

A few weeks ago a former parishioner of mine told me she was taking a break from the Catholic Church. With the recent and seemingly endless revelations about our church’s mishandling of the sexually inappropriate behavior on the part of various priests, she didn’t feel that, at the present time, the Catholic Church was a place where she could pray and experience God’s grace. She was clear that her decision was not irrevocable, but — at least for now — she was going to look elsewhere for spiritual strength and guidance.

As we talked, it was clear that while she was angry, perhaps the overriding emotion for her was disappointment. And while she was able to make a distinction between the Church and its all too fallible ministers and leaders, she couldn’t understand why no one seemed to be held accountable or was willing to accept responsibility for the current crisis. She felt that the Church, as an institution, had failed her and others who called the Catholic Church their spiritual home. This was tough for me to hear. As our conversation ended, though, we agreed to stay in touch and to continue the conversation another day. 

Now while I could understand my former parishioner’s reasoning, and in part could agree with it, I also know that for me there is no other spiritual home I could imagine for myself than the Catholic Church. With all its warts, with its imperfect and flawed ministers, the Catholic Church is where I am meant to be. I echo Peter’s words when Jesus asked him if he also wanted to leave: “Master to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).      

Now while I am joined at the hip with the Catholic Church, I don’t think it is acceptable simply to write off anyone, who, for whatever reason, has left or taken a break from the Catholic Church.  Especially at this time, I think that I, as your pastor, as well as our entire community, need to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions: Who are those people who no longer worship with us? Who feels alienated or estranged from our Church?  Are we comfortable that people no longer choose to join us for worship? 

Sadly, I think it is all too easy for us to simply let people leave our Church without making an effort to talk with them or ask them to stay. This needs to stop. It is not enough simply to tell people they are always welcome to come back. Instead, we need to help them find a reason to stay, or at least a reason to keep the conversation going. In the Gospels, Jesus had ongoing and serious disagreements with the Scribes and Pharisees, yet he never stopped talking with them. He never stopped trying to engage them. I think this is a good model for us. We need to invite people to continue the conversation and not just leave. 

Our Church has been around for over 2,000 years. During this time, it has faced innumerable divisions and controversies; it has had poor and ineffective leaders; it has engaged in activities that were questionable at best and cruel at worse, and yet it remains. At its best, our Church is a place of God’s presence and grace, and a beacon of hope and a spiritual home to many. Certainly our local Church has not been that lately. For this reason I can understand why some people might choose to leave. I would hope, though, that, as individuals, and as a parish community we would not be comfortable if or when people choose to leave, but rather that we would engage them and offer to keep the conversation going. This was the way of Jesus. It needs to be our way as well.

 

Follow the link for this weekend's readings.

In the play “A Man for All Seasons” Thomas More addressed the witnesses for his execution in the following words;   “I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King's obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty's good servant but God's first.”   I was reminded of these words when I read Jesus’ opening statement in this weekend’s Gospel.  “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon.”  Clearly Jesus was telling his disciples they could not have divided loyalties. As his followers, their first loyalty needed to be to God.         

Jesus then went on to remind his disciples (and us) that we are not to give ourselves over to worry or anxiety.  “Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?”  Rather we are to trust in God.  “So do no worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or “What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek.  You heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.”   

Our first reading this weekend from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah shares the theme of the Gospel.  In it Isaiah reminds the people that God will never forget them.  ‘Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb?  Even should she forget, I will never forget you.”   

Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.   In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us) that .people need to see us “as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  We should not be concerned about passing judgment on others or their passing judgment on us.  

Questions for Reflection/Discussion: 
1.    Why is it difficult at times to trust God?  
2.    Have you ever felt forgotten by God?  
3.    How can you be a servant of Christ?   

Witnessing Our Beliefs

Several months ago I had an encounter with an individual who identified themselves as a fundamentalist Christian. In our brief conversation, we had a disagreement about how best to enter into conversation with those who don’t necessarily identify themselves as Christians. My point was that we need to enter into dialogue with these people so that hopefully we can find common ground. The individual with whom I was talking took a more aggressive stance. This person believed that Christians need to be clear, forthright and unapologetic about their beliefs. If that should cause problems or divisions, so be it. The person then quoted Luke 6:22 as justification for their position:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!  Behold your reward will be great in heaven.” 

Now, in response to this, I tried to point out that as disciples of Jesus we aren’t supposed to try to make the world hate us. Certainly at times our beliefs may set us apart from others. And there may be times when people don’t like us because of our beliefs. But this is different from deliberately antagonizing people or looking for a fight with someone.

In the Gospels Jesus didn’t try to deliberately provoke, alienate, or invite people to hate him. Now, of course, this is not to say it didn’t happen. Jesus wasn’t crucified because people didn’t like the way he parted his hair. At times his words and actions did cause people to take offense. But I don’t believe this was deliberate. Time and again in the Gospels we see Jesus reaching out to, spending time with, and engaging in conversation those with whom he disagreed. I think this is a good model for us.

As Christians our beliefs may, at times, set us apart from others. And in the worst case, our beliefs may cause people to hate us. But having people hate us should not be the goal for which we strive. Rather, I think we need to follow the model Jesus set for us. We need to be clear and unapologetic about our beliefs, but we also need to be open to dialogue and conversation.

It is in dialogue and conversation that we might be able to find some common ground. It is in dialogue and conversation that we show those with whom we disagree that we recognize in them a fellow child of God. It is in dialogue and conversation that we model the respect we hope others will reciprocate. And it is in dialogue and conversation that we invite others hopefully to see the worthiness and rightness of our beliefs.

It seems to me that too often in our world today we talk at or over each other. Some people even seem to take delight in being “hated” by others. I don’t think this was the way of Jesus and I don’t think it should be our way either. As disciples of Jesus, we aren’t supposed to deliberately try to make the world hate us. Rather, we are called to love one another as we have first been loved by God. Certainly this is challenging, but I believe that we are more apt to change people’s minds and hearts if we first give witness to our belief, as Jesus told us, that: “God is Love.”

 

The Cross

Yesterday, I saw a young woman with crosses as earrings and at least a dozen rosaries around her neck. She reminded me of a scene that played out many years ago. My younger brother came home from university with a small silver crucifix dangling from his ear. Without saying a word my mom walked over to him and took it out of his ear. To this day I am not sure what displeased my mom the most, the fact that he had his ear pierced or the fact that he wore a cross as an earring?
 
Basilica Crucifixion
Photo provided by: 
Michael Jensen
Basilica Crucifixion
The cross is the most recognizable symbol of Christianity. However, as is the case with many things we now take for granted, it has not always been thus. It took a while before the cross and especially the crucifix or any other depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints were accepted. Two factors were at play.

First, early Christians displayed a general timidity toward imagery at best and engaged in the occasional full-fledged period of Iconoclasm at worst. It was not until the second council of Nicea (878) that matters were settled once and for all. After tumultuous debates, this council not only denounced iconoclasm it also called for the depictions of Christ, Mary and the saints with the admonition that when one adores an image one really adores the one represented by the image.

Second, the death of Jesus on the cross was neither expected by his followers nor was it readily embraced. Death by crucifixion was one of the worst condemnations. Roman citizens, e.g. could not be punished by crucifixion. In a sense, the cross was experienced as a scandal and an embarrassment. So they concentrated on the Resurrection, rather than on the death of Jesus.

Gradually the Christian community came to embrace the scandal of the cross as the paradox of the mystery of salvation. By the early 3rd century the cross had become closely associated with Christianity. Clement of Alexandria who died c. 215 referred to the cross as τ κυριακν σημεον  or the Lord's sign. And according to Tertullian who died c. 225 Christians are crucis religiosi or devotees of the Cross.

Today the cross is ubiquitous and it is undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol in the entire world. We top our church steeples with crosses. We hang crosses in our homes, in our cars and around our necks. We even tattoo crosses on our bodies. Most often this is done in good faith and in good taste. Sometimes it is done in a misguided attempt at unfortunate fashion. In some instances the cross is intentionally desecrated.

Let’s take consolation in the fact that by the cross we have been saved and nothing can take that away, not even ill-advised use or worse, malicious abuse. 

Follow the link below or copy and paste it into your browser for this weekend’s readings.   
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/022314.cfm

In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples:  “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you…………………..”  Later Jesus says again:  “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you…………................”   

Now there are some people who have suggested and continue to suggest that in these words Jesus was seeking to abolish the law the scribes and Pharisees held so dear.   I don’t believe this was the case.  Rather I think Jesus was calling his disciples to a deeper commitment to the law and an entirely new way of living.  Jesus is clear about this at the end of this weekend’s Gospel when he said:   “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”   These words remind us very forcibly that as followers of Jesus our lives are to be substantially different from those of non-believers. Certainly we don’t always do this well, but that does not mean that we can ever stop trying.  

Our first reading this weekend is taken from the Book of Leviticus.  It shares the theme of the Gospel.   Specifically God told Moses to tell the whole Israelite community:  “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge again any of your people.  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”    

Our second reading this weekend is taken from the first Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.  In the section we read this weekend Paul reminds the Corinthians (and us):  “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:

1.    Why is it so hard at times to love our neighbor? 
2.    What helps you let go of hurt and resentment, and forgive?
3.    What do you think Paul meant when he said we are Temples of God?    

Finding God in Community

Each year before Lent I interview each of the catechumens (the unbaptized) and candidates (those baptized in another faith) in the RCIA process. During this time with each of them, I ask them how the process has been for them and how they have seen their relationship with God grow since beginning in September.  

Each response is unique and often comes with many surprises. One woman just smiled and threw her head back and said that this has been the best time in her life because of the peace she has felt even amidst chaos in her life. Another young man admits that he never expected to feel the way he does about the Catholic faith. Another woman expressed how her life had been very self-centered and now that wasn't enough and didn't work for her anymore. She sees the need to do for others who are in need and give to them whatever she can to make their lives better. In fact, several expressed that where they were was becoming very uncomfortable for them and they knew they were being called to something deeper that would make a difference in others' lives. One man expressed that he finally felt like he was "becoming" a Christian. He realized he was being formed and transformed through this process and through interactions with others, through his prayer life and through worshipping with this community.

What surprised me the most this year is how very many have come to the deep realization of how important our community has been for them. Several stated how they had just been "out there on their own." They never felt the need for anyone else to accompany them on their faith journey. But now they see that in community is where they most find God in their daily lives. It is the community which supports them and prays with them and witnesses to them the Gospel. It is in the people they meet each day where God lives and makes God Himself known to them. They realize too that others find God in them, a new and essential realization for many of the candidates and catechumens.

Just about all of the candidates and catechumens expressed how deeply moved and supported they felt by all of you in The Basilica community. They spoke about your smiles and your kind and loving words to them and how welcomed they felt in this community. They need your continued prayers. And they are so grateful to you for your spirit of hospitality towards and appreciation of them. This Lent, we hope you will join us in praying specifically for someone from the RCIA group. Cards will be available  in baskets at the back of church by Ash Wednesday and members of The Basilica community are invited to take a card (or a few) and to pray specifically for the person listed.

During Lent, we will consider our own journeys of conversion and where we have found God and where God might be calling each of us into deeper relationship and intimacy with God and each other.  All of us need each other as we move forward and embrace the Lenten spirit.

Is there such a thing as bad sacred art? 

Though seemingly a contradiction in terms this is a question that is often posed and pondered. 20 years ago I would have answered “yes” without much explanation. And, I would have happily slipped you a catalogue of what to avoid. 

Living in the proverbial ivory tower I was convinced that only “high art” could be considered sacred art. The occasional accusation of elitism had little impact on my thinking. Surely, no-one could ever deny that such world famous art as the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel are sacred art of the highest quality? And who would dare to argue that glow-in-the-dark statues of Mary were sacred art? The lines between good and bad sacred art were clear to me and they needed to be drawn.

Art Painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe
Photo provided by: 
Johan van Parys
Our Lady of Guadalupe by WULFF, 2012
My thinking started to change when I was gifted a somewhat unusual representation of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Intrigued but not impressed I placed it with the other dubious sacred art I have received over the years. And yet, every time I walked by it I was drawn to it. The image kept beckoning me until I gave in and considered it more closely. To the surprise of many, we ended up exhibiting it in our gallery. When a friend saw it there, he admitted that he had always thought of this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as just one of my religious tchotchkes. Seeing it under glass and in good lighting he finally realized it was sacred art. And so did I.
 

Thanks to Our Lady of Guadalupe and all she stands for I became less rigorous and more forgiving when it comes to sacred art. Nevertheless, not everything goes. I still hold that there indeed is such a thing a bad sacred art. 

When considering sacred art I look for three qualities. First, sacred art needs to be authentic art. This requires an authentic esthetic as well as the use of authentic materials. In the past I thought certain esthetics or styles superior to others. Today I realize that the church is quite correct when upholding that there is no superior style, but that each period and region necessarily provides its own form of authentic art in response to the needs of each specific time and place. 

Second, sacred art needs to have a sacred message. This is easily accomplished in figurative art that depicts the life of Jesus, Mary or the saints. But what about abstract art that deals with such religious notions as light and darkness or life and death? Can this be considered sacred art? Since certain abstract art forces us to deal with deeply religious matters like life and death it truly has a sacred message, though this may not be obvious to everyone, at least not at first.

Third, sacred art needs to be able to communicate its sacred message. In other words, people need to be able to be inspired by sacred art and receive its sacred message. What makes this aspect of sacred art difficult to grasp is that all of us have different intellectual interests and spiritual sensibilities. As a result we are moved by different kinds of art. Some people may be inspired by a bad print of bad religious art while they are supremely untouched by a great work of sacred art. Other people may find abstract art intensely spiritual while a graphic depiction the martyrdom of an obscure saint, though by definition sacred does nothing for them. This reality ought to make us more generous when considering sacred art because the fact that one person is spiritually moved by an image does not necessarily make it sacred art.  At the same time, the fact that a person is not moved by a certain image does not necessarily make it bad sacred art. In either case, the beholder should not absolutize his or her personal experience of the art.

So, what to do about the questionable religious art you harbor in your home? Please consider the three above mentioned qualities of sacred art. Should you find your art lacking I suggest you do one of two things. Either you store it with your beloved, yet secret velvet image of Elvis Presley. Or you send it to me and who knows, one day it may appear in an exhibit. And as my friend and I discovered, when placed in a glass vitrine under beautiful lighting, what was once thought a mere tchotchke may turn out to be fine art.

 

Follow the link below or copy and paste it into your browser for the readings for February 16th 
http://usccb.org/bible/readings/021614.cfm

In our Gospel this weekend, Jesus tells his disciples:  “unless your holiness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  As we read these words, it would be easy to think Jesus was criticizing the scribes and Pharisees because they were bad people or because they were doing bad things. The fact is, though, the scribes and Pharisees were the religious leaders of their time.  They carefully observed all the laws and all the precepts of the laws.  In fact, they were so intent on following the law that they constructed a “fence” around the law so that they wouldn’t accidently break it, e.g. they determined how may steps an individual could take on the Sabbath before they broke the commandment to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
 
The problem with the scribes and Pharisees was not that they were bad people who did bad things.  Rather, the issue was that they had turned their relationship with God into a set of rules and regulations.  While their actions were always in accord with the law, their heart was not.   They had forgotten that following the law was not an end in itself.  Rather the purpose of the law was to help people grow in their relationship with God.  Jesus invited them (and us) to recognize that while following the law is important, more important is that we do so because our hearts are set on doing God’s will.

Our first reading this weekend from the Book of Sirach reinforces the message of the Gospel.   It reminds us that “If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live.”   It reminds us that keeping the commandments will save us, if we trust in God.  

In our second reading this weekend we are reminded of God’s mysterious wisdom.   “What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart, what God has prepared for those who love him.”   

Questions for Reflection/Discussion:  

1. In many ways a nanny and a parent both do the same tasks.   The difference is the nanny does them because they are paid to do them.  The parent does them out of love.  I believe doing things out of love and not obligation is what Jesus was getting at in our Gospel today.  Do you agree or disagree? 

2. What does it mean to trust in God?

3. What words/images come to mind when you think of what God has prepared for those who love him?   

For the past several weeks, Minnesota Public Radio, as well as other media, have run stories on the financial impact on our local church because of the recent disclosures of clergy sexual misconduct.  These stories have in turn raised concerns about our Archdiocesan and parish finances.  Specifically, concerns have been raised about secret accounts, hidden payments, generous severance packages, questionable business practices, and the impact this is having on parish finances.  While the revelations contained in these stories have been painful, it is important that they be brought into the open.   It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope.  

In reflecting on the revelations contained in these various stories, it seemed to me they left some questions unanswered, or with answers that were incomplete.  Given this, I would like to offer some comments about our parish finances, our Archdiocesan finances, and the hidden accounts and secret payments that have been made.

In regard to our parish finances, I would note the following:

  • Our Finance Committee is comprised of 18 individuals from a variety of backgrounds.  Members can serve two consecutive three year terms and then must rotate off the committee. I, along with Terri Ashmore, our managing director, and Audra Johnson, our Director of Finance and Human Resources, also sit on the Finance Committee.   The Finance Committee meets monthly except during the summer.
  • At our meetings we review and monitor our monthly income and expenses to make sure we are on target in regard to our budget.   .  
  • The Finance Committee has four subcommittees: Audit, Budget, Investment and Nominating.  
  • An audit is conducted each year by an outside independent auditor, and the results of the audit are shared with the Finance Committee and our Parish Council.  For the past two years, a summary of the audit has been available on-line, and as I mention each year, copies of the full audit are available for anyone who is interested.   
  • Each parish is assessed 8% of its stewardship income to help run the Archdiocese. In the next year, this will increase to 9% for those parishes without a school.  
  • We work hard at being open and accountable for the financial support of our parishioners. Certainly we don’t do this perfectly.  I think we do it pretty well, though, and we are always open to suggestions about how to do it better. 

In regard to our Archdiocesan Finances, I would note the following:

  • As it appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not done a very good job of being open and transparent in regard to its finances. There is no excuse for this.  It needs to change.
  • As it also appears from the recent media reports, our Archdiocese has not had a system of checks and balances in place to prevent embezzlement and other abuses of the system.  Again, there is not excuse for this.  All of us in the Church need to be transparent.  
  • In addition to the money received from parish assessments, the Archdiocese also receives income from investments, bequests, and special gifts. Our Archdiocese needs to be open and transparent in regard to these sources of revenue and how they are used.     
  • Money collected through the yearly Catholic Services Appeal goes directly to the programs, ministries and services that are funded through the Appeal.  None of the money from the Catholic Services Appeal goes to the Archdiocese.  This was reinforced this year when The Catholic Services Appeal Foundation was established to collect and disburse money collected through the Appeal.

Finally, in regard to the hidden accounts and secret payments that were made by the Archdiocese I would note the following:

  • First, I believe we need to apologize that we weren’t honest and open about these payments. Frankly and bluntly, I believe this was wrong.  It certainly is not consistent with the goal of transparency. 
  • In regard to people who have been victimized by priests, while nothing can undo the pain and harm they have experienced, I personally believe we must help them in any way we can, whether in the form of a settlement, payments for counseling, or other services. 
  • In regard to priests who have abused or victimized individuals, we need to be clear:  because our church ordained them, we are responsible for them.   While many people would like to see these men formally removed from ministry, this is a long involved canonical process that is expensive and can take years to complete.   Most dioceses have chosen instead to reach settlement agreements with these men.   These agreements remove them from ministry but also tie them to ongoing monitoring. It is my understanding that these agreements are negotiated with each individual priest, and are based on their particular needs and circumstances.   Clearly some of these settlements appear to be overly generous.  I don’t understand this.   I do believe, though, ---- and I know many people will disagree with me --- that it is better to negotiate these settlements, and tie them to ongoing monitoring, than to go to the time and expense of trying to remove these priests from ministry through a canonical process.     

The current crisis in our Church is painful to all of us.  It is made more so by the fact that while our Archdiocese has talked about being open and transparent; we seem unable to do this. We continue to be reactive instead of proactive in our communication efforts, and, at least at this point, our words are not supported by our deeds. 

 As I mentioned at the beginning of this column, certainly the current revelations have been painful.  It is important, though, that they be brought into the open.   It is only in being open and honest regarding these matters that we can begin the healing process and move forward in faith and hope. I invite you to join your prayers to mine that this process will begin soon.   

St. Blaise

“Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, Bishop and martyr may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and any other illness. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Blaise, a 4th C. bishop and martyr with the traditional blessing of the throats.

The little we know about St. Blaise comes from descriptions of the lives of saints which were written several centuries after his death. From these writings we learn that Blaise was a celebrated medical doctor when he was elected as bishop of Sebastea, Armenia, today’s Sivas, Turkey. He was brutally martyred around 316 during a wave of Christian persecution.

From the 6th C. on in the East and the 8th C. in the West the intercession of St. Blaise was invoked by people who were ill. By the 12th C. St. Blaise had become one of the most popular saints in Western Europe.

Two stories told about St. Blaise relate to the custom of blessing throats on his feast day. According to the first story a distraught mother rushed her child to St. Blaise. The child was choking on a fishbone. After St. Blaise said a prayer the fishbone dislodged and the child was saved. Based on this miracle the intercession of St. Blaise is invoked when suffering from ailments of the throat and to present such ailments.

According to the second story a poor widow’s pig had been saved from a wolf by St. Blaise. Out of gratitude the widow brought 2 candles to prison so St. Blaise could have some light in his dark cell. Thus two candles are used during the blessing of the throats. These candles are blessed the previous day on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord. They are often held together by a red ribbon and placed around the neck of the person being blessed. The red ribbon refers to the martyrdom suffered by St. Blaise.

Even in our postmodern society, which is suspicious of any hint of superstition this blessing not unlike other sacramentals such as the sprinkling with Holy Water remain popular among Catholics. They are the visible signs of a deep yet invisible reality. The blessing of the throats is a tangible reminder of God’s healing and saving presence among us. It is also an acknowledgement that we entrust ourselves to God’s providential care.

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