Weekly Musings

There is an old axiom in our church that you shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  While these words are often used when activities and plans were not as successful as one had hoped, I think they can also be applied to our lives as Christians. All too often I think we use perfection as our model for the Christian life, and when we fail to live up to that standard we feel bad about ourselves and may give up trying to do better and be better.   

I don’t believe that is a good way to operate. What I would suggest instead is that we use “growth,” not “perfection,” as the model for our lives as Christians. By this I mean that we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis: “Am I growing in my spiritual life? Am I a better person today than I was a year ago, or five years ago or ten years ago?” I think these are the key questions for anyone who takes their spiritual life seriously. If we can see growth occurring in our spiritual lives, we know we are on the right track.  

Now this does not mean that our spiritual lives are always on the ascendancy. Rather I would guess that for most of us our spiritual lives look a little bit like the stock market. There are ups and downs, but there is also a “trend line” that marks continual improvement. It is easy to become somewhat discouraged when we are experiencing a down period in our spiritual lives. This feeling is worsened, I believe, when we use “perfection” as the model for the Christian life. When we use “growth” as the model, though, while occasionally we can still become discouraged, we also know that as there have been, so there will continue to be peaks in our spiritual life—times when our prayer is good and we feel close to God.  

It would be great if there were never any lulls or lows in our spiritual life. Over the years, though, in talking with a variety of people, I have come to realize that the lulls and lows are part of everyone’s spiritual life. (There may be some exceptions to this, but I suspect there aren’t many. Even the great saints had some low spots on their spiritual journey.) If we can accept the lulls and lows as simply part of the spiritual journey, I believe we will be less apt to give up trying to do better and be better, and more apt to hang in there and keep trying. 

Continuing to grow in our spiritual lives isn’t always easy and at times can be frustrating. The challenge is to take the long view and see where growth has taken place and continues to take place in our spiritual lives. Certainly there may be ups and downs, but I’m willing to bet that for all of us there is a “trend line” that reminds us that the effort is well worth it.

The American writer, Flannery O’Connor, once said: “Every morning between 9 and 12 I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper. Many times I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me. But I know one thing:  If an idea does come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for it.“ I think those words are a great description of prayer — or at least my prayer. I say this, because I have come to believe that one of the things that can help our prayer the most is setting aside a regular time and place for prayer so as to  make ourselves available to God. 

Many years ago when I was first ordained, I would pray Morning Prayer before Mass, but then would set aside time additional time for prayer in the late afternoon. This routine had served me well in the seminary when my schedule was very predictable. Unfortunately, I soon discovered that life in the parish doesn’t always follow a routine. After a few years I realized that my afternoon prayer time had become rushed and hurried, and on some days was given over to what I thought were more pressing matters. 

When I talked about this with my spiritual director, he suggested I try to spend more time in prayer in the morning. I pleaded that I wasn’t a morning person, but he pressed the issue and suggested I at least try it.   And so at his strong urging, I began to set my alarm clock a half hour earlier. I eventually began to set it for forty-five minutes earlier, and the past few years I’ve taken to getting up an hour earlier. I spend this “extra” time in prayer. 

Now in mentioning the above, I need to be clear. I am still not a morning person. I hate it when my alarm goes off in the morning. And while I am embarrassed to admit it, there are times when I shave a few minutes off the hour because I have pushed the snooze button one too many times. And to be completely honest, I have to admit that occasionally during that hour I will doze off. There are other times, though, when I feel God’s presence and experience God’s grace. These times are not under my control.  They simply occur. I have come to believe, though, that at least part of the reason they occur at all is that I have made myself available to God.   

Flannery O’Connor became a great writer because she regularly made time available for ideas to come to her. I believe if we regularly make time available for prayer, we will know God’s presence and experience God’s grace. Certainly this is not going to happen each and every time we go to prayer, but the chances are greatly increased that it will occur, if we regularly make ourselves to God.  

The challenge for all of us is to regularly set aside a time for prayer, so those times can occur. If we can make ourselves available to God in prayer on a regular basis, I am convinced that God will indeed come and make God’s dwelling with us — maybe not every time we pray, but certainly often enough that we’ll keep coming back for more.

 

As a child, my approach to Lent was pretty straight forward. I gave up candy, and so did all of my friends. As an adult, I’d like to suggest a different approach to you this year. Paula Kaempffer, The Basilica’s Director of Learning, challenged me to consider doing something extra to explore my faith this year during Lent. Honestly, giving up precious time may be a more challenging and more rewarding approach to Lent. At The Basilica, there is no shortage of options to help do something extra.

Fridays in Lent:

Consider committing part of Lenten Friday nights to participate in 5:00pm Mass or in the very moving 7:00pm Stations of the Cross.  There’s a free soup supper in between — so you can spend time in quiet, prayerful reflection, and spend time getting to know others in our parish community over a bowl of soup.

Some other alternatives for doing something extra in Lent are our wonderful Learning offerings. 

Lenten Faith Sharing Groups:

Wednesdays, 7:00 – 8:30pm

Parishioner Tricia Burns leads our small Faith Sharing Group. This is an opportunity to pray, discuss the Sunday scripture readings and support one another as we travel on our faith journey. Reflect on how the scriptures relate to our everyday life, and be enriched by the diversity of each member of the group.  Consider taking a moment to share your life, your faith, and your values in a Lenten Faith Sharing Group.

Redeeming a Prison Society – A Liturgical and Sacramental Response to Mass Incarceration

Sundays March 9, 16, 23, 11:00am – 12:30pm

You’ve read the statistics about how many minority and economically disadvantaged individuals end up in prison. Have you considered the injustice of locking up more than 2 million of our neighbors in jail? Dr. Amy Levad, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at the University of St. Thomas, will lead this series and help us explore the causes and effects of mass incarceration and alternatives to jails and prisons. She will also share how the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation ground us in a moral vision for justice on par with the Civil Rights movement to redeem our prison society.

Examining Atonement – Justice, Nonviolence and the Cross

Sundays March 30, April 6 and 13, 11:00am – 12:30pm

How did the cross, an instrument of torture used against political prisoners and other criminals during the Roman Empire, become a central symbol of our Christian faith? Over 3 Sundays, explore the emergence of the cross as a symbol in Christian history.  Examine the development of the Church’s doctrine of atonement and grapple with understanding how salvation is won by Christ’s incarnation, death on the cross, and resurrection. 

Led by Dr. Kimberly Vrudny, an Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of St. Thomas, this series and help us consider some contemporary issues in atonement theology.

 

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.

 

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.”

 

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.

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.   

The realities of our world today can be overwhelming. Local and global news show catastrophes and disasters each day. Yet, we also know there is kindness and healing in the world. People have tremendous capacity for good.

One of the greatest challenges of living faithfully today is reconciling the good we know is possible with the often harsh realities of the world around us. We are invited to stand in this “tragic gap” between the heartbreak of our world and the inherent goodness of creation. The tension can be exhausting. It is easy to fall into a corrosive cynicism when we hear the constant pain of the world. We can become bitter or numb to misfortune experienced around us. Conversely, we can shut out the news and the real struggles and become disengaged through an irrelevant idealism. We can shut everything out and live simply without knowing what is going on around us.

A challenge of our faith is to stay in the “tragic gap” between the world as it is and the world as we believe it should be. We are invited to find a way to stay there for the long haul, resisting the slide to either extreme. As people of faith, we are called to stay engaged—to be drawn into the darkness while holding the light of hope, love, and reconciliation.

How can we avoid “compassion fatigue?” How can we avert the experience of indifference or disconnect with all that makes us uncomfortable. The challenge is to stay engaged, to remain compassionate amidst the constant bombardment of pain.

At a daily Mass on May 22, 2013, Pope Francis addressed this struggle of the faithful. He suggested that our answer can be found through a simple guideline: create a “culture of encounter.” Pope Francis encourages everyone to engage in the world together. Simply see what needs to be done in front of you today, and respond by doing good. Rooted in the knowledge that we are created in the image and likeness of our God, Pope Francis encourages everyone to do good, and to meet one another there.

Pope Francis states that this “culture of encounter” is created when all humanity simply seeks to do the good that presents itself.  This uncomplicated act unites all humanity. It creates the “culture of encounter” that is the foundation of peace. He states, “If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much. We must meet one another doing good.”

Simple, but not easy. When we feel compelled to withdraw or ignore—engage. When we are tired or weary—do good. Rooted in prayer, strengthened by community, we commit ourselves to the “culture of encounter” and stay involved and engaged.

On February 9th The Basilica will hold a Local Stewardship Fair from 10:30-1:30 in the Lower Level. Representatives from organizations will be present to highlight ways we can be engaged in our community through Liturgy, Sacred Arts, Social Service partners, environmental and community organizations. Together, in small acts of love, we can transform the world. 

Reasons to Pray

When I was growing up, I was taught that there were four reasons to pray:  1. Adoration, 2. Contrition, 3. Gratitude, and 4. Petition. We still believe these four things are the reasons behind, as well as the motivation for our prayer. My problem, though, is that I never seem to adore God, or tell God I am sorry for my sins, or express my gratitude to God as earnestly or as deeply as I entreat God. My prayers of petition are long, heartfelt and sincere. My prayers of adoration, contrition and gratitude on the other hand, while sincere, tend to be brief and more often than not, superficial. 

Now I know that adoration, contrition and especially gratitude are really what my prayer should be all about. God is so good, so faithful and so loving, that this alone should fill my life with thanksgiving, praise and sorrow. And yet I continue to be embarrassed at the many times I am indifferent and ungrateful. It is so easy for me to take God for granted, telling myself that God certainly must know how grateful and how sorry I am. And yet, while God does indeed know this, it is binding on me as one of God’s creatures to give voice to my gratitude, praise and sorrow.   

I am not sure why it is easier for me to pray for the things I want or think I need, than it is for me to be grateful for the many blessings I enjoy in my life. I suspect, though, that a big part of the reason is that the blessings are so abundant and so pervasive that they sometimes become part of the background and they fail to stand out for me. If I only occasionally knew blessings, they would stand out much more clearly. Because I am surrounded by blessings, though, they don’t always, or even often, stand out as they should.   

The fact is that we all live in a world imbued with God’s grace. God’s love for us is ever present and always being offered to us. We are always held firm in the embrace of our God’s love. If God should forget about us for even a moment, we would cease to exist. It is easy, though, to grow so comfortable and complacent with this, that we can forget that it calls for a response on our part. God’s love for us is not just to be enjoyed, but responded to. And our response needs to be adoration, contrition, and gratitude. Petition should follow after these three. 

I suspect I will continue to petition God more than I praise, thank or tell God I’m sorry for my sins and failures. Prayers of petition are deeply rooted in my life. 

I am hopeful, though, that as I grow older I will recognize the many blessings I enjoy in my life, the love that God constantly pours forth on me, and the forgiveness that is without end, and that this in turn might lead me to be more thankful and contrite, and lead me to give praise to the God who made all things possible.   

The Journey of the Refugee

When we envision the journey of a refugee, the most visceral images are fleeing a country in strife and finding refuge in a new place. But for many refugees, this is only the beginning and the end of a long journey. Many refugees are placed in refugee camps until their applications for asylum in foreign countries are approved. This can be an arduous process, because the majority of developed countries have a limit to the amount of refugees they can accept in any given year. For example, the United States accepted 76,000 refugees in 2012. There are currently roughly 10.4 million refugees in the world.  Given the disparity between the number of refugees in the world and the number that countries accept annually, many refugees have to wait in refugee camps, in limbo between their home country and their future home.

As a result, there are countless refugee camps across the world, some larger than Minneapolis, that host refugees until their application for asylum is approved. Dadaab, Kenya is currently the largest refugee camp in the world, hosting approximately 402,000 people. While the camp is meant to be temporary, there are now more than 8000 Dabaab grandchildren – children of children who were born in the camp. There is simply nowhere for these people – husbands, mothers, children – to go, as they wait for countries to approve their asylum application. 

There are thousands of stories in Dadaab, and millions of stories of refugees across the world that are displaced in refugee camps. There’s Meddy Okoth, who played for the Ethiopian national basketball team until he was forced to flee from conflict. He now hopes to play abroad and return to help those in his community. Or Opiyo Sufuri who uses spoken word poems to raise awareness amongst men in his community to equal rights for women. Or Mohamed Ali Ahmed, the father of nine children. He was a professional football player and coach before being forced to flee his home. He’s now the sole caretaker of his severely disabled son, Abidirsack, whom he adores. 

There are countless stories like this across the world, of people who have fled from their homes and are making due in refugee camps. Many of those in our community have spent time in these camps, waiting to start a new life in Minnesota. It’s important to know these stories of resilience and perseverance, so we can understand what those in our community have been through.

About the columnist: Luke Olson is a Basilica parishioner and choir member.  A third-year law student at the University of Minnesota, upon graduation Luke will join the firm of Dorsey and Whitney in Minneapolis.

 

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