Johan's Blog

Many, many years ago I was asked to proclaim the first reading on the solemnity of Pentecost. I was about 12 years old and was extremely excited to be asked. Little did I know that this is one of the most difficult readings to proclaim. My dear great-aunt, sister Hildegard worked with me on the pronunciation of the words. I was quite intrigued by the people I had never heard about: who were the Parthians, the Medes or the Elamites? My great-aunt seized the opportunity and enlightened me about all of them. Ever since, I have had a great love for the Acts of the Apostles. And in the spirit of full disclosure, despite my careful preparation, I stumbled. It was Phrygia and Pamphilia that did me in. Embarrassed I solemnly declared I would never proclaim in church again.


Despite the embarrassment, I will always be grateful for the experience and especially for my great-aunt’s introduction to the early church. It allowed me to imagine Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. I likened it to the Sunday Market in Brussels, the capital of Belgium and Europe. When my grandmother took me there for the first time I could not believe my eyes. Coming from a small and traditional town in Flanders, the sight of people from all over the world made me dizzy with excitement. I could not believe the exuberant and colorful clothes. Competing music in unknown languages blared from the different booths. I saw vegetables I had never seen before and to this day I remember being overcome with the scent of the many different spices. It was an absolute delight and it felt like I was traveling from country to country in a matter of moments. This is how I imagined Jerusalem in the time of the apostles.


Having a vivid imagination I knew exactly where the apostles were. I saw them hiding in the upper room. In stark contrast to the festive market outside, the apostles were laden with angst and burdened by uncertainty. I could see the fear in their eyes and feel the weight on their shoulders. And then, in an instant everything changed. Aflame with the Holy Sprit they threw open the doors and windows, burst into the streets and started speaking of the marvelous deeds of God.


This happened with so much energy that it quieted the market gathering. And miraculously, everyone could understand what the apostles were saying, no matter their native tongue. By the power of the Holy Spirit, all the sudden the differences between all these people were overcome as they all received the same Good News.


Our world today is very complex and extremely diverse. Yet, unlike my image of the Jerusalem market where there was a certain harmony within the diversity a dangerous fog of fear and anger seems to linger over our world today. These days, diversity of any kind often leads to division and rather than experiencing it as something exciting and enriching diversity is met with suspicion and apprehension while the gap between the many groups and factions is widening at an alarming pace.


The political world is particularly affected by this. Yet, our church is not immune to this either. Rather than welcoming the richness that comes from respectful dialogue between diverse opinions we seek safety in uniformity. And rather than listening to one another it seems like we just speak louder and louder in a desperate attempt to be heard and to win whichever battle we are waging. Sadly, we lack the inner peace and the mutual respect needed to listen intently to one another and learn from one another and together, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit continue to weave the richly diverse tapestry of Christianity and humanity.


I look forward to the day when it will be said: “We are republicans, democrats and independents; rich and poor; liberals, conservatives and moderates; women and men and children; gay and straight; Africans, Asians and Americans; Australians and Europeans yet we hear them speaking in our own tongue of the mighty acts of God.” We are very different, and yet, we are one. What a great market place that will be. May that day come soon! 

“Ask Mother Mary for help.”  With these words my grandmother always sent me along, either to school or camp or just on my way home. At first I thought she was telling me I could always ask her for help as her name was Mary. It was not until she was more explicit about it that I learned she was referring to the Blessed Mother. 

From that day on whenever my grandmother suggested I “ask Mother Mary for help” I obliged. Without much thought, I usually just repeated what my grandmother told me and prayed: “Mother Mary, help me.” Most of the time, there was no specific need. And while this interaction seemed somewhat perfunctory and almost mindless it was comforting. 

One time I remember asking my grandmother how it was that I should request Mary’s help? I clearly had never met her. And since we did not know one another how could I be assured that she would help me? Without saying a word, my grandmother stopped me in my tracks and walked me to the Lourdes grotto in her garden. She told me to “look at her face.” We stood there for a long while without saying anything. At first I thought it strange but as I continued to look at Mary’s face it was as if I no longer saw the plaster statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. I actually had a strong sense that I was gazing into the eyes of Mary herself. I had a veritable “Visio Divina” or “Seeing the Divine” moment before it was named thus. 

Mary looked remarkably like my grandmother, though maybe a bit younger and darker skinned. And sounding like my grandmother she assured me that I could always “Ask Mother Mary for help.” I am not sure how long the experience lasted. Suddenly, I felt my grandmother’s hand on my shoulder. I looked at her. She nodded and walked me back to the front door. As we said our goodbyes I told her that Mary looked and sounded just like her. My grandmother smiled, waved me out and said “Ask Mother Mary for help.” 

As I am writing this column I am looking into the face of the many statues of Mary that grace my office: Our Lady of Lourdes, Our Lady Queen of Heaven, Our Lady of Fatima, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Our Lady of LaVang, Our Lady of Africa, Our Lady of Guadalupe. They all look different. They appear as they were described by those who had a vision of them. And they all remind me of that one moment filled with grace so many years ago and I can hear my grandmother’s voice inviting me to: “Ask Mother Mary for help.”

My response to this invitation is no longer as quick, automatic or evident as it was when I was a young boy. I guess I have become a bit tainted by age and I may have lost some of my ability for spiritual seeing and hearing. Sometimes I wish for that uncomplicated time when I could just ask for help. I also wish for the amazing sense of Mary’s presence I had so many years ago. Maybe I don’t listen well enough? Or maybe I look in all the wrong places?

As we celebrate Mary during the month of May I will be looking for her, not only in the face of the many statues I have in my office but also in the faces of the many women who surround me. They have nourished my faith from the very beginning and they continue to do so until today. Some of them do this from the other side of this life while others do it here and now. And I will ponder the question whether Mary took on my grandmother’s face when she appeared to me or whether my grandmother looked like Mary?  In either case, it is an affirmation that all of us are called—not only to become like Christ—but also to become like Mary, this strong Jewish women who dared to say yes to the greatest mystery of all: bearing God to the world.

On Mother’s day I will light a candle for my mother, my grandmother and for all the women who surround me as I think of them and honor them and pray for them. I will ponder their face in that of Mary and Mary’s face in theirs and I will “ask Mother Mary for help.”  

He is Risen

One of my most treasured memories of the Easter Season goes all the way back to my years as an altar server. On Easter Monday, after celebrating the many Holy Week Liturgies, our 30 or so servers were separated in groups of four and assigned sections of our parish. We were to go from home to home, ring the door bell and wish whoever opened the door a Happy Easter. Since most everyone in our town was Catholic we were blissfully unaware of the potential interfaith implications of our actions. Most people were expecting us and returned our greeting with a gift of chocolate Easter eggs. At the end of the day we all returned to our parish church and divvied up what was left of the chocolate loot, having indulged in some of it before making it back to church.

Though I did not realize it at the time, this was an important evangelization tool. Our mission really was to bring Easter Greetings to those people who had not celebrated Easter in church. This kind of living-out of our faith in the market place has lost much of its luster as we have become an increasingly pluralistic society with accompanying demands of political correctness. Much of what I took for granted, from processions through our streets, to the ubiquitous Marian chapels and saints’ shrines, to this Easter Monday activity has disappeared. Thus we have lost some of the concrete expressions of our faith outside of our churches.

Though, of course, it is not our desire to insult people with our outward expressions of faith. We always need to respect where people are at in their own faith journey even as proclaim to the world what we believe and in whom we believe. If our church is to be healthy and thrive our faith must be celebrated in our churches as well as in the market place.

So, what do you think, should we have our servers and by extension all our liturgical ministers knock on doors to wish people Happy Easter? In our days, a good alternative might be to do this via social media. So, lets tweet and post away that Jesus Christ is Risen. He is risen indeed!

Happy Easter.


In the garden of olives,

among the ancient trees with their gnarled bark and twisted branches

the apostles have fallen asleep,

blissfully unaware of what is about to happen.


By contrast, Jesus became increasingly restless and almost desperate.

Could he really go through with this?

Did he have the strength to endure the agony of a dreadful death?


Though fear threatened to darken his soul;

to crush his will;

and even to end his mission,

he rose above it,

uttering quietly at first,

but then stronger and stronger again:

"Not my will, but your will be done."



As he rose from prayer, Judas approached him.

He had shared Jesus’ life for some three years.

They talked together, ate together, traveled together.

That night, he came to Jesus and kissed him one last time.

This was no kiss of love, rather, a kiss of rejection and betrayal.


Though they all cheered him on just days before, on that night

Judas betrayed him, his disciples abandoned him and the soldiers arrested him as if he were a criminal.



Standing the Sanhedrin he appeared helpless, frail, vulnerably human,

not unlike the many defenseless people he set out to help.


He spent his life preaching and teaching,

blessing and healing,

choosing the side of the oppressed,

now he is waiting to be judged

joining the fate of all those who are oppressed,

of those who are suffering,

and ultimately, those condemned to death .


His fate, like that of many others,

was decided based on fear, envy and jealousy:

“You are not like us.”



Having abandoned Jesus in The Garden Peter returned quietly and probably somewhat sheepishly.

He warmed himself at the campfire

near the place where Jesus was held captive.


Jesus and Peter had a strong,

while at times tumultuous relationship.

Peter seems to have been prone to grandstanding.

Yet, he also suffered great doubts, he was afraid,

and he ran away when Jesus was arrested.


Like Peter, we are well-meaning and loving, yet, we are weak. 

"I am never going to betray you." And yet we do!

We love and try to live according to the Gospel, but we fail.


Jesus never condemned Peter, neither does he condemn us.


Rather, Jesus invites us to acknowledge our failings, accept our weaknesses, know our limits, ask forgiveness and try again.


In turn, we are asked to accept the failings of others, to show mercy to those who hurt us, and to never disregard anyone.



This kind of mercy is not shown to him, though.

The same people who sang Hosannas mere days ago,

now cry out: “Crucify.”


Prejudice, insinuation, gossip, instigation, mob-mentality,

-none of which are foreign to our world today-

seal Jesus’ fate as Pilate condemns him to death.


Even when facing death Jesus did not waver in His love of God

in His commitment to God’s people,

and in His condemnation of injustice, religious and civic alike.


The cross is Jesus’ decisive stance against hatred and his ever-lasting banner of love.


The cross of Jesus is a permanent reminder that like Him, we are to love unconditionally and speak out against all injustice.


His cross is our stance against hatred,

and our banner for love even unto death.



Then the soldiers stripped off his clothes. 

They threatened and mocked him.

They tied his body to a pillar and whipped him.

They placed a purple cape over his bleeding shoulders and

pressed a crown of thorns into his skull.

They utterly humiliated him.


Like Jesus, people are imprisoned today and they are abused,

Some of them are Christians who are suffering for their faith

Some of them will die for Christ.


Others are not Christian and they too suffer

and they too might die, for their faith.


Jesus endured this profound humiliation to expose all abuse;

to show that God is on the side of all victims;

and that violence is never of God.



Moving slowly,

bent under the weight of the wood,

arduous step after arduous step,

Jesus carries his cross.


The cross of Jesus is heavy,

weighed down by all the misery and evil in our world.

He staggers under this burden.

He falls and gets up, falls and gets up, falls and gets up,

never giving up on even one of us.


Gazing upon Jesus carrying the cross,

may we be inspired to mend our sinful ways,

and turn from deeds of darkness to acts of light,

and so lift the burdens that not only weigh down Jesus,

but weigh down so many people around us.


Shouldering the cross, Jesus teaches us to reject all sin and injustice,

and to struggle for solidarity and hope,

arduous step after arduous step.



Simon of Cyrene is a passer-by, an on-looker,

whose curiosity is peeked by all that is happening? 

A stranger, he is pressed into helping Jesus,

buttressing the weight of the cross.


Like Simon was asked to help Jesus carry his cross,

we are called to carry one another's cross.



Women accompanied Jesus from the very beginning.

They ministered to the needy with him;

They spread the Good News alongside him;

They were faith-filled, courageous, and committed to his mission.


Seeing how Jesus struggled to carry his cross,

how he had been abandoned by all but one of his disciples,

the women ignored the soldiers and walked up to him,

They embraced him.

They wiped his face.

They offered him solace, even but for a moment.


Jesus’ suffering continues unto today,

for he suffers with all those who suffer;

their suffering is his suffering;

and his suffering is our suffering,



we must be courageous like the women of Jerusalem.

We must stand up to those who cause and perpetuate injustices.

And we must console and help those in need.



Having arrived at Golgotha they laid his body on a cross,

they stretched his arms and legs over the wood,

they pounded nails into his hands and feet

and raised the cross.


Naked, humiliated, tortured, disfigured,

the Son of God hangs on a cross:

a sign of foolishness to many,

the way to salvation for us.


Hanging on the cross,

Jesus, an innocent victim,

embodied all victims,

thus unmistakably stating

that God is on the side of those

who are marginalized, ignored, avoided, deserted .


Like Jesus we are called to stand by those in need,

drawing them near, treating them with respect,

comforting them, accompanying them,

raising them up and offering them hope and new life.



Next to the cross of Jesus we see two other crosses,

one is bathed in light and anticipation,

the other is engulfed in darkness and dread.


The God of love reaches out to those who repent

and showers them with love.

How wonderful to know that we who are sinners

are worthy of God's love,

are deserving of God's forgiveness.


Aware of our sinfulness,

we are invited to ask God to forgives us our sins,

as we forgive those who have sinned against us,

so that one day we may all share in Paradise



By the shadows of loneliness and confusion are crowding the scene.

Only a few people remained with Jesus,

among the women, there was Mary, the mother of Jesus,

and there was also John, his beloved disciple.


Jesus instructed them to find solace with one another,

to take care of one another.


In the midst of sadness and confusion

there is a glimmer of light:

“behold your mother, behold your son.”


These words, Jesus not only addressed to Mary and John,

but to all his followers.


Thus, Mary became not only the mother of Jesus

but also the mother of John and the mother of all of us.


Having the same heavenly mother

makes us brothers and sisters to one another.

And like John cared for Mary we are to care for one another.



Very little light was left.

The darkness was nearly all-consuming.

Death seemed to have conquered life.

The fires of hell rushed toward the cross.


At the depth of anguish

and at the height of pain

Jesus cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?"


This is the spoken or unspoken cry of so many, struck by hardship.

It may have been our cry in the past.

Maybe it even is our cry today.

“why have you forsaken me?"


Yet God seems silent, both then and now.


In this apparent silence

we behold God’s mysterious response to our cry for help,

hanging on the Cross,

Jesus, the Son of God

who accepted death so we might live.



All of creation  is still now.


After lowering Jesus from the cross,

His lifeless body is placed in his mother’s arms.


Cradling his body, Mary is bound to him in a heart-wrenching embrace.

She is the icon of the broken hearted.

She is the icon of boundless love.

She is the icon of self-sacrifice.


This scene is played out, over and over again

all over the world.


Too many people, like Mary,

have cradled the lifeless and tortured body of an innocent,

loved one in their arms?


Then the body of Jesus was placed in the tomb

and a heavy stone was rolled in front of the entrance.


Another Triduum is about to start. In two hours we will begin the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Enjoying some quiet time I am  pondering the mysteries which we are about to celebrate. Not surprisingly, my mind wondered and I tookme back to that one Holy Thursday I will never forget. It happened some 25 years ago. I was a young liturgy student at the University of Notre Dame. That year I had decided to celebrate the Sacred Triduum at the motherhouse of a religious community. Having arrived early I spent some quiet time in the monastery chapel in preparation for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. From my chair in the back row, I watched the sisters arrive for the service. Most of them were elderly. They used wheelchairs, walkers or another sister’s arm to make their way into the chapel. As I looked around I noticed that apart from the priest I was the only man in the chapel. This was of some concern to me as I did not know how they were going to orchestrate the washing of the feet. As one of the sisters put it to me later, did I really expect the sisters to "import" twelve men so the "imported" priest could wash their feet?

The service was simple, yet very beautiful. During the homily the priest explained the importance of the washing of the feet . I could not have agreed more. He went on to say that after he had washed the feet of twelve of the sisters we were invited to wash one another’s feet. As a liturgical purist, I was simply mortified at this. My first concern was that he was washing the feet of twelve women as apposed to the prescribed twelve men. Second, what did he mean by all of us were going to wash feet? Why were we straying from the custom of the priest washing the feet of twelve men symbolizing Christ washing the feet of the apostles? 

After resisting the temptation to walk out, mostly because I had nowhere to walk to, I swallowed my liturgical pride and decided to stay. Reluctantly I watched the priest wash the feet of twelve sisters. Then I saw how the sisters started washing one another’s feet. As I was trying to make sense out of all this, I noticed one of the sisters making her way to one of her sisters who was sitting in a wheelchair. There she was helped to her knees. Gently and with great difficulty, she took the slippers off her sister’s gnarled feet. A bowl with water was brought to them. She placed her sister’s feet in the water and tenderly washed them. Then she dried them and kissed them.

This simple, yet profound interaction moved me profoundly. Never before had I been so deeply touched by this ritual. These feet, which had walked in the service of the church for more than seventy years, were tenderly washed by these hands, which had served the church for more than sixty years. I quickly slipped off my shoes and waited in line to have my feet washed so I could wash someone else’s feet.

As I reflected upon my experience later that night I finally grasped why Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet. The washing of the feet is not a superfluous ritual gesture or a simple reenactment of what Jesus did 2000 years ago. Rather it is an efficacious ritual rehearsal of what all of us are called to do every day of our life: to serve one another as he served us. 

           It was Palm Sunday of Our Lord's Passion some years ago. I had the opportunity to visit one of our major cities. Participating in the liturgy at the city’s famed cathedral was on my liturgical bucket list.  I was not disappointed. It was an experience Egeria would have written about had she lived in our times.

As prescribed and not entirely different from what we are accustomed to in Minneapolis, we gathered in "another place" for the first part of the liturgy. After the proclamation of the Gospel we processed to the cathedral commemorating Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. On our way to the cathedral we walked by large cardboard boxes. Blinded by the beauty of the liturgy I had not noticed these until I nearly tripped over a man who crawled out of one of them. Apparently the procession drew his attention, maybe even woke him up. His appearance caused me and my fellow Christians to make a quick circle around him and continue on our splendid liturgical way.

When we entered the Cathedral the true quality of the liturgy was revealed. The bishop himself was presiding flanked by auxiliary bishops and a throng of other clerics. The service was marked by exquisite music, beautiful vestments, countless candles, bellowing incense... a liturgist’s delight.

            Though I had thoroughly enjoyed the liturgy, it was the man crawling out of the box who stuck with me. More than that, his face haunted me throughout Holy Week. I saw his face in the man whose feet I prepared to wash and in the woman who came forward to receive Holy Communion on Holy Thursday. I saw his face in the child who knelt down to kiss the wood of the cross on Good Friday. And I saw his face in the many people who were baptized and confirmed on Holy Saturday. In all of these faces, reflecting the many cultures gathered for worship I saw one face, the face of Jesus.

            For centuries we have tried to figure out what Jesus looked like. Thousands upon thousands of artists have presented us with their depictions of Jesus. We have even tried to recreate a three dimensional visual of the face that is imprinted on the shrine of Turin. And, there he was, right before me climbing out of a cardboard box. And there he was having his feet washed by me. And there he was in the many, many faces comprising the Body of Christ.

            It was indeed a splendid Easter celebration, that year, thanks to the glorious cathedral setting, the extra-ordinary music, the flawless liturgical choreography, and the inspiring preaching. Yet, above all, it was an eye-opening celebration because of the man who climbed out of his cardboard box and woke me out of my liturgical daze so I might see Him as He is.


Cleaning Closets

The weather last week was absolutely remarkable. I bragged about it to my sister. She lives in Belgium where March is usually warmer than here. I could just feel the weight of winter slide off my shoulders as the sun of spring touched my face. A deep sigh of relief accompanied by the somewhat vein hope for it to last relaxed my built-up winter tension.

Not surprisingly most Minnesotans spent as much time as possible outdoors. By contrast, I stayed indoors, though admittedly gazing longingly at the sun streaming through the windows of my home. I blame my ancestors for this odd behavior.

My grandmother and my mother instilled an irresistible desire in me to start cleaning at the first sight of spring. It is as if the first rays of warm sun cause the cleaning genie to come out of the bottle. So, I cannot but empty closets and drawers in preparation for an in-depth spring cleaning. The sweater that has not fit for years is finally gone. Dust bunnies that have evaded the vacuum cleaner for weeks have been collected. The comfortable chaos that reigned in certain drawers has been turned into perfect order. The house is clean, everything is in order and I feel great about it. Cosmos, once again triumphs over chaos.

While cleaning and organizing I feel very close to my family. They did this religiously, and so do I. And like my ancestors I do not refer to it as my spring cleaning, but rather, I call it my Easter cleaning.

From a very young ago I was taught that there is an interior as well as an exterior preparation for Easter. The exterior preparation includes fasting and other forms of penance as well as the cleaning of our home. And all of this is intended to assist us with our interior preparation which is no less satisfying than the exterior.

So during this season of Lent as we clean our homes in anticipation of Easter, let’s also open the doors and drawers of our spiritual lives so we may take an inventory of our spiritual lives and throw out, clean up or re-organize that which is not befitting of a Christian. Thus we will be ready both exteriorly and interiorly for the celebration of Easter when spiritual cosmos again triumphs over spiritual chaos.

So get out those brooms and mops and lets start cleaning.

During a recent morning Mass Pope Francis preached on humility. And though this is a laudable Lenten theme, I must admit, I have never been a fan. I mostly equate humility with weakness and with deprecation that is either imposed or self-inflicted. Further, humility and humiliation are too close for comfort. And of course, who can forget Mozart’s quote from the film Amadeus: “Humility is the little cousin of mediocrity.”

So when I received the transcript of the pope’s homily I did not reach for it immediately, as I am otherwise want to do. Still, I made myself read it and, to my surprise marveled at the fact that Pope Francis spoke about humility in a beautifully affirming way rather than in deprecating terms. Thus, in one short sermon he salvaged humility for me.

Since then I have been musing about authentic humility and have concluded the following: first, humility is part of our very identity as Christians. Second, Christian humility is informed by Scripture and Tradition. Third, Christian humility is branded by charity and mercy.

First, the fact that humility is an essential characteristic of Christians is based on two complimentary realities. One the one hand, we are created in the image of God. On the other hand, as Pope Francis said in his homily, God, throughout salvation history has appeared to us in the humblest of ways, culminating in the birth of Jesus in a humble stable and his death on a cross. Therefor, since we are created in the image of a humble God we are called to humility ourselves. It important to note though that, as salvation history reveals, God’s kind of humility in no way implies weakness. On the contrary, God’s humility and thus Christian humility is strong and decisive. In the same way as God made the radically humble choice to become one of us, even in a stable or on the cross we too are to be with one another, even in a stable or on the cross. This kind of humility is clearly not for wimps.

Second, Christian humility is rooted in Scripture and Tradition.  A quick etymological search reveals that the word humility is derived from the Latin word for soil: “humus.” As such, one of the main characteristics of humility is rootedness. For Catholics, humility is the soil in which Scripture and Tradition are rooted, while in turn humility is rooted in Scripture and Tradition.

The Scriptures and Tradition teach us the history of God’s radically humble, yet extremely decisive engagement with the people God created. The Scriptures and Tradition also teach us how God wants us to relate to one another and to all of creation in the same radically humble, yet decisively engaging way.

As we let ourselves by guided by Scripture and Tradition it is good to remember that though God’s Word is eternal it is also in constant dialogue with each individual’s concrete life experience. Similarly, though our Tradition is ancient it is also ever new; dynamic and not static; shaping and reshaping itself holding on to the essentials yet adopting continuously evolving accidentals. Scripture and Tradition do not exist in order to cause deep sighs of shared nostalgic longing for a time long-since gone except in romantic minds. Rather, Scripture and Tradition which contain our shared past accompany us into our future. Scripture and Tradition are not a sacred relic, rather they are a lived reality.

Third, Christian humility is branded by charity and mercy. Better yet, everything we do as Christians is to be cloaked with the mantel of charity and mercy. Without mercy and love we can do nothing. It is this very understanding of Christian mercy and love, illuminated by Sacred Scripture and Catholic Tradition that is the “humus” or soil of all we do as Christians.

In the end true humility is nothing more or less than an unwavering commitment to radical love supported with copious amounts of mercy. This is the kind of humility God has demonstrated to us time and time again, most especially in the manger and on the cross. And this is the kind of humility God requires of us in turn.



Many years ago my father took me to the celebration of the Stations of the Cross in a small neighboring town. The one thing I remember to this day is the sermon. The elderly parish priest, wearing an old cassock and surplice climbed into the pulpit with great difficulty. He paused for a moment, catching his breath while glaring at the small congregation. When everyone was duly uncomfortable with the unexpected pause, he started to describe hell in frightening details, explaining the gruesome fate awaiting each one of us. Suddenly he stopped his loud ranting and stared at me intently. While pointing his wiry finger at me he whispered: “Even you, son, are a sinner.” And raising his voice he ended his homily dramatically stating: “Beware of Hell!”

It took days before I was able to sleep again and even to this day I really don’t want to end up in hell. Although I suppose that is for the best, maybe traumatizing people is not the preferred way to communicate the message.

There are two ways to invite people to better their lives: the via negativa or negative way and the via positiva or positive way. The via negative, on the one hand emphasizes our sinfulness and points out the awful things awaiting us, sinners. This approach often relies on someone other than ourselves to point out the wrong we did.  The via positive, on the other hand invites us to be better and to live up to our baptismal mission, affirming the good in all of us. In this approach, we are the ones who take stock of our lives and commit ourselves to do better. The priest of my past clearly adhered to the via negative. By contrast, Pope Francis seems to promote the via positiva as he famously stated on a number of occasions: “Who am I to judge?”

The season of Lent is a perfect time to take stock of our individual lives, following the via positiva. We might ask ourselves: “How am I living out my Christian calling? Am I truly embodying the Gospel? Am I bringing Christ to the world, in deed and word?” This kind of self-examination is not a punishing or negative exercise. Rather, it is a positive and encouraging exercise and an essential part of our ongoing journey toward becoming better Christians. Other questions we might ask ourselves: “How do I promote Jesus’ vision for our world? How can I do that better?” And as we do this, it is very important that we don’t get stuck in details. We must embrace the broader picture of our spiritual and moral lives. Too often we fail to see the moral forest in favor of one sinful tree. Though admittedly, this approach is more often used when judging others.

And let’s remember that all of us have closets filled with moral and spiritual skeletons: skeletons of hatred, jealousy, envy, pride, self-righteousness, etc. This is what I suspect was the message the scary priest had for me so many years ago. Lent is a good time to open our closets and deal with those skeletons as it affords us the time to take a spiritual inventory and make changes where warranted. Once we embrace our own sinfulness, we will more than likely become more generous toward the sins of others. That was the message of the homily Pope Francis preached last Monday.

He ended his homily by saying: "May the Lord, in this Lent give us the grace to learn to judge ourselves” and say, "Have mercy on me, Lord, help me to be ashamed and grant me mercy, so I may be merciful to others". Let us all take this to heart.

Fast to Focus

It was noon and I heard the abbey bells announce that it was time for the Angelus prayer. The word Angelus, Latin for Angel is the first word of a simple prayer said three times each day: sunrise, midday and sunset. This prayer which dates back to the Middle Ages is intended to help people mark the beginning, the middle and the end of the day with prayer, helping them to focus on God from whom all good things come.

As was our custom in the abbey, when the bells announced the angelus everyone stopped to say this prayer quietly. That day, the cloister was dotted with praying monks. The sun illuminated the frescos on the cloister walls. It was beautifully quiet.  After finishing our prayer I watched the monks enter the refectory while I remained behind. Father Remacle, a senior monk walked by me and quizzically turned around as he noted I did not move.

Little did he know I stayed motionless because I had decided to crank up the severity of my Lenten fasting. Being young and enthusiastic I resolved to limit myself to one meal each day for the entire season, with the exception of Sundays. And, having just learned about saints who spent their lives standing in the same position or sitting on a pillar I elected to stay in my “angelus spot” until the monks returned from breakfast or lunch. I joined them for dinner.

On his way back from lunch, Father Remacle found me still standing in the same spot. He stopped and asked what I was doing. I very enthusiastically told him what I was doing. He looked at me and asked me how it made me feel. “Hungry” I told him, as hunger and thoughts of food had filled my day. “And silly” I added, as standing there for 30 minutes seemed a bit over the top. “Is that what Lent is about” he asked? “Might it be better to sit with us at table and eat maybe a bit less, rather than stand here dedicating all your thoughts to food and displaying your Lenten vigor for everyone to see? Fasting is an interior discipline not an exterior display.”

The next day I sat with the monks and ate a bit less than normal. My thoughts shifted from hunger to the meaning of Lent. I have always been grateful for Fr. Remacle’s brotherly correction. Fasting, I have discovered, is a great spiritual exercise when it is done for the right reasons. He further helped me understand that we fast so we may re- focus. We fast to focus on Christ.

Our world is filled with distractions, more so than ever before. We carry our primary cause of distraction in our hand, our pocket or purse: the ubiquitous electronic device. Only sleep keeps us away from it and many of us even cut back on our sleep because of it. It distracts us from focusing on what we ought to do or on who we ought to be. Most importantly it prevents us from focusing on the one we should be focusing on the most, especially during Lent: Christ.

Reflecting back on my time in the abbey, I now realize that I was offered so many opportunities to focus myself, even outside of Lent. Listening to our Basilica bells ring the Angelus, I now realize that those three prayer  times offered to me every day were and continue to be a great invitation to focus on Christ and my response to his calling. So, when you hear our tower bells announce the Angelus at 9:00am, noon and 6:00pm I invite you to stop for just a moment and focus on Christ and what He is calling you to do. And since we are called to focus on Christ during Lent, why not start now.