A picture of a solid stone cross in front of a clear blue sky.

Weekly Musings

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.


The Baptism of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord and thus the Christmas season comes to an end. This would probably come as a surprise to many people as Christmas outside the church has been forcibly erased from our memories with the red and green of Christmas gradually being replaced by the red-only of the next commercial holiday, St. Valentine. In the church, though, the evergreens still stand and the poinsettias, though visibly tired persist.

The two main liturgical celebrations of the church: Christmas and Easter have a time of preparation, respectively Advent and Lent and a time of celebration, respectively Christmastide and Eastertide. The Christmas season is punctuated by a number of liturgical celebrations, in chronological succession: the feast of the Holy Family on the Sunday between Christmas and New Year unless January 1st falls on a Sunday when it is celebrated on December 30th; the solemnity of the Mother of God on January 1st; the solemnity of the Epiphany mostly observed on the Sunday between January 2 and 8; and the feast of the Baptism of the Lord celebrated on the Sunday after Epiphany unless Epiphany falls on January 7 or 8 when the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the next day. 

The more ancient of these celebrations, namely Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord, together with the Birth of the Lord were originally celebrated as one big celebration of the Epiphany of God in Jesus Christ on January 6. This unified feast predates the separate celebration of Christmas on December 25. There is evidence of the celebration of the Epiphany by the end of the second century, while the earliest known reference to Christmas is no older than 354 AD. 
The word Epiphany is the English transliteration of the Greek Epiphaneia, meaning appearance, revelation, and manifestation.   The feast of the epiphany is thus the feast of the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God. It was also known as the Theophany or Theophaneia in Greek, meaning the revelation or appearance of God. 

The original feast of the Epiphany celebrated the four major epiphanic moments in the life of Jesus all bundled in one. The first epiphany being the revelation of Jesus as God to Israel symbolized by the announcement to the shepherds which we now celebrate on Christmas. The second is the revelation of Jesus as God to the gentiles symbolized by the Magi which is celebrated on Epiphany in the churches of the west. The third is the revelation of God as the Trinity which is now celebrated on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. The fourth major revelation is God’s desire to make all things new which happened at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine. Though not accorded its own feast, the reading recounting this event is  now read on the Sunday after Baptism of the Lord during year C, thus in close proximity to the other three celebrations.

The main theological reason why these epiphanic moments are now spread out over several celebrations is due to the importance of each one of them in its own right.  The goal of each celebration  is twofold: first we celebrate each epiphany so we come to know God better and second we celebrate each epiphany so we may in turn lead lives that reveal God to the world.

As we conclude the rich celebration of the Christmas season let us re-commit ourselves to reveal to the world in deed and in word what has been revealed to us. May each epiphany of God inspire us to become ourselves an epiphany of God to the world in turn.

Take, O take me as I am

Take, O take me as I am;
Summon out what I shall be;
Set your seal upon my heart
And live in me.   

These simple and direct words are a very short song by composer John L. Bell. It is one of the best known and often-used songs from the Iona Community in Scotland. The Iona community is an ancient Christian community on the small island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides Islands of western Scotland. I first heard this song many years ago and was struck by both its simplicity and its profundity.  

For the past several years, I have used this song on an irregular basis as way of centering myself for prayer. It calms me and helps me focus. Recently, though — not intentionally, and certainly without any awareness on my part — I discovered that I had changed the last phrase. Instead of “Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”  I had unwittingly changed it to: “Set your seal upon my heart and let me be.” I was surprised and embarrassed when I realized my error, but at the same time it occurred to me that there must be an unconscious reason for the change. I decided that I needed to take this issue to prayer.  

In my prayer over the course of the next few days, it became clear to me that the issue I didn’t want to deal with was forgiveness. It isn’t appropriate for me to go into the specifics, but clearly I didn’t want to forgive and by changing the last words of the refrain, I was telling God that I wanted to be left alone in the hardness of my own unforgiving heart.  

I suspect there are times for all of us when, for whatever reason, we want God to just “let us be.” Like me, the issue could be forgiveness. Perhaps, though, it has to do with being more generous, more caring, or being less self-centered and more aware of the needs of others. It is not that we are great sinners. Rather, we get into comfortable ruts and don’t want to make the effort to get out of them. We want to be left alone.

Fortunately for us, at these times God continues to offer God’s grace to us. To be sure, God never forces God’s grace on us. Yet at the same time God is always offering us God’s grace and inviting us to get out of our ruts, grow beyond our complacency, re-group, and kick start our efforts to let God live in us. The challenge for us is to recognize when we have grown complacent and then open ourselves up to the grace God wants to give us.  
The past few weeks, I have made a conscious effort to ask God to set “God’s seal upon my heart and live in me.”  I’m hoping and praying that God will answer my prayer.   

The Basilica of Saint Mary has a magnificent set of bronze doors. Mgr. Reardon commissioned them in the 1950s to replace the original wooden doors. They are grand and shiny and to most, they are inviting. 

All kinds of people make their way through those doors. They vary in race and in age, in social status and sometimes in creed. Some people almost run up the majestic stairs to fling open the grand doors and bask in the beauty of the building. Others move slowly, bent under the weight of many burdens. They hesitantly open the heavy doors and almost sneak inside. 

Having passed through the doors some people simply pause in awe after releasing an audible gasp. Others walk a familiar path to a beloved shrine where they light a candle and kneel down in silent prayer. Some people slide into a pew, pull down their hood and take a nap. Some come here to hide from the cold, or even to hide from the world. The Basilica doors indeed are a great access point to the building. 

Yet, more importantly they also symbolize the entrance into the church and the entrance into the Body of Christ. Families walk through them as they bring their newly born babies for baptism. Young people with families in tow enter this building, often for the first time to celebrate the Sacrament of Confirmation. Excited brides and eager grooms pass through these doors separately to merge from them together after the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage. Seminarians in cassocks, deacons in stoles, priest in chasubles and mitered bishops pass through these doors to celebrate the sacrament of Holy orders. Ailing and burdened people pass through them seeking forgiveness and healing. Many people pass through these doors, Sunday after Sunday seeking nourishment on their earthly journey as they come to celebrate Eucharist. And at the end of our lives, our bodies are lovingly carried through these doors for a last visit to the church before we are laid to rest.

The Incarnation Season, including Advent and Christmas, is a great time to meditate on the doors of our Church as we remember how Mary and Joseph found them closed when they were looking for a place to spend the night. Locked out, they were forced to retreat into a cave or a stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus, the one who became the door to salvation for all humankind.

During this season we are invited to open wide our doors. We are invited to open wide the doors of our souls to Christ. We are invited to open wide the doors of our heart to all who need our love. And we are invited to open wide the doors of our homes to all who need shelter.

And as Pope Francis reminds us over and over again, the church ought to do the same. Too often, the beautifully crafted doors of our cathedrals, churches and chapels are closed to too many people, literally as well as symbolically. Christ, the one who found the doors closed to him yet opened his heart to all, asks the church to do no less than that: to open wide our doors to welcome all. No matter where someone is at on their earthly journey, they are welcome in the church as the church is not a palace for the privileged and perfect but rather a shelter for those who are suffering and searching. 

May the beautiful doors of our Basilica never exist to keep people out, but rather be a constant invitation to the entire Body of Christ with all its bruises and burns to enter and find hope and healing.

“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” These were spoken to me by my spiritual director on a retreat several years ago.  He gave me this advice after I had complained that my prayer was feeling a little stale and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He suggested that perhaps, I needed to be more honest in prayer and not try to put on a “good face” for God. He was right. At that point in my life, things were not going as well as I had wanted or hoped. I was experiencing some stress in my ministry and a couple of relationships were a bit strained. The difficulty was that when I went to prayer, I didn’t bring these things with me. Instead my prayer consisted of reading the scriptures and using a lot of pious words.  

My spiritual director suggested that I bring to God in prayer the pain and sadness I was feeling.  At first I balked at this idea. After all, this wasn’t the way I was taught to pray. I did follow his advice, though, and as the retreat progressed, so too did my sense of peace and serenity. The situation certainly hadn’t changed, but I realized that God’s grace was being offered to me in the midst of that situation. I also learned that God can handle our questions, our doubts, and our anger.

I don’t think my experience is too unusual. Too often we think we need to “dress up” our prayer and put on a “good face” when we come to God in prayer. We aren’t really ourselves, but rather we put on a façade and pretend to be someone we aren’t. The thing is, though, that God knows us better than we know ourselves. God is not surprised at who we are or what we do. We can’t deceive God, so we might as well be honest with God in our prayer. 

Given the above, we never need be fearful of coming to God in honesty and openness, trusting that the God who created us in love will not love us less or reject us for being who we are. When we come to God in prayer, we just need to be ourselves, without pretense and without guile. God knows us and loves us as we are, not for what we think we need to be.  

In our prayer, we need to pray as we can and not as we can’t. And we need to trust and believe that in response to our honest prayer, God will give us the grace we need.

Fleeing violence. This experience may seem far removed for most of us as we go about our everyday lives. If you had to escape to save your life and leave your home and all your possessions behind, what would you do?  Where would you go? 
Today, millions of people in Syria are struggling with these very questions. The New York Times has been covering and offering analysis of the Syrian refugee crisis and featuring compelling photo essays that provide an amazing visual perspective that takes you beyond the statistics. With the growing crisis in Syria, we still need to come to grips with the sheer numbers of people impacted.

Just a year ago, the Syrian refugee crisis affected about 270,000 people — compare that to the city of St. Paul which has about 290,000 residents. In recent months, the impacts on Syrian citizens have exploded and over 6 million people have been displaced.  

The entire Twin Cities metro area has 2.9 million people — about half the number of Syrian people who’ve been forced from their homes by war and violence. Just stop for moment and consider what it would be like if everyone in our 7 county metro area was on the move by foot, and taking only the belongings they could carry.  It’s staggering to contemplate. 

Of Syria’s 6 million refugees, about 4.25 million people are still in Syria, but are on the move, having been pushed out of their homes to save their lives. Another 2.2 million Syrians have fled their home country spilling across the borders into neighboring lands of Lebanon (almost 800,000 refugees), Turkey (over 500,000 refugees), Jordan (over 540,000 refugees), Egypt (over 100,000 refugees), and Iraq (almost 200,000 refugees).  

The governments of these countries approach the swelling numbers of refugees differently. Lebanon’s government has chosen not to build refugee camps — but the result sounds like what you might read in the Bible. One New York Times report described people finding shelter in over crowded apartments, partially built structures and in stables — which strikes a special chord as we consider the journey of the Holy Family to Bethlehem, and their flight to Egypt after the birth of Jesus. In Jordan the Zaatari Refugee Camp has grown so much, it is now their largest city. 

The United Nations has compared what’s happening in and around Syria to some of the largest crises in recent history — like the tragic impacts of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the  impacts on the Iraqi people during the war, and the violence that ended the existence of Yugloslavia. What makes the crisis in Syria stand out is the exponential growth in numbers of refugees over such a sort period of time. 

During December and January, our parish will explore the journey of refugees as part of our Global Stewardship initiative. We invite you to find our resource kit online and check out a documentary film made by parishioner Dan Baluff. Dan  sought out refugees and agencies in the Twin Cities that offer support. He conducted many interviews inviting people to share the stories of their journeys, their experiences, and how they came to arrive in the Twin Cities.  

You’ll hear stories of their persistence, extreme danger, acts of kindness, chance and survival. On Sunday, January 19 at 1:00pm, we’ll show clips from the documentary, and invite you to join us at The Basilica to hear a Speakers Panel who will share insights about their work in the Twin Cities and around the world to assist refugees.