Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Peace and Persecution

As I write the news media report destruction in the Holy Land, kidnapping in Africa, Christians fleeing Iraq and Syria. Innocent children are being killed, maimed, orphaned, and robbed of their childhood joys. On Facebook images of mass executions and other horrible scenes show up. It is easy to skip by them, keep scrolling down until a peaceful scene appears. News of violence and war makes me appreciate some of the lighter jokes and pictures of cats and dogs. On Facebook a few days ago there were pictures of a Christian young man, perhaps in his early 30's who was tried and condemned for a "crime" for which he was innocent. The scene was either in Iran or Iraq. The faces of those who were leading him to a makeshift gallows were grim and determined. The Christian was taller than his accusers. He stood out, not so much for his height, but for the glow on his face. He radiated a peaceful, joyous look of expectation. In a few minutes the man would breathe his last. Yet, there was no indication that he was fearful or angry. Instead he seemed fearless and happy. That same night I opened a book on the Fathers of the Church. I had turned to the page describing the martyrdom of St. Polycarp. He was already an old man of 86 years. Dragged before a Roman official, he was ordered to worship the Emperor who had proclaimed himself a god. Someone suggested that he pretend to worship the god. All he had to do was sprinkle a few grains of incense on the hot coals before Emperor's image. He did not have to really intend to worship, just pretend. Polycarp knew that behaving like that would be caving in to paganism. How could he, a bishop, and an elderly man give such bad example? The proconsul tried to persuade Polycarp: "Take the oath (to deny Christianity and declare Caesar a god) and I will release you. Revile Christ!" Polycarp would not deny Christ. Exasperated, the Roman proconsul said, "I have wild beasts and I will cast you to them if you do not repent!" Polycarp stood his ground: "Call them! It is impossible for us to repent from better to worse; it is good, though, to change from what is wicked to what is right." "Let him be devoured by the lions," came the sentence. However the animal keeper denied the judge's order, since his animals had done enough work for the day. A pyre was set up around the steadfast old man. The Christians who witnessed the event noted that Polycarp showed no fear. The chronicle of his last day says, "He was filled with courage and joy, and his face was full of grace...". A tradition says that the flames formed a circle around the martyr and did not scorch him. An executioner was ordered to dispatch the saintly old man. Instead of wiping out Christianity, Polycarp's death remains a tribute to the courage of the first Christians and an example for today's persecuted Christians. (Direct quotes are from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp printed in Volume I of "The Apostolic Fathers, Bart D. Ehrman, Harvard University Press, reprint 2005). An ancient saying assures us that "God gives the grace of the moment." When we need the grace to be brave and to remain faithful in the face of persecution, grace and strength come. Let us lift up in prayer all those Christian men, women and young people who at this moment are suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Treasure in a Field

This Sunday's gospel has a lot packed into a small space. One of our priest friends is the only son in a family of three. His two sisters are married and caring for their children and husbands. When their Dad passed away, it fell to the priest son to clear out the family house and sell what remained. It took Father a long time, hours of emptying closets, drawers and the basement. His father had a way of stashing cash around the house. Father J. called his sisters who needed house repairs and disposed of the "hidden treasures" in a short time. One of our young Sisters who will soon pronounce her first vows wrote a practical piece on her blog about storing up earthly treasures. It is OK to put money into a savings account, to plan your funeral so family does not have to worry. Yet, I have seen with my own eyes what happens when some people inherit unearned money. In one family, an aunt died leaving several thousand dollars to two nieces and a nephew. The nephew squandered all of the inheritance on drugs; the other two quit their jobs, also lost their money. One of them divorced her husband. Rather than money granting happiness to those three, the ill use of it led to a lot of misery. You are probably saying, "I am so in need, I would never squander thousands of dollars." Good for you! However what I wrote really happened. Some of the happiest people are those who have nothing, or have very little. I am thinking especially of vowed religious men and women. I remember walking to early morning Mass on a frigid morning in downtown Philadelphia. A woman in front of us pressed a dollar bill into the hand of a woman huddled near a steam vent on the sidewalk. As we passed the lady wrapped in a blanket, she looked up and said "I didn't ask her for money." From her expression we could tell that she had no desire for money. She may have been mentally ill, but she showed no desire for even a little wealth. The Sister whose blog I quoted gave up a well paying job. Her boss was ready to offer her a higher position in her job, in addition to the handsome pay she was already getting when she told him she was leaving all to enter the convent. As we like to say about our salary: "The pay is out of this world!" A young priest I know had a great job, and a Porsche to prove it. He found another treasure, the call to the priesthood. He left it all to serve the People of God as a parish priest. Father is happy with his new life fueled by prayer and effort. Christ is the center of his life, the treasure that he literally sold all to find. May you find Christ as the treasure of your life. Then despite ups and downs in your life, your heart will be secure. Don't take my word for it. Take the Gospel's word:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

He Had Compassion

I have always been impressed by the passage in the ninth chapter of St. Matthew's gospel (vs. 36) The words that most remain in my heart are:
"When he saw the crowds he had compazssion on them for they were harrassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd."
When I see media accounts of people whose homes were bombed out or deliberately burned down, I feel compassion for the people runing for their lives. Who is going to provide shelter for families forced into refugee situations? Maybe a few weeks before the neo-refugees enjoyed the comforts of an apartment, a television, landline telephones, hot showers, modern stoves. These folks could be ourselves. In the USA this is hurricane and tornado season, just as much as it is summer fun time. Tonight I called one of my sisters who lives in Ohio. A tornado touched down two miles from her house. Our Fathers and Brothers of St. Paul who are holding a retreat for members of our Pauline Family also lost windows, electrical power, and perhaps damage to their water pumps. Many trees were knocked over. Thankfully it seems no one was hurt by the powerful winds.
We pray for our neighbors suffering from the storm damage. We pray too for those refugees in the Middle East who are caught in conflict. Some are facing severe persecution because they are Christians. Some storms are interior--they rock our heart and soul. Grief can leave one wiped out as trees stripped of thei leaves after a tornado. Jesus today looks at you--whatever storm you face--with copassion. Compassion derives from two Latin words which mean "to suffer with." On the cross Jesus took all our sin and sorrow on himself. He suffered "with and for us." Other interior storms are "personal demons" of addiction to drugs, alcohol, anger, sex, or pornography. As Jesus walked on water and calmed the storm when Peter and the Apostles were being knocked about by high seas, so Jesus can calm our storms and pull us out of soul storms that shake our "in most calm." To weather our personal storms we need to turn to Jesus. He is not some warm and fuzzy stuffed teddy bear. At times he displays tough love as when we need to shape up and quit addictions, bad habits and resist temptations. He says,
"Take up your cross and follow me."
Strong language. Yet he also invites us to
"Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."
Let us pray for a just peace wherever it is needed in the Middle East, in Palestine, in Africa, in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Prayer has no borders. Prayer makes us "ambassadors for Christ" as St. Paul says. Our prayer unites us to God at leaat for a short time, and it gives us compassionate hearts, hearts like Jesus' who had compassion on the crowds.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

A Summer Holiday

Here in the eastern United States we are at the end of a three day holiday weekend. We celebrated the 283rd birthday of our nation on Friday, July 4th. In Boston the annual Boston Pops concert and fireworks were held on July 3rd evening because of the approach of Storm or Hurricane Arthur. From the top of our house in Boston we had a magnificent view of the Boston Pops fireworks off of the Esplanade. Barges anchored in the Charles River are used to hold the fireworks. I watched much of the concert on TV and then went up to our rooftop patio to view the huge lights of the fireworks. I think it is the best Fourth of July view I had ever enjoyed. Even though a storm was on its way. the skies were clear. We could see lights from shore points too. I enjoyed the festive mood at the concert. People of every race and color were singing together, waving the Stars and Stripes and having a grand time enjoying our common national birthday. So many of our national songs refer to God and his blessings: America the Beautiful...May God shed his grace on thee; God bless America and on and on. There is much to lament in our society today. However we are truly blessed in countless ways. We can practice our faith openly without fear of being locked up or sentenced to hard labor, or summarily executed. We can drive coast to coast on interstate highways, some even without tolls. Most of us enjoy running water, hot and cold water taps, heated and air conditioned homes and work spaces, fire stations and police which keep us safe. Communications via TV, radio, Internet, phone and other digital devices abound. Refugees living in tents with no potable running water, sanitation or ventilation long for a sliver of the comforts that even most of our poor enjoy. As we are plunged into the heat, fun, sun and toil of the height of summer may we pause and pray in thanksgiving for what we do have and take for granted in the USA and the free world. May we pray for the mounting number of refugees, especially in the Middle East. Many of these refugees are Catholics, Orthodox Christians and people of other Christian faiths whose lives are threatened by violence and a persecution. We pray too for immigrants seeking better lives. May we respect their humanity, because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Lately I "unfriended" a few names from my Face Book page. I did so because I do not want my page to be associated with people who use hate language; who refer to immigrants as being less than human; or as thugs and free loaders. Some whose description on their home pages boast of church membership use very "unchurchy" language whenever they speak of immigrants or of politicians with whom they disagree. Jesus told us in the seventh chapter of Matthew's gospel to "love our enemies, do good to those who persecute you..and you will be children of your father in heaven...". I know I am the granddaughter of immigrants on my father's side. On my mother's side, I remember great grandfather who was from Ireland. In my hometown there is an area, now sparsely populated that was once called "Monkey's Nest." When I was growing up there were Hispanic and Black residents mainly. But the name was bestowed in the early 1900's when Italian immigrants lived there. N o matter our ethnic heritage, we Americans are one nation under God. May we live up to the song titles "They Will Know That We Are Christians By Our Love, By Our Love...".