Courage and Creativity

John Fisher and Thomas More--the two famous English martyrs who were willing to be beheaded rather than violate their consciences and their faith by following King Henry VI as he broke away from the Catholic Church.  The courage of these two saints is inspiring, but courage is only the final virtue they demonstrated, not the only one.

Fisher and More lived during a tumultuous time in world history and especially in the history of the Church--the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent changed the face of Christianity forever--but to view them as stubborn relics of the old guard fighting against innovation would be a mistake.  John Fisher and Thomas More were creative visionaries and dedicated reformers, passionate advocates for a new, more faithful, and more creative vision of Christianity.  It is precisely their dedication to principle and building a better Church that led to their beheading as they were surrounded by old-fashioned churchmen and politicians clinging to an arbitrary and authoritarian vision of the Christian state.

As chancellor of Cambridge University John Fisher helped to form one of the first truly modern universities.  He reintroduced the study of ancient languages such as Greek and Hebrew instead of simply teaching Latin.  He demanded a rigorous course of studies and higher standards of teaching and research.  Thomas More was an early advocate of women receiving an equal education to men, seeing to it that the women in his own family were as lettered as any contemporary man.  His Utopia championed the development of innovative new methods for structuring political and economic systems.

On the feast of Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More we not only celebrate two courageous martyrs, but two creative and innovative visionaries born ahead of their time.



The Pope and the Pigskin

On a fun note, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the NFL this morning.  Here was his message:

Dear Friends,

I am pleased to greet you, the members and directors of the American Pro Football Hall of Fame, and to welcome you to the Vatican. As many of you know, I am an avid follower of “football”, but where I come from, the game is played very differently!

I thank Mr. Anderson for his gracious words of introduction, which stressed the traditional values of sportsmanship that you seek to embody, both on the field and in your own lives, your families and your communities. Our world, and especially our young people, need models, persons who show us how to bring out the best in ourselves, to use our God-given gifts and talents, and, in so doing, to point the way to a better future for our societies.

Teamwork, fair play and the pursuit of personal excellence are the values – in the religious sense, we can say virtues – that have guided your own commitment on the field. Yet these same values are urgently needed off the field, on all levels of our life as a community. They are the values that help build a culture of encounter, in which we anticipate and meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, and combat the exaggerated individualism, indifference and injustice that hold us back from living as one human family. How greatly our world needs this culture of encounter!

Dear friends, I pray that your visit to the Eternal City will increase your gratitude for the many gifts you have received and inspire you to share them ever more generously in shaping a more fraternal world.

Upon you and your families I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

God bless you all!
— Pope Francis, Audience with the delegation from the National Football League, 21.6.2017

Praying for the Lost

If you grew up in a Catholic household you may have learned as a child to pray a little prayer to St. Anthony of Padua (whose feast day is today, June 13) whenever you lost your keys or wallet or the remote control for the TV.  At first glance it doesn't seem like a silly little prayer like that has too much in the way of deeper meaning...but it kind of does...

A lot of the great basilicas and cathedrals of the world can seem more like tourist destinations than places of prayer, that is not the case for the beautiful Basilica di Sant'Antonio da Padova in northeastern Italy.  Every day hundreds of people visit this church with pictures and mementos from loved ones who have gone missing, praying to God together with St. Anthony that they might be safely found.  It is a powerful sight to see so many people turning to God when it seems like all hope is lost--when they need the Holy Spirit the most.  It is a tragic and heartbreaking ordeal to endure and it remains a major problem the world over.  According to FBI statistics each day 700 children are abducted in the United States alone, add to that the thousands of victims of kidnapping and human trafficking every day throughout the world and it becomes apparent that perhaps now more than at any other time in history we are in the midst of a missing persons epidemic.  For the thousands of pilgrims to St. Anthony's shrine in Padua, it is faith and prayer that offers the strength to continue the search for loved ones, even after many years, and to find hope in God when the outlook is bleak.  

While many of the prayers at the Basilica di Sant'Antonio are petitions, there are also prayers of thanksgiving.  Each day hundreds of pilgrims return there to give thanks to God that their child, loved one, or friend has been returned safely.  

Today on the feast of St. Anthony we pray together with all those who are lost throughout the world and their families-- that they may find comfort in their fear, hope in their despair, and the strength of the Holy Spirit in their most difficult hour.  

The Smiling Saint

Cheerfulness strengthens the heart and makes us persevere in a good life; wherefore the servant of God ought always to be in good spirits.
— St. Philip Neri, the Apostle of Rome

We have a tendency at times to be gloomy and pessimistic about the future of the Church.  Just imagine what it must have been like in the immediate aftermath of the Protestant Reformation--discord, war, confusion, and division the likes of which hadn't been seen in hundreds of years.  It was precisely in that environment that St. Philip Neri brought his unique brand of humor, joyfulness, and holiness to the city of Rome.

Philip Neri was known by everyone in the Rome as a man who could always be trusted to come with a smile on his face, a joke, and a sense of undeniable trust in God.  He used to send younger brothers in his oratory out to purchase communion wine and tell them that they had to taste every single wine in the city before they made a choice.  When they would return he would remind them that he only actually needed to purchase half a bottle.  During Lent he would shave half of his beard to remind people not to take themselves too seriously.  He would juggle, dance, and play practical jokes.

He was also a man of deep reflection and prayer.  During Philip's life there was great religious discord in many parts of Europe, but perhaps nowhere more than Elizabethan England.  It was very common in the 16th century for English Catholic priests to be executed by the government simply for crossing the Channel into the British Isles, so being a seminarian at the Venerable English College in Rome was essentially a death sentence.  When Philip would pass an English seminarian on the streets he would invariable tip his hat to them, letting them know of the deep respect he held for their risky and courageous vocation and likely future martyrdom.

Even during one of the most difficult periods in our Church's history Philip was a witness to levity and joy.  He reminds us that, if we truly trust in God's Providence, then even in trying times we can walk about with a smile on our face and a spring in our step and the full knowledge that in God all things will be well.  So follow of St. Philip Neri today and, even though life isn't always easy, remember that God is good and we can keep a smile on our face and share a joyful word for all those we meet.

Clashing Symbols

An Orthodox priest was telling me today about a new translation of some beloved Greek hymns into contemporary English.  His favorite adaptation had to do with today's feast, the Ascension, which, in an effort to make the language more accessible, was translated in the new hymnal as "Jesus' lift-off". 

While we can obviously laugh at the notion that Jesus' Ascension to the right hand of the Father would be compared to a rocket launch, it is quite true that we often misinterpret obviously symbolic theological language.  Now I am not saying that our faith consists solely of symbolic language or that certain teachings shouldn't be taken literally or that they are un-historic.  Jesus, in fact, is quite good (as you would expect) at signalling when he is speaking in parable and when he is speaking literally.  Furthermore, Christian belief is so profound precisely because Jesus is an actual, flesh-and-blood, historical figure and God.  What I am saying is that when we engage in theology we are dealing with issues that necessarily transcend human language and categories and so we must often use terms that are insufficient to capture divine realities and only imperfectly represent concepts that go beyond the capacities of our finite intellects.

A great example of this is found in our feast of the Ascension.  For powerful psychological and historical reasons we think of Heaven as being up.  In a symbolic sense this is not inaccurate, talking about the heavens, the sky, and the stars conjures up images of realities that are beyond our understanding and participate in something larger than our every day earthly existence.  It is therefore helpful to think of Jesus ascending to Heaven, bringing our human nature beyond mere earthly existence to something beyond, something greater.  It does not follow, however, that heaven is somehow literally up there in the stratosphere or that Jesus' ascension references him physically floating through the sky.  If we take this kind of language too literally it breaks down.  Again, this is not to imply that the Ascension is not an historical event (of course it is) and it is not to say that heaven isn't a real place (where would Jesus' physical body have gone, otherwise?), but it is to say that it's important to recognize the limitations of our language and concepts to describe exactly what is going on in theology.  We were endowed with formidable intellects and can go quite far in understanding and describing the realities of our Creed, but there is always infinite meaning beyond what mere words can express.  The Ascension is more than Jesus floating through the sky, it is in reality an event that transcends human understanding and speaks of a blessedness and a destiny for each of us that goes beyond anything we can fully grasp in this life.  Maybe lift-off isn't such a bad descriptor after all.

Town Hall Meeting

As most of you know we will be holding a parish-wide town hall meeting this Sunday, May 21st, at 12 Noon.  

I know, I know, another meeting...BOORRRINGGG!

If that's what you were thinking, you're wrong!  

What we have is an exciting opportunity to shape the future of this community.  We all know that OLMC is a wonderful, welcoming, and generous place, but what if we could make it even better?!  What if we could generate a new level of excitement from our youth, a new degree of belonging for our families, a greater experience of the sacred in our worship, and a more profound feeling of empowerment to serve God and others from each and every member of the parish?  This town hall meeting is your opportunity to help determine the direction this parish is heading, to let me know what you love about it and what exciting opportunities you see on the horizon.  It is my prayer that by our 100th anniversary in 2023 everyone that visits us at OLMC is immediately struck by the presence of the grace of God when they enter our church and inspired by the witness of Christ when they are served by a member of our community.  Join us this Sunday and help us give glory to God and serve our neighbors for years to come.

Preaching Peace in Egypt

You probably saw a few headlines this past weekend about Pope Francis' historic trip to Egypt.  Of course the last few popes have made it a point to travel extensively throughout the world but, for the most part, they have visited countries with large Christian populations or the Holy Land.  Egypt may have played a major role in the early history of the Church, but has long been a predominantly Muslim country and thus a striking and significant choice for a papal visit.  Adding gravity to the trip is the fact that the visit came on the heals of terrorist attacks on St. George's Church in the city of Tanta, Egypt on Palm Sunday that claimed 45 lives and injured 126 more.  Despite these attacks, however, the climate in the country overall seemed significantly more welcoming to the Holy Father than one may have expected just a few years ago.  We should be paying attention to this visit and the reception of the pope for three primary reasons:

  1. History:  Pope Francis' visit is a reminder of a visit to the country by his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, almost 800 years ago in 1219.  St. Francis made a trip during the Fifth Crusade in order to search for peace between the Christian and Muslim worlds and to convert Sultan Al-Kamil, the ruler of Egypt, to Christianity.  While the sultan did not convert and the crusade was not ended, the devotion and holiness of St. Francis left a lasting mark on the Muslim conception of Christianity.  All early reports indicate that Pope Francis, like the holy friar before him, captured the hearts and minds of all Egyptians, Muslim or Christian.
  2. Christian Unity- Pope Francis was joined on his trip to Egypt by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople and first-among-equals within Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  While there the two met with Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, the leader of Coptic Orthodox Christianity.  Pope Tawadros II represents the Oriental Orthodox Church, which was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist and separated from the Catholic Church in 451 while Patriarch Bartholomew represents the Eastern Orthodox Church, which was founded by St. Andrew the Apostle and separated from the Catholic Church in 1054.  Their meeting in Egypt was an historic encounter of the three traditional branches of Christianity and three leaders of Apostolic Churches.  The leaders gathered to discuss the path towards unity, to pray for the recently martyred Egyptian Christians, and to lend solidarity to a Christian community that has often been threatened by terrorist acts.  Their meeting could very well mark a turning point in the reunification of Christendom, which has been divided for centuries, and give hope for all dialogues moving forward.  
  3. Christian-Muslim Dialogue: As inspiring as the meeting between the three great Christian leaders was, Pope Francis' principle reason for visiting the Arab Republic was most likely to preach a message of peace in a country that is trying to eliminate the presence of extremist terrorism.  Cairo, the Egyptian capital where Francis stayed, is traditionally the center of Islamic academics and scholarship and boasts a university, Al-Azhar, which predates Oxford and is one of the oldest centers of higher learning in the world.  By meeting with Muslim leaders there, Francis is signalling a willingness of Catholic and Muslim clerics and academics to dialogue at an elevated level and work together to put an end to religious violence and intolerance. As stated before, all early returns seem to indicate that the visit was a success and that Egyptian Muslims in the universities and on the streets were struck by the simple message of the pontiff.

Keep an eye out for the continued fruits of Pope Francis' visit to Europe.  We have undoubtedly just witnessed an historic moment, but, God-willing, we may also have witnessed a turning point in the relationship between the three major branches of Apostolic Christianity and in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Islam.


Receiving and Returning

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  I hope everyone is enjoying still celebrating Easter this year.

If today weren't Easter Friday, however, we'd be celebrating the feast day of St. Anselm of Canterbury.  St. Anselm was perhaps the first great theologian in the English-speaking world and marked the beginning of what we call the "Scholastic" period, a period in our Church history when philosopher-theologians plumbed the depth of human knowledge and rationality in order to better understand the mysteries of our Faith.  

Anselm made many contributions to our faith, he developed a theory of atonement explaining why Christ died for our sins, articulated an ontological argument for the existence of God, and championed the idea that our faith is the beginning of our understanding of the world.  One of his most striking ideas, however, is that of exitus-reditus.  Exitus-reditus means that our Triune God, who is love, never ceases offering his love to us.  This love makes its home in the human soul, which is made in the image of God.  When we truly receive this love of God we can have no other response than to return it to our God.  In other words a human being is only truly alive, truly thriving, when she receives love from God and then, invigorated by that love, is drawn back to God.  Nothing, then, is more fully human and never are we more truly in the image of God than when we receive His love and return it to Him.

It is in that spirit that I want to share with you one of the most beautiful hymns in our tradition, one that priests and sisters pray each of the eight days of the Octave of Easter.  This version is composed by the Cambridge composer John Rutter.  May it help you to receive God's love and return it to the Blessed Trinity...

Joyful Eastertide

What a beautiful celebration of the Triduum and Easter Sunday here at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel!  Just a quick reminder that our celebration of the Resurrection didn't end on Sunday, it only began...Easter is an octave, meaning it doesn't end until the second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday and the Easter season lasts until Pentecost (that's 50 days).  So keep celebrating the Empty Tomb!

Here's a video of the most famous piece of music ever composed, Handel's Hallelujah Chorus, to keep you singing.