Monthly Archives: February 2012

Dominus Flevit


Yesterday as I mentally re-visited the Pater Noster church on the Mount of Olives, I was drawn to another nearby church called Dominus Flevit.  The name means “The Lord wept”.  This church was built to commemorate the moment on the first Palm Sunday when the Lord momentarily halted the triumphant procession towards Jerusalem, and wept as he pronounced the dire prophecy over the city,    “If only you knew what makes for peace this day – but now it is hidden from your eyes.  For the days are coming when your enemies will raise a rampart around you and encircle you on every side.  They will smash you to the ground and your children within you, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation” (Luke 19, 41-44)

The present Dominus Flevit church was built in 1955, and was brand new when I visited it in 1962.  It is a small church, designed in such a way as to convey the image of a teardrop in its outward structure.  In the interior, unlike most churches, the apse is facing West, so that looking at the altar the congregation is looking westward towards the city of Jerusalem.

The wide picture window behind the altar gives a breath-taking panoramic view of the city of Jerusalem.  It is an open invitation to try to imagine that Palm Sunday morning when the Lord, from that very spot, looked upon Jerusalem and the Temple in the warm rays of the rising sun, and grieved at the tragic fate that lay in store for them.

The front of the altar is decorated with a mosaic of a hen and her chickens, with the text, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together as a hen gathers her little ones under her wings, but you would not.” (Luke 13, 34)

This chapel also has had a checkered history, beginning with Saint Helena in the 4th century.  The 4th century church disappeared, and the site remained vacant until the coming of the Crusaders in the 12th century, when another church was built.  After the departure of the Crusaders, the church became a ruin, and so it remained for more than 500 years.

In the 19th century the Franciscans failed in their effort to get ownership of the ruin, but they acquired some property nearby, and built a small church there.  In 1953, excavating in order to re-build a boundary wall, the Franciscans made an amazing discovery.  The excavations revealed a burial ground, with tombs from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD.  There were also the ruins of a Byzantine monastery, and a small church to the prophetess Anna (Luke 2, 36-38)

When those excavations were completed in 1955, the present chapel of Dominus Flevit was built.  My recollection of the chapel is that it is an architectural gem, a place of silent contemplation, and an occasion of divine love touchingly made visible, showing that God really cares because you could see the tears in his eyes.


Our Father


The Gospel reading in today’s Mass brought me back 50 years to my first visit to the Holy Land.  In today’s Gospel the Lord teaches his disciples how to pray by giving them the words of the “Our Father”.

On the Mount of Olives overlooking the Old Jerusalem, there is a chapel to mark the place where Our Lord is said to have taught the disciples how to pray.  It is called the Pater Noster chapel, Pater Noster being the Latin for Our Father.

The original chapel is thought to have been built on the orders of Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century A.D.  That chapel was destroyed in war in the 7th century, and the site remained vacant for several hundred years.

When the Crusaders occupied Jerusalem and the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries, a new chapel was constructed as the Pater Noster chapel.  The new chapel was short-lived, and was again destroyed in war as the Crusaders fought the Saracens.

Again the site remained vacant for several hundred years.  In the 1800’s the site was purchased by a European noblewoman.  She had a chapel built on the site as the place where Our Lord gave the Our Father to his disciples. Along the inside walls of the chapel is a series of 152 plaques in artistic tile work, each plaque with the words of the Our Father in a different language.  This is the chapel I visited in 1962.

When Our Lord gave his disciples the words of the Our Father, he introduced them with, “This is how you are to pray” (Matthew 6, 9).  This introduction is interpreted in two different ways.  The first interpretation understands Our Lord as saying, “This is a model.  Make your prayers like this”.  The second interpretation understands the introduction to mean, “This is the way you should pray.  Pray these very words”.  Whether you interpret Our Lord’s words as descriptive or prescriptive, the words of the Our Father are a continual source of spiritual life to the simple and profound alike.

I remember being impressed by an incident Saint Teresa of Avila recorded in her autobiography.  One of the lay Sisters came to her in great distress because she could not meditate or contemplate like the other Sisters.  Her only way of praying was repeating the Our Father over and over.  Saint Teresa questioned her, listened carefully, and came to the conclusion that this lay Sister, unknown to herself, had arrived at mystical prayer simply by the thoughtful repetition of the words of the Our Father.

Another Sister could only begin the Our Father, but never finish.  As soon as she reached the word “Father’, she would dissolve into tears, at the very thought that she could call the infinite, eternal Creator her Father.

So it does not seem to matter how you consider Our Lord’s words. It does not seem to matter which of the 152 languages in the Pater Noster chapel you want to follow.  It just seems that if you can learn to say the words of the Our Father simply and thoughtfully, they can bring you to a state of mind and heart beyond anything you could have imagined for yourself.

But that is hardly surprising, considering where those words originated.

Change Your Ways


Many years ago in high school one of my classmates was William Johnston, who went on to become a Jesuit missionary in Japan.  Father Johnston became an expert on Zen, and was known worldwide through his best-selling books, such as The Still Point, Silent Music, and Christian Zen.

From his experience in learning Zen, he said that he sometimes envied the Buddhists because they are so single-minded. While Catholics were drawn in different directions in pursuit of holiness, Buddhists had just one goal, Enlightenment.  Later he came to realize that Christians too could focus their pursuit of holiness on one single goal, Conversion.

Conversion is the goal the Church puts before us time and again during the season of Lent.  The very first sermon of Our Lord, read on the First Sunday in Lent, is a call to conversion, “The kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1, 15)

Repentance means a change of mind, a change of heart.  Sometimes “Repent” is translated as “Change your ways”.  It really means changing both your way of thinking and your way of acting.

Every day of your life you are under the influence of forces which are trying to tell you how to think and how to act.  A book published in 1957, “The Hidden Persuaders”, by Vance Packard, explains how advertisers make use of psychology and motivation techniques to persuade you, without you being aware of it, that their products are the answer to your needs.

From the moment of birth we are self-centered, so the spirit of this world finds us to be ready listeners when it tries to persuade us that happiness is to be found in the pursuit of possessions, the pursuit of power and the pursuit of pleasure.  But there is another Spirit which appeals to our inner self with the inspiration that happiness is to be found not in holding possessions, but in sharing them; not in dominating others, but in serving them; not in seeking pleasure, but in a spirit of self-sacrifice.  These are two contrasting sets of values; the first set self-centered, the second set other-centered.

The call to conversion is a call to reject that first set of values, and embrace the second set.  And conversion is not a once-off action but an ongoing process.  Our Lord makes clear that it is a decision that has to be renewed day after day, and that the struggle is ongoing.  “If you wish to be my disciple you have to forget yourself, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9, 23)

The Buddhist single-minded pursuit of Enlightenment helped Father Johnston to see conversion as the central focus of the Christian life.  If you can be single-minded enough to pray for your conversion each day during Lent, look in the mirror on Easter Sunday morning and you will see a new person.

The Stations


One of my earliest memories of the devotional life of my family was one of my older sisters saying she had promised to “do the stations” every day during Lent.  I knew it had something to do with church, and asked her to take me along.  She agreed, and it opened up a whole new world to me.

For the first time I got a good look at the heavy plaster images all around the walls of the church.  As we moved from one station to the next, I could see that Jesus was in every one, usually wearing a crown of thorns.  Everyone else in the picture was either sad or stern, and when we got to the end I could see there was no happy ending.

At the time I had no idea that I was taking part in probably the oldest devotion in the Church, the Stations of the Cross.  Tradition says that this devotion was begun by the Mother of Jesus, who used to re-trace the steps of his condemnation and death from the tribunal of Pilate to the hill of Calvary.

As the Roman persecutions ended, and Christian pilgrims began visiting Jerusalem, the Way of the Cross was one of their favorite practices.  Some of the stations were based on the Scripture, like Simon of Cyrene helping with the Cross, some are based on local tradition, like Veronica using her veil to dry the face of Jesus.

With the passage of years, many of the faithful who could not go to Jerusalem wanted to be able to walk the way of the Cross.  In response to this wish, various reconstructions of the Stations of the Cross were set up in different parts of Europe, in monasteries, and convents, and on the lands of civic rulers.

There were variations in the number of stations, and in what they represented.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia the numbers varied from 11 to 37.  It soon became clear that the varying number of stations owed more to the pious imagination of the devotional writers than to what actually happened on the ground in Jerusalem.

With the passage of time the Church authorities became more involved, and Popes granted privileges to those who moved from station to station, meditating on different incidents in the sufferings of Christ.  In 1731 Pope Clement XII fixed the number of the stations at 14.  Eleven years later Pope Benedict XIV recommended that each church have its own Stations of the Cross.

In my own mission experience, outdoor Stations of the Cross were very popular.  In Chile on Good Friday the central community, and the 5 satellite communities held their own Stations of the Cross as they moved through the streets.  But they kept converging on the central church, where they all joined together for the 12th, 13th and 14th Stations.

In Mexico, the people of Anapra covered several miles and a steep climb to complete the Way of the Cross.  The Lord, his followers and his tormentors were all there in appropriate costume, and sometimes the re-enactment of the Station was almost too realistic to bear.

We in the affluent world may sometimes wonder why the poor want to immerse themselves in the Passion rather than in the Resurrection.  I believe it means so much to them because that is what they are living.  When people have little to hope for, when they see their children dying from hunger, or from illnesses that in our world are easily cured, they feel that they also are on their Way of the Cross, and take comfort that the Lord who also suffered is close to them in their helplessness.

The Stations of the Cross is a devotion for all seasons.  For rich and poor alike it has a message and a challenge. Those who still labor under the burden of the Cross have the right to hope that some Simon of Cyrene will come to their aid and give them some relief in their painful distress.

Anapra Good Friday

Lent Online


If you are thinking of giving up visiting some social website for Lent, you may find yourself missing something.  I have a vague memory of seeing a news item saying that Pope Benedict will be posting a short daily message every day during Lent @Pope2YouVatican.  I have not succeeded in finding the message yet, but I will keep searching, and maybe become an online follower.

Lent has come a long way since it emerged as an institution sometime about the beginning of the 4th century.  Since the earliest days of the Apostolic Church, it seems that the weekly Sunday assembly was the ongoing celebration of the Paschal Mystery in response to the Lord’s injunction “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22, 19).

Gradually over time the annual remembrance became established, though the Church in different parts had different dates for celebrating the event.  These differences in the date for Easter continued until the Synod of Whitby in 664 AD, when the Roman date was established for the universal Church.

The 40 days of Lent in anticipation of Easter seem to have begun as the weeks of preparation of those who were to receive Baptism at the Easter Vigil.  Those who were already baptized were encouraged to join the candidates for Baptism in some of their preparations, including their prayers and fasting.  Eventually those 6 weeks became established as a time for everyone to prepare to take part in re-living the Paschal Mystery through the ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter.

In the past it used to be common to ask someone, “What are you giving up for Lent?”  I prefer to think in terms of, “What can I do for Lent?”  Online there are websites presenting “Forty ways for forty days”, and many parishes are offering practical suggestions and opportunities.  In one parish I saw a colorful poster with a short Scripture passage for each day of Lent, encouraging those who text their friends to include one daily message in keeping with the season.

Those who prefer the traditional way of Lent can find their inspiration in the Gospel of Ash Wednesday, where the Lord spoke of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6, 1-18).   In the meantime I will keep searching for @Pope2YouVatican, in the hope of joining the ranks of those who follow Saint Peter’s successor online.

Palms and Ashes


At 8 o’clock this morning I officiated at the blessing and distribution of ashes for a packed congregation in a small country town in New England.  We like to think of ourselves as the most advanced country in the world, but our faith and history enable us to continue an ancient ritual which the Catholic Church has been celebrating annually for more than 1200 years.

Recently on television I saw an archive picture of Pope Benedict XVI receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday last year.  The officiating Cardinal followed the Roman custom, and sprinkled the ashes on the Holy Father’s snow-white hair.  While we moisten the ashes, and dab them on the person’s forehead, the Roman custom with clerics is to sprinkle the ashes on their tonsure, that small circle shaved on the crown of the cleric’s head.

I remember my first year in the Philippines, when I was fresh from my studies in Rome.  One of my assignments was to be chaplain to a large convent school.  On Ash Wednesday I remember telling the Sisters that the Roman custom was to sprinkle the ashes on the veil covering the nun’s hair.  Since these Sisters wore beautiful white veils, they absolutely refused the Roman custom, and insisted on receiving the ashes on the forehead, the same as their students.

In the olden days the ashes used in the Ash Wednesday ceremony were acquired by burning the palm branches used in the previous year’s Palm Sunday.  At the present time, many parishes are buying commercially produced ashes.  Church suppliers estimate that one ounce of commercial ashes (cost about $10) will provide ashes for 250 foreheads.

My first year as a missionary in Chile, my pastor decided to get the ashes the old way.  Two weeks before Ash Wednesday he asked the people to bring in the palms they kept from the previous year, so that they could be burned to provide the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

The people did as they were asked, but reluctantly, because they had the belief that the blessed palms were a protection against earthquakes.  The palms were duly burned, and the pastor assured the people that they had the best possible ashes, produced as the Church authorities prescribed.

You can imagine the pastor’s dismay when, the following Sunday just before the evening Mass which I was preparing to celebrate, there was a one-minute 6.75 earthquake which led to the collapse of the main wall of our church, and left many parishioners with collapsed or damaged homes.  Needless to say the people felt betrayed, and vowed never again to give up their old palms until they had received the new ones.

Even if I failed to find a connection between blessed palms and security against earthquakes, I had to admit that the people had a case when they insisted that their traditional beliefs are to be respected, and there is a price to be paid if they are not duly observed.

Fortunately your observance of Lent does not depend on the quality of the ashes on Ash Wednesday. If you can add some prayer, fasting or almsgiving to your daily life during these forty days, you will arrive at the celebration of Easter with a joyful heart and a renewed spirit.

Parent Leadership


Yesterday I happened to tune in to the Faith and Culture series where Colleen Carroll Campbell was interviewing James B. Stenson from Boston.  It was my first time to see or hear Dr. Stenson, and I was favorably impressed.

Dr. Stenson is an educator who was closely involved in the establishment of two independent secondary schools for boys, one in Chicago and one in Washington DC.  During his years of involvement with these schools he came to know hundreds of families, visited their homes, and learned for himself how some parents are more successful than others with their children.

When he speaks of parents’ success with children, he is not referring to how they manage the children in the home.  Rather he is speaking of the long-term outcome, the kind of men and women the children turn out to be.  He says that parenthood is about raising boys and girls to become men and women who are competent, considerate and responsible, committed to live by principles of integrity all their lives.

Having seen many parents succeed in this way, while others failed, he engaged in countless conversations with fathers and mothers in a search to account for the differences.  How did the successful parents manage to get it right?  Were there patterns of behavior they had in common?  Is there something other parents could learn from their experience?

For several years Dr. Stenson observed, listened, learned and analyzed, and then in 1989 he began writing and giving lectures for the benefit of conscientious parents throughout the world.  He shares his findings and his wisdom on his website,

On the webpage he presents “folios” or edited excerpts from his books on different aspects of parent leadership.  Each folio is just a few pages long, which makes it easier to deal with a complex topic in manageable units.

Dr. Stenson generously makes his findings freely available to those who want to use them for themselves or share them with others.  The service is without charge, and he adds this requirement: I ask only that you also include the attribution statement at the bottom of each folio: “Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this material for private use. It is taken from the Web page of James B. Stenson, educational consultant.”  

I look forward to becoming more familiar with this website.  It contains a wealth of clear, well-thought-out recommendations based on observation, analysis and experience.  Yet it is not dogmatic.  Dr. Stenson insists that his findings are descriptive, not prescriptive.

I greatly appreciate all his valuable work, and I wish him well in his continuing service to parents and families in America and throughout the world.