Monthly Archives: April 2012

Vocations Sunday

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Today, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, is also known as Good Shepherd Sunday.  This day was designated by Pope Paul VI in 1963 as the annual World Day of Prayer for vocations to the Catholic priesthood.

Pope Benedict XVI issued a special message for the World Day of Prayer this year.  In his message the Holy Father encouraged Catholics to foster vocations to the priesthood.  They can do this by noting any suitable young man in the community, and encouraging him to consider the possibility that God may be inviting him to become a priest to serve his people.

I remember Salvador, the nine year old who is my altar boy in Mexico where I go on mission every year.  One day one of the women heard me telling him that some day he would take my place at the altar when I was no longer able to be there.  Two days later I heard her telling him that if he was faithful to his duties and said his prayers, the people would help him to go to the seminary and become a priest for them.

Twenty years ago when I was a missionary in Chile, I remember celebrating Christmas Mass for a community high in the mountains in the Atacama desert.  I was surprised to learn from the people that this was the first time they had Christmas Mass since 1922.

In that part of Chile many of the communities do not have Sunday Mass, because there are not enough priests.  Unfortunately the same is true for many communities in mission countries throughout the world.

During the past twenty years there has been a slight increase in the number of priests in Asia and Africa, but these are needed for the growing number of Catholics in those continents.  The number of priests is still in decline in Europe and the Americas, and last year Pope Benedict referred to a world priest shortage.

That is why we have a World Day of Prayer for vocations.  But prayer brings a responsibility.  Saint Augustine reminds us that we must work to bring about what we pray for.  For us that means the responsibility of fostering vocations.  For our Church leaders it means making good decisions.

Last year I remember watching Pope Benedict XVI on television officiating at a canonization ceremony in Rome.  During the ceremony the commentator remarked that there were 300 priests distributing Holy Communion to the people there.  I was saddened to think of the thousands of people throughout the world who had no priest for Sunday Mass while so many priests were in Rome that Sunday for a ministry that could be performed by others.

I believe that God is not failing to provide ministry for the people.  If there are people not being served it may be due to the faulty use of resources, or to rules that do not have the service of God’s people as their priority. One obvious example is that married converts are allowed to exercise priestly ministry, but married Catholics are not.

As we pray to the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into the harvest (Luke 10, 1-2), we could also pray that he guide the leaders of the Church as he guided the apostle John to be inclusive in accepting those willing and able to engage in ministry (Luke 9, 50).  God is providing for his people.  Pray that we cooperate by lifting restrictions on the priestly ministry so that no community will be left without its weekly Eucharist, without which, we are told, there is no life (John 6, 53).

No Time

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Sister Ann was student counselor at a prestigious girls’ college in Boston, Massachusetts.  As a religious psychologist Sister Ann also helped religious communities in the psychological development of their candidates and members.

I met Sister Ann when she was working with the Sisters who administered the hospital and nursing home where I was chaplain in Minnesota.  Sister Ann was administering tests which enabled the Sisters to learn the personality types to which each belonged, so that they could have a better understanding of one another, and work together more effectively.

I found Sister Ann a refreshing personality who was happy to share her skills and experience with anyone willing to learn from her.  I remember her telling us that her daily schedule was so packed with appointments that she scheduled a one-hour slot every day for God.  I think it was her way of reminding the overworked hospital Sisters not to let their dedication to others leave no time for God in their lives.

How often I have heard people say, “I have no time to pray.  I offer my work to God, and I hope that is enough”.  Indeed it is a wonderful idea to offer your work to God, but I wonder how long you can maintain that attitude if you do not spend some time every day with God alone.

The wonderful thing about time is that everyone is given exactly the same amount.  The billionaire does not receive more, and the beggar does not receive less.  How you spend your time can reveal to you who or what is important in your life. You will give priority time to what is important, and leave the remaining time to be divided among the less important things.

Sometimes you may not realize what is important to you until you sit back and look at how you spend your time.  I remember working with a poor community in the tropics where the people believed that the most important thing for them was education.  But when their daily activities were examined it showed that families spent more hours every day waiting in line for water.

They had no option.  There was only one water tap for the sixty or so families who lived there.  Water was their top priority, and until that challenge was overcome, education would not get the priority attention they thought it deserved.

So it is in the life of each one of us.  You give your time to what is important to you.  Each one of us is given 86,400 seconds every day.  Cardinal van Thuan, the not yet canonized saint of Vietnam, said he tried to follow his mother’s advice and fill every second of his time with love.

Maybe the best that most of us can do is to imitate Sister Ann, and give God a guaranteed special slot of time every day.  Even if nothing else goes well, you will never regret that you reported for duty, and waited in humble silence for guidance on how to use the rest of your time that day.

Titanic

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One week ago today I was on the Belfast docks where the Titanic was built.  Hundreds of people crowded the Titanic Centre for the commemoration of the Titanic’s ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912.

One hundred years ago today, at twenty minutes to midnight, the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic, resulting in the loss of the liner and most of those on board.  The capacity of the lifeboats fell far short of the numbers of passengers and crew.  Only 709 were saved, and 1514 were lost.

I have read much about the Titanic disaster, but I learned something I did not know from the English Catholic weekly, The Universe.  Among the 1514 who were lost on the Titanic were three Catholic priests, one from England, one from Germany and one from Lithuania.

Father Thomas Byles was an English diocesan priest, a convert to Catholicism, ordained in 1902 at the age of 32.  He was on his way to officiate at the wedding of his brother William in Brooklyn.  He travelled on a 2nd class ticket costing thirteen pounds Sterling.

Father Josep Peruschitz was a Benedictine monk from Bavaria, on his way to take up the post of principal in a Benedictine school in Minnesota.  He also travelled on a 2nd class ticket.

Father Juozas Montvila was a 27 year-old who had been barred from Lithuania by the Russians.  He decided to follow  his brother Petras in America.

All three priests refused to take a place on the lifeboats, and chose to remain with those doomed to go down with the ship.  They assisted the 3rd class passengers to the upper decks and into the lifeboats.  They comforted and prayed with those left behind.  They sacrificed themselves to be with those who could not escape.

A survivor in one of the lifeboats described how she could hear the fading strains of “Nearer My God to Thee” as the lifeboat pulled away from the sinking ship.

There was another Titanic priest who was different.  Firstly he was not fully-fledged, but a priest in the making.  Secondly, he was only on board of the Titanic for two days of the voyage.

Francis Browne was an Irish Jesuit student in training for the priesthood.  His uncle, the bishop of the diocese of Cloyne in Ireland, bought him a first class ticket on the Titanic.  He was on board the Titanic when it sailed from Southampton on April 10, 1912.  He disembarked when the Titanic dropped anchor at Cobh (Queenstown, Ireland) to pick up its final passengers before crossing the Atlantic.  It is not clear why he disembarked, whether it was his original intention, or due to a sudden decision of his uncle-bishop or his Jesuit Superior.

Francis Browne became famous even before he became a priest.  He had brought a camera with him on board the Titanic.  With the help of the ship’s purser, Hugh McElroy, he was able to take hundreds of photographs of the interior of the liner at all levels, even places out of bounds to passengers.

Incredible as it may seem, his photographs appear to be the only surviving photographs of the interior of the Titanic, and have been reproduced time and again.  Father Browne died in 1960.  He wrote and spoke much about his short experience on board the Titanic, and must have wondered why Providence spared him the fate of the other three priests.

Father Browne revealed the depth of his feelings in the words with which he concluded one of his talks on the Titanic when he said: “As you say goodbye to one another tonight, remember to pray for those who perished with the Titanic that dreadful night in the icy waters of the North Atlantic”.

Limbo Revisited

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In the Greek Fathers of the Church there is an ancient homily which tells us what Jesus did between his death on Good Friday and his rising from the dead on Easter Sunday.  According to the unknown preacher of this ancient sermon Jesus went to the abode of the dead to tell them that the gates of heaven were now open to them, and they were free to go there.

The abode of the dead was known to theologians as the “limbo of the fathers”, the place where good people who died before Christ had to wait until heaven became open to them.  On the basis of this limbo, Christian theologians invented another limbo, the “limbo of the children”.  The theologians invented this limbo for those children who, after the time of Christ, died without being baptized.

Limbo means fringe or margin.  The limbo of the children was the margin between heaven and hell.  The theologians invented it because they thought the unbaptized children did not deserve the joy of heaven for not being baptized, but did not deserve the pains of hell because they had done nothing wrong.

I remember as a student in the seminary I found this teaching hard to accept.  I remember putting it aside into an alcove in my mind labelled “with reservations”.

Some years later I changed my reservations into outright rejection, when one of my sisters had a still-born baby, and I saw how she was treated by the Church authorities.  She and her husband were exemplary Catholics.  They already had seven children, and the little still-born baby girl was their eighth child.  They were told the child would never get to heaven, and she could not even be buried in consecrated ground.

I remember years later searching with my sister for the baby’s grave.  We failed to find it because the graves in the unconsecrated part of the cemetery were unmarked.  It was then I knew that my instincts were correct in rejecting the Church’s teaching on the limbo of the children.  I knew the God revealed in Jesus Christ would not approve it, despite Augustine or Aquinas or other brilliant minds that invented or supported it.

It did not help when Pope Benedict XVI in an interview in 2007 stated that he personally would abandon the teaching on the limbo of the children since it was never a defined doctrine of the Faith.  If it was never a doctrine of the Church, why did Church authorities allow such  cruel rules and heartless teaching to be based upon it?

On May 10, 2009, the Belfast Telegraph reported that the previous day Bishop Noel Treanor, in Belfast Northern Ireland, blessed an unmarked mass grave believed to hold hundreds of unbaptized babies, some buried as recently as the 1980’s.  The bishop stated that the Church wanted to honor the memory of the children, to recognize the grief of the parents, and to undo any errors on the part of the Church.

The bishop’s conciliatory words are an important step in helping restore families who felt hurt and alienated by the teaching and rules that made the Church more like a heartless guardian than the loving mother God wants her to be.

In the meantime I still have reservations about some other teachings which I hope the Church will some day revisit to free them from the fantasies of theologians, and reconcile them with the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospel.

Good Friday Mother

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“Blessed are they who mourn, they will be comforted” (Matthew 5, 4)

I had just finished lunch when I got an urgent request from Rosa to visit her son Alex who was ill in hospital.

At the time I was in charge of a sprawling parish on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, and Rosa was the leader of the newest and smallest of the seven Catholic communities under my care.

Her community consisted of twenty-five families, the poorest of the poor.  They knew they could become homeless at any given moment, because they were squatters who had built their little wooden homes on farmland to which they had no title.  Moving their house would be no great problem.  They could dismantle it and re-assemble it again in half a day.  The problem would be finding a place to locate.

Rosa was a born leader who had organized the 25 families into a self-help community.  The women held monthly meetings, in a different home each month, to plan how to raise funds for the needy days of winter when their sons and husbands would have no work on the land.

When I first met them, I realized they also wanted to be true to their Catholic Faith, so we organized a second monthly meeting devoted to reading the Bible, and sharing how they tried to put their Faith into practice in daily life.  Rosa again showed herself to be a leader in this reflection, as she shared how she saw the hand of God in her life from her troubled childhood to the present day.  At this time Rosa was married, with four children.  Alex, her oldest son, was about 22 years of age.

When I received Rosa’s request to visit her son Alex in hospital, I got the Holy Oils and took the bus to the hospital in downtown Santiago.

When I got to the hospital, there seemed to be confusion about where Alex was located, but eventually a nurse led me down a long corridor to a quiet part of the hospital where Alex was alone in a little room, apparently in quarantine.

Rosa’s message had said that Alex was suffering from pneumonia.  When I saw him he seemed to be in a deep sleep, but I soon realized, on speaking with the nurse, that Alex was not only very ill.  He was dying.

Rosa soon joined me in the hospital.  She prayed with me while I administered the Sacrament of the Sick, and afterwards I was able to observe how she, as a mother, ministered to the needs of her dying son.

She spoon-fed him when he was able to swallow.  She moistened his dry lips.  She cooled his fevered brow with a damp cloth, and always had gentle words to soothe him when he became restless or agitated.

This continued for another three days, until Alex finally breathed his last.

I was there with the family for the prayers at the moment of death, and Rosa concluded the ceremony with a farewell kiss for her dead son.

The wake at their little home was traumatic, and I recall Alex’s younger brother tearfully beating on the casket with his bare hands as if he hoped to wake his brother from the sleep of death.

The next day the whole community travelled to the cemetery, where Alex’s casket was sealed in its niche, in the customary form of interment in Chile.

I wondered what I could say to Rosa afterwards, in an effort to console her in her great loss.  She must have sensed my uneasiness, for she smiled gently and said to me: “Father, I don’t need to be consoled. God has been very good to me.  I have been with my son Alex for the past week, and have been able to care for him in a way I have not done since he was a baby.  I was able to feed him, to ease his pain and to hold his hand as he passed from this life.  These are things our Blessed Mother was not able to do for her Son, as she watched him die on Good Friday.   So I feel privileged that God has given me these memories to ease the pain”.

I feel privileged to have known Rosa.  I have been enriched by her faith.  She lived her Good Friday with faith and dignity.  Her simple words on how she attended her dying son are living proof that love, fragile as it may seem, can still outlive the power of death itself. (Song of Songs 8, 6)