Monday, January 30, 2012

Homily for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
4th Sunday

in Ordinary TimeJan. 29, 2006
Christian Bros., Iona

This weekend I preached (at St. Vincent’s Hospital) without a written text. Here’s an “oldie” for The Eastern Front’s readers.

“Lord our God, help us to love you with all our hearts and to love all men as you love them” (Collect). [In the new, more literal translation: “Grant us, Lord our God, that we may honor you with all our mind, and love everyone in truth of heart.”]

Our opening prayer this evening echoes Jesus’ teaching of the 2 great commandments, to love God and to love our neighbors—except that, in a bit of a twist, we pray not that we may love our neighbors as ourselves but as God loves them. That would seem to raise the bar more than a little.

We take it for granted that God loves all persons, even persons we wouldn’t consider lovable. We also take it for granted that we’re incapable of loving as God does: completely, unconditionally, so powerfully that our love might even purify and transform another. At its best, the sacrament of marriage images Christ’s love for us, his body, the Church, when a husband and wife come close to loving each other as God does. At its best, religious life leads us toward such a love for one another in our own communities.

But it’s always a struggle, isn’t it—in community; in marriages especially at their beginning, and often thruout? More so, in our dealings with all those persons beyond our religious or marital families.

What does it mean for us as religious to love all persons as God loves them? What does it mean for us as educators?

At Mass on Friday we heard the familiar story of David’s adultery and murder (2 Sam 11:1-17). The greatest of Israel’s kings was exemplifying the worst of the arrogance of power that Samuel had warned the people about when they 1st demanded a king (1 Sam 8:10-18). So many the stories of the clergy sexual abuse scandal, or the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandals (if you remember that far back), or the alleged thieveries of Msgr. Woolsey down in Manhattan offer us contemporary examples of the arrogance of power. Any of us who exercise power in community, in ministry, in an office, or in a classroom are susceptible to it—usually not to adultery or murder, but easily enuf to favoritism, to disdain of those who disagree with us, to the misuse of assets. If we’re fortunate, we’ll have a prophet Nathan to call us to account like David, and like David will respond in repentance (2 Sam 12:1-17). More fortunate still if we exercise our authority as superior, administrator, pastor, or teacher in the manner of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served; that is, to love.

On a more personal level, most of us, probably all of us, have experienced what David did when he looked on Bathsheba. It isn’t divine love, is it? We’re all susceptible to lust, to looking selfishly upon other persons as objects to serve our pleasure. Obviously, Christ calls us to a higher standard, and so does our profession of chastity. Fittingly, we pray to God for his help in responding to Christ: “Lord our God, help us to love all persons as you love them”—purely.

A variation on seeing persons as objects: Probably all of us know someone who, when he calls, the 1st thing in our minds is, “What does he want me to do for him now?” There are people who are experts at using other people but never assisting others, always taking and never giving. “Lord our God, help us to love all persons as you love them”—disinterestedly.

As great a challenge, maybe even greater, as loving others with a quasi-divine love in community and from our own hearts is to teach others to do so. That challenge we accepted when we became educators. I gnash my teeth when I consider the distinguished Catholic politicians who graduated Catholic schools and went on to promote abortion rights, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research. (Truth in advertising, so to speak: The president of the Massachusetts State Senate [Bobby Travaglini], a Ted Kennedy Democrat thru and thru, is one of our alumni.) How could Catholic educators have failed so miserably to teach the Gospel?

It is a plus, of course, when our graduates stand authentically for the poor and the oppressed, whether in our inner cities, in the Third World, or in transit across our borders. They are following the teaching of our Savior, then. In the words of Pope Benedict, “God makes the choice to align himself in defense of the weak, the victims,” a choice that is “made known to all governments, to all of us that we, too, must know which side to choose… that of the humble, the least, the poor and weak.”[1] That concern—concretely applying it, e.g., to the elderly, the sick, the homeless, refugees, those who speak a different language or are of a different color, the inhabitants of the barrios and favelas of the world—is rooted in the God-given human dignity of the human person; in other words, in loving persons as God loves them.

Such concern must extend also to bioethical issues, such as assisted suicide, euthanasia, stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, abortion. As one op-ed columnist wrote last Monday with reference to the March for Life, “humans are the images of God, regardless of what they can or cannot produce for the economy, what they look like, how they act. . . . Each man and woman is so unique, so capable, so intrinsically close to God that doing violence to a fellow man, killing and even aborting, can never be acceptable.”[2]

Some Salesian students at 2008 March for Life. (Photo: Fr. Abe Feliciano)

The same day a syndicated columnist wrote of assisted suicide: “The morality of care for the sick and aging in our society bears witness to how we see ourselves and the world we want our children to inhabit. How we answer this question tells us more about how we live than how we die, and tells us literally, who cares. We once depended on religion and laws of the spirit to determine how we put science and technology to use. That’s difficult today when secularism has been elevated to the status of religion, reality has become virtual and technology drives our sensibilities about what it means to be human.”[3]

I listed in vitro fertilization above along with more obviously destructive actions. Why? The Vatican instruction on the question in 1987 notes that every person deserves to be created by a human act of love and not by a laboratory procedure.[4] Just as every human act of love must be open to life —the teaching of Humanae vitae—so must every creation of life result from love. In plainer terms, producing human life in a lab is a 1st huge step toward turning life into a commodity to be manufactured. Indeed, there have already been several news stories of persons being conceived—artificially or naturally—as potential organ donors for their siblings. If that’s not using a human being as a commodity, I don’t know what is. It’s certainly not “loving all persons as God loves them.” Another, unavoidable issue resulting from IVF is the huge number of fertilized embryos stored unused in labs all over the world—and now the target of proposals for destructive stem cell research.

How do we convey to our students the fundamental humanity—because humans are made in the image of God and not of Dr. Frankenstein—of loving one another as God loves us rather than as science or technology loves us? That, fundamentally, is what your congregation and mine are about, Brothers. If we succeed at that, then we have indeed succeeded in our apostolic ministry. If we fail, then the number of accountants, MBAs, athletes, doctors, scientists, or whatever who come from our schools won’t matter much. For, in the end, “faith, hope, and love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).

[1] General audience, Dec. 7: CNS news brief, 12/7/05.
[2] John Carey, “Why they march,” Washington Times, 1/23/06.
[3] Suzanne Fields, “When society celebrates suicide,” Washington Times, 1/23/06.
[4] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation: Replies to Certain Questions of the Day,” 2/22/87.

Feast of Don Bosco

Feast of Don Bosco
We've already begun to celebrate the feast of St. John Bosco (Don Bosco) with Evening Prayer I. (For the Salesian Family, the feast holds the rank of a solemnity, which--in liturgical terms--means that it begins with "1st Vespers" and the Mass has 3 readings and Creed.)

Catholic News Agency has a nice piece, and short, on him today:

In the photo, DB is seated in the center of the Oratory band. One of the priests to his left (as we look at it) is Fr. John Cagliero, a very accomplished musician who in 1875 would lead the 1st group of SDB missionaries (they went to Buenos Aires, thence to Patagonia) and in 1884 would become the 1st SDB bishop and in 1915 the 1st SDB cardinal.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Fr. Frank Wolfram, SDB

Fr. Frank Wolfram, SDB (1932-2012)

Fr. Francis “Frank” Raymond Wolfram, SDB, died at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx early on the evening of January 25, 2012, after a long bout with cancer. The disease was first diagnosed in 2005 and recurred in May 2011. He was 79 years old and had been a Salesian of Don Bosco for more than 60 years and a priest for more than 49 years.

Fr. Frank was secretary of the New Rochelle Province of the Salesians and a member of the provincial residence community in New Rochelle from September 2004 until his death.

Fr. Frank was born to Frederick and Catherine Wolfram on March 18, 1932, and raised in Riverside, N.J., where the family belonged to St. Peter’s Church and Frank was baptized within a month of birth and confirmed at age 11. He attended St. Peter’s Elementary School in Riverside for eight years.

While he was a junior in high school, he had what was truly a chance encounter with Don Bosco. As he told the story, he was walking on the street near home one day when the wind blew a piece of paper against his leg. He picked it up and discovered a Salesian vocation flyer, “The Voice of Don Bosco.” He responded to it and received a personal reply from the vocation director at Don Bosco Seminary in Newton. That personal reply led to a visit to the Salesian school in Goshen, where Fr. Joseph Stella was a deep impression on him. Upon his graduation from Camden Catholic High School in May 1949, Frank applied to the seminary, which he entered in September 1949 as a Son of Mary (“late vocation”).

Frank was admitted to the novitiate at Newton the following year; his master of novices was Fr. Attilio Giovannini. He began his preaching career in May 1951 with a sermonette entitled “Mary, Queen of Apostles.” He made his first profession of vows on September 8, 1951, and became Bro. Frank Wolfram.

At Don Bosco College Bro. Frank was much involved in dramatics as well as in more academic pursuits. After his graduation (magna cum laude) in 1954, he did his practical training as a teacher at Salesian High School in New Rochelle (1954-1956), Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey (1956-1957), and Don Bosco Tech in Paterson (1957-1958). He didn’t explain why he had four years of training instead of the usual three.

Bro. Frank began his theological studies at the Salesians’ Theologate of St. Thomas Aquinas in Aptos, Calif., in 1958. When that institution was closed in 1960, Bro. Frank was only halfway through the program of studies. According to his telling of the story, Fr. Felix Penna, the provincial, assigned the theology students to their new schools without asking them where they would like to go. Seeing Bro. Frank’s German name, he assumed that he knew some German and so designated him for the Salesians’ Philosophisch-Theologische Hochschule at Benediktbeuern, Germany. In fact, Bro. Frank didn’t know a word of German, was the only English-speaking student at Benediktbeuern, and had to learn the language by immersion. His knowledge of German later proved useful not only for teaching it at the high school level but also for preaching, confessions, and ministry at the German and Austrian consulates in New York City.

At Benediktbeuern Bro. Frank proved to be a valuable liaison with U.S. soldiers stationed at Bad Tölz, obtaining their help, for instance, in getting a basketball court built for the theologians. He, in turn, offered them lectures on the art of the monastery of Benediktbeuern, parts of which date back to the eighth century (it was founded by St. Boniface). Years later, Fr. Frank enjoyed telling the story of his first encounter with the soldiers, who admired his mastery of English and wondered where he had learned it.

At Benediktbeuern, Fr. Frank earned a master’s degree in theology and was ordained on June 29, 1962, by Bishop Josef Freundorfer of Augsburg.

Most of Fr. Frank’s priestly life was spent in the province’s schools: Salesian High School in New Rochelle (teacher and catechist 1962-1964, vice principal and principal 1966-1973, director 1978-1980), Don Bosco Tech in Boston (dean of students 1964-1966), St. Dominic Savio High School in East Boston (teacher 1973-1974), Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero (principal 1974-1978), LaSalle High School in Miami (principal 1985-1990), Don Bosco Technical High School in Paterson (teacher 1990-1991), and Mary Help of Christians School in Tampa (director 1994-1997). He was a skilled teacher of religion, English, German, and world history at all levels of high school.

While he was principal in New Rochelle, Salesian High reached its peak enrollment of 567 boys, and Fr. Frank also noted with pride that, unlike some other Catholic schools in the area, Salesian never had to close because of student unrest in the late 1960s. He maintained relationships with many of the alumni for years, which he happily refreshed annually at the President’s Dinners, and he took pleasure in looking after “Diego’s Boys” (see E-Service 12/15/11)—many of them Salesian alumni—while he was at the provincial house in recent years.

During his directorship of Salesian High, Fr. William Keane was principal. He observes that Fr. Frank’s “fairness and love for the teachers as well as the students made my task that much easier. You could tell that he loved to teach. His students loved him and many returned to wish him well and recall the ‘old days.’ Some of the guys who at times found themselves in trouble were probably his best admirers. He knew when to set them straight.”

The current principal of Salesian High, John Flaherty, pays tribute to Father Wolfram as his mentor: “I had the great fortune of starting my teaching career when Fr. Frank was the prefect of studies in the ’60s. He was the man in full control of every aspect of school life. His energy was boundless. and he seemed to be everywhere at the same time. He shepherded his flock of young men intensely, and many of them have remained life-long friends. How fortunate I was that he also found the time to mentor his young staff. The blueprint he provided for us helped us to get where we are today. Proudly, I continue many of the practices that Fr. Frank started so many years ago. His legacy has become our traditions at Salesian High School.”

Salesian High honored Fr. Frank thrice, in 1984 as its first honorary alumnus, in 2003 with its Distinguished Faculty Award, and in 2005 with the St. Francis de Sales Award for Outstanding Service.

When he was a junior at Don Bosco Tech in Paterson in 1990-1991, Fr. Abe Feliciano had Fr. Frank as his theology teacher. He writes: “He…was one of my favorite teachers. He really ignited in us (the students) a greater love for Jesus, the Paschal Mystery and the continued presence of Christ among us.”

Having earned a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision (with distinction) at Boston College (1975), he served as the province’s superintendent of schools from 1979 to 1985. He also served on the provincial council in those years. Fr. Frank took additional courses in education at Fordham and Tulane universities. His practical ability as teacher and supervisor of instruction is indicated also by his having earned certifications in Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York based on both his education and his experience.

A long letter from Alvin L. Murphy, associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans to Fr. Sam Isgro, the provincial, in 1976 testifies that he was “an outstanding administrator” who had “given a new and exciting direction to Archbishop Shaw High School,” enabling the school to make “great strides academically.” After noting many particulars concerning both students and faculty, Mr. Murphy wrote, “We…appreciate your assigning a man of such a caliber to Archbishop Shaw High School and we want to assure you that we could not be more pleased with Father Frank.”

Fr. Frank’s peers within the New Orleans Archdiocese, too, recognized his abilities, choosing him to serve a term as chairman of the Catholic Secondary Principals Association. He also belonged to the Archdiocesan Administrators Workshop and the Archdiocesan Finance Committee and served on the steering committee for the Archdiocesan Youth Rally at the Superdome in 1977. The Louisiana State Senate made him an honorary senator in 1976.

Fr. Frank was the first Salesian principal of the archdiocese of Miami’s LaSalle High School when the province agreed to take over its administration in 1985. It presented a different set of challenges as a co-ed school (with far more girls than boys), predominantly Cuban-Americans, and formerly run by a lay administration. Led by Fr. Frank, the Salesians quickly brought a Salesian style and spirit to the staff and students and deepened the school’s spiritual and sacramental life.

Fr. Steve Shafran holds a doctorate in education and is president of Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md. He is grateful for all that he learned from Fr. Frank. He writes: “I have been blessed to have had Frank Wolfram as a mentor and example, especially of Salesian education at different times in my Salesian life. His hardworking ethic, German precision and love for the Preventive System have been among some of the great qualities that come to mind. I was struck by how much he loved music, theater and literature, and it was from him that I learned more of Don Bosco’s love of the arts.”

Fr. Shafran notes that Fr. Frank sought a balance between the rapport demanded by Don Bosco’s educational approach and “the importance of the educator’s strong preparation and lesson planning for classes.” In his own teaching experience, Fr. Shafran found success from “borrowing” from Fr. Frank’s “excellent notes and lessons plans.”

Fr. Frank was director of the provincial residence in New Rochelle twice (1982-1985, 2005-2008) and of the Salesian Center in Columbus, Ohio (1991-1994), where he guided the students of theology, their pastoral ministries, and the Salesian Boys & Girls Club. His service in the field of Salesian formation also included preaching retreats to novices and giving courses in Scripture, Salesian history, and Salesian education to novices and prenovices.

Fr. Abe recalls beginning his novitiate in 1997 with one of Fr. Frank’s retreats: “It remains to this day one of the best retreats I’ve ever experienced in my Salesian life, and was a constant point of reference throughout my novitiate year.”

A member of the Don Bosco Volunteers secular institute wrote, “How I love the retreats that he gave us—down-to-earth, clear, full of spiritual gems that surely helped us to understand and live better our way of life as consecrated seculars.”

As a novice in 2008-2009, Bro. Paul Chu found Fr. Frank to be “a great teacher…. I enjoyed listening to his teachings on the Preventive System. He was kind, gentle, and always attentive to our needs.”

As regards the Preventive System, Fr. Frank told Fr. Shafran that it was part of who he was. “The Preventive System is our spirituality; it’s the way we have to live.”

At one period Fr. Frank chaired the province’s Formation Commission. Bro. Tom Sweeney served with him and paints a vintage portrait of him: “His meetings were very precise, well organized and right to the point. You knew he did his homework in preparing the necessary information and materials so that when a decision had to be made, you had all the necessary info to make the right decision. He always took the meetings very seriously and expected you to do the same. Though I do not care for meetings, I kind of look forward to his because of his excellent organization and preparation.”

He took part in nine provincial chapters, either ex-officio or by election, between 1980 and 2007.

For seven years Fr. Frank preached adult retreats at Don Bosco Retreat Center in Haverstraw (1997-2004), and until his final illness he remained a popular retreat preacher for both religious and parishes with constant requests for a weeklong or a weekend retreat for various groups. In fact, preaching retreats and parish missions was a staple of his long priestly ministry; the present writer first encountered him when he preached the mid-year retreat to the aspirants in Goshen in the winter of 1964.

As a spiritual director and confessor, he was a compassionate listener who was able to bring his broad experience to the assistance of penitents and counselees.

Fr. George Harkins’s “fondest memories of Fr. Frank will be his cheerfulness, his diligent devotion to duty and his ever-ready welcome which made you feel special.”

“Frank was a faithful, dedicated Salesian and priest and a wonderful man to have known,” Father David Moreno said.

Throughout his priestly years he enjoyed assisting in local parishes on weekends, including Holy Name of Jesus in New Rochelle; St. Boniface in Wesley Hills, N.Y.; St. Augustine in Larchmont, N.Y.; St. Michael in Greenwich, Conn.; St. Agnes in Key Biscayne, Fla.; St. Anthony in Columbus; St. Mary in Tampa. He took great care to celebrate the liturgy as Don Bosco insisted it be done, pie, devote, attente (“fervently, devoutly, attentively”—see BM 7:317), which parishioners, Salesians, and other religious alike very much appreciated. One of his last contributions to community life at the provincial house was a series of talks on the upcoming revised Roman Missal—as series that he never completed.

Fr. Frank blessing the creche in the provincial residence chapel in 2006

He was “a superb homilist,” Claudia McDonnell, a parishioner of St. Augustine, wrote in Catholic New York (March 24, 2011). She amplified that in a recent communication: “Father Frank was among the best homilists I’ve ever listened to. He always had a point to make or a message to convey, and he spoke in a way that made it easy to follow his line of thought. He went straight to the heart of the matter. Sometimes he used humor, sometimes he was very serious, but no matter what he said, he could hold a congregation’s attention in the palm of his hand. He always left you with something you could take away with you and think about. I’ll never forget the way he closed every homily, with a pause and then a quiet ‘May God bless you.’ He was an outstanding priest, and I doubt that anyone whose life he touched will ever forget him.”

Anne Silo, a parishioner at Holy Name of Jesus in New Rochelle, succinctly affirms that: “When he was director at Salesian High School, [his] Mass at Holy Name was packed because he gave terrific homilies.”

Fr. Frank is survived by two sisters, Margaret Picklo of Delran, N.J., and Mary Bernadette Kavanaugh of Dallas, Texas; a brother, Michael of Moorestown, N.J.; a sister-in-law, Mae Wolfram of Westmont, N.J.; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces, and grandnephews. Two brothers, Joseph and Anthony, died earlier.

Fr. Frank was waked in the chapel of Salesian High School in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Friday, January 27. The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at St. Augustine Church in Larchmont, N.Y., on January 28. Fr. Tom Dunne presided, and Fr. Jim Heuser preached. Fr. Frank was buried in the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen.

Silence and World

Silence and Word
Path of Evangelization

This summary of the papal message for WCD 2012 was published Jan. 24 by ANS:

The centrality of the human person in the processes of communication and the balance necessary between the word and silence: these are the themes in Pope Benedict XVI’s message for the 46th World Communications Day. According to custom, the Holy Father issued his message on January 24, feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of journalists. The message was presented at a press conference by Abp. Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, and other officials of the Pontifical Council.

Each year in his message the Pope analyses the culture of communication in order to offer relevant suggestions to people and to guide the Church’s pastoral activity. In recent years Pope Benedict has given a great deal of attention to the processes and dynamics of communication, especially in the context of the cultural transformation brought about by technological development. In his message for 2012 the Holy Father turns his attention to a “classic” element of communication: the link between silence and word. Even though a classical one, this aspect is becoming ever more important in the context of the digital culture.

In his messages during the last three years, Benedict XVI has considered the dimensions and the potentials of the new technologies and the digital world. This year he goes to a deeper level in regard to communication, recalling the need for silence to be integrated with words “if authentic dialog and deep closeness between people are to be achieved.” Silence and word are “two aspects of communication which need to be kept in balance, to alternate and be integrated with each other.” Expression, in which a person says something about himself, cannot be the only thing that matters, since it is only in moments of silence that a person listens to another and allows a full human relationship to exist.

In man’s heart there is a constant restlessness, the Pope observes – a search that is expressed through questions about meaning: “Men and women cannot rest content with a superficial and unquestioning exchange of skeptical opinions and experiences of life. All of us are in search of truth.” Today through social networks and new technologies the continuous exchange of ideas between individuals is encouraged, but “people today are frequently bombarded with answers to questions they have never asked and to needs of which they were unaware. If we are to recognize and focus upon the truly important questions, then silence is a precious commodity that enables us to exercise proper discernment in the face of the surcharge of stimuli and data that we receive.” Silence “helps people to rediscover themselves and that Truth which gives meaning to all things,” i.e., God.

“For this to happen, it is necessary to develop an appropriate environment, a kind of ‘eco-system’ that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images, and sounds.” In this area the Pope is well aware of the opportunities offered by digital technologies, when he seems to make a clear reference to Twitter: “In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives.” Perhaps this is also a reference to the comments made by bishops and theologians about their use of social media to encourage reflection by the public.

The final part of the Pope’s message is devoted to education in communication, a task to which those who use communication are called: “Learning to communicate is learning to listen and contemplate as well as to speak. This is especially important for those engaged in the task of evangelization: both silence and word are essential elements, integral to the Church’s work of communication for the sake of a renewed proclamation of Christ in today’s world.”

Abp. Celli made the point that this message finds its place between two synods, that on the Word held October 5-26, 2008, and that on evangelization, planned for October 7-28, 2012. In addition, Pope Benedict’s words direct people’s attention to the issue of the clamor of modern-day communication.

World Communications Day is the only world celebration for which Vatican Council II expressed its desire (in the decree Inter mirifica, 1963). It’s celebrated in almost all countries according to a decision of the bishops on the Sunday before Pentecost.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

St. Francis de Sales, Model of Humanism

St. Francis de Sales
Model of the Humanism of Don Bosco

and Every Salesian

At Salesian HQ in Rome this a.m., Fr. Pascual Chavez, Rector Major, preached on St. Francis de Sales as a model for all Salesians. This report comes from ANS.

On the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of the Salesian Society and the entire Salesian Family, the Rector Major presided at Mass in the Generalate’s church. In his homily Fr. Chavez recalled the person and the qualities of the “learned humanist, great spiritual director, and generous pastor” who inspired Don Bosco and his humanism, with a reflection on the source of the Salesian charism. He presented him as “a model of pastoral zeal, of loving kindness, of trusting humanism, and of holy enterprise.”

In spite of changed times, historically and culturally, St. Francis de Sales “was and continues to be a sound master of the spiritual life, rich in a wisdom that comes from on high. He was all things to all men in his pastoral charity, engaged in ‘restoring unity among believers in charity and peace.’”

For Salesians, Don Bosco’s successor said, “celebrating the feast of St. Francis is an invitation to work in all situations of life with that kind, patient, and active love, so as to fill with a Christian spirit all ecclesial, social, political, economic, and cultural structures to make them more human.”

Fr. Chavez pointed out the great determination that St. Francis showed in following his vocation and his great devotion as a pastor. “Through his manifold activities he educated the Christian people and showed them that holiness was achievable in any and every state of life and that holiness gives rise to different forms of spirituality.”

In spite of his untiring activity, the bishop of Geneva found time for a voluminous correspondence and for writing masterful books of spiritual guidance: The Introduction to the Devout Life, the Treatise on the Love of God, the Spiritual Conferences, and much more.

For Salesians Fr. Chavez said, St. Francis de Sales is a model on which to base oneself for good manners, kindness, and meekness with everyone. Quoting article 17 of the Salesian Constitutions, the Rector Major recalled how the Salesian “believes in man's natural and supernatural resources without losing sight of his weakness. He is able to make his own what is good in the world and does not bewail his own times; he accepts all that is good, especially if it appeals to the young. Because he is a herald of the Good News he is always cheerful. He radiates this joy and is able to educate to a Christian and festive way of life: ‘Let us serve the Lord in holy joy.’”

St. Francis de Sales is a person to be rediscovered and appreciated, especially in this first year of the three-year period of preparation for the bicentennial of Don Bosco’s birth. “Let us ask from the Lord the grace to discover and make our own the great virtues of St. Francis de Sales, those which led our Father to choose him as his and our model,” the Rector Major said.

The full text of the homily, available only in Italian, can be found at

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Homily for 3d Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
3d Sunday

in Ordinary Time
Jan. 22, 2012
Jonah 3: 1-5, 10
Mark 1: 14-20
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah, saying: ‘Set out for the great city of Nineveh, and announce to it the message that I will tell you” (Jon 3: 1).

In the Collect today we prayed that Almighty God “direct our actions according to [his] good pleasure.” The story of Jonah is an extended parable of human actions that accord with God’s “good pleasure.”

You’re familiar with the basic story of Jonah. Altho the book is listed among the prophetic books, it would more properly be called a wisdom book. It’s fiction—an extended parable, as I said, presenting to us divine wisdom, divine truth, in a story form that we can easily understand, much as Jesus used when telling us about a prodigal son, a good Samaritan, a farmer casting seed in his field, or a woman making bread.

In this very short book—4 chapters totaling 48 verses—God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn them of imminent doom because of their wickedness. Jonah doesn’t want to do that and takes off in the opposite direction. (No one in his right mind wants to be a prophet, of course. Nineveh, furthermore, was the capital of Assyria; the Assyrians were the hated and feared mortal enemies of Israel and of everyone else in the ancient Middle East.) A ferocious storm overtakes Jonah’s ship, the sailors appease God by throwing Jonah overboard, and a great big fish (there’s no whale mentioned) swallows him up. In the fish’s belly Jonah prays repentantly to God, the fish spits him ashore, and God tells him again to go to Nineveh—that’s our reading this evening. He goes this time, the Ninevites repent, and Jonah gets ticked off because God relents and doesn’t carry out the doom he’d threatened against the city. Jonah had rather been looking forward to watching the fire and brimstone. So God speaks to Jonah again, chastising him and explaining his compassion.

Jonah being cast overboard into the fish's maw: stone carving in the cathedral of St. Mary at Tournai, Belgium

What’s going on in this story is that God’s making known his “good pleasure,” to use the phrase from the Collect. And that “good pleasure” is that sinners should repent and be saved. To that end he sends Jonah on mission—to preach repentance. Jonah’s mission is a very particular expression of God’s “good pleasure.” In his compassion God even gives Jonah a 2d chance to carry out the divine will and assist the Ninevites in coming into line with God. God really desires that people be saved! He desires that everyone, even Israel’s mortal enemies, be saved. He’s extraordinarily patient with great groups of people, like the large city of Nineveh, and with particular individuals, like Jonah.

When the Ninevites repent of their sins—whatever they were, we’re not told, but the ancient Hebrew audience probably would understand them to be idolatry, warlike aggression, cruelty, sexual promiscuity—they take action, evidently more than fasting and putting on sackcloth. The sacred writer says, “They turned from their evil ways” (3:10). Genuine repentance, acting in accordance with God’s “good pleasure” rather than displeasing him, is implied, altho we’re not given any details beyond the outward symbols of their revised frame of mind—the sackcloth and the fasting.

What matters is that God gave the Ninevites a chance to repent and they took advantage of that chance. God was pleased with their change of heart—more than a change of heart, also a change of behavior!—and he bestowed salvation on them (as the Jews understood salvation at that time, viz., well-being in this life—in this case, no fire and brimstone).

God’s salvation is also the message in our gospel reading. The very 1st words out of Jesus’ mouth in Mark’s Gospel are: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand” (1:15). That is, God is about to open up the path of salvation, the way to eternal life. Jesus continues by revealing how one gets onto that path: “Repent, and believe in the gospel” (1:15). That is, turn away from your sins, your evil behavior, just as the Ninevites did. In fact, in a controversy later on with the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus will hold up the Ninevites as examples of a proper response to the word of God: “At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Matt 12:38,41).

“Repent” was John the Baptist’s message: confess your sins and change your behavior, e.g. by giving alms to the poor, respecting the rights of others, carrying out your own responsibilities (cf. Luke 3:10-14). Jesus’ message builds on that: sorrow for sin and a resolve to follow the Gospel, follow his own teaching about how much God loves us and how we are to share that love with everyone, even our enemies (cf. Nineveh!). Salvation comes not from our good deeds but from the Father’s forgiveness of our evil deeds and his empowering us—thru the Holy Spirit—to act like his children, to act like his Son. God’s “good pleasure” is still that people turn from evil and its consequences, and that we allow him to redeem us in Christ: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus calling the disciples at the lakefront, by an unknown artist

Jesus’ announcement that the time is ripe, that God’s power is present—how do we hear that now? How is the path opened up for us, too, to find our way to the kingdom of God? Jesus chose apostles, as God had chosen Jonah, to deliver the message of repentance and redemption. In the gospel this evening we hear Jesus starting to make those apostolic choices: “Come after me, come with me: and I will make you fishers of men; I will send you out on mission” (Mark 1:17). It’s God’s “good pleasure” that the Good News be preached everywhere thru all ages, that men and women be caught in the nets of God’s love by this new form of fishing. It’s God’s “good pleasure” that, like his beloved Son Jesus, “we may abound in good works,” as the Collect says; abound in deeds that reveal the kingdom of God present in our hearts, that reveal the mysteries of divine grace transforming us from sinners into saints. The Gospel announced to all the nations of the earth after Jesus’ earthly ministry by Simon and Andrew, by James and John, by their successors thru the ages into our own time by Benedict XVI and Abp. Tim Dolan—that Gospel continues to reveal God’s “good pleasure,” continues to reveal the kind of heart and the kinds of behavior that please God, the kind of heart and the kinds of behavior that closely resemble those of his beloved Son. And that Gospel continues to invite us to repent, to believe, to be converted, to be saved.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Homily for 2d Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
2d Sunday of
Ordinary Time
Jan. 15, 2012
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.
"The Earthly Paradise" by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c. 1615

“You govern all things in heaven and on earth: bestow your peace on our times” (Collect).

The campaigning is well underway, as we all know. People are telling us how they think the country should be governed and how the country should or should not wield its power beyond our borders. These are important matters with which Christians must be concerned as part of our rendering unto Caesar and as part of our concern for the common good of humanity.

But the Collect of today’s Mass isn’t about all that. It addresses not a politician or statesman but the Governor of the universe: him who made it and continues to order it and is, finally, its reason for being, its purpose in life, so to say.

One strand of philosophy holds that God the Creator is quite detached from his creation. The image of a clockmaker is often used: God makes the universe as the craftsman builds a clock, and sets it running according to the designed mechanisms, and then he has no further involvement in its operation; it just runs merrily along.

That’s not how the Bible sees it, nor our Christian tradition. “Who is this whom even wind and sea obey?” (Mark 4:41), the disciples exclaim in astonishment, almost in disbelief, after witnessing the power of Jesus over nature. Jesus’ own life is the example par excellence of God’s personal interest in his created world, his concern for its well-being: “And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14).

The Bible and the Christian tradition teach us that God does indeed govern all things in heaven and on earth: not only thru the remote, impersonal laws of nature, but even thru personal interest and intervention—in ways that we, of course, don’t understand. We don’t know why some nations and some people are favored, and some appear not to be; why natural disasters strike so many places; why the Lord apparently permits so many terrible human choices to devastate the lives of so many people, e.g. thru war and its related effects, thru AIDS, thru family and social breakdown. We don’t know why God allows “bad things to happen to good people,” including even his very own Son, whom “good people” doesn’t begin to describe.

Nor do we know why God intervenes from time to tome with miracles, often thru the intercession of the saints.

So it is an act of faith, or a statement of faith, for us to maintain that the Lord “governs all things in heaven and on earth,” that somehow what happens works for his glory and our welfare—which is one of St. Paul’s professions of faith: “We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:28,31). Whatever is wrong in the universe, whether thru the working of nature, thru the working of human weakness, or thru the working of human malice, God will govern into a right order in the end, as he did in vindicating the injustices done to his own Son, in raising the Lord Jesus to heavenly glory.

Our prayer, however, doesn’t want to wait on heavenly glory for our well-being. We beg the Governor of the universe, “mercifully hear the pleading of your people and bestow your peace on our times”—bestow peace now! Fulfill what you promised when the Savior was born: “peace to people of good will” (Gloria).

The catalog of wars, insurrections, terrorism, international tensions, civil unrest, organized criminal violence, human trafficking, street crime, domestic violence, discrimination seems limitless. And none of that’s anything new; it’s as old as the story of Cain and Abel. How we yearn for deliverance, for Someone greater, more beneficent, more powerful than ourselves to intervene and defend us! Isn’t that the constant prayer of the Psalmist? “O Lord, hear my prayer, and let my cry come to you. All the day my enemies revile me” (102:2,9). “You have made the Most High your stronghold. No evil shall befall you, nor shall affliction come near your tent” (91:9-10). “O God, do not remain unmoved; be not silent, O God, and be not still! Against your people [your enemies] plot craftily; they conspire against those whom you protect” (83:2,4). So our Collect invokes the “Almighty and ever-living God.”

We plead for “peace on our times.” We need to pray constantly for peace and good order within our society and between peoples. Paul commands that as part of our Christian duty on behalf of mankind: “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity” (1 Tim 2:1-2). This is part of our role as Christians, as the soul within the body of humanity, as some of the Fathers of the Church expressed it; we’re the spiritual glue that holds society together, thru our prayer and our good example of peace and good order.

In our times, obviously more democratic than Paul’s time, we Christians also have a responsibility to act on behalf of peace and good order, to take active parts in civil life, to vote, to make our voices heard on behalf of the common good of the nation and of all peoples. In this sense, we are God’s agents in the governance of “all things,” his viceroys, following the original plan of Genesis, in which God gave men and women dominion over all he had created (1:26,28) and charged us “to cultivate and care for” creation (2:15).

In exercising that responsibility, of course, we need divine help. Our prayer that the “almighty and ever-living God bestow peace on our times” includes a plea that he assist us in our working for peace as well as that he influence the hearts and minds of those who actually wield power.

Our prayer for peace has another meaning, as well. Peace isn’t only something external, the state of relations between nations or the good order of our civil life. It’s also something internal, the state of our individual hearts. As part of our Communion rite at every Mass, we pray, “Deliver us, O Lord, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress.” That prayer refers to communal affairs, but also to personal ones, our personal sins, our personal concerns, our distress. We seek the peace of heart that comes from being in a good relationship with the Creator, thru the redemptive power of our Lord Jesus, and in good relationships with all the people in our lives. Our prayer for peace includes prayers that we be forgiven our sins, that we be empowered to forgive others, that we be able to live in harmony and tranquility with our brothers in community, our students, our spouses, our children, our parents, our employers and employees, with everyone whose lives we touch. This is more than we can do on our own, given our human frailties. So we invoke, we plead with, him “who governs all things” for his assistance—confident that he will hear us because he does want our good, does want our salvation.

That is, after all, why he gave us his only Son, and his Son remains with us in the Word of God, in the sacrament of Reconciliation, in the Eucharist, which our Prayer over the Offerings today will refer to as “these mysteries” that both “celebrate” and “accomplish the work of our redemption.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Homily for Solemnity of Epiphany

Homily for the
Solemnity of the Epiphany

Jan. 8, 2012
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

The Magi, by Tissot

“You revealed your Only Begotten Son to the nations by the guidance of a star. Grant that we who know you already by faith may be brought to behold the beauty of your sublime glory” (Collect).

The Collect on this solemn feastday alludes to the sacred Scriptures, to the modes of revelation, and to the depths of our knowledge of God.

The Scriptures. God reveals his Son by the guidance of a star. The gospel reading of course tells how the magi, the wise men of the Gentile world, found Jesus by following a new star (Matt 2:1-2). The star over Bethlehem of Judea, in Matthew’s telling of the story, is an echo of the star seen in the prophecy of Balaam—a pagan, a Gentile—in the Book of Numbers, in which he saw a star advancing from Jacob, a ruler’s staff rising out of Israel (24:17). Thus did God announce the future coming of his “son” David, and thus does Matthew link Jesus with his ancestor David, as well as in the prophecy of Micah (5:1) that the chief priests and scribes quote to King Herod (Matt 2:4-6). God’s Son continues to come, and to speak to us, in the Scriptures, pointing out the ways of discipleship, the ways of salvation.

Revelation. The stars have been reliable guides to travelers and navigators for millennia. Astrophysicists today find in them—as I understand it—evidence of the beginnings of our vast universe. These are forms of revelation. The star that rose over Bethlehem and led the magi to Jesus “revealed to the nations” God’s Son, pointed him out to peoples who till then had no knowledge of the One God and no access to him. We have no such physical star; instead we have something more reliable: faith. Faith in Jesus, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham—as Matthew announced him in the 1st verse of his gospel—the Savior conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit (1:20), leads us to God more surely, more definitively, than the magi’s star. That star, strangely, was noticed only by those few foreigners, and not by those closest at hand, Jesus’ own people. Our faith makes salvation accessible to the whole world. But it will avail us only if we’re ready to see it and to follow it.

Knowledge. Our faith gives us knowledge of the Father thru our knowledge of the Son, thru the Scriptures that reveal the Son to us, thru the apostolic preaching that conveys the teaching of Jesus, thru the sacraments that make the “mystery of faith” present and active in our lives. But the Collect points us toward something grander: “beholding the beauty of your sublime glory.” The Latin clause reads, ad contemplandam speciem tuae celsitudinis (I’m sure that enlightened you!)—in which you see "contemplation" hinted at—not just “beholding” but becoming thoroughly engrossed in; or, as one dictionary puts it, “prayer in which reasoning and structure give way to a simple focus on God’s presence”* The object of the “beholding” or “contemplation” for which we long is the speciem tuae celsitudinis, literally “the outward appearance” or “the beautiful form,” particularly “the beauty of the face” “of your heights” or “of your exaltation”—celsitudo seems to be rooted in caelum, “heaven.” You’ll recall that various psalms speak of our longing to see God’s face, that the friendship between God and Moses was so intimate that they spoke to each other face to face (Ex 33:11), that St. John foretells an indescribable destiny for God’s children “when we shall see God as he is” (1 John 3:2). This “exalted height” or “sublime glory” of God in all his beauty, all his splendor, is what our hearts long for, the knowledge of God in himself.

And it begins, only begins, to be revealed in this infant born in Bethlehem of Judea. But if we faithfully follow that infant, God’s Son, we shall see and know him in depth too great for words, contemplating, absorbing, soaking in, basking in his beauty and his joy forever and ever.
* Philip Sheldrake, “contemplation,” in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard McBrien (San Francisco, 1995), p. 364.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Homily for Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God

Homily for the Solemnity
of Mary, Mother of God

Jan. 1, 2012
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“O God, thru the fruitful virginity of Blessed Mary you bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation” (Collect).

Those of us of a certain age—which means anyone my age and older, which means very few of you—remember when Jan. 1 was a feast called “The Circumcision of Our Lord and the Octave Day of Christmas.” The gospel reading for today is identical with that of the 2d Mass of Christmas Day, except for adding a verse about circumcising and naming Jesus on the 8th day after his birth, i.e., today, the “octave day.”

But after the 2d Vatican Council (1962-65, before most of you were born), it became a solemn feast dedicated to the Virgin Mary, specifically as Mother of God. And then Pope Paul VI began the custom of celebrating Jan. 1 as World Day of Peace, a day of praying for world peace, peace among nations and between peoples, and committing ourselves to work for peace.

Add in that Jan. 1 is for most societies the beginning of the civil year—and you have a grand hodge-podge of observances, and elements of all them find their way into the liturgy.

The opening prayer of Mass on Jan. 1 notes that God bestowed on the human race the grace of eternal salvation thru Mary, who was both virgin and mother according to God’s plan. God offers his salvation to the whole human race, and his offer is a grace, a freely offered gift. It’s not something you or I have earned or have any proper claim on, like an inheritance, a salary, or an entitlement. Since God doesn’t owe us sinners anything, we can hardly begrudge what he gives to someone else as well as to us. We can hardly be unhappy that God restores human dignity and offers his love to everyone—man, woman, child, of whatever race or nationality, of every period of human history, rich or poor, immigrant or native, smart or mentally impaired, healthy or sick, born or still in the womb (make any other distinction that you want).

This universal dignity of human beings flows from what God has done for us thru Jesus Christ, the son of the Virgin Mary. By becoming a human being, the Eternal Son of God bestowed upon humanity a new dignity, or restored to humanity the dignity that God originally intended when he created men and women in his own image—an image that we mar and tarnish and distort by sin. That dignity is in fact the theme that Pope Benedict has chosen for this year’s 45th World Day of Peace. He titles his message, “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace,” and he outlines a program for teaching the young that human dignity is the path to justice and to peace.

“Education,” the Pope says, “is the most interesting and difficult adventure in life.”* You’ve all gone to school, so you know what that means. When you remember that Benedict was himself an educator, a university professor, for many years, you realize further that he knows what he’s talking about.

The 1st place where education takes place, tho, isn’t in the university or in any sort of classroom. The Holy Father reaffirms what the Church has always taught: “Parents are the first educators. The family is the primary cell of society. It is in the family that children learn the human and Christian values which enable them to have a constructive and peaceful coexistence. It is in the family that they learn solidarity between the generations, respect for rules, forgiveness, and how to welcome others. The family is the first school in which we are trained in justice and peace” (ibid.). If you reflect upon your own experience growing up, and your own parental experience if you’re a parent, you probably recognize the Holy Father’s wisdom.

The Pope also links justice and peace to the pursuit of truth. He quotes St. Augustine, who asked, “What does man desire more deeply than truth?” (n. 3). The most fundamental truth that we all want to know is: Who are we? What are human beings? What is the purpose of our lives? Benedict answers: “Man is a being who bears within his heart a thirst for the infinite, a thirst for truth—a truth which is not partial but capable of explaining life’s meaning—since he was created in the image and likeness of God. The grateful recognition that life is an inestimable gift, then, leads to the discovery of one’s own profound dignity and the inviolability of every single person. Hence the first step in education is learning to recognize the Creator’s image in man, and consequently learning to have a profound respect for every human being and helping others to live a life consonant with this supreme dignity” (ibid.).

How we live such a life—conscious of our own dignity as redeemed images of God, and respecting that same image in every other person—is what makes us just or unjust, a practicing disciple of the Lord Jesus or a practicing sinner. It is what builds peaceful relations between individuals and between nations. It is the fundamental Christmas message, the message given to you and to me to live as best we can and to hand on to others thru education, perhaps, and certainly thru the witness of our lives.

* “Educating Young People in Justice and Peace,” Jan. 1, 2012, n. 2.

Photo credits(1) Madonna and Child: Your humble blogger, at the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, Washington
(2) Pope Benedict: Catholic News Service