Sunday, October 28, 2012

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
30th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Oct. 28, 2012
Heb 5: 1-6
Ursulines, Willow Drive, New Rochelle

“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins” (Heb 5: 1).

Just for the record, the Greek word translated as “men” here is άνθρωπος, “human being,” in the genitive plural, used twice in the Greek text.  The stress, then, is on the humanity of the high priest.

The Letter to the Hebrews takes as a major theme the priesthood of Jesus Christ, and the 2d part of our reading today gets to that.

Except for a century of independence in the 2d and 1st centuries B.C., the period of the Maccabees, in the Jewish world after the return from the Babylonian Exile, ca. 540 B.C. (our responsorial psalm today reflects the joy of the Jews when they came home), until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., the most important figure was the high priest.  He was both a religious and a political power, and that’s reflected in our Gospels as well as in more secular histories like those of Josephus.

 Hebrews is concerned with the religious figure of the priest.  The 1st 4 verses of our reading today make 4 points:

1. The priest is a human being chosen to represent his fellow human beings before God.  He’s a mediator.

2. He offers gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He offers atonement.

3. Being human, he is himself weak and thus he deals patiently with sinners.  His sin offering or atonement has to be offered for himself as well as for everyone.

4. Only God can choose someone for priesthood.

In our passage, the writer—who is anonymous—takes up that last point 1st, asserting that Christ didn’t “glorify himself” by “becoming high priest”; rather, God (the Father) appointed him to the office.  The writer cites 2 verses from the messianic Ps 110 in support of his assertion.  Elsewhere in the letter he deals with the other 3 points.

We, however, will deal with them now.

In our Christian faith, there is only 1 priest, namely, Jesus Christ.  There is only 1 sacrifice offered for the sins of human beings, namely, Jesus’ sacrifice.  The man who stands before you now, like all other presbyters as well as all bishops, exercises the priesthood of Jesus, offers the sacrifice of Jesus, deals sacramentally with sinners in the name and in the person of Jesus; that’s why he’s called alter Christus, “another Christ.”  “Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers,” St. Thomas teaches, as quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.[1]

Hebrews doesn’t stress the humanity of Jesus the way the First Letter of John does, for instance, because of 1st-century controversies.  Gnostic heresies denied that Jesus was truly human.  Hebrews, tho, stresses Jesus’ identification with us, one who can represent us at God’s throne because he’s one of us, like an ambassador dealing with a foreign government; and one who can sympathize with us and be compassionate with us because he’s one of us.  He knows our weaknesses.  Hebrews says 2 verses before this passage—it was in our reading last week—that he’s been tested in every way that we’re tested, the only difference being that he didn’t fail any tests, didn’t yield to any temptations (4:15), which the Synoptic Gospels also teach us.  And the Gospels show very clearly how patiently and compassionately Christ deals with sinners, with ordinary human beings who have a little bit of good will, who are humbly open to God’s grace.

Christ’s sacrifice for sin, the gift of his own will and his own body, was offered only once, which Hebrews emphasizes in ch. 10.  Today’s passage, citing Ps 110, attributes to him an eternal priesthood:  “You are a priest forever,” immortal after his resurrection and his consecration by God (5:5-6).  Christ’s sacrifice of his body and blood, of his will, of his entire life, culminated on Calvary, and it continues thru his personal, living presence before the Father.  Our Eucharist makes that sacrifice present here—the one, same sacrifice of Calvary; the one, same sacrifice Christ offers continuously to his Father as our representative, in atonement for our sins.

“No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God” (5:4).  Every Christian is called by God to a share in Christ’s priesthood (as well as in his kingship and prophetic office).  Every Catholic Christian takes part in the Eucharistic sacrifice, offering Christ’s body and blood thru the hands of the ministerial priest, and by right, as a Christian priest, partakes of the sacrifice, i.e., eats what has been offered to God as sacred food.

Every Christian is called to offer her body and blood, her will and entire person, to the Father, day in and day out.  St. Paul urges the Church of Rome “to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.  Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind [that would mean “conversion”], that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:1-2).  This self-offering may be a free will offering of praise and humility to God; it may be an atonement offering for our sins.

Shortly after Paul wrote, the Christians of Rome were called upon to offer their bodies as living sacrifices indeed—victims of Nero’s persecution:  living torches lighting up the imperial gardens at nite, food for wild beasts at public entertainments.  Sadly, some Christians are still compelled to offer themselves thus—victims of Communist or Islamist persecutions or defenders of human rights against other oppressive regimes.  Our self-offering might involve nothing more challenging than dragging our bodies out of bed in the morning to rise for God’s service.  It might involve serving another person who needs assistance, no matter how long and tiring our day has been.  It might involve stifling some cutting remark we’re on the verge of making to or about someone.  It might involve saying no when we’ve really had enuf to eat or drink.

So we all have lots of possibilities, beside celebrations of the sacred liturgy, to exercise our share in the priesthood of Jesus, offering gifts and sacrifices for sins, because we have been honored by a divine call.

               [1] CCC n. 1545.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Michael A. Boccardi Memorial Trek-o-ree 2012

The Michael A. Boccardi
Memorial Trek-o-ree
2012 Edition
The annual trek-o-ree of the Algonquin District of the Westchester-Putnam Council of the Boy Scouts of America is dedicated to the memory of Scoutmaster Michael A. Boccardi of Troop Forty, Mount Vernon.  For Algonquin, it's a carry-over from the late Four Rivers District, dissolved in 2010 by the Council with the troops, including T40, folded into neighboring districts.

Mike was a stockbroker with Fred Alger Management, and he worked on the 92d floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  He probably was killed immediately when the 1st plane hit the tower on 9/11.

For a good number of years Mike had organized the Four Rivers trek-o-ree, and done it with the passion that he did everything that involved Scouting.  See  Memorializing him in this fashion is appropriate.

This year's trek took place at Durland Scout Reservation in Putnam Valley on Oct. 20, with most of the troops that took part camping out on Friday and Saturday nites, the 19th-20th.  Nine troops from Mt. Vernon, Bronxville, Yonkers, Pelham, Rye, and Scarsdale took part; perhaps others that I didn't catch sight of.
Some of the troops at morning assembly

As usual, T40 was late getting away from St. Ursula's Church in Mt. Vernon (a "tradition" dating back at least to the Boccardi era, which is as far back as my regular involvement with the troop goes).  We left at 7:40 p.m. on a wet Friday and arrived at our campsite, no. 35, around 9:00 p.m.  We had 11 boys, 2 of them on their very 1st camping trip, and 4 adult Scouters, including yours truly.  We've had lots of practice pitching camp in the dark, and we got that done without any unusual experiences.  Everything was soggy, but at least it wasn't raining.  We got a nice little fire going once camp was set up.  Our campsite wasn't a good one, with very little level ground for pitching tents, and 1 of the 2 picnic tables was damaged.

On Saturday we got up at 7:00.  It was still dreary, so the light was late coming, and I slept (or at least tried to) later than usual; I wound up saying a hasty Mass on the picnic table even as the Scouts were setting up the stoves for breakfast, going "shhhh, shhhh" on the Lord's behalf.

Fortunately, I'd brought along 2 stoves and 2 griddles to supplement what the troop had brought (2 stoves, 2 large frying pans).  So we were able to do our pancakes and sausages pretty quickly.  But the stuff then had to be cleaned, and we had to make our sandwiches for lunch.
Making lunch

We aimed to get to the assembly at the Sperling Center at 9:00 a.m.  I gather that not many troops made it on time; we certainly didn't.  I think the rites must have started at 9:30, a few moments before we did get there.  The 9 troops were divided into 15 patrols of 5-8 Scouts each for the trek, and 1 or 2 adults went with just about all of the patrols.

Asst. Scoutmasters Louie Antunez and Jariel Felton opted to go shopping for more vittles for supper, leaving me and Asst. Scoutmaster Mike Berman to accompany our 2 patrols.  I asked Mike which one he wanted to go with, and he chosed Tyler Gaines's patrol of 5 Scouts.  I went with David Ford's 6-Scout patrol.  They went one way to start on the Red Trail, and we went the other way--actually starting with the 2 skills stations right at the Sperling Center.
On our way to the Sperling Center, we passed Sperling Pond, where autumn's foliage was fabulous

By starting time, the sun was out gloriously, and we had comfortably warm day, ideal for taking pictures.  The foliage was at its colorful peak.  I took 72 photos, some of which I'll get up here.

The idea of a trek-o-ree is to hike, and along the trail to demonstrate the troop's Scouting skills at various stations set up along the trail.  Each patrol is rated 1-10 points at each station on such merits as the skill itself and Scout spirit.  I think the time taken to complete the hike is also factored when the patrols are ranked and awards presented at day's end.
David's patrol at Kim's game

Last year the trek followed the same course, and several patrols, including the one I was with, had great difficulty finding trail blazes.  We went seriously astray and didn't even complete the hike because it got too late and everyone was totally bushed.  This year, I'm happy to say, the trail was freshly blazed, and very well blazed, and I don't think anyone going in either direction had any trouble following it.

Raising our flag
David's patrol did well or very well at 7 of the 8 stations (archery was a little too challenging; they scored only 4 hits in 10 shots).  We don't know how well they did overall, as they weren't in the top 3 announced in the evening.  (Neither was Tyler's patrol.)  But we all had fun, and of course it was also a learning experience.  Thanks to all the Scouters manning the 8 stations!

At the morning assembly, Mass was announced for 5:00 p.m. at the campfire ring.  Our troop showed up, and 2 other Scouters.  That was it!  Disappointment here.  Apparently all the other troops were busy with supper.  We managed to get in supper after Mass, even with the 10-minute walk back to our site.

Lesson for next occasion (e.g. the spring camp-o-ree):  keep Mass in our own campsite or a neighboring one.  Let whoever comes, come.  Alternative:  have Mass after the evening campfire, when everyone's already eaten and is at a central site (with the downsides of celebrating in the dark, and yours truly possibly being completely wiped out by the day's events).
Our boys play Robin Hood
Stew Walsh questions the patrol about first aid
Below the first aid station was a brook that was a challenge to cross without getting wet or losing one's footing. The patrol ahead of us scouted out possible crossings took 5 minutes to cross.
The knots station became a choke point (a knotty situation?), with 4 patrols there at one point--1 acting and 3 waiting their turns.  David's patrol has a go here.
From knots, down to the road and everyone's favorite part of the hike--lunch!
Back into the woods and up a long, steep hill--and we met Tyler's patrol with Mr. Berman coming the other way.  Rest stop for both patrols.

Our original supper plan was to do tin-foil chicken (with potatoes and carrots).  But we decided that would take too long, so we used our 4 stoves again.  Louie and Jariel had added burgers to the menu.  And we totally forgot to bring out the salad from the cooler.  Even so, we were a few minutes late for the campfire, which began just before 7:30 p.m. (a moment before I got there at 7:30; and thus the opening prayer came about 2 skits into the ritual).

Most of the patrols offered one skit or song, some of them quite entertaining.  Mike Boccardi was remembered twice, in my prayer and in Bill Hopkins's Scoutmaster minute.  Troop 5 Yonkers retired a huge American flag, which was solemnly burned, each patrol taking a section of it and casting it upon the flames.  Then we had Taps and Scout Vespers.
Identifying different trees by their leaves is a head-scratching business
After trying steel on magnesium (extra point if successful), David finally had to resort to a match to get the fire going
David shows the Scouters and his own patrol how to lash a small pole to a larger one

A very successful trek-o-ree.

And may our friend Mike Boccardi enjoy eternal peace with our Lord!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
29th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

This weekend I was out in the Putnam Valley woods with Troop Forty, taking part in the annual Michael A. Boccardi Memorial Trek-o-ree.  I celebrated Mass there, and again this morning at St. Vincent's Hospital, but without a written text for either Mass.  Here's an oldie, then.
Mark 10: 35-45
St. Joseph, Passaic, N.J.
Oct. 22, 2000                 

“The cup that I drink, you will drink” (Mark 10: 39).

You can go into some large bookstores and find a section of books for dummies:  Windows 95 for Dummies, Macintosh for Dummies, even subjects with nothing to do with computers, like Bicycling for Dummies and travel guides for dummies.  At our Sunday liturgies we’ve been reading what we might call “Gospel for Dummies.”  Week after week, Jesus explains some truth about the way to salvation, and the apostles, like dummies, don’t get it.

Five weeks ago, Peter identified Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus made his 1st prediction of his coming passion, death, and resurrection.  Peter said that couldn’t happen to Jesus, and Jesus chewed him out, even calling him “Satan.”

Four weeks ago Jesus made the 2d prediction of his passion, death, and resurrection.  The disciples proceeded to get into an argument among themselves about who was the greatest.  Jesus had to remind them that the greatest among them was the one who served everyone else.

Three weeks ago John was jealous of the apostles’ position as Jesus’ closest followers when he saw someone else driving out demons in Jesus’ name, and Jesus had to admonish him.

Two weeks ago, people were bringing children to Jesus to be blessed, and the apostles were trying to chase them away.  Jesus welcomed the children, blessed them, and reminded the Twelve that we must be like children if we want to enter the kingdom of God.

Last week, when the rich man did not accept Jesus’ invitation to become a disciple, Jesus pointed out that it was close to impossible for people with earthly attachments to be saved; but with God all things were possible.  Peter immediately wanted to know—at least he implied it—what was in it for them who had followed Jesus.  Jesus promises his followers a multitude of new family, and persecution and eternal life.

Between last Sunday’s gospel and today’s we skip a small passage in which Jesus once more predicts his coming passion, death, and resurrection.  Then we come to James and John’s ambition:  “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left” (10:37).  Jesus is talking about serving others, being like a child, suffering and death as the way to eternal life.  They’re asking for power and authority.  And when the other 10 apostles find out that James and John have tried to jump ahead of them, “they became indignant at James and John” (10:41).  They just don’t get it.  So Jesus, infinitely patient with them, as he is with us, has to explain it to them again:  Gospel for dummies.
St. James the Greater, Basilica of Immaculate Conception, Washington

Yes, James and John, like every disciple of Jesus, must drink his cup:  must undergo self-denial, persecution, and suffering, and must finally pass thru death.  Whoever wishes to be great in the Christian community—wishes to be a great Christian—must be “the slave of all” (10:44) in imitation of Jesus himself, who came “to serve and to give his life as a ransom” (10:45).

Talk of suffering and death and service to others is not exactly attractive.  But Jesus has pointed out to us that he has drunk this same cup first:  “Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? …The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (10:38-39).  And in the other 2 readings today we heard about Christ’s suffering.  1st, the prophet Isaiah foretold that the Lord’s Servant would suffer:  “The Lord was pleased to crush him in infirmity.  If he gives his life as an offering for sin….  through his suffering, my servant shall justify many” (Is 53:10-11).  Then, the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus, our high priest, entered heaven to be our intercessor only after having himself experienced our human weakness, after having been tested in every way that we are:  being tempted by sin, knowing intense suffering, and dying a cruel and shameful death.
St. John the Apostle, Basilica of Immaculate Conception

The Lord’s cup of suffering, our personal baptism into his passion and death, comes to us in many ways.

You don’t like the weather.  You don’t like the traffic.  Your neighbors’ dog barks at 3:00 a.m., or their teenage offspring party beyond your bedtime.  We all suffer from this sort of affliction, and for most of it there’s not much we can do about it.  Except in our attitude.  Without liking it, we can accept it as part of our human condition and offer our discomfort or aggravation to the Lord, in union with Jesus.  Our cup becomes part of his cup.

Then there’s stuff we do have control over, to some extent.  Your body hurts because of illness, weariness, or old age.  You try to do something about it:  medicine, rest, surgery, make-up, hair dye.  OK.  But sometimes what you try takes time to kick in, or it just isn’t successful.  You have a hard time getting up in the morning.  But you have to.  Sometimes your job or other responsibilities make unpleasant demands upon you.  You have a relative, a co-worker, a neighbor who just loves to bend your ear, but you find her or him rather tiresome after a while.  You try to be polite, even long-suffering, but part of you after a while wants to say, “All right, already.  Who cares about your Chihuahua’s lumbago or the 38th picture of your grandchild?”  All of these are part of the human condition, which we can whine about, inwardly rebel against, even get angry at God about.  Or we can accept what is our duty or what we finally can’t avoid as part of Christ’s cup of suffering.

Then there’s serious stuff.  Jesus talks about being the servant of all.  Most of us love to help other people and find a lot of satisfaction in it, up to a point.  But it doesn’t take long for raising a child or caring for a sick relative or teaching a classroom full of energetic youngsters to become stressful.  Our families and the parish make demands upon us that amount to serving other people with constant generosity, and often with little recognition.  We may do service in the wider community, either thru our jobs—work that directly benefits others, like nursing, teaching, policing, social work, government—or as volunteers in some organization.  This is important for society.  We can take that a step higher by uniting ourselves interiorly with Jesus Christ, who came to serve and to save us.  We thus enter more deeply into his baptism, with the hope of sharing in his resurrection.  And when we do that, we’re passing beyond the stage of “Gospel for Dummies” to “Gospel for Disciples.”

Finally, we may, like Peter and James and John and most of the apostles, have to suffer because we are disciples of Jesus.  Those of you who lived in Poland before 1989 know about that.  The rest of us have heard about the sufferings of the martyrs from the age of the apostles right up to the present, when bishops, priests, and nuns are being put into Chinese labor camps and Christians in the Sudan are being sold into slavery.

But we too suffer from persecution.  Every other week there’s a story somewhere in the newspaper or on TV about some form of anti-Catholicism or some put-down of religious people in government, in schools and universities, on the editorial pages, in our entertainment media.  That can only happen when Catholics and other religious people have convictions about what they believe and attempt to live out their convictions, whether that means living Sunday as a day of rest, or teaching that homosexual behavior is sinful, or speaking up against the crime of abortion, or refusing to take advantage of clients in business.  Kids who try to do what’s right in school—to study and not to cheat, not to use foul language, not to smoke or drink or mess with drugs—risk being labeled “goody-goodies” and picked on by some of their peers.  It’s a kind of persecution for doing what’s right.  But when we know what’s right and try to live by it, as disciples of our Lord Jesus, then indeed we’re in Gospel graduate school.  We’re drinking fully of his cup, with firm hope of sharing in his heavenly glory.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
28th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Wis 7: 7-11
Mark 10: 17-30
Oct. 14, 2012
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.

“I preferred wisdom to scepter and throne, and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her” (Wis 7: 8).

The Book of Wisdom, probably the last book of the OT to be composed, dates from about 100 B.C.  We don’t know who wrote it, but in a style fairly common at the time, the author put much of its contents into the mouth of King Solomon, famous for his wisdom and, at least in the 1st part of his reign, for his piety.

In the teaching of the OT prophets and wisdom literature—the wisdom literature includes Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Sirach in addition to Wisdom—in most of this teaching, piety and wisdom go together.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” is a theme in the Psalms (Ps 111:10) and the Book of Proverbs (Prov 1:7; 9:10), for instance.  Here fear means a healthy respect and reverence for the Lord, rather than being afraid of him.

So in today’s short passage from the Book of Wisdom, “Solomon,” i.e., the anonymous author, teaches us that wisdom is to be preferred to power, wealth, prestige, or anything else.

While that’s offered as a religious teaching, ordinary human wisdom agrees with it.  How many times have you heard, “Money can’t buy happiness”?  I’m sure you’ve all seen the MasterCard ads that go like this:  “Object 1 costs $X.  Object 2 costs $X.  Object 3 costs $X.”  Some intangible, valuable experience like “a day spent with your son” of “an evening with your wife” is “Priceless.  There are some things money can’t buy.  For everything else, there’s MasterCard.”

Every year the Salesians of St. John Bosco—like a good number of other religious orders—send out as missionaries a good number of generous young lay men and women (more women than men, by the way), most of them fresh out of college.  When these volunteers get to their Third World destinations, they find out what’s really valuable.  For example, Stephanie blogged from Bolivia on Sept.30 a reflection called “Beauty is everywhere I look!” that began this way:

Last Sunday we went to pick up Lorena [a newly arriving volunteer] from the airport with Sister Nora.  Well on the way home from picking her up, we stopped at a festival and then after that, Sister Nora needed to stop at a house of a family that she helps out.  While she went in to talk with the family, we stayed out in the truck. This family was a family of ten who was struggling financially. While we were waiting in the truck all of a sudden a few of their children came out to the truck with some Coca-Cola for us.  Even though they hardly had anything, they still made sure to give their guests something.  This was not the first time I have seen this.   This has happened to me while I was in Peru on a mission trip as well.  There are some people who have everything but will refuse to give anything.  I was truly touched by this act of kindness.[1]

Some of the children whom Stephanie is teaching in Bolivia

And Caitlin wrote from South Sudan a week before that, in a posting she titled “Late Night Musings of an SLM [Salesian Lay Missioner]”:

Exhausted after chasing the kids around outside, I found myself desperately in need of water.  Not thinking ahead, I filled up my water bottle and brought it outside.  10 kids ran over and fought for the “moya”, and in seconds the bottle was drained.  Afterwards, I remembered:  I am in the middle of a community considered impoverished even by South Sudanese standards.  That bottle might be the only filtered water those kids get in God knows how long.  I am spoiled.[2]
In the same posting, Caitlin—a fair-skinned, red-headed Irish-American lass from New Jersey—also writes:

People appreciate simplicity...  Looking at pictures we’ve taken so far, I realized how terribly washed out I look, and how young.  At home, this would encourage me to wear more makeup.  But here, the fact that I live just as I am (without modifying my appearance), is so much more beautiful a thing than looking a little better in a photograph.  It’s not worth losing that feeling for the sake of a little mascara.  I think I’ll stay washed-out.
St. John Bosco Church in Maridi, South Sudan, where Caitlin and another SLM are serving

Without a doubt, our bonds of family and home and hospitality and belonging are priceless.  Without a doubt, no price can be put on the blessings of fresh air and clean water and the beauty of nature—sunrises and sunsets, woods and oceans, “purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.”  Without a doubt, it’s a privilege to be able to worship God freely, to be loved and forgiven by him, to be invited into his family as his children and heirs.  That we’d call priceless, except that, as St. Paul says, twice (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23), it did come at a great price—our being ransomed by the Son of God.

It’s wisdom—human wisdom on one level, divine wisdom on another—to recognize all that, and then to make decisions that correspond to that wisdom—to live wisely.  We’re easily tempted by transient things like the “riches, health, comeliness” that “Solomon” lists (Wis 7:8,10)—things like fine clothes, nice vacations, cosmetics, jewelry, pleasure and entertainment, concern about what people will think—all of which the Bible tells us is foolishness; none of which leads us to God or keeps us in touch with God or satisfies the longings of our hearts.  St. Augustine 1,600 years ago wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

The gospel reading today tells us of a restless young man who came to Christ seeking the solution for his restlessness.  But he wanted an easy solution, and Christ doesn’t offer one.  In the end, money separated him from Christ:  “he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Mark 10:22).  The pursuit of power and prestige separated the scribes and the Sadducees from Christ and induced Pontius Pilate to crucify him.

And us?  When we look into our hearts, do we find any foolishness separating us from him?  If so, we don’t have to imitate the young man of the gospel, or the scribes, or Pilate.  We can renounce whatever it is we’re chasing that’s not God, such as an over-concern for money or self-importance that shows little concern for other people or finding pleasure and comfort in the wrong places (addictive behaviors).

We can, instead, choose to embrace wisdom.  And what might that mean for us?  The liturgy today gives us hints.  In the Collect (or opening prayer), we prayed that God would “make us always determined to carry out good works,” and in the gospel Jesus advised the man who came to him to “give to the poor” from his wealth and “follow me” (10:21).  In this context, wisdom consists in doing good to other people, especially by sharing what we have with the poor—or the weak or the vulnerable.  If we don’t have money, we might have time to spend with someone in need of company and compassion, or time to give to a charitable or community-service organization that needs volunteers; we might have talent and expertise to offer, like teaching a child to read, teaching someone to cook, to knit, to operate tools, to do CPR; next month we’ll vote for our political leaders, and our vote will include an approach to the most vulnerable members of our society, namely, children in the womb.  And while any of that—donating time or talent and voting—is good in itself, if we do it in Jesus’ name, if we do it because that what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes (allowing, obviously, that Jesus might work miracles but you and I don’t!), then we’re “following Jesus”—which is the wisest thing we can do, because Jesus satisfies the deepest longings of our restless hearts; Jesus leads us to eternal happiness.

[2] from Maridi, South Sudan, Sept. 23.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

On Syria's Roads of War

On Syria’s Roads of War

This was posted today by ANS.

(ANS – Aleppo) – Fr. Munir El Rai, the Salesian provincial of the Middle East Province, has visited the SDB communities in Syria. He sent a note to ANS about his journey among people who are intimidated by war, young people thirsting for hope, and SDBs who are staying to help the population; in all of them he heard the same cry: “Haaj” (Enough)!
Fr. El Rai first passed thru Beirut, Lebanon, to meet the Salesians of that country. Among the issues addressed were the procedures whereby displaced Syrians have come to Lebanon to find peace and work. “Many Syrian Christian families find refuge from the war by emigrating into Lebanon,” writes Fr. El Rai. “This is desirable because of the strong Christian presence, and the possibility of finding work and of emigrating to other countries. I then asked the Salesians of Lebanon to prepare an emergency plan for the reception of Syrian refugees, as was done with the Lebanese during the Lebanese war.”
On Wednesday, September 26, by public transportation he began an overland trip to Damascus. During the journey, Fr. El Rai had a discussion with the people about the condition of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the suffering in which the people are now living. His arrival in Damascus coincided with the final phase of the attack on the Ministry of Defense: the whole city was on alert and full of army roadblocks. The climate of fear, sadness, and insecurity was very strong. As a result of the attack, the provincial reached the Salesian Center with difficulty.
The community of four Salesians is situated in an area which is safe enough. They are trying to give signs of hope to young people and families, organizing meetings and spiritual and recreational training. The Center is becoming an oasis of peace, sharing, and hospitality, increasingly valuable to young people in the area. “All the confreres have confirmed their determination to remain in Syria to serve young people,” says Fr. El Rai. “On the occasion of my visit we relaunched visits to families with very young children who now avoid the Center for fear of the dangers they might encounter along the way, trying to support them on the spiritual, moral, and material levels.”
“This vision of many young people who have lost all their hopes for the future and for their country saddened me a lot, insofar as it is the collapse of a lifetime of teachings based on having confidence in the future, and I was taken back to the image of a Syria without Christians and without a future, as is happening in other areas of the Middle East,” noted Fr. El Rai.
On Saturday, September 29, at Tartous Fr. El Rai met the bishop of the Maronites, who thanked the Salesians in Kafroun for the activities they have carried out. Focused on that work, Fr. El Rai went through several villages, coming across countless images of those who had died in the clashes. He reports: “At Kafroun I met the Salesian who had been in this house for the summer along with two younger brothers, and has remained with a new confrere who joined him for this new mission. Then we decided to leave the house open all year to continue to host the displaced people of Aleppo: about 40 people, including the families of Salesian brothers and of Salesian Cooperators, and our young people. Currently the number of these displaced people is increasing rapidly due to the escalation of the clashes. The house is also carrying out educational and recreational activities with young people from the city of Homs, the hardest hit by the clashes. The Center is also running an oratory with the youths of the area.”
The internally displaced persons and the Salesian Family at Kafroun share a common life in a family style. They coordinate activities and moments of common life. Guests are engaged in housework, such as maintenance, care of the garden, the kitchen, and laundry; and in pastoral work with the other evacuees and with the children of the area. With the Salesians, the families feel safe, but they remain anxious for loved ones who are still in Aleppo. They are thinking about the future, torn between fear, the desire to flee abroad, and the hope to be able to return to their homes.
“I left for Aleppo on the afternoon of October 2, traveling on a 25-seat bus along with a Salesian Cooperator from Aleppo. The bus, already loaded with the luggage of the refugees it was carrying, was also charged with tension and fears for the trip, which led us through the areas hardest hit by clashes, and the expectations of people who hoped to return to their places of origin to try to reach their loved ones.” The gasoline to start the journey was obtained from a seller who had hidden his supply – because fuel distributors are no longer operating.
“Along the deserted highway you notice the signs of war: armored cars and tanks, damaged and abandoned houses, various Syrian Army checkpoints, where we were stopped for inspection of our documents. After a stretch of road outside the control of the Syrian Army, just an hour from Aleppo, we ran into a rebel roadblock to check the documents, and they let us go. After another rebel checkpoint we reached Aleppo, aware of how fortunate we had been not to be attacked.”
Having arrived at the Salesian house in the evening, the provincial received a surprise greeting and the thanks of two Syrian SDBs, a Syrian prenovice, and some youths who were playing in the small courtyard. A decade of the Rosary made it possible to close the day with relative equanimity.
But the next morning the awakening was abrupt: “The Salesian house shook due to a huge attack on the main square of Aleppo, which is eight minutes away on foot. At 9:00 a.m. along with another Salesian, I wanted to visit the site of the attack, which resulted in about 50 deaths and more than 100 wounded in the center of Aleppo; but this was impossible because they feared new attacks.”
As recently as last April, the youth center at Aleppo was able to hold a soccer tournament.
Fr. El Rai and other SDBs visited the Christian districts – where all children and young people often visit – that are currently affected by mortars, snipers, and car bombs. “Along the way we were recognized by many who attend the oratories. They invited us into their homes and told us their stories. A child I knew told me that his family was planning to leave, leaving his father to guard the house. Despite everything, the man said: ‘I love Syria!’ and then, ‘I want to return to Syria soon.’”
Another young Syrian confided to Fr. El Rai that the first help people need on the part of the Church “is a strong sign of spiritual and moral support, and later the support of solidarity.” War is not made only by acts of violence; it is also a moral and psychological matter. The streets are full of roadblocks and of armed people and cars; one sees weapons everywhere. All now speak the language of war, children know the names of weapons, and when there is an explosion they recognize the weapon used. In the evening the hits intensify, and the kids fall asleep and dream of finding everything resolved upon awakening.
At Aleppo Fr. El Rai had various meetings with the SDB community to think about how to continue to help young people and their families, on spiritual and material levels. The house of Aleppo is another oasis of peace. The few that attend start coming at 4:30 p.m. and remain until the evening, when the day ends with a prayer to the Virgin Mary.
The SDBs with the help of the Salesians Cooperators and other laity started initiatives with internally displaced people at state schools, but then they stopped because of threats. Now this activity is bouncing back, thanks to the young priests of different rites and various lay groups. “The value of giving oneself to others and the fact of still believing in coexistence, once Syria’s pride, is one of the signs of hope that I found during my trip.”
The provincial departed by plane from Aleppo for Damascus on October 7. “The taxi cost more than the flight, because of the risks which the driver took to accompany me.”
“This trip,” continues Fr. El Rai, “has touched my life from the human, Christian, and Salesian points of view. It took me to see the horrors of war that so quickly have brought destruction, insecurity, sadness, hate, and division to our country. I was also shown the minds of men who strongly want only peace and security, and have realized that the solution can only come about thru dialog. I also witnessed a strong return to faith and to prayer, and the will to live, to the point that, paradoxically, the number of marriages has increased.”
“To me it seems that there are now two major challenges: (1) supporting the population in this emergency phase, facing the current lack of humanitarian aid, dictated by the fact that the situation in Syria is treated only as one of politics and media, while the humanitarian level is being neglected; (2) succeeding in erasing hatred after so much violence, is how peace will finally be restored.”
“On behalf of many Syrians that I met during this trip,” Fr. El Rai concludes, “I ask you to pray for us.”

Monday, October 8, 2012

Children Return to School in Haiti

Children Return 
to School in Haiti

This story was published by ANS on Oct. 8.
 (ANS – Port-au-Prince)  In the last week more than three million Haitian children have returned to their schools. They include more than 20,000 in the Salesian institutions, of whom more than 10,000 are given one meal a day – which may be their only meal – at the Little Schools of Father Bohnen. Haiti continues trying to recover, to become a better country.

Almost three years ago, it took just 45 seconds to destroy 90% of schools and 60% of hospitals, to kill thousands of people, to leave more than 350,000 people injured and more than one million children orphaned. "But in Haiti,” says Olga Regueira, collaborator of Salesian Spanish NGO Jovenes y Desarrollo, “there is a people full of strength and courage…. These have difficult years, but looking at the future, there’s now a little more hope.”

Various figures in the data offered by the World Bank seem to bear witness to the recovery. More than 14 million cubic yards of debris has been removed; it’s finally possible to move about on the streets. One million people have left the camps for displaced persons, and 600,000 people will soon have access to electricity.

The Salesian Missions office in Madrid has produced a 30-minute documentary, “The Awakening of Haiti,” which speaks of a people who on January 12, 2010, lost what little they had but who continue to struggle and improve day after day.

The history of Haiti is also that of the Salesian missionaries, who have lived and worked in the country for more than 75 years. The missionaries have always been on the side of those who had more need of help: the most vulnerable children, the women, the sick, etc. "Our dream is a better Haiti for young people able to take care of themselves, to ensure young people are in safety," says Fr. Sylvain Ducange, superior of the Salesians in Haiti.

There is still a lot of work to be done: half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, 500,000 people are homeless, 90% of the children have water-related diseases, there is still a cholera epidemic – as well as the economic crisis that has reached even this country.

Once again Salesian Missions in Madrid has launched an appeal for solidarity, to ensure that the current international economic difficulties and lack of resources does not undermine Haiti's dream. The campaign “75 years in Haiti” was therefore launched, linked by an invitation to the international community to continue to work – because Haiti cannot be forgotten.

The Salesian work in Haiti may also be assisted thru Salesian Missions in New Rochelle:

Salesian Input at Synod of Bishops

Salesian Input
at the Synod of Bishops
on New Evangelization 
This item was published by ANS on Oct. 8.

(ANS - Rome)  On Sunday, October 7 , the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops opened officially. It’s charged with discussing the theme "The New Evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith”—in other words, with how to revive the proclamation of the Gospel thruout the world. Fifteen members of the Salesian Family are participants, with different roles and expertise.

The Synod has brought together over 400 people, the highest number in the history of the synods. Of these, 37  are participants ex officio; 172 were elected by their respective episcopal conferences, 10 by the Union of Superiors General, and 3 by the Eastern Catholic Churches; another 40 were chosen directly by the Holy Father.

In addition there are 49 experts and 45 auditors, who include both men and women specialists or  involved in evangelism in the six continents. Completing the list are some people with practical expertise, like the 5 attachés for printing, 32 assistants, and 30 translators.

Two Salesians are Synod members ex officio: the secretary of state of the Holy See, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, and Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University, was appointed by the Pope.

Five Salesian bishops were elected by their bishops conferences: Bishop Rosario Rosario Vella of Ambanja, Madagascar; Bishop Bernardo Miguel Bastres Florence of Punta Arenas, Chile; Archbishop Miguel Ignazio Bedini of Ispahan of the Latins in Iran, who is president of the episcopal conference; Archbishop Malayappan Chinnappa of Madras and Mylapore, India; and Archbishop Timothy Costelloe of Perth, Australia.

Among the 10 from male religious orders is our rector major, Fr. Pascual Chavez, who is president of the Union of Superiors General.

In the role of experts are Fr. Luiz Alves de Lima, SDB, from the Catechists Society of Latin America (Brazil); Fr. Cleto Pavanetto, SDB, professor emeritus of the School of Christian and Classical Letters of the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome; and Sr. Dalina Rosanna, FMA, former undersecretary of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

The group of auditors includes the superior general of the Salesian Sisters, Mother Yvonne Reungoat, FMA, and Fr. Renato De Guzman, SDB, chief assistant for pastoral care of the Grade School and High School Departments, Don Bosco Technical Institute in Makati City, Philippines, who is also director of the Philippines’ Episcopal Advisory Commission for Catechesis and Catholic Education.

Even in logistical tasks, the Congregation will make a contribution: Fr. Markus Graulich, SDB, an adviser to the general secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, was selected as press officer for the German language.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
27th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Gen 2: 18-24
Don Bosco Tech, Paterson, N.J.
Oct. 8, 2000                   

I had no Mass assignment this weekend, thus no new homily to prepare.  He’s an old one that remains timely, I think.

“It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2: 18).

The 2d chapter of Genesis offers us a variant in the story of how God created the earth.  Variation 1 is the 6 days of creation that we’re all familiar with from ch. 1.  In the 2d variation there is no breakdown day by day, man is the 1st of God’s creatures, rather than the last, and male and female are created separately rather than simultaneously.  But the truths of the 2 different tales are the same.

Most people are animal lovers in some fashion or other.  Many like to watch nature shows on TV.  We’re fond of dogs, cats, birds, and other pets, talking to them (you should hear Bro. Henry with his fish), taking them with us when we travel, spending large amounts of money on them for food and health care, even treating them like members of the family.  (Bro. Henry only talks to them and feeds them.)
Creation of the Animals, by Tintoretto

According to Gen 2, the animals are, in a limited sense, our brothers.  Man was created out of the clay of the earth (v. 7), and as we just heard, so were the animals as God was trying to figure out “a suitable partner” for the male human being (v. 18).  But there was a significant omission in the creation of the animals.  When God made the man, he “blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (v. 7),  a share of the divine life.  God didn’t do that for the animals, and so “none proved to be the suitable partner for the man” (v. 20).

But the animals are brought to the man, and he names them.  Brought to him as potential companions, they’re found worthy only to be subjects.  The man rules them.  They are part of God’s creation, all of which merits our respect.  But it is patently absurd to equate animals with human beings —possessing rights, capable of being treated “inhumanely.”  The treatment of animals can be called “humane” only in the sense that it reflects who we humans are, God’s viceroys on the earth.  Mistreatment of animals demeans us, makes us less than God wants us to be.  But to say, as you often hear, that it’s “inhumane” or unethical to eat meat or to hunt or to wear fur or to conduct medical experiments on animals makes them our equals or partners in creation.  They’re not.  Note, however, that anything done to excess or for the wrong reasons—concerning the animals or anything else—is wrong.

Having given the animal kingdom a thumbs down as “the suitable partner for the man,” God experiments some more.  The portrait of God in Gen 2 is interesting.  He’s not at all like the grand designer, the systematic and universal planner, of ch. 1.  Here God gets down in the dirt, so to speak; maybe in 9th grade you read James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Creation,” in which he compares God to a Negro mammy on her knees by the river bank, digging her fingers into the clay and rolling it around and forming and shaping it into the man.  Then he blows a deep divine breath into the clay to bring it to life.  In ch. 2 God creates by trial and error, as we hear in today’s reading.

So, turning away from the animals, “The Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man.  When he brought her to the man, the man said:  ‘This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called “woman,” for out of “her man” this one has been taken’” (vv. 21-23).

Now I understand why some of my confreres fall into deep sleep sometimes in front of the TV or at spiritual reading.  They’re hoping to wake up and find a wonderful new gift from God, a nice partner, next to them.

Joking aside, God’s word is making a serious point here.  1st, there’s a play on words in Hebrew.  I don’t read Hebrew, but I do read commentaries.  From the male ish comes the female ishshah; the wordplay goes well also in English:  from man comes woman.  There is a deep and personal relationship here, far deeper than the verbal one.  And that’s the 2d point.  The man enthusiastically recognizes his partner, his equal, his own reflection as a human being:  “This other person is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.”
Creation of Eve, by George Frederic Watts (1873)

So Genesis 2—like ch. 1, where we read, “God created humanity in his own image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27)—teaches us the equal dignity of men and women.  God made them both, made them for each other as “suitable partners.”  They’re made of the same stuff, formed and shaped by God, inspirited by God.

Yesterday The New York Times carried a front-page story that began this way:  “The House overwhelmingly approved a wide-ranging measure … that toughens laws against the trafficking of women and children for prostitution and sweatshop labor and helps states and localities fight domestic violence.”  This bill, which the Senate, too, is expected to pass and the President to sign into law, attacks a couple of practices that take advantage of women, and children too, treating them as less than full and equal human beings.  It is, of course, nothing new that women are treated as unequal; not as partners but as property; not as persons but as playthings.

Biblical truth has not penetrated our sinful human nature.  Some men abuse their wives and girl friends.  Some husbands expect their wives to wait on them; they’re not their wives’ partners but their lords.  A lot of men look at women as objects of physical desire rather than as persons; as objects to be used for selfish pleasure and then discarded like soiled laundry.  In a talk on marriage some years ago, Pope John Paul raised a lot of eyebrows when he observed that even husbands could sin by lusting for their wives—if they selfishly forced themselves, forgetting that “the two become one flesh” (v. 24) in love, equality, and partnership, not in a relationship of power, control, or self-gratification.  These are some areas in which society still needs to learn from Genesis as well as from our Lord Jesus.

The question of human dignity, of the inherent value of every person, male or female, is a constant challenge to modern man.  Science and technology can make it so easy for us to ignore our standing as God’s creatures, his self-image, the viceroys of his creation.  We can, for instance, separate human reproduction from human love, either by “making love” while blocking our God-given fertility, or by “making fertility” in a lab without personal intimacy.

On Wednesday both The New York Times and the Bergen Record carried articles about a child “conceived to provide blood cells” for his sister.[1]  This, by the way, was not the 1st time this sort of thing has happened.  But it must have been the 1st time it was done by in vitro fertilization.

The girl, Molly Nash, who is 6 and lives in Colorado, has a rare blood disease for which a difficult cell transplant offers hope for treatment.  Ordinary bone marrow transplants offer very modest hope of success.  So the doctors got Molly’s parents to contribute sperm and ova for union in a lab—in vitro fertilization—and from several embryos that resulted, selected the one that tested genetically free from Molly’s disease and most compatible for potential blood transplant.  They successfully implanted that embryo in Mrs. Nash’s womb, and a healthy baby boy resulted.

The story did not say what happened to the other embryos, the ones that weren’t used.  Presumably, they were destroyed, as is usually the case.  In laboratory experimentation and in fertility clinics, the human dignity of these smallest and most vulnerable of human beings is usually disregarded.

As for Molly, stem cells from her newborn brother’s placenta and umbilical cord were transfused to her, and now everyone’s waiting to see whether her blood condition improves.  It’s a dramatic and touching story.  But, even without the question of the unused embryos, we have a moral difficulty.  As one professor of bioethics put it, “We’ve crossed the line …, selecting [an embryo for implantation] based on characteristics that are not the best for the child being born, but for somebody else.”  The same doctor remarked, “Nobody wants babies to be born strictly for the parts they could create, but….”[2]

Actually, we crossed that line long ago, when we began to decide which unborn babes in the womb would live and which would die, based not on what’s best for the child but for someone else:  one or both of the parents; when we began to use in vitro fertilization routinely for otherwise infertile parents—for that laboratory process involves the selection of some embryos and the indefinite shelving or destruction of others.

What was different in Molly Nash’s case, and in one other I’m aware of that occurred several years ago, was that a human being was procreated in order to be used—to be used for spare parts.  Isn’t this treating people as commodities?  Is it, morally, any different from selling an unwanted baby to someone who desperately wants one?  Or from using a prostitute?  from using sweatshop labor to get rich?  The only difference, it seems to me, is that the goal of Molly’s parents and doctors—to try to cure her—is unquestionably a noble one.

But not every means to a noble end is good or moral, as instanced graphically in another news story earlier in the week, the one about the woman who wanted a baby so badly that she and her husband killed a pregnant, near-term woman, delivered the child by C-section, buried the mother, and passed off the baby as their own.  Wanting a child is a noble end.  Obviously, the means used in this case were grossly immoral.

As believers in the revealed word of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must respect the equal dignity of every person:  male or female, born or unborn, young or old, without regard to race, nationality, or creed.  We have a very serious moral obligation to remember that on Nov. 7 when we vote.  Elections are not about the economy, per se, but about people:  who will best serve them with justice, respect, dignity—especially the inalienable right to life.  For we are all of the same flesh and bone, all shaped by the hand of God for his purposes and not our own.

        [1] Denise Grady, “Son Conceived to Provide Blood Cells for Daughter,” NYT, Oct. 4, 2000, p. A24.
        [2] Ibid.