Sunday, December 29, 2013

Homily for the Holy Family

Homily for the Feast
of the Holy Family
Dec. 29, 2013
Matt 2: 13-15, 19-23
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison

“The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you’” (Matt 2: 13).

The Flight into Egypt
The Bible of Tbilisi
Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Family, the family composed of Jesus, his mother Mary, and Mary’s husband Joseph.

The gospels are the story of Jesus of Nazareth—you know that already, of course:  the story of his teaching and his work of redemption.  But they have their cast of supporting characters.  In the 1st 2 chapters of St. Matthew’s gospel, we meet an angel, a virgin mother, a wicked king (Herod), and 3 magi or wise men (they weren’t kings).  But the chief supporting character is St. Joseph.

So today:  the child’s life is in danger.  King Herod is so afraid of any challenge to his power that between 7 and 4 B.C. he executed 3 of his own sons and his favorite wife out of fear that they were plotting against him.  When the magi tell him that there’s a newborn king of Israel, he plots to destroy this perceived threat to his power.  The verses we skip over in our gospel this morning, vv. 16-18, were part of our gospel reading yesterday on the feast of the Holy Innocents; they describe the massacre of the male infants of Bethlehem as Herod “searches for the child to destroy him” (2:13).

St. Joseph, we know from what Matthew told us earlier—as well as from St. Luke’s gospel —isn’t the child’s father.  We call him Jesus’ foster father.  He assumes the role of protector of Jesus and of Jesus’ mother, and we see him carrying out that responsibility today.  He serves as a model for all fathers—biological fathers, adoptive fathers, foster fathers, even spiritual fathers.  In fact, he’s a model for all mothers too.

He’s a model, 1st, because he seeks to do God’s will in everything.  In ch. 1 Matthew describes him as “a just man” or “a righteous man” (depending on your translation).  That means he tries in all things to obey the Torah, the Law that God gave to Moses, which is a law that covers not only morality but also worship and practical, everyday life.

He’s a model, 2d, because once he understands what God wants, he obeys immediately.  We see that today in his obedience to the angel’s message in his dream:  “Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt.”  He gets up and departs that very nite.  We don’t know how soon Herod’s soldiers arrived in Bethlehem to do their brutal murders, but Bethlehem is only about 5 miles from Jerusalem.  And the road to Egypt is a long one, which the Holy Family would have been traveling on foot, or by donkey at best.  Haste is important for saving the life of our Savior, and Joseph acts quickly.  Earlier, the angel had told him to take Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy, for the child was begotten by the Holy Spirit (1:20), and “when Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (1:24).  Later, the angel tells him not to re-settle in Bethlehem, or anywhere in Judea, so he changes his original plan and takes the family to Galilee, to the town of Nazareth (2:22-23), which must have been disruptive, even disappointing—but necessary for the child’s protection.

He’s a model, 3d, because he acts without discussion, argument, questions.  In fact, Joseph never says a word in the gospels.  He’s nicknamed “Joseph the Silent.”  This trait is related to his obedience.  Many times people will do the right thing only after they’ve tried everything else 1st and found that their bad choices didn’t really help them, or they’ve argued with their parents, their supervisors, or their counselors (of whatever sort, including spiritual) and found their own arguments weak or self-serving, and only then do they reluctantly go along with those advising or commanding.  Imagine your son or daughter when told to clean a bedroom.  Joseph doesn’t try to tell God (or the angel), “Do I have to?  But I told the guys I’d meet them,” much less, “This is crazy!  How am I supposed to believe this?”  Not a word; just action.  Perhaps silence was an important part of his spirituality.  Perhaps it was silence that left him truly open to hearing what God was telling him:  the silence of prayer, the silence of reflection.  We all need more silence in our lives—less electronic distraction, less gossipy conversation, more room for God’s angel to speak to us.

Let us also note this about what St. Matthew tells us today:  as he does elsewhere in his gospel, he brings out how this or that action “fulfills the prophets” (2:15,23).  Matthew is seeing this by looking back at what happened and matching events against the Scriptures.  We wouldn’t say that Joseph consulted the Scriptures in advance.  But we would say there’s a correlation between his choices, his actions, and the divine plan revealed in the Scriptures.  The lesson for us in the 21st century is to read, study, reflect on, pray over the Scriptures—the revealed Word of God—and try to discern what choices and what actions God would have us do, so that our lives may be in accord with his plan for us, so that, years from now, we might be able to look back and see how we fulfilled what he had mind.  Joseph’s obedience was the salvation of the infant Jesus.  Our obedience to God’s Word is the key to our salvation.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Homily for Christmas

Homily for
Christmas Mass during the Nite
Dec. 25, 2013
Luke 2: 1-14
Wartburg Home, Mt. Vernon
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus” (Luke 2: 1).

“In those days” refers to what St. Luke has already narrated, viz., the birth of JB and Mary’s conception of the Son of God.

The crèche in our chapel (2007)
Unfortunately, despite his efforts to provide some historical context, Luke is still rather vague, considering that Augustus reigned from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D. and the historical record of P. Sulpicius Quirinius in Syria and Palestine is scanty in the extreme.  Even with St. Matthew’s placing the birth of Jesus during the reign of King Herod, generally believed to have died in 4 B.C.—but some people place it as late as 1 B.C.—the earliest attempts to put a precise date on “those days” proved erroneous, and we now date the birth of Jesus anywhere from 2 to 7 B.C.

What Luke is certainly doing here, as well as in his introduction to Jesus’ public ministry—where he catalogs the Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, and 2 other rulers, plus the priests Annas and Caiaphas—is to place Jesus solidly within our human story.  The Son of God is truly incarnate, entering our world with all its joys and its woes.  He has become one of us in order to bring us to God.

The exact date, tho, isn’t particularly important, is it?  The context of “those days” is important:  a context of general peace, security, and stability in the Mediterranean world, in the heart of the Roman Empire—the famous Pax Romana.  Of course, when Luke speaks of “the whole world’s being enrolled” (2:1)—our translation of pasan ten oikoumenen—he means the civilized world as he knows it, altho we know Rome’s empire, albeit the greatest empire known to man until that time, was but an itty-bitty part of the actual world, even the civilized world, at that time—considering the great cultures already long flourishing in India and China, and perhaps in parts of sub-Saharan Africa or Meso-America.

God chose “those days” and that part of the world as the right time—in Gal 4:4 St. Paul calls it “the fullness of time”—to send forth the Savior of “the whole world.”  This time we do mean “the whole world,” not only Luke’s world:  “on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (2:14), “favor” or “grace” that Luke will show thru the rest of his gospel and the Acts being offered to the whole of humanity, including society’s outsiders like the shepherds (and tax collectors, public sinners, Samaritans, and Gentiles).

And the world of Caesar Augustus, the Roman Empire essentially at peace, with the seas cleared of pirates and safe for shipping, with well-maintained roads ultimately connecting Jerusalem with Spain, Gaul, and even Britain, with troops to keep public order, with a semi-universal language—the koiné or common Greek used thruout the eastern Mediterranean and as far west as Rome, facilitating communication—“the fullness of time” was the right time for spreading this “good news of great joy for all the people” (2:10), the news of this Savior who brings God’s favor to mankind.  It’s not coincidence but Providence that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem “in those days,” and “the time came for her to have her child” (2:6).

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son” (2:7).  Polemicists use that verse to argue that Jesus had brothers and sisters, that Mary didn’t preserve her virginity but entered a normal married life with Joseph.  Luke isn’t part of that discussion, however; it’s irrelevant to his presenting Jesus as the “firstborn”—because that’s a legal term.

In the Exodus story, after the 1st Passover and after the angel of death passed thru Egypt slaying the firstborn of man and beast, except in those homes marked by the blood of the Passover lamb, we read, “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me” (13:1-2), and every firstborn son must be redeemed with a sacrifice (1:13).  So Luke is saying, 1st of all, that Jesus, as the firstborn, belongs to the Lord, is consecrated to the Lord.  The 1st words of his public ministry in Luke’s gospel will reflect this consecration.  He reads from Isaiah and attributes the passage to himself:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me [consecrated me] to bring glad tidings to the poor” (4:18).  Notice also the link-back to the angels’ announcement to the shepherds.

Jesus will be redeemed, as the Law required, when Joseph and Mary take him up to the Temple 40 days after his birth.  The twist in the story, tho, is that this firstborn doesn’t need to be redeemed; he will become the sacrifice that redeems “all the people,” “the whole world.”

The 2d thing to be said about Jesus’ being the firstborn—we don’t know whether Luke had it in mind or not, but certainly St. Paul was aware of it.  And since Luke was a missionary companion of Paul, we may suppose that he, too, would accept the point.  Paul writes to the Romans, “Those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he might be the firstborn among many brothers [and sisters]” (8:29).  So, yes, Jesus does have brothers and sisters—not from Mary’s womb directly, but from the womb of Baptism, from our destiny to be raised to eternal life as children of God.

Yet we are Mary’s children.  For we belong to Christ; we are part of his body.  Mary is his mother and our mother—which we could say even without reference to Jesus’ words to her and to the beloved disciple in John’s gospel.  In Christian mystery, the entire Church is born from Mary’s womb, and Jesus is her firstborn in a quasi-chronological sense; certainly in a theological sense, and not just in the legal sense.

In this Eucharist, making present Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of the world, we pray that “the whole world should be enrolled” among his many brothers and sisters, enrolled for eternal life.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Homily for the Christmas Novena

Homily for the
Christmas Novena
Prophecies:  Psalm 72: 6-7, 11
Dec. 22, 2013
Provincial House, New Rochelle

The 5th of the 7 Old Testament prophecies that we chant each evening of the Christmas novena reads, in our Salesian translation:  “As dew gently falling upon a fleece shall he descend; in the days of the Lord shall righteousness again prevail with blessings of peace abounding; and in homage shall all the kings and princes of the land, all the nations serve and adore him” (Ps 72: 6-7, 11).[1]

The revised Roman Missal’s Second Eucharistic Prayer has drawn our attention to the falling of dew in the invocation of the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine.

But in the case of our prophecy in the novena liturgy, the reference to dew turns out to be a mistaken translation; for the Latin word is pluvia, “rain.”  That particular prophetic text is taken verbatim from 3 verses of Psalm 72.

Furthermore, the verse in question is usually rendered, “He shall be like rain coming down on the meadow” (NAB), or “upon the mown grass” (RSV).  One commentary, while saying that such is the usual translation, notes that the Hebrew word does generally mean “fleece,” and the verse may be an allusion to the story of Gideon—which is certainly what our novena translation sounds like.

Gideon and the fleece
by Maarten van Heemskerck 
You’ll recall that Gideon, trying to verify that it truly was God commanding him to lead an uprising against the Midianites, asked for a sign:  1st, that a fleece he spread out on the threshing floor would be wet with dew in the morning while all the ground was dry, and the following nite—it really sounds like Gideon was trying desperately to get out of this leadership role—he asked that the ground be wet and the fleece alone dry.

The image is apt for the coming of the Messiah.  As dew falls from the air, the Messiah descends from heaven, silently and unseen.  His human origin is completely unseen and insensible, known only from the angel’s announcement.  His birth takes place almost as secretly, witnessed, we presume, by Mary, Joseph, and whatever animals might have been in the room where the holy couple were lodged that nite; and soon after, by the shepherds who, alone, receive the glorious angelic announcement.  But there’s nothing typical of a royal birth—witness the hoopla last July over Prince George’s arrival in London.  But our Messiah comes quietly and humbly, not a typical prince, not with the kind of salvation for which the Jewish people longed from the house of David.

“Like dew gently falling upon a fleece” is an apt metaphor, as well, for the Lord’s coming in the waters of Baptism—the water seen and felt, but the Lord coming gently and quietly and invisibly, but powerfully.

To take Psalm 72 as we have it:  its origin may have lain in some kind of coronation rite for the kings of Judah; it’s interpreted generally as a messianic psalm, one that speaks of the future glorious reign of God’s Anointed.  He will bring peace and justice to the earth, particularly to the poor and the afflicted.  He’ll bring prosperity to his people—not only Israel but all the nations of the earth.

The Good Shepherd
by James Powell
“He shall be like rain coming down on the meadow, like showers watering the earth,” the psalm reads.  “On the meadow” sounds better than “on the mown grass,” for meadow grass would have been mown, I think, for hay; and rain upon the hay is not a good thing.  But the meadows need rain to flourish, to become and remain healthy pasture for the flocks and herds—good green grass and fresh water.  “Fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose” (Ps 23:2 Grail).  So the Messiah will see that his flock, his people, is well nourished.

“Justice shall flower in his days, and profound peace,” reads the prophecy in literal translation, the psalm adding “till the moon be no more.”  We look to the Messiah to bring genuine justice to the earth, blessings to all those whom the powers of the earth usually oppress—as news reminds us daily.  If everyone truly imitated the Messiah, truly sought to live justly, peace would of course follow, the “blessings of peace abounding.”  The whole social teaching of the Church is an attempt to lead us in this direction:  to live out justice, fairness, equity in society, in the name of the Gospel, in the name of the Messiah.  Our particular consecrated lives are dedicated to living the Gospel in our relations with one another, and so enjoying the peace that comes from Christ.

The final verse of this one prophecy that we sang, still from Psalm 72, speaks of “all kings paying him homage, all nations serving him.”  God’s Anointed shall be king of all nations.  We call Jesus the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, and we celebrate his universal kingship on the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Yet his kingdom is far from universal.  Only one third of the humanity even calls itself Christian, and of course of that one third, we may ask how many are really trying to live under the rule of Jesus.  There are, then, 2 missions here for us:  1st, to renew our own submission to this King, daily; to continue our own process of Christian conversion; 2d, to do what we can to make Jesus known, to preach the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, to preach it again to those who haven’t believed it, to preach it again to those who acknowledge Jesus but don’t live like it.

        [1] Latin text: Descendet Dominus sicut pluvial in vellus, orietur in diebus eius iustitia et abundantia pacis, et adorabunt eum omnes reges terrae, omnes gentes servient ei.

Writing a Homily

Writing a homily for the 4th Sunday of Advent, 2013, at my desk in the Salesian Bulletin office

Homily for 4th Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
4th Sunday of Advent
Dec. 22, 2013
Matt 3: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about” (Matt 1: 18).

Christmas hasn’t quite come yet, of course.  But it’s very near, and today the Church offers us St. Matthew’s version of our Savior’s birth.  It’s not as romantic as St. Luke’s, which we read spread over 2 of the 3 Masses of Christmas, celebrate in so many carols, and represent in crèche scenes.

Matthew’s version of Christ’s birth agrees with Luke’s in 3 essential points.

The 1st is that the coming of Jesus of Nazareth fulfills God’s promises, fulfills the prophecies made to Israel.  Two of those prophecies come into play in our readings this morning.  The 1st is the obvious one about a virgin giving birth (following the Greek translation of Isaiah’s Hebrew).  Matthew explicitly connects Mary’s virginal conception to what Isaiah said to King Ahaz in our 1st reading (7:10-14).  The 2d prophecy is more subtle, but important enuf that it was a vital part of all the early preaching of the Church, e.g., in the opening lines of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that Jesus is the Christ “descended from David according to the flesh” (1:3).  In Joseph’s dream-revelation, the angel addresses him as “Joseph, son of David” and tells him to take Mary as his wife and to name the boy Jesus.  That is, by exercising his paternal right of naming, to acknowledge publicly and legally that the child is his, and thus likewise a descendant of David, the One, then, who will bring to fulfillment the promises to David that God made 1,000 years earlier.

Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Peru
There is teaching here that God is faithful to his word.  He does what he promises to do.  According to our reckoning, we’d have to say he does so slowly and deliberately.  “With him one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years are as a day” (2 Pet 3:8).  And he may do so in an unusual way, a mysterious way, a surprising way.  Haven’t we often found that to be so in our own lives, our own spiritual journeys?

The 2d essential point of agreement between Matthew’s and Luke’s stories of Jesus’ birth is that Mary has conceived the One who will save us from our sins without any human intervention.  Neither Joseph nor any male is the father of this child— only God himself.

Many “modern” readers wish to read the virgin birth not as history but as myth, as some sort of theological symbol.  There is theology there, to be sure; but it is no myth, no mere symbol.  On the negative side, if we can’t believe this—that “all things are possible with God,” as Gabriel tells Mary in Luke’s story (1:37)—why should we believe God can do anything?  If we measure God only by our own puny possibilities, to quote St. Paul in another context, “we are of all people the most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19).

On the positive side, it’s evident that Matthew and Luke use 2 very independent sources for their information about the birth of Jesus (as well as at other points in their gospels).  But they are in agreement in this point that is at once so outlandish as to be inconceivable (pun intended!).  Why include it at all if there were no factual basis for it?  Mark and John wrote their gospels without any need to speak of Jesus’ birth (altho John can be read to imply the virgin birth when he writes of those who are God’s children not “by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God” [1:13]).  It’s entirely credible that a family tradition, an oral tradition, closely guarded for many years, found its way in 2 separate forms to Matthew and Luke, or to the final editors of the gospels that we attribute to them—a tradition rooted in Mary and Joseph’s authentic experience and, by the end of the 1st century, seen by the Church as having great bearing on the mystery of our salvation.

The 3d point of agreement between Matthew and Luke is that this child is both divine and human.  The Virgin is truly and completely his mother.  But since God is his Father, he is “God with us,” Emmanuel.  As God he will be able to deal with our sins, to save us, as no mere human being could do.  As human, he can atone for what humans have done and can make humanity right again with God.

Unlike Luke, Matthew tells the birth story from Joseph’s perspective.  He is the one who must go along with God’s plan by “taking Mary into [his] home as [his] wife” (1:20).  Unless he does that, and names the boy (1:21), the child will not be a son of David.  It seems that Mary wasn’t of David’s lineage, probably not even of the tribe of Judah, if Luke is accurate in identifying her as a kinswoman of Elizabeth, a “daughter of Aaron” (Luke 1:5), a Levite.  (Interesting:  by his mother’s heritage, Jesus would thus be of priestly blood, tho that had no legal standing in his time.)

Joseph is the “just man,” the man who is right with God; in biblical terms, he’s a lover of God’s Law and observes it.  According to Matthew, that’s his motivation for ending his betrothal to Mary, more than the natural feeling of having been betrayed.  In that sense, Joseph offers us a model for determining our own course of action in difficult circumstances:  not by how hurt or offended or angry we might be, but by discerning what God would have us do.

At the same time, Joseph’s a compassionate man.  He won’t apply the full rigors of the Law to the one who, to all appearances, has committed adultery.  We may speculate about why—his genuine love for Mary, his wanting to believe her story—did she try to explain it to him?  In any case, while he’s an observer of the Law, he’s not heartless and won’t expose her to public shame (1:19), however much embarrassment might come to both of them in small-town life from the breaking of the betrothal, and he won’t leave her liable perhaps to stoning like the woman dragged before Jesus in John 8.  He’s not heartless like those experts in the Law whom Jesus will later denounce for “tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people’s shoulders, but not lifting a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4).  Righteousness before God involves a balance between Law and mercy, a delicate balance so hard to discern and to apply, whether in civil society or in pastoral practice —as people both in and out of the Church are discovering in these days as we watch and listen to Pope Francis.

Finally, Joseph the righteous man does what God commands.  He is an observer of the Law, and more.  Like Abraham the just, he asks no questions of God.  He acts, immediately.  We who take a vow of obedience—we don’t read that Joseph vowed obedience, do we?—how often do we hesitate, grumble, object, and sometimes fudge the issue?  How often do we resist what God is pointing us to?

Joseph acts “as the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (1:24), and God brings salvation into the world.  God is still bringing salvation into the world, to each of us and thru each of us, if we believe his word and are ready to act on his word.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Serious Clashes in Juba, South Sudan

Serious clashes in Juba,
South Sudan
From ANS and other sources

Serious clashes were reported on December 18 in South Sudan, the newest state in Africa, following its separation from Sudan in July 2011. According to U.N. estimates, there are between 400 and 500 dead and 800 injured in Juba, the capital.

The Salesians have a community and mission at Gumbo, across the Nile River from Juba. They heard gunfire all day. Many frightened families have taken refuge in the mission.

SLM Pat Sabol posted this photo of students and staff of the Salesians' school at Gumbo, a suburb of Juba, on Nov. 23.  As he says, he's "the white guy" at the right, and his site partner, Mike Gotta, is "the white guy" on the left.
Salesian Lay Missioner Pat Sabol wrote on the 18th: “We have around 50 or more people taking refuge in our parish church on the compound here in Gumbo. We also have the police protecting the church as well. Last night they were in the secondary school but we just recently moved them. Last night there was a lot of gunfire and mortars going off throughout the night but nothing so far tonight. But we are taking necessary precautions and are locking all the gates and doors and staying inside with the lights out after dark.”

SLM Mike Gotta added the same day, “We currently do have some refugees in Gumbo. Not a large number, but some have come from the Nuer tribe in hopes of some safety. The people of the Nuer tribe it seems are being targeted.”

On the 18th National Public Radio reported that the violence had a tribal basis, the majority Dinka people, to whom President Salva Kiir belongs, going after the minority Nuer, to which the recently fired vice president Riek Mashare belongs. The President alleged that the ex-vice president had attempted a coup.

On the 19th the situation in the country is quiet but unstable. In the past, the clashes were mainly in the territories of the north, on the border with Sudan. On the 18th the fighting took place mainly in Juba, which is in the southern part of the country.

The hostilities started on Monday the 16th with several clashes between opposing factions in various parts of the capital. It was not only light weapons. Witnesses report hearing mortars and bombs. As a result, the Salesian mission was closed for the entire day. There were also difficulties with regard to communications. National calls on cell phone were impossible, and in the evening a curfew was imposed.
Some Salesians who were planning to leave were forced to cancel their plans.
Although most of the fighting has been between military factions, fear is still widespread among the entire population. The night between Tuesday and Wednesday was quite turbulent for the Salesian community. Many families arrived in need of protection and assistance, and were offered accommodation in either the school or the chapel.
Meanwhile, the foreign volunteers who work at the Salesian mission were asked to leave and some of them have already done so.
As of 6:47 a.m. EST, December 19, both Pat Sabol and Mike Gotta are remaining at the mission, according to a message from Mike: “Unless the priests here feel like our security is at risk enough to advise us to leave or the [SLM] program feels like we should leave, Pat and I want to stay.”

Reporting on the situation:
Further NYT reports:

Update, Dec. 21:  Both of our SLMs are still there, the last volunteers on site.  Their compatriot Tom Kelly shipped out last week as scheduled upon completing 15 months of volunteer service and helping the 2 new boys settle in.  Pat and Mike are helping care for 50 to 100 refugees at the mission.  The Sudan SDB superior, Fr. Ferrington, just spent 3 days with us in New Rochelle (a coincidence in his travels) and is concerned about developments in Sudan, but not overly concerned as regards the safety of our confreres and their mission.

The 2 SLMs at Maridi, a good distance from Juba, report that things are fairly quiet there.

Updates, Dec. 23-24:  Mike Gotta and Pat Sabol blog what they've seen, heard, and been thinking at

Monday, December 16, 2013

Homily for 3d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
3d Sunday of Advent
Matt 11: 2-11
Dec. 15, 2013
Boy Scouts, Seton Reservation, Greenwich, Conn.

“John the Baptist … sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” (Matt 11: 2-3).

John the Baptist is in prison.  King Herod has put him there because John had condemned the adulterous relationship he was living in, and when you criticize a king you’re likely to get into trouble.  Eventually Herod will have John executed.

Being in prison meant John couldn’t follow the teaching and the healing of Jesus personally.  He could only hear about Jesus by word of mouth—no text messaging, not tweeting, not telephone, not even a newspaper in the 1st century.

John is puzzled by what he hears.  Do you remember what he was preaching before he was arrested?  Last week we heard a sample.  He was warning sinners of the wrath of God about to descend upon them when “the one who is coming” shows up:  “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  He will gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (3:10,12).  So “the one who is to come,” i.e., the Savior, the Messiah, will send unrepentant sinners straight to hell—which will be a lot more unpleasant than getting to close to that fire in the fireplace.  This Messiah will be a fire and brimstone guy.

But that’s not what John’s hearing about Jesus.  What’s he hearing, do you think?  (Cf. 11:4-5, and more.)

So he sends that message to Jesus.  Does Jesus give a direct answer?

What answer does he give?  (11:4-6)  What does that mean? that Jesus is a really good doctor?

No—Jesus is alluding to what Isaiah prophesied in the 1st reading (35:5-6).  Jesus is saying he’s the one fulfilling the prophecy, that prophecy and others.  He is “the one who is to come,” and you can see that plainly from his actions and his words—“the good news” that he proclaims about God’s love for everyone, God’s readiness to forgive those who repent of their sins, God’s closeness to everyone, especially the poor, the sick, the powerless, refugees, those discriminated against.

Time just named Pope Francis “Person of the Year,” which means, in their opinion, he had the biggest impact of anyone on the news in 2013.  Why has he had such an impact?

There are several reasons.  One is that he’s tried to imitate Jesus by embracing the severely handicapped and the severely disfigured and prisoners and refugees.  He’s repeatedly proclaimed God’s mercy, God’s love, while still challenging people who are responsible for unjust and sinful situations like war, greed, abortion, and other forms of selfishness.  So people see in him a Christ-image, a Christian.  And they respond to him as so many did to Jesus.

When someone’s baptized, we also say that they’re “christened.”  Do you know what that means?  What does it mean to “whiten” something?  In very old English, that –en ending means “to make into.”  Something that’s whitened is made white.  Someone who’s christened is made into Christ, made a Christian.

Do people see us—you and me—as people who’ve been made into Christ, made into images of Jesus?  Not are you “the one who is to come,” but are you really a follower of the One who has already come?  What do people see when they look at you or me? a healer, a peacemaker, a helper? kindness, mercy, compassion?  If so, then they’re seeing an image of Christ!  Then we’re making Jesus present in today’s world, as Pope Francis is doing.  It’s the responsibility of everyone who’s been christened to do that, to show Jesus to the world.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fr. Edward J. Cappelletti, SDB (1921-2013)

Fr. Edward J. Cappelletti, SDB (1921-2013)

Fr. Edward J. Cappelletti, SDB, long-time director of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle and a pioneer of fundraising through direct mail, died shortly before 10:00 a.m. on Dec. 12, 2013, at St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers, N.Y. He was 92 years old and had been a Salesian for 73 years and a priest for 63 years.

Fr. Ed in his later years
as director of Salesian Missions
Thousands of missionaries around the world knew him and hundreds of thousands of their benefactors knew him as “Father Edward.” To his confreres he was simply “Fr. Ed” or “Fr. Capp,” and to his family “Eddie.”

Edward Cappelletti was born in the Bronx on Oct.11, 1921, to Italian immigrants Alfredo and Giacinta Cappelletti, originally from Tuscany. He was the last of four children. The family belonged to St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, where Eddie was baptized on Oct. 26, 1921, was confirmed in 1932, and was an altar boy. One of his early memories is of the “huge number of altar boys, over 80,” serving Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Thomas.

Giacinta Cappelletti hailed from a mountain village called Massa Sassorosso, where the pastor had introduced devotion to Don Bosco. When she came to New York, she lived in the Salesians’ Transfiguration Parish on Mott Street, in the heart of Little Italy. After their marriage, the Cappellettis moved to the Bronx.

Alfredo Cappelletti died when Eddie was four. Nevertheless, Giacinta Cappelletti was able to provide Catholic education for all her children—first at home and then in St. Thomas’s parochial school. In 1933, “to get me off the streets of New York,” she sent Eddie to board at the Salesians’ St. Michael’s School in Goshen, N.Y. “It wasn’t a bad school,” he told some Salesian seminarians in 2013. “In fact, it was a nice atmosphere, and a small school of about 65 kids. The Salesians were fine men and were like family to me.”

At some point, apparently in ninth grade, Eddie nearly transferred to the Salesian Institute (now Salesian High School) in New Rochelle, like many of his classmates. But Fr. Ambrose Rossi, the provincial, invited him to try the high school seminary at Newton, N.J. Since his experience with the Salesians in Goshen had been so positive, he was willing. Mrs. Cappelletti gave her consent provided that Eddie be allowed to come home for vacations, contrary to the Salesian practice at the time. “She wanted to make sure I got some dose of the real world,” he recalled.

Thus, as a sophomore he moved into the high school seminary in September 1936, where “life was just like going to a normal Salesian school, except you had a conference once a week,” he said. “I fit in right away,” and “the teachers were very good to us.” He was an outstanding student. He admired Fr. Rossi’s energy and inventiveness and was also impressed by Newton’s director, Fr. Alvin Fedrigotti, for his culture as well as his Salesian spirit.

Ed was admitted to the novitiate, also at Newton, in September 1939, part of a class that included the future Frs. Paul Avallone, Salvatore Giacomini, Arthur Lenti, Larry Lorenzoni, John Malloy, Joseph Occhio, Armand Oliveri, Gennaro Sesto, Chester Szemborski, and Leo Winterscheidt, and Bros. Dominic Casiraghi and Roy Vetari. They were guided by master of novices Fr. Joseph Romani, and they made their first profession of vows on Sept. 8, 1940, in Newton.

At that time the novices were also first-year college students, loaded up with courses in English, Latin, Greek, Italian, education, and music. More English, Latin, and Greek courses followed later, along with religion, math, science, and a major in philosophy. Thus Bro. Ed was graduated from Don Bosco College in Newton on June 20, 1943, with a B.A. in philosophy, summa cum laude.

Upon graduation Bro. Ed was assigned for his practical training to remain at Don Bosco Seminary to teach the aspirants (high school seminarians), as well as to teach logic and metaphysics to the professed Salesian students. When the aspirants moved to the Ryan mansion in the Montebello section of Suffern, N.Y., in 1945, he moved with them. It was a happy year for him, as he recalled for some Salesians from the provincial house when he took them on a little tour through the property in December 2008.

Shortly after making their perpetual professions in September 1946, Bro. Ed and his classmates were the first American Salesians who were able to go to Italy for theological studies after World War II. He was one of those who studied at the Salesian Pontifical Athenaeum in Turin (now the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome), better known as “the Crocetta” from the district where it is located. He greatly appreciated the learned and holy professors such as Fr. Giuseppe Quadrio (whose cause has been introduced), Fr. Nazareno Camilleri, Fr. Ugo Galizia, Fr. Domenico Bertetto, Fr. Alfons Stickler (the future cardinal), Fr. Eugenio Valentini, and Fr. Pietro Brocardo. Once more he proved to be an excellent student, earning his licentiate in theology, cum laude, in June 1950. His dissertation was entitled “The Thought of Bernold of Constance on Ordinations” and was rated magna cum laude.

Bro. Ed found “life in Italy after the war rather trying physically due to the many after-the-war hardships,” but it was “rewarding” to be at “the heart of Salesian life.” The major superiors still lived at the motherhouse in Valdocco at the time. He also coached basketball in the youth center attached to the school of theology.

Fr. Ed was ordained in the basilica of Mary Help of Christians on July 2, 1950. He took as his priestly motto, “The Son of Man came, not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45).

For the first nine years of his priestly life he was assigned to the Salesian high schools in Newton, Haverstraw, Paterson, and New Rochelle, mainly as prefect of studies (vice principal). At the same time he earned a degree in classical languages from Fordham University (1958). He aimed at constant improvement of the programs in each school, including winning Board of Regents approval of Don Bosco Juniorate in Haverstraw and state Department of Education approval of Don Bosco Technical High School in Paterson.

In 1959 Fr. Felix Penna, the provincial, named him director of Salesian Missions in New Rochelle, succeeding Fr. A.J. Louis. The office was located in the basement of the provincial house and had just four or five employees and a donor list of about 10,000 names. When he stepped down in 1997, the office had been relocated three times, twice to larger rented quarters in New Rochelle and Mamaroneck, finally in 1972 to its own large, three-story building next to the provincial house. There were as many as 135 employees at one time, before automation and computerization reduced the need for so many. The donor list grew to 1,350,000 names. Fr. Ed was among the first fundraisers in the country to use direct mail to make appeals. Donors responded warmly to books of inspirational poetry as well as to sweepstakes. Over 1,000,000,000 booklets were distributed in 40 years. He found ways to get the U.S. government involved, particularly the Agency for International Development, in support of trade schools. He also attracted foundations, such as Kellogg, to support projects like agricultural schools. People also wrote in (or phoned) with personal problems that were addressed, often by Fr. Ed himself.

The success of Salesian Missions became a Congregation-wide phenomenon, of advantage to missionaries and the youths they served across the globe. Fr. Ed constantly credited the excellent, dedicated lay staff. He wrote later, “It is my firm belief that success is the reward, not so much of genius, as of hard work and perseverance, a little bit of luck, and the good Lord’s blessing.” There was also a small, hardworking core of Salesians assigned to the office, including Fr. Mario Tognocchi, Fr. Earl Bissonnette, Bro. Aldo Roman, Fr. James Chiosso, and Fr. Joseph Ros.

In 1996 Pope John Paul II honored Salesian Missions for its work by bestowing the Papal Cross “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” on Fr. Ed and Sara Tarascio, the office manager for many years. In 2008 Don Bosco Catholic University in Campo Grande, Brazil, awarded Fr. Ed an honorary doctorate in humanities.

His one regret about all his years in the mission office was a certain isolation from the confreres of the province, especially the young ones. “I only dealt with three other Salesians, the three that worked for me,” he told the seminarians in 2013. That never stopped him from doing whatever he could to promote vocations, which he remained interested in till the end of his very active life.

In tandem with his leadership of Salesian Missions, Fr. Ed managed the province’s development office for 25 years. After his retirement from the mission office, he continued as development director for a few years and in 2000 became treasurer of the provincial house community, serving until 2007. He remained a member of the provincial house community, constantly looking for ways to contribute to the life of the house. Following several falls and other health incidents, on Sept. 24 he moved to St. Cabrini Nursing Home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

On Dec. 11 visitors at Cabrini found him struggling for breath and too feeble even to press the call button. He was taken to the St. John’s emergency room, where a confrere anointed him. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and admitted. During the night his condition deteriorated rapidly into congestive heart failure, leading to his death within a few hours.

Fr. Ed’s three sisters, Susan, Julia, and Ida, predeceased him. He is survived by numerous nephews, nieces, grandnephews, and grandnieces, and his Salesian family.

As soon as word of his death reached Salesians in Rome and Salesian provinces around the globe, tributes began to arrive in New Rochelle.

Fr. Pascual Chavez, Rector Major, wrote: “The whole Congregation is very grateful to Fr. Edward Cappelletti for all that he did through the mission office to help our missionaries make their dreams come true, the dream of Don Bosco, the dream of God, who loves and cares with predilection the poorest and most abandoned. On behalf of all the Congregation I say a big thanks from the bottom of our heart to Fr. Edward for his generosity and total devotion to the missions, and also our gratitude to St. Philip Province.”

Fr. Ed with the late Fr. Jack Trisolini,
American missionary to Korea, in New Rochelle, July 2007
Bro. Jean Paul Müller, presently the Congregation’s treasurer general and formerly director of the Salesian mission office of Bonn, wrote: “I personally have to thank Fr. Ed so much, as he was the one who guided me as I made my first steps in the mission office in Bonn. I was with him two weeks at New Rochelle, where he trained me, and I never I forgot his counsels, ideas, and vision. We were often in contact in recent years, and every time I visited New Rochelle it was for me like coming home to see him and talk with him. Without the help of Fr. Ed, his marvelous, humorous, and fraternal orientation, we would never have had the success we have now in helping and supporting youngsters around the world.”

Fr. Timothy Ploch, provincial of the San Francisco Province and a former provincial in New Rochelle, praised Fr. Ed as “a Salesian giant for the New Rochelle Province, for the Salesian presence in the USA, and for the whole Salesian world.  He is one of the few Salesians who can say that his ideas, his skills, his work, have had influences all over the world, especially in the poorest areas of mission lands and for the poorest young people.”

Fr. Ed was waked in the chapel of Salesian HS in New Rochelle on Monday, Dec. 16.

The Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at Holy Name of Jesus Church in New Rochelle on Tuesday, Dec. 17, with a sizable representation of Salesians, the entire staff of the mission office, some family members, and other friends present. Fr. Tom Dunne presided and gave a eulogy.

Fr. Ed’s body will be cremated, then interred in the Salesian Cemetery in Goshen on Thursday, Dec. 19.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Homily for 2d Sunday of Advent

Homily for the
2d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 8, 2013
Matt 3: 1-12
Ursulines, Willow Drive, N.R.

“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matt 3: 1-2).

Our attention shifts this week from the 2d coming of Christ, where we focused the last 2 or 3 weeks, to his 1st coming.  His 1st coming as reported in the gospels isn’t so much his incarnation and birth as it is his public appearance and public ministry, and especially his death and resurrection.  The gospel story of our salvation really begins with the preaching of John the Baptist, which is where Peter and Paul begin their preaching in the Acts of the Apostles.

We don’t know much about John, even tho all 4 gospels and even Josephus report his ministry.  Matthew today shows us how much of a precursor of Jesus he is; he preaches the same message as Jesus:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (cf. Mark 1:14-15; Matt 4:17).

St. John the Baptist
St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.
Like Mark and Luke, Matthew also sees in John the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s bringing salvation to his people out of the desert (3:3).  Mark and Matthew see John as another Elijah, a kind of wild prophet—indicated by his dress and his diet (3:4)—who comes out of the desert to denounce the wicked powers of the world and to lead God’s people back to faithfulness (on that point Luke is most direct in Gabriel’s words to Zechariah in the Temple [1:16-17]).  Later, Jesus says explicitly that John was “Elijah who was to come” (Matt 17:12; Mark 9:13).

Evidently John is a very charismatic character.  He draws huge crowds, and they respond to him, as so many Americans do to many preachers, from George Whitfield in the 1740s, to Aimee Semple McPherson in the 1920s, to Billy Graham in our own time—not to mention the famous and the infamous televangelists.  A significant difference between John the Baptist and some preachers we’ve known—not all of them, to be sure—is that John points away from himself toward “one mightier than” himself who is coming, one who will bring “the Holy Spirit and fire” (3:11).  John knows that he is not the message, only the messenger.  He’s not the kingdom, only its herald:  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  I’m not worthy [even] to carry his sandals” (3:11).

We all remember John’s challenge to the immoral behavior of Herod and Herodias.  We might overlook, tho, the challenge that he throws at the religious leaders in today’s passage (3:7-12), which is unique to Matthew.  Luke, indeed, records the same words about producing the fruits of repentance, presumption, and the threat of hellfire—but addressed to the whole crowd, not to the Pharisees and Sadducees particularly.  As in Elijah’s day, even the political and religious leaders have to be called back to faithfulness.

Priests and religious today, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, always run a certain danger of presumption, of not taking fully to heart the call to repentance, the call to conversion.  It’s so easy for us to go thru the motions of being at prayer, of going to Mass, of showing up for meetings, even of serving the needy; to show up for all the practices of piety and all the required community assemblies—without committing ourselves totally to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus makes present.

St. John the Baptist Preaching
Alessandro Allori
Hasn’t Pope Francis created a stir—made a mess, as he put it—by reminding cardinals, bishops, priests, and religious of our need for conversion? for personally encountering Jesus?  Hasn’t he created a stir by demonstrating the fruits of repentance (3:8)—admitting his own sinfulness and mistakes, going to confession every 2 weeks, being present to the poor, the sick, the refugees, the jailed, the abandoned, the unwed mothers, and the lowliest working people of the Vatican?  by being a shepherd who smells like the sheep and who walks alongside the sheep, not just barking out directions from the far rear of the flock (or the ivory tower of a chancery or a rectory)?

Of course, our personal circumstances may limit our contact with the sheep.  That doesn’t mean we can rest on our status as religious or priest, thinking we’ve already secured a place in the kingdom.  The command to “produce good fruit” remains—such fruits as Paul suggests today:  “encouragement,” “harmony,” and openness toward one another (Rom 15:4-9); such fruits as we profess in the Lord’s Prayer, like submission to the Lord’s will and forgiveness of one another.

Last Wednesday I went to Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey to hear a lecture by Immaculée Ilibagiza [identify, summarize her coming to forgive].

When we look into our hearts, do we see anything of which we need to repent, any area demanding our conversion?  How can we be more faithful to the Father and his kingdom?