Friday, June 16, 2017

Homily for Solemnity of Corpus Christi

Homily for the Solemnity of
Corpus Christi
June 6, 1999
Deut 8: 2-3, 14-16
St. Joseph’s, Passaic, N.J.
O.L. of Pompei, Paterson, N.J.
On June 18, solemnity of Corpus Christi, I'll be traveling to Quebec go represent the Salesians at the SIGNIS conference there, starting on the 19th. Here's an old homily.
“The Lord your God … fed you with manna…” (Deut 8: 3).
During the Easter triduum 2 months ago, we heard how God brought the Hebrews out of Egypt:  how the angel of death passed over their homes, whose doorposts were marked by the blood of the paschal lamb, while they were eating that lamb indoors; how God parted the Red Sea and brought them over it, then drowned the Egyptians in it.
Last week we heard how God called Moses up Mt. Sinai a 2d time and renewed the covenant with him and the Hebrew nation; we heard the Lord describe himself as “merciful and gracious, rich in kindness and fidelity”; we heard Moses beseech the Lord to come with them on their journey thru the wilderness (Ex 34:4-9).
Today, at the end of that long journey, at the end of 40 years of wandering thru the Sinai desert, Moses reminds the people how God has indeed accompanied them, especially by feeding them every day with the mysterious food called manna, which neither they nor their ancestors had known when they were slaves in Egypt.
Why does the Church have us read this passage from Deuteronomy today, on the feast of Corpus Christi?  To remind us of how God has acted to save us also and to remain with us—all symbolized in the wondrous sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood.
For the Eucharist is the blood of the paschal lamb marking our doorposts—our lips, which figuratively open the way to our souls.  The destroying angel must pass over all those signed by Christ as belonging to him.  The waters of death cannot drown those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb.
The Eucharist is the new covenant between God and us, a lasting sign of God’s mercy and fidelity, the sign of his body nailed to the cross and his blood shed to redeem us, his body risen and ascended to heaven for us.  As we make our journey thru the wilderness of life, assaulted by the world, the flesh, and the devil, our God who died and rose for us comes along with us.
God began to accompany us in a very personal way when his only Son was begotten in the womb of the Virgin Mary when she said “Yes” to the angel Gabriel, “Yes” to God’s plan.  The Son of God continues to accompany us on our life’s journey as he is begotten, so to speak, under the form of bread and wine at every Mass when the priest says, “This is my body; this is my blood.”
What the Hebrews ate in the desert for 40 years resembled bread, and so they called it “bread from heaven.”  It nourished them for their journey.  What we eat each week—perhaps each day if we are especially fortunate —begins as bread but becomes something else, something far more nourishing.
Like the apostles, we all become the companions of Jesus.  Companions means, literally, those who share bread together.  How true that we share bread with Jesus, who has made of himself for us “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51).
St. Paul refers to “the bread that we break” and “the cup that we bless” as participation in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).  Nutritionists tell us we are what we eat.  We are the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  We participate in his own divine life.  What company to have on our way thru the desert!  “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood,” he tells us, “remains in me and I in him…and will have life because of me” (John 6:56-57).
If the daily manna sustained the Hebrews until they reached the Promised Land, we may be sure that “the living bread” of Jesus’ body and blood will sustain us until we reach our promised land, the place which Jesus has prepared for us, an eternal dwelling, with him and his Father (John 14:2-3).

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Blessed Francis Kesy and Companions, Martyrs

Blessed Francis Kesy and Companions, Martyrs
Optional Memorial, June 12
by Fr. Pascual Chavez, SDB, and Fr. Pierluigi Cameroni, SDB

Your humble blogger was traveling to his new assignment on June 12-13, and packing for the move in the preceding days (besides carrying on with parish ministry), so is tardy with this post.

On June 12 the Salesian Family celebrates the liturgical memorial of the martyrs Blessed Francis Kesy and his four companions, who were members of the Salesian Family as leaders in the Salesian youth center in Poznan, Poland, and were executed by the Nazi occupiers on August 24, 1942, on account of their commitment to pastoral work at the Salesian church and youth center of Mary Help of Christians in Poznan.

(Bollettino Salesiano)
All five of the youths were fully committed to their human and Christian development, and all five were involved in working with their peers, sharing similar interests and personal and community projects. Arrested within days of one another and imprisoned briefly in different places, they were then put into the same prison and suffered martyrdom the same day and in the same way. Fr. Juan Vecchi, the Salesian Rector Major (1996-2002), spoke about them in this way on the occasion of their beatification: Each of them had his own particular biography, which then became intertwined with that of the others in the common Salesian setting, which prepared them in a human and spiritual way to embrace martyrdom.

Francis Kesy, 22, was sensitive and frail, often in ill health. But he was cheerful and good-natured. He loved animals and was always ready to help others. He wanted to become a Salesian. During the Nazi occupation, he was unable to continue his studies and took a job in a factory. He spent his free time at the Salesian youth center, where he was a great friend of the other four and led youth groups and activities.

Edward Klinik, age 23, self-conscious and quiet, became much livelier after joining the Salesian youth center. He was a conscientious and methodical student. Among the five he stood out because of his deep commitment to every kind of activity. He gave the impression of being the most serious and thoughtful.

Jarogniew Wojciechowski, 20, was outstanding among the others: he was a contemplative, with a tendency to look into things more, trying to understand what was going on. He was a leader in the best sense of the word. He was known for his good spirits, his commitment, and the good example he gave.

Chester Jozwiak, 22, was irascible by nature, but spontaneous, full of energy. He was in control of himself, consistent, and ready for sacrifice. There was no doubt about the hold he had over the younger children. He was clearly striving after Christian perfection and was making good progress in that direction. One of his fellow prisoners wrote: “He was good natured and had a character with a soul as clear as crystal.... I could see that his heart was free from any stain of sin, from any wickedness. He shared with me one of his concerns: that he should never fall into impurity.”

Edward Kazmierski, 23, was noted for his sobriety, prudence, and kindliness. At the Salesian youth center, he was able to develop his special musical gifts. The religious spirit he had acquired in his family quickly blossomed into Christian maturity under the guidance of the Salesians. While in prison he showed great love for his companions. He willingly helped the older ones and was completely free from any feelings of hatred toward his persecutors.

These young men give outstanding proof of the strong formative influence of the Salesian youth center, when there is opportunity for co-responsibility, when the educational approach is personalized, and when the Salesians are capable of guiding the youngsters along the path of faith and of grace. They were arrested in September 1940 and imprisoned in Fortress VII in Poznan. They were then moved first to the Neukölln prison, and later to Zwickau, where they were questioned, tortured, and put to hard labor.

Two notes show that we are dealing with giants of the spirit: “God alone knows how much we are suffering. Prayer has been our only support in the depth of the nights and days.” “God has given us this cross, and he is also giving us the strength to carry it.”

On August 1, 1942, they were condemned to death for treason. They stood to hear the sentence, which was followed by a long silence interrupted only by the exclamation of one of them: “Thy will be done.” They were condemned simply for belonging to Catholic organizations, which it was suspected might give rise to resistance to the Reich.

Before they died they were able to write to their parents. Reading these lines, one is astonished by a perception of greatness. A good example is what Francis wrote: “My dearest parents, brothers, and sisters, the time has come to say good-by to you. It’s August 24, the day of Mary Help of Christians.… May the Good Lord take me to himself. Don’t have regrets that I am leaving this world so young. I am now in a state of grace, and I don’t know whether in the future I would remain faithful to my promises.... I am going to heaven. Farewell. There I shall pray to God.… Pray for me sometimes.… I’m going now.”

They were taken into the prison yard in Dresden and beheaded—on a day when Salesian communities were keeping the monthly commemoration of Mary Help of Christians. Their martyrdom crowns the range of youthful Salesian holiness. “We point to them as intercessors, as well as models of the highest ideals” (Fr. Vecchi).

In Mary Help of Christians Church in Poznan, the five are venerated as intercessors on behalf of young people who have moved away from God and the Church, imploring for them the grace to return to Christ. In the young martyrs we can see representatives of the ideals of young people from Catholic schools with the vision and the strong desire to serve their country with dedication in all areas of life, in the name of God’s love. They are the most convincing proof of the validity of Salesian education.

Francis, Czeslaw, Edward, Edward, and Jarogniew are models for the young people of today because of their defense of the value of life and human dignity, and their opposition to false ideologies. Today’s false ideologies include racism, fanaticism, absolutism of the state, discrimination, and exploitation of the poorest and most vulnerable. These young men staked their whole lives on God, Jesus, and the Gospel as the sources of happiness and life.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Trinity

Homily for the Feast of the
Trinity Sunday
June 11, 2017
Ex 34: 4-6, 8-9
John 3: 16-18
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

Amid the press of packing for departure from Champaign as well as carrying on normal pastoral duties, I resorted to recycling a homily for the feast of the Holy Trinity (from 2014). I did tweak it a little bit.                                                                         
“The Lord passed before Moses and cried out, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity’” (Ex 34: 6).

We’re taught that the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the core dogmas of our faith, perhaps the most fundamental of our beliefs.  The Creed that we profess every week and our baptismal profession are structured around the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  This fundamental belief distinguishes Christianity from the other religions that believe, as we do, in the one God who created the universe, rules it, and will judge us all at the end of lives, viz., Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism.

Yet we can’t explain this fundamental doctrine, only define it—3 Persons in 1 God—and profess and celebrate it.  Great theologians have tried to understand and explain the Trinity—e.g., St. Augustine in the 5th century, St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, and Fr. Karl Rahner in the 20th century.  But finally we can only say, humbly, I believe even tho I don’t understand.

One aspect of the Holy Trinity that we can grasp is that God is love.  The Trinity involves relationships—Father and Son, and their personal union that is a 3d Person.  Their love overflows, as it were, to involve us:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).

That love seems to be the focus of the readings this morning—the “take-away,” if you will.

In the 1st reading, God has summoned Moses to climb Mt. Sinai to meet him.  As you know, God had called Moses personally to his role as liberator of the Hebrews, and God maintained an intimate friendship with him.  The word “love” isn’t used to describe that relationship, but “friend” is (Ex 33:12,17).  Moreover, it was to Moses that God 1st revealed his own name, in the apparition at the burning bush (Ex 3:14).  His name is YHWH, a mysterious Hebrew name that may be interpreted in various ways:  “I am,” “I am who I am,” “He who is,” “I am he who causes what is,” “He who brings into being whatever comes into being.”

In most modern translations, that proper name is rendered LORD with all caps, and so it is in our passage today.  “God stood with Moses there and pronounced his name, ‘LORD,’” i.e., YHWH.  And the Lord YHWH tells us more about himself:  “a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.”  He comes to be with Moses, to be with Israel, to be their kind and merciful protector, to stand by them faithfully, to save them from the oppression of the Egyptians.

This is the God who sends his only Son to take human deliverance 3 steps further.

The 1st step is to deliver his people not merely from earthly slavery but from spiritual oppression, from alienation from God and from our fellow human beings, from sin, and even from death, the ultimate result of sin.

The 2d step is to deliver all of humanity, and not just a single nation, from that oppression.  “God so loved the world,” not “God so loved Israel.”
The Holy Trinity and the Saints
from the breviary of Mattia Corvino

The 3d step is to bring those whom he saves thru the Son into a close relationship with himself:  a fellowship, a communion, membership in the divine family.  Moses’ intimate relationship with God prefigured that communion of heart and will opened to us by Jesus.  In Christ this communion is extended to every man and woman who “believes in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).

God is 3.  He is relational.  He is a community.  In his graciousness and mercy, he draws us into his community; he shares with us his love; he makes us family.

Fr. Tim Zak Appointed Provincial

Fr. Tim Zak Appointed Provincial

On June 9 the Salesians of the New Rochelle Province were informed that Fr. Angel Fernandez, Rector Major, has named Fr. Timothy Zak as provincial.  Fr. Tim, vice provincial since July 1, 2015, had already been interim provincial following the resignation of Fr. Steve Shafran in March of this year.

Fr. Tim was born in Stoughton, Mass., in 1962. He made his novitiate in Newton, N.J., in 1982-1983, made his perpetual vows in 1989, and was ordained in Boston on May 26, 1991. After ministry in various province works, he was appointed director of the youth center in Orange, N.J. (2005-2007), director and pastor at St. John Bosco Parish in Chicago (2007-2013), and pastor of Holy Rosary Parish and director of the Salesian community of Port Chester (2013-2015) until his appointment as vice provincial.

 The Rector Major’s letter follows.

Direzione Generale Opere Don Bosco

    Via della Pisana 1111 – 00163 Roma

                     Il Rettor Maggiore

June 8, 2017




My Dear Confreres:

It gives me great pleasure to announce to you that with the consent of the General Council I am appointing as your provincial for the 2017-2023 period

Fr. Timothy John Zak, SDB

I wish to thank him for accepting this appointment with a spirit of Salesian availability, obedience, and deep love for all of you.

I want also to take this opportunity to thank him for the gentle yet steady leadership he has been offering the province during the time of Fr. Steve Shafran’s illness and absence.

And finally I wish to thank you, dear confreres, for the serene manner in which you are living this delicate moment of transition in your province’s history.  This was evident in the high percentage of your participation in the consultation, in your very instructive and illuminating comments, and in your near unanimity in recommending that Fr. Tim Zak be your next provincial.

We continue praying for dear Fr. Steve Shafran.  May the Lord through Mary Help of Christians help him to continue healing.  And may the good Lord, through the intercession of your patron St. Philip the Apostle, abundantly bless your new provincial and your whole provincial community, especially the young people to whom the Lord sends you.

Looking forward to my visit among you next year, I send a warm and fraternal embrace.

P. Ángel Fernández A.,SDB

Rector Major

Relic of Don Bosco Stolen from Colle Don Bosco

Relic of Don Bosco Stolen from Colle Don Bosco


Pilgrims to Colle Don Bosco venerate Don Bosco’s relic in the basilica built on the site of his birth. Photo by Andrea Cherchi – Turin.

(ANS – Turin – June 5) In the evening of Friday, June 2, the relic of St. John Bosco -- a fragment of his brain -- that had been placed along the rear wall of Don Bosco Basilica at Colle Don Bosco in Castelnuovo Don Bosco was stolen.  

“We’re very upset, as will be many devotees who will learn what happened. We are confident that Don Bosco can touch the heart of whoever has done this and make him retrace his footsteps, just as Don Bosco was able to transform the lives of the young people whom he used to meet. We are also sure that, although you can steal a relic of Don Bosco, as has happened, you can’t steal Don Bosco from us and the many pilgrims who visit these places every day,” said Fr. Ezio Orsini, rector of the basilica.

Three days after the sacrilegious robbery, while investigators continued their investigations to find the stolen relic, the Salesians of the Colle Don Bosco community, who staff the basilica, expressed their gratitude for the attention, prayers, and signs of solidarity received via email and other messages.

Fr. Luca Barone, director of the community, made special mention of the support expressed by Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin, the Rector Major and his vicar, the regional councilor, and the provincial as just some of the “many from all over the Salesian world” who “have expressed their sympathy.”

Archbishop Nosiglia
On Saturday, June 3, Abp. Nosiglia urged all the priests of the archdiocese to remember the Salesian community during the Masses of Pentecost. “The news of the theft of a relic of St. John Bosco from the shrine of Castelnuovo is one that you would never want to hear,” the archbishop wrote. “It makes us think there must be a profound moral misery in whoever would take away a ‘sign’ that has been left and preserved for the devotion and the faith of everyone.

“The Church of Turin is close to the Salesian community,” the archbishop’s message continues. “Don Bosco was a priest of this diocese. Only two years ago, we celebrated, along with the exposition of the Shroud and the visit of Pope Francis, 200 years since his birth.”

After exhorting his priests to remember the Salesian community in the Masses of Pentecost, Abp. Nosiglia invited those who took the relic to return it “immediately, and without conditions: so that this painful page can be turned, and we can duly continue to honor Don Bosco’s memory in the very place where he was born.” [Ed. note: The basilica was built on the site of the Biglione farmhouse, in which John Bosco actually was born, although that fact was not discovered until some years after the construction.]

Meanwhile, the Salesians report that the Carabinieri are investigating the case. Fr. Orsini, confirms that pilgrimages of the faithful continue devoutly and calmly.

We're Outta Champaign

We’re Outta Champaign
Province decides to withdraw from ministry in Champaign, Illinois 😢
Photo by Dave Devall
In mid-May the Salesians of the Eastern Province announced that the Salesians would withdraw from their ministries in Champaign, Ill. The decision was made after months of prayer and discernment, in dialog with the diocese of Peoria.

Since 2013 two Salesians have staffed Holy Cross Parish and one has served on the pastoral staff of the Newman Center at the University of Illinois’s flagship campus (about 45,000 students).

The June 10-11 weekend was the Salesians’ last weekend in the parish. The parishioners offered all three Salesians a farewell reception on May 21 after the 4:00 p.m. Sunday Mass.

Photo by Dave Devall

Blogger doesn't remember who used his camera to take this shot.
Photo by Dave Devall
In his letter announcing the province’s decision to the parishioners and members of the Salesian Family, Fr. Tim Zak wrote that the decision was guided by priorities set by the Salesian Congregation at world level, reiterated by the province’s 2016 provincial chapter.

Those priorities include both apostolic effectiveness and the fraternal life of the Salesian communities throughout the province.

Fr. Zak’s letter noted that the 4 Salesians who were assigned to Champaign between 2013 and 2017 have all loved the people they served and worked hard to minister faithfully to them, and they have known the parishioners’ and students’ love, support, and appreciation. The Peoria Diocese and local clergy likewise appreciated their ministry.

Those 4 Salesians were Fr. Dave Sajdak, pastor (2013-2017), Fr. Bill Bucciferro with the Newman Center staff (2013-2017), Fr. Joe Santa Bibiana, director and parochial vicar (2013-2016), and Fr. Mike Mendl, director and parochial vicar (2016-2017).

The Salesians leave a physical legacy with the parish and its parochial school: a stronger preschool program with a new building and various building renovations. They leave the spiritual legacy of devotion to Mary Help of Christians and St. John Bosco, and of the Preventive System. The Salesian Cooperators remain to keep Salesian spirituality alive in Champaign. The confreres found many trusted and valued friends and hope those friendships will endure.

The Salesians have assured Holy Cross’s parishioners of their prayers during and after the transition and encouraged all concerned to look to the Risen Jesus as the source of our life and strength.

Here’s a photo collage from the 2016-2017 pastoral year.
When FMA Sisters Theresa Lee (kneeling) and Loretta DeDomenicis visited Champaign in the winter,
the Kisting family hosted a social for the local Salesian Family.

On the feast of St. John Bosco, the Salesian Cooperators hosted a modest social for the parish after the last Sunday Mass. Included was a little skit about Don Bosco's multiplying breakfast rolls one morning, and a Salesian finding his vocation by witnessing that. Fr. Mike plays DB, Bailey McMahon is a penitent, and Mary Shelden brings word that there's no bread in the house. Photo by Sue Berndt.
The Easter Vigil is the high point of the Church's liturgical year. At Holy Cross this year, Deacon Bob Ulbrich assisted Fr. Dave Sajdak with the paschal candle. Photo by Dave Devall.
We had a terrific RCIA class this year. At the Easter Vigil, 4 new Christians were baptized by Fr. Dave (including one 8th grader from our school), and 7 were admitted into full communion with the Catholic Church. All 11 were then confirmed and made their 1st Communion. Here, Fr. Dave baptizes Angie Schweighart, one of our preschool teachers. Photo by Fr. Mike.
Between September and March, Fr. Mike and Linda Atherton led 5 Boy Scouts from Troop 9 thru the Ad Altare Dei program. Kaleb Leininger, Jack Williamson, and Anthony Frasca were ready to receive their medals and certificates at a parish Mass on April 23. Ian Clapper and J.D. Sexton received theirs a few weeks later, also at a parish Mass. Photo by one of the parents with Fr. Mike's camera.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Blessed Stephen Sandor, Salesian brother and martyr

Blessed Stephen Sandor
Salesian Brother and Martyr
Memorial, June 8

Story and photo from

Stephen Sandor was born in Szolnok, Hungary, on November 26, 1914, the son of Stephen and Maria Fekete, the oldest of three brothers. His father worked with the state railways, and his mother at home. Both gave their children a deep religious spirit. Stephen studied in the city, gaining a diploma in metallurgy. As a youngster he was admired by his friends and was happy, serious, and gentle. He liked hanging around with his friends and was a leader among them, like John Bosco among the young people of Chieri. He helped his younger brothers study and pray, giving them his own example. He was fervent at the time of his Confirmation and promised to imitate St. Peter, whose name he took for Confirmation.

Knowing Don Bosco through the Salesian Bulletin

Stephen served Mass every day at the Franciscan church and received Communion. Through reading the Salesian Bulletin, he came to know about Don Bosco. He immediately felt attracted by the Salesian charism. He spoke to his spiritual director, expressing a desire to enter the Salesian Congregation. He spoke to his parents about it. They did not give permission and sought to dissuade him. But Stephen finally convinced them, and in 1936 he was accepted at the Clarisseum School, where he made an aspirantate of two years. At the Don Bosco print shop, learned how to be a printer. He began his novitiate, but it was interrupted by military service.

Model teacher and apostle

In 1939 Stephen resumed his novitiate, and he made his first profession of vows on September 8, 1940. Asked to teach at the Clarisseum, he immediately began to teach technical courses. He was also assistant at the youth center, something he did competently and enthusiastically. He fostered the Young Catholic Workers. His group was recognized as the best in the Movement. Following Don Bosco’s example, he became a model teacher. In 1942 he was called back to military service and earned a silver medal for valor. He organized an oratory at the front, encouraging his young friends in a Salesian style.

Bro. Stephen (far right) with his altar boys at the Clarisseum School.
At the end of World War II, Bro. Stephen involved himself in rebuilding society morally and materially, especially in the case of poor young people whom he gathered around him in order to teach them a trade. On July 24, 1946, he made his perpetual profession as a Salesian coadjutor brother. In 1948 he was certified as a master printer. When they completed their studies, Bro. Stephen’s students were employed by the best print shops in Hungary. 

Secret martyrdom

After the Communist takeover of the government in 1947, a period of persecution of Catholic schools began, and they had to close. Bro. Stephen was working in the print shop, but he had to escape and hide in Salesian houses while working under a false name in a chemical factory and continuing his youth and catechetical work secretly.

In July 1952 he was arrested at work, and his confreres never saw him again. After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, it was learned that he had been tried as a traitor on account of his religious activity and hanged in prison on June 8, 1953. His cause of martyrdom was opened at Budapest on May 24, 2006, and he was beatified on October 19, 2013.

Carrying out the beatification rite in Budapest, Cardinal Angelo Amato, SDB, prefect of the Vatican’ s Congregation for Saints’ Causes, said that Bro. Stephen’s death, far from being an “improvised heroic gesture,” had followed a life of “perpetual self-dedication.” He said religious persecution creates “a gulf between human beings,” whereas martyrs build “bridges of fraternity, forgiveness, and acceptance through their sacrifice.”

Homily for Solemnity of Pentecost

Homily for the
Solemnity of Pentecost
June 4, 2017
Acts 2: 1-11
John 20: 19-23
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 4).

From a medieval Liturgy of the Hours, ca. 1485
The Scriptures today offer us 2 versions of the gift of the Holy Spirit from Jesus to the Church.  We’re very familiar with both versions, St. Luke’s in Acts and St. John’s in the scene of Jesus’ appearance on the nite of his resurrection.

In either case, the risen Jesus sends the Spirit upon his apostles gathered in the upper room.  He sends the Spirit, it seems to me, for 2 purposes.  The 1st is to bind his disciples to himself, to our heavenly Father, and to one another.  The 2d is to enable them to carry on his work of human redemption.

Theologians speak of the Holy Spirit as the bond of love between God the Father and God the Son.  The Spirit is also the bond of love in our Christian lives.  This unity among believers is symbolized in the Pentecost story from Acts in the wondrous ability of all the listeners to understand the apostles’ preaching, regardless of their different languages:  Latin, Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Farsi, and Lord knows what else.  The Spirit forges us all into one holy people of God, one universal communion of brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.  “In the Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).

We’ve been given the same Spirit that came upon Jesus of Nazareth at his baptism in the Jordan.  At that time the Father voiced his pleasure in his beloved Son (Matt 3:17||).  The Spirit makes us, as well, beloved children of the Father, members of God’s family.  We are sealed or stamped as God’s own people, marked for an eternal destiny, heirs of the kingdom of God with Jesus Christ.  That gift of the Spirit was given to us in Baptism, was confirmed in our 2d sacrament of Christian initiation, and is renewed every time we commune with the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus.  We are one with all true believers in Jesus Christ in our time, in past ages, in time to come—this grand communion of saints bound together by the Holy Spirit.  As Fr. Dave would say, “How wonderful is that?”

On Easter nite, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit (John 20:22), his Spirit, upon the disciples, huddled so fearfully in the upper room (20:19) where 3 nites earlier they’d all celebrated Passover.  With his Spirit he transmitted to them his mission of redeeming the world.  They were to go forth in the power of his Spirit and forgive sins, reconcile sinners to God (20:22-23).  That, pure and simple, is the work of the Church:  to reconcile sinners with the Father and the Son thru the Holy Spirit—not in any inherent power of bishops and priests to forgive sins but by the commission of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit.  In the power of the Spirit, the Church preaches the Gospel of Jesus and the Church celebrates the sacraments of Jesus in order to reconcile all of us with God, to fill us with God’s love—also called “grace”—to put us into that peace with God that Jesus bestowed upon his disciples on Easter nite.

“Come, Holy Spirit, come!  O most blessed light divine, shine within these hearts of thine, and our inmost being fill.  Heal our wounds, our strength renew, on our dryness pour thy dew; wash the stains of guilt away.  On the faithful who adore and confess thee, evermore thy sevenfold gift descend; give them thy salvation, Lord; give them joys that never end.  Amen!” (Sequence)

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Blessed Joseph Kowalski, Salesian Priest and Martyr

Blessed Joseph Kowalski,

Salesian Priest and Martyr[1]

Memorial, May 29

Joseph Kowalski was born at Siedliska, Poland, a little farming town near Rzeszow, on March 13, 1911, the son of Wojciech and Sofia Borowiec. The family’s faith was deep and practical. He was baptized on March 19, feast of St. Joseph, in the parish church at Lubenia, about 2½ miles from the town, which at that time did not have a church.

Following his parents’ wishes, after finishing his elementary schooling, at age 11 he went to St. John Bosco School at Oswiecim, where stayed five years. In these years he was distinguished by rare piety, diligence, joy, and a spirit of service. Everyone liked him, and he was counted among the better boys. He belonged to the Immaculate Conception Sodality, was president of the mission club, and led religious and cultural activities among his schoolmates. It was hardly strange that there grew in him the desire to follow in the steps of his teachers, who saw in him the signs of the grace of a genuine vocation.

The educational environment and Christian formation of his teen years are suggestive of all the characteristic elements of the Preventive System: a youthful environment, a trusting rapport with his teachers, groups with commitments, the more mature boys taking responsibility, devotion to Mary Help of Christians, frequenting the sacraments.

That in this environment Joseph pursued his own personal journey toward holiness as he “imitated Dominic Savio” is shown, among other ways, in some pages of his “Private Notebooks”: “To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin”; “O my good Jesus, give me a will that is persevering, firm, strong, so that I can persevere in my holy resolutions and can attain my lofty ideal: the holiness that has been appointed for me. I can and must be a saint.” The same notebooks document his very personal attachment to Jesus Christ, which continued to mature with the years, in particular after his religious profession: “Jesus, I want to be truly faithful and faithfully to serve you.... I dedicate myself totally to you.... Keep me close to you always and faithful to you until death and maintain my oath: ‘To die rather than to offend you by the slightest sin’.... I must be a holy Salesian, as my father Don Bosco was a saint.”

Fr. Kowalski as a young Salesian
As a young student of philosophy in 1930, he had written in blood on a page in his diary, after he had sketched a small cross: “To suffer and to be despised for you, O Lord.... Fully aware, with a decisive will, and ready for all the consequences, I embrace the sweet cross of Christ’s call, and I wish to carry it until the end, until death.” He asked to become a Salesian, and in 1927 he entered the novitiate at Czerwinsk. There followed his years of college and philosophy at Krakow (1928-1931), practical training capped by his perpetual profession (1934), and his theological studies leading to his priestly ordination in 1938.

The provincial, Fr. Adam Cieslar, called him immediately to be his secretary, and he fulfilled that role for the next three years. He is described as a confrere who was notable for an amazing self-mastery and exceptional esteem for each of his brothers: helpful, courteous, always calm, and especially very hardworking. As much as his duties allowed, he put himself to studying languages (Italian, French, German); he read with interest biographies of the Founder and prepared his homilies most carefully. The duties of provincial secretary did not prevent him from carrying out pastoral ministry. He was always available to preach or give conferences, especially among the youngsters, and to hear confessions. Gifted with a keen musical ear and possessing a beautiful voice, he took care of the parish youth choir, adding to the solemnity of the liturgical celebrations.

This zealous priestly activity among the young is exactly what the Nazis had in mind and was the reason why they arrested Fr. Kowalski on May 23, 1941, together with 11 other Salesians. They were jailed temporarily in Krakow’s Montelupich prison. After a month he and the others were moved to the Auschwitz concentration camp (Oswiecim in Polish). Here he saw four of his confreres killed [on June 27, 1941]. They included his director Fr. Joseph Swierc and his confessor Fr. Ignatius Dobiasz. He became prisoner no. 17350 and underwent a year of hard labor and mistreatment in the so-called “hardship corps,” where few survived. His transfer to Dachau was decided, but at the last moment it was halted in circumstances well described by witnesses who were deposed during the process investigating his martyrdom, also reported in the process of beatification of Fr. Maximilian Kolbe. He remained in the “hardship corps” at Auschwitz.

Fr. Kowalski's prison ID
The prison camp became the field of his pastoral ministry. He united his suffering to diligent attention to his comrades, especially to strengthen their hope and sustain their faith. We report some facts to which some testified: “The chiefs of the SK (Strafkompanie, punitive unit), knowing that Kowalski was a priest, harassed him at every step, beat him at every occasion, ordered him to the harshest work.” But he never stopped offering to his comrades all the priestly service possible: “Despite a strict prohibition, he absolved the sins of the dying, strengthened the discouraged, spiritually comforted the poor men who had been sentenced to death, secretly brought around Communion; he managed even to organize Mass in the barracks, led prayer, and helped those who were in need.” “In that death camp where, according to the expression of the commanders, God was absent, he succeeded in bringing God to his fellow prisoners.” His interior and exterior attitude during this entire Calvary was shown in [his last] letter to his parents: “Don’t worry about me; I’m in God’s hands.... I want to assure you that I feel his help at every step. In spite of the present situation, I’m happy and completely at peace; I’m sure that wherever I may be and whatever may happen to me, everything comes from the fatherly Providence of God, who in the most just manner directs the fates of every nation and of all human beings.”

Two facts speak eloquently of his heroic pastoral zeal. The first is the organization of daily prayer in the camp: “When we’d barely come out of our blocks in the morning, we used to assemble, while it was still dark (at 4:30), forming a little group of 5-8 persons, near one of the blocks, in a less visible spot (the discovery of such a gathering might have cost us our lives), to recite a prayer that we repeated after him. The little group grew bit by bit, even though it was very risky.”

Forced labor in a Nazi concentration camp
The second happened on June 2, 1942. An order came from the concentration camps high command: 60 priests were to be deported from Auschwitz to Dachau. That was another extermination camp, where 3,000 priests were interned. Fr. Joseph Kowalski was among those selected for the trip. The 60 priests were stuffed into a bathhouse to be disinfected before they left. The scene that unfolded has been narrated under oath by Fr. Conrad Szweda: “We were gathered in the bathhouse, waiting our turn to be disinfected. [SS Gerhard] Palitzsch came in, the most pitiless of the executioners of Auschwitz. He noticed that Fr. Kowalski had something in his hand: ‘What do you have?’ he asked brusquely. And without waiting for an answer, he struck the hand with his whip, and a rosary fell out. ‘Step on it!’ he shouted. Fr. Joseph did not move. He was immediately separated from the group and transferred to the special discipline unit.”

The events of the last day of his life, July 3, 1942, were even more tragic. Every deed and every word of those last 24 hours are clothed with a particularly important meaning. “When our work was done,” one witness tells, “his comrades led Fr. Kowalski to the block; he’d been ill treated by the officers. After his return, I spent the last moments together with him. We realized that after the slaying of our bunk mates (of five, three had already been killed), now our turn was coming. In that situation, Fr. Kowalski was concentrated in prayer. At a certain moment he turned to me and said, ‘Kneel and pray with me for all these men who are killing us.’ We both prayed until the roll-call was done, till late in the evening on the bunk. After a little bit Mitas came to us and called Fr. Kowalski, who rose from the bunk with a tranquil spirit, because he’d prepared for this call and for the death that would follow. He gave me the portion of bread he’d received for supper, saying, ‘You eat it; I won’t need it.’ After these words he went knowingly to his death.

“Before the final act, which would occur early on the morning of July 4, on the 3d a sacred play was enacted, in which was revealed the heroic dignity of a genuine testimony of faith. The commanders had gone mad in their mania for killing. They enjoyed themselves immensely with the cruel spectacles they created. On this day they continued their sadistic morning’s entertainment right through their lunch break. One they would drown in the nearby cesspool, others they would hurl from the high embankment to the bottom of a great canal that was being excavated, full of muddy clay. Any victim who moaned, not yet dead, was shoved into a big barrel that was missing a bottom, which served as a kennel for the dogs. They made them imitate the baying of the dogs and then, pouring some of their soup upon the ground, they compelled the dying men to lick it from the dirt. One of the officers yelled with a raucous laugh: ‘And where’s that Catholic priest? He can bless them for their trip to eternity.’ Meanwhile other tormentors were beating Fr. Kowalski down into the mud for their amusement. Then they led him, hardly resembling a man, to the barrel. Naked, he was dragged out of a muddy pool, holding what was left of his tattered pants and dripping from head to foot with that sticky mix of mud and dung. Driven by blows, he came to the barrel where some lay dying and others dead. The executioners thrashed Fr. Kowalski, mocked him as a priest, and ordered him to climb upon the barrel and impart to the dying ‘according to the Catholic rite, the last blessing for their trip to Paradise.’

“Fr. Kowalski knelt on the barrel, made the Sign of the Cross, and began loudly, as if inspired, to recite slowly the Our Father, Hail Mary, ‘We fly to thy patronage,’ and Hail, Holy Queen. The eternal words of truth contained in the divine strophes of the Lord’s Prayer deeply impressed the prisoners who from day to day, from hour to hour, expected in that place a sudden death, like that of those in the kennel who were leaving this valley of tears, so disfigured that they no longer looked like human beings. Curled up on the grass, not daring to raise our heads lest we expose ourselves to the view of the executioners, we relished Fr. Kowalski’s piercing words like material food that gave us a desired peace. Upon that ground soaked in prisoners’ blood, our tears now flowed and sank in as we assisted at the sublime mystery celebrated by Fr. Kowalski against the backdrop of that macabre scene. Nestled near me on the grass, a young student of Jaslo (Thaddeus Kokosz) whispered into my ear: ‘The world has never before heard a prayer like this. Maybe not even in the catacombs did they pray like that.’”

From a careful reconstruction we learn that he was killed in the night of July 3-4, 1942. He was drowned in the camp sewer. His fellow prisoner Stephen Boratynski, who saw his completely filthy corpse left in front of the block of the so-called “punishment unit,” testified to this under oath.

The decree of Fr. Kowalski’s martyrdom was published on March 26, 1999. He was beatified [with 107 other Polish victims of Nazi persecution] on June 13, 1999, by St. John Paul II [who, as a university student, had known him in the parish of St. Stanislaus Kostka in Krakow’s Debniki neighborhood].

[Salesians can find additional material in the letter "Sanctity and Martyrdom at the Dawn of the Third Millenium" (sic), June 29, 1999, by Fr. Juan Edmundo Vecchi in Acts of the General Council, no. 368, pp. 16-27.]

      [1] The text is from, translated by your humble blogger for the province newsletter of May 25.

Homily for Ascension of the Lord

Homily for the Solemnity
of the Ascension of the Lord
Acts 1: 1-11
May 28, 2016
Matt 28: 16-20
Holy Cross, Champaign, Ill.

“Wait for the promise of the Father about which you heard me speak” (Acts 1: 4).

You’re all familiar with sequels.  Countless successful movies have them, sometimes multiple parts like Star Wars; books too, like the Harry Potter series.  Our 1st reading today is the opening lines of St. Luke’s sequel to his Gospel.  If you wanted to, you could call it “The Good News of Jesus Christ, Part II.”  On the other hand, it’s often called “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit” because the Spirit is mentioned so many times in this book (twice in the 11 verses we just read), often as a principal actor driving the apostles’ actions.  Officially, of course, it’s titled “The Acts of the Apostles,” a historical record—in parts an eyewitness account—of what Jesus’ closest followers did and preached in the 1st years after his resurrection from the dead.
The Ascension of Jesus
Benjamin West
These opening verses of Acts give us our traditional image of the ascension of Jesus as well as the number of 40 days during which he appeared to his disciples in his risen body.  The gospels, including St. Luke’s, aren’t so specific about either the length of time or the manner of Jesus’ leaving his disciples.

The fundamental truths are these:  Jesus was truly raised from the dead and is physically alive, immortal, but also transformed so that he can be seen bodily, be touched, be heard, eat; yet also disappear at will, pass thru closed doors, etc.  Jesus in his risen body is now in heaven with his Father, ruling over creation and interceding for the human race—our human ambassador at the divine court, as it were, representing the interests of humanity, especially seeking mercy for us.  And Jesus will return at the end of history to raise from the dead and lead into the glory of heaven all of his disciples and to ratify the damnable choice made by anyone who has refused his mercy and remained in sin.  As our Collect noted, “Where the Head has gone before in glory, the Body [all of his disciples] is called to follow in hope.”

Before we follow our Lord Jesus into heavenly glory, however, we have 2 commissions to carry out, 2 directives that he gave his disciples before he left them.

The 1st is “to wait for the promise of the Father,” i.e., for “baptism with the Holy Spirit” (1:4-5).  To that he adds, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (1:8).

The 2d command tells them what they’re to do with that power of the Holy Spirit:  “You will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (1:8), a commission confirmed in St. Matthew’s version of the Ascension:  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, … teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (28:19-20).

When the Lord tells us that he will always remain with us (e.g., Matt 28:20), he isn’t specific about how he’ll be present.  Certainly he’s present sacramentally in the Eucharist.  But the scriptural stress today is on his presence thru the Holy Spirit.

The apostles and the rest of the disciples—some 120 in all, according to Acts 1:15, including Mary, the mother of Jesus (1:14)—had to wait for the Holy Spirit.  It was only when the Spirit came down upon them in wind and fire—as we’ll recall next Sunday, Pentecost—that they received this wondrous baptism the Risen Lord speaks of—and were filled with courage, strength, wisdom, and the other gifts they needed to become, in truth, apostles, men and women sent to spread the Good News of Jesus, sent to be his witnesses.

In one sense, you and I aren’t waiting for the Holy Spirit, my brothers and sisters.  He’s already been given to us in Baptism and, for most of us, in Confirmation.  We have already been given the power of the Holy Spirit.

In another sense, we’re still waiting on the Spirit.  Or perhaps the Spirit is waiting on us.  Have we invoked his sacred power?  Have we called upon him to inspire us, give us wisdom, give us courage, help us play our proper roles as witnesses of Jesus Christ?  If we want his power in our lives, we have to ask him to come upon us, to fill our hearts and our minds, to drive our wills.

Empowered by the Spirit, the apostles began immediately to preach the resurrection of Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, and mankind’s reconciliation with God.  They began on that Pentecost day to convert the world; Acts tells us that after Peter preached that day, “about 3,000 persons were added” to the number of believers (1:41).  The apostles began “in Jerusalem” and then moved on “thruout Judea and Samaria,” and as Acts narrates, into Syria, Cyprus, Asia Minor, Greece, and as far as Rome, and eventually “to the ends of the earth” (1:8).  To study church history is in part to study the steady expansion of Christianity to all 6 inhabited continents.  I’m sure there’s also a Christian presence on the 7th continent, among the scientists and military personnel living in Antarctica.

Jesus Christ came for the redemption of the entire human race, and he sent his Church—empowered his Church, which meant the apostles and all the disciples, and now means us as well—to perpetuate his mission of redemption in every land and in every age.  Today there are about 2.4 billion Christians on this earth.  That sounds like a lot.  Some of course, are Christians only in name, aren’t really believers, and don’t practice what they profess.  E.g., supposedly more than 1,000 families belong to our parish; but on any given Sunday, only 800 individuals come to give thanks to God for their salvation and recharge themselves with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Apart from that little matter, if there are about 7.3 billion people living on the planet, what’s 2.4 billion?[1]  33%.  It’s a considerable shortfall, no?  The mission of Jesus is far from complete, sisters and brothers.  We have a lot more witnessing to do—truly to live our faith on Sundays and weekdays, to know who we are as followers of Jesus, to speak and act constantly, consistently, courageously, humbly as followers of Jesus amid our families and friends and co-workers and anyone with whom we interact.  We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Jesus in Champaign, thruout Illinois, and to the ends of the earth.  To us too Jesus says, “Go and make disciples”—1st in our own families, and then as opportunity presents itself, especially thru apostolic activity in our parish, e.g., in pro-life action, St. Vincent de Paul, catechetical action, Eucharistic ministry, youth ministry, music ministry.  Not least, pray for missionaries, priests, and other apostolic workers; pray for the conversion of sinners, always conscious that you, too, are a sinner still needing to turn fully to Jesus.  (Me too.)  May the grace and power of the Holy Spirit touch us all and lead us to fullness of life in Jesus Christ!

       [1] Statistics from the 2017 World Almanac, p. 698.