Every child makes a difference

baby-jesus-in-mangerA Reflection by Fr. George Berendt, PIME

According to some statistics I ran across on the internet I was amazed to learn that globally approximately four children are born every second. That’s about 250 every minute, 15,000 every hour, 360,000 every day – every year about 131.4 million babies are born. That’s a lot of crying babies!

A question comes to my mind : “Does the birth of a baby – any baby for that matter – make a difference to our world?” The answer of course is “Yes, indeed!” How different our world would be today without the likes of Henry Ford, Clara Barton, Steve Jobs, Rosa Parks or Jonas Salk. All of them were babies just like you and me. Babies who grew and developed, babies who became adults and eventually altered and improved our world.

On the other hand, how much better off would our world be if the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Pol Pot were never conceived, never born? How much suffering, death and pain would have been avoided if their parents had never met? We will never know!

All babies are essentially the same in every time and in every place. They all leave their mothers’ wombs wet and screaming with flailing legs and arms with some slight, superficial variances. These variances aren’t important. It’s what’s veiled inside each child that is fascinating. Will this child be a saint or sinner, a maker or taker, a lover or hater?

Over 2000 years ago a child was born in a distant, poor, insignificant corner of the Roman Empire. He wasn’t born into great wealth nor did he enjoy a prestigious family name. He was like all children of his age who were fortunate to survive the traumas of childbirth. Could Mary and Joseph imagine the impact this child would have on their world, on our world?

This child, their child, our child was more than what the eye could see. Human eyes were incapable of penetrating to the core of Jesus. They were unable to see the divinity that shared the same body as did his humanity. A volcano of love was boiling away deep in his interior. So intense was his love for every human being that Jesus later as an adult would say:  “I have come to set the earth on fire!” (Lk 12:49). This was a fire of love, compassion and mercy; a fire of intense love that would, as John the Baptist pointed out to his listeners, “Take away the sins of the world.” (Jn1:29) (And that’s a heap of sins indeed.)

This child would eventually become the “criminal” who’d pay for our crimes. What love that was indeed! All that love was dormant in the body of this child born in a manger. Who could have imagined? The birth of the Son of God has changed our world but much still needs transformation. Sin still has a hold on us. The child born two millennia ago has given us a way to move forward. His birth has had an impact but it hasn’t achieved its final end.  We still need missionaries to go out to our world bringing his message. Our work as a missionary Church continues. So does the birth of a child make a difference to our world? For sure! Nevertheless, the full impact of Jesus’ birth two millennia ago has not achieved its ultimate goal: “peace on earth and good will to all.”(Lk 2:14) Merry Christmas!

A mission “on the cutting edge”

Priest-praying-rosaryBy Fr. Dino Vanin, PIME

Jesus said “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens (hard to carry) and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen. They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues… (Matthew 23:2-6)

We priests should keep that somber remark from Jesus in the back of our minds.

This must, arguably, be the hardest of all areas where we should improve according to the mind and wishes of Pope Francis. It has to be so because we are always called, as priests, to act in persona Christi capitis (in place of Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, the Church).

Being beset with human weaknesses and frailty, just like everyone else, we too have the innate tendency to do what we can to look good, to make a good impression, to welcome accolades and praises while trying to minimize our deficiencies and cover up our flaws.

A simple reality check would reveal to us that, while most people would overlook and try to excuse in the great majority of their fellow human beings the innate tendency of sprucing up their image, this is definitely not permitted of priests.

The word “hypocrite” would be applied with lightning speed at the first signs of inconsistency in us.

This seems unfair; but it is not.

Many of the faithful who are supportive of us, who show respect and love us, place us on a pedestal. Meanwhile our denigrators look down on us at the bottom of the scum pit in which they had placed us from the beginning.
What to do?

To those who placed us on a pedestal we should quote Jeremiah 17:5 “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings’…” And Jesus himself: “…without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5). Indeed, from the worst sinner all the way to the saintliest person, no one is confirmed in grace: anyone can falter, cause horrific scandal, and drag many down with him.

Once we get over our anger at our denigrators, we should thank them for holding us to a much higher standard. They are doing this unwittingly and, most likely, because they resent that, through our preaching and teaching, we tell them that the Catholic Church will always refuse to approve of any lifestyle that is against natural law or contrary to God’s commandments.

Hence, we should continue to preach and teach the truth that Jesus Christ entrusted to the Church to be kept from alteration and misinterpretation (Cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), always humbly keeping our sins before us and have full and exclusive reliance on the Holy Spirit.
We should be tough enough to endure our share of the rejection and abuse that was meted out to our divine Master. Ours is a mission on the cutting edge.
It has been so from the Church’s inception:

“For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord,[ ] but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
(2 Timothy 1:6-8).

To Flower and Fade

zinniasA reflection for Ash Wednesday from Fr. George Berendt, PIME

Every spring in our community house’s courtyard garden I plant a sunflower and zinnia flower garden. As the sun warms the eart, the seeds begin to sprout, and before I know it huge sunflowers and a kaleidoscope of colorful zinnias take over the naked plot of land.

In time, bees and butterflies are attracted to the gorgeous blooms to rob them of their sweet nectar and fly away. Inebriated on this garden delight, they secretly enjoy, in their hives and resting spots, what they robbed from me with their insect kith and kin.

With the passing of time the beautiful colors of the flowers fade, their leaves dry and wither, and become quite lifeless. As autumn takes over I gather the lifeless remains of these beauties and burn them to clean the patch they once occupied. As the flames consume them, all that remains is a small pile of grey ash. All the color, all the beauty, is now only a memory.

The story of my flowers reminds us what fire can do in a matter of moments: life, the passage of time, and even mere existence itself, ends, along with anything and everything that exists.

Every day I can gaze down from my third floor room and look down upon the other garden and the neighborhood around PIME’s mission house. From my window I see massive, solid, old oak trees – more than a century old – anchored to the ground. At their base and in their boughs squirrels scamper here and there, seeking their favorite food – acorns. At the same time, flocks of vibrant, colorful birds land on the branches to take rest while cottontail rabbits hop through the grass looking for food. Insects fly hither and there.

On the sidewalk around our park-like garden I spy neighbors walking their dogs and mowing their laws, kids at play and city workers doing their jobs. Life is all around and it is pulsating.

As I see all this color and life that exists around me, I am haunted by the thought that one day,  by some disease, accident, illness or even violence, all I see now will be turned into dust; ashen, grey dust. Even our Mother Earth will have an end some billion years from now. Cosmic time and human time might be different but nevertheless all share the same history – a beginning and an end.

Today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent; grey ashes will be blessed and smudged on our brows; ashes that were once the branches of a living, vibrant, green, tropical palm tree. As we are branded this Lent the words we will hear tell us that ‘we are ashes and to ashes we will return.’ Perhaps it isn’t a pleasant thought but the church thinks it is important to remind her kids, once a year at least, of the facts of life: one day all of us will be overthrown by time and be transformed into a handful of grey, powdery ash.

I would like to end our Ash Wednesday reflection with the words of Fr. Romano Guardini, a famous priest, who turned to ash in 1968. He wrote in “Richer Fare for the Christian People” this consideration:

 Everything turns to ashes, everything whatever. This house I live in, these clothes I am wearing, my household stuff, my money, my fields, meadows, woods, the dog that follows me, the clock in the hall, the hand I am writing with, these eyes that read what I write, and the rest of my body, people I have loved, people I have hated, or been afraid of, whatever was great in my eyes upon earth, whatever small and contemptible, all without exceptions will fall back into dust.

Dust we might be but in the end we can never forget the words of Jesus on the cross when he turned to the Good Thief and promised him, and now us, “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23: 43).

Money: Servant or Master?

 

 

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 Reflections on the readings for Sunday, March 2 (Isaiah 49:14-15; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6:24-34)

By Fr. George Berendt, PIME

            The Gospel message for this Sunday seems to put us preachers in a difficult situation.

        Living in a capitalistic, money driven society as we do; absorbing the message of Hollywood’s movie Wall Street from a few years back where it was proclaimed that “Greed is good;” encouraged to envy ‘Wall Street elite’ who earn astronomical salaries for producing wealth and not a cure for cancer, Alzheimer disease, or a useful object; watching  TV shows that feature the lives of those who live a ‘champagne and caviar’ lifestyle; it would seem unwise for a preacher to attack the system we all live under or the heroes and champions that are held up for us to emulate and imitate.

        Then, on the other hand, not to take seriously what Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel; nor to try to understand what Jesus is really teaching us; nor to challenge the conventional wisdom of present day attitudes towards mammon, wealth, and money that are floating around out there today; is to do an injustice to Jesus and what he really is attempting to say and teach in today’s Gospel. Unfortunately, as a preacher I must answer to a ‘higher authority’ just like the Hebrew National Sausage Company must. So, who can help us unlock the message of Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel?

        Well I think I have found this somebody. This somebody is President Ronald Reagan’s European sweetheart, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. One day she made this comment: “It is not the creation of wealth that is wrong, but the love of money for its own sake.” Hum! Is this British wisdom, I ask?

        Jesus, as we all know, was a working man; a non-unionized tradesman, a carpenter. At the same time he was a pious Jew who knew his Torah. Jesus was familiar with its first book, the book of Genesis (3: 17-

19, 23) and was aware of what was written there:

 Cursed be the ground because of you!

In toil shall you eat its yield all the days of your life.

Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to you,

As you eat of the plants of the field,

By the sweat of your brow

Shall you get bread to eat…

The Lord God therefore banished him from the Garden of Eden,

To till the ground from which he had been taken.

         Work, labor, toil, and the daily grind:  as Jesus well knew, they were and always would be the means by which a living was made. They were the means by which life was sustained and wealth created and accumulated. Jesus was not insensitive to the basic needs of people. Jesus was aware of what the Book of Sirach (29:21) said:

 Life’s prime needs are water, bread, and clothing,

A house, too, for decent privacy.

         Jesus accepted the simple reality that work kept people in his day and age alive and the family intact. Living in a subsistence culture as he did where what you made, grew, fished, or weaved was what you survived on was a world so different from our modern, abundant, industrial, high carbon use, consumerist, capitalistic driven world.

        When Jesus taught his followers to pray, and gave them the words “give us this day our daily bread’’ these words best expressed what most people could hope for. Daily survival was an everyday issue. Life was hard and harsh for Jesus and his people, as it was for all the ancients. They worked to survive each day in the hope that tomorrow they would also keep body and soul together.

        We are mistaken if we think that Jesus is giving us a ‘spiritual criticism’ on the present economic system we now live under. There is no way that Jesus could ever have imagined an industrialized, money driven, consumer society like ours. Also, Jesus is not pitting the one-per-centers against the 99-per-centers as is happening in the political-economic debates of our times.

        Needless to say, these debates that we are having now are important and we have to take them seriously in these trying economic times and deal with the unjust economic issues that are festering around us. A world where only some 65 individuals have control of the same amount of wealth that something like three billion people have control over cannot be a just and content world.

        No! Jesus is calling our attention to two Greek words in today’s Gospel that we need to focus on. One of the words whose English translation is not all that precise. The two words are servant (doulos) and master (kurios).

        Rather than “servant” the translation of the Greek word doulos should be “slave.” Indeed, it’s an ugly word that 600,000 Americans died for to end. Yet, in Jesus’ world slavery was alive and well and was an accepted reality in the ancient world.

        A slave was not considered a person but a possession, a living tool with no rights. A slave had no private time and was at the beck and call of the master. I invite you to see the recent movie Twelve Years as a Slave. This movie will show you what the reality of a slave was like during Jesus’ times. The master possessed him, could beat him, expel him and even kill him. Every moment of his or her existence was at the service of the master.

        The reality and the spiritual teaching that Jesus is leading his listeners to, as well as us today, is the fact that every master makes its slaves.

        Fr. John Shea, a popular Catholic theologian and author writes this about the dual relationship between master and slave: “What dominates our consciousness and dictates our actions is what we ultimately value and is that with which we identify ourselves. It masters us. We attend to it so completely that when other concerns seek our attention, we push them away.” In other words, if we seek money, mammon,  or wealth as the base of our security we do not have time or interest in the security that God provides.

        Most Catholics would find it strange if I told them we own nothing. We don’t even own all the money in our bank accounts, the houses we live in, the clothes on our backs, the food on our tables, nor the cars in our garages. Why can I say this? For the simple reason that everything belong to God. The Psalms make this quite clear to anyone who reads and prays them. As Psalm 24: 1 reminds us:

The earth is the Lord’s and all it holds,

The world and those who live there. (see: Pss 50:12;89:12).

         So the question is; why would we serve, or become a slave to, that which we only have temporary use of and can never give us eternal life? All this recent political gibberish that we have heard about being ‘self-made’ and ‘this is mine and no one has any claim on it’ is just that, gibberish. No matter what comes our way through hard work, good education, inheritance is in our possession only temporarily: from the surplus money stashed away in the Cayman Islands to the lint and coins in my jeans pocket. One day I will surrender it all and answer to God for how I used what God temporarily entrusted to me.

        St. Cyprian (300 A.D.), an early Father of the Church, told his congregation: “The property of the wealthy holds them in chains…which shackle their courage and choke their faith and hamper their judgment and throttle their souls. They think of themselves as owners, whereas it is they rather who are owned: enslaved as they are to their own property, they are not the masters of their money but it slaves.”

        In the end Jesus is not telling us in today’s Gospel that money is evil. Neither is Jesus criticizing capitalism or the present financial system we live under. Our system is what it is, for good or for bad. That is just the way our world operates today and we need to fix what needs to be fixed.

        In the end, money, mammon, and wealth are only tools we need to use in order to live, supply our daily bread, secure as best we can our uncertain futures and hopefully live a decent life and aid those who are in need. As Henrik Ibsen wrote:

        Money may be the husk of many things, but not the kernel. It brings you food, but not appetite; medicine, but not health; acquaintance, but not friends; servants, but not faithfulness, days of joy, but not peace and happiness.

         Jesus is not talking about what is in your and my billfold or what we have squirreled away in some IRA. Jesus is talking about our attitude of heart, how we look upon wealth and everything that has come our way by luck and even hard work. Mammon might be what we need to survive in this life but in the end I agree with what Winston Churchill once said: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Let us give our all to God who is our Lord and Master. If it’s slavery you seek, become a slave to Him who said:

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Mt.12: 28)

Embracing the Spirit of the Gospel: Priests Challenged to Grow in Holiness

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 Fr. Dino S. Vanin, PIME 

In April of last year, Pope Francis illustrated the seven areas on which the reform of the Catholic priesthood should concentrate.

All the areas in which the life of a Catholic priest should improve reflect vital challenges stemming from an honest embracing of the spirit of the Gospel.

The first area is the taking up of a simple lifestyle. It is followed by a call to integrity of coherence between what is preached and what is practiced in daily life. The third area is the one of being truly accountable without harboring feelings of entitlement to privileges and exemptions. In imitation of Christ Jesus, Catholic priests, then, are to see their mission as one of service combined with concrete distancing from any use of clerical power. The last three areas are also significant: to minister to their flocks with profound mercy and compassion, to celebrate the liturgy with the real inner spirit that is required and to be true evangelizers rather than administrators.

In his 1990 Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II points out that the core of the Catholic ministerial priesthood is the one of standing and acting “in Persona Christi Capitis” (in the Person of Christ the Head).

Among the many services provided to humankind by the Catholic Church, the one of physicality cannot be overlooked because it is a direct and forceful reminder of the Incarnation. Physicality was fully displayed in all that Jesus said and did. Physicality was meant to remain with humankind until the end of time to assure us that God is truly Emmanuel, truly with us also in ways that affect our senses. From the first time Jesus sent his disciples out to continue his mission of total restoration to the original order of creation, physicality has been destined to become a most forceful channel of the divine reaching our human miseries. So, even now, and until the end of the age, physicality is exercised whenever his Grace transforms us through the Sacraments. The Incarnation of our God is, thus, to be forever the way in which the unfathomable exchange of divinity with humanity and of humanity with divinity occurs.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is forever and ever God. But Our Lord Jesus Christ is forever also a man. 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God. There is also one mediator between God and the human race, the man Christ Jesus. For all eternity he has a real, physical (see John 20:20 and Luke 24: 38-43) although glorified body.

Now, the essence of physicality demands not only a direct impact on our senses, but also immediacy of association between the physical means chosen and the divine reality that they impart. For example: the sight of water been poured at Baptism and the washing away of sins; anointing with oil and the healing or consecration or power that oil brings about, and so on.

This immediacy of association has to apply also to those (priests) who act “in persona Christi Capitis.” A man ordained to the Catholic ministerial priesthood has to be immediately associated with the man Jesus Christ; the sound of the words: “I absolve you of all your sins” spoken by a mortal man empowered by the Lord must be immediately associated with the eternal High Priest who takes away the sins of the world.

It seems to me that, in proposing his suggestions on the areas where priestly reformation is greatly needed, Pope Francis intends for the association between priest and Jesus Christ to be not only immediate but also much deeper and resulting in Catholic priests who are holier and more Christ-like.   

In subsequent blogs, I will attempt to reflect on each of these seven areas of priestly reformation with particular emphasis on the way they make their demands on a priest called also to be acting “in persona Christi capitis” in mission lands.

 

 

From Darkness to Light

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark;

The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.

                                                                                                                           Plato

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday, January 26, 2014
By Fr. George Berendt, PIME
(See Isaiah 8: 23-9:3; 1 Cor 1:10-13, 17; and Mt 4: 12-23)

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            Alaska is one of America’s most beautiful and breathtaking states. It is huge, rich in scenic beauty, blessed with abundant land and ocean resources. Yet, in spite of the beauty that this biggest of our 50 states is blessed with, there is a dark side to Alaska.

            A missionary sister, whom I knew and is now deceased, worked in Alaska for a good part of her religious life. I met her when I was working at PIME’s parish in Los Angeles. She came to give our parish’s mission club a presentation about her work in the Great White North.

            After her presentation she hung around the rectory with me for a while and as we shared some tea and cookies she told me about the “dark side” of this beautiful patch of real estate we bought for a song from the Russians.

            During our counter top conversation that evening she told me that the hardest times during the Alaskan year for her was when the polar darkness set in. Anyone who knows anything about Alaska knows that in the northern reaches of the state, in the frigid, winter months, the sun sets and a deep, dreary darkness settles over the land for months on end. As the sun vanishes, gradually the psyche of many people who live in this darkened environment is altered in a negative way. The long months of darkness and the absence of natural light affects many who live there.

            Sister told me that during the “dark months” the suicide rate goes up, alcoholism and drug abuse increases, family violence become epidemic and the number of divorces increases. The lack of daylight and the long, drawn out, dark days seem to have a powerful effect on the lives of the people she serves.

            Even down here in the southern, tropical regions of Michigan we suffer from a winter disorder called SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Even though we still have the sun, our Great Lakes’ winter with its gray, overcast days, long, cold, dark nights, and early sunsets and late sunrises causes cabin fever.  We get the itch to escape our balmy Great Lakes Region and flee to where the papaya and pineapple grow for the taking and the citrus drops from the tree tops into our laps. The winter urge to put our feet in the white sands of a warmer current than Lake Michigan is strong indeed. Ah, palm tree vistas and Margaritaville!

            The sun and the light it creates have a very powerful influence on human life. It influences our moods, disposition and humor. The light of the sun influences our rising and sleeping – something  scientists call the circadian rhythm, i.e., our “biological clock.”  It’s amazing the power and influence the light of the sun has on our lives. When it is absent, we crave it ever more.

            Today the prophet Isaiah tells us that “the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” Light and darkness have always been the “yin” and the “yang” in the language of those who speak about spirituality. Light illuminates the paths a righteous and upright person should walk if he or she desires to follow the right path as outlined by God. Those who embrace the darkness end up going astray and find themselves lost and forlorn down false paths. Light is always seen as something positive in the life of a disciple while darkness is seen as being the Devil’s best friend.

            Two thousand years ago a great light shone down upon our world in the guise of Jesus the Christ who told us that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Through Jesus, the Holy Trinity has shone the light of salvation on our world and indicated a path that those who seek eternal life should follow as best as they can. Jesus has illuminated the path one should follow.

            Nevertheless, in spite of that great light that has shone down upon us; many sadly prefer to embrace the various forms of darkness that devastate personal lives, distress families and upset society. Even today too many people prefer to embrace the darkness and reject the light.

            I wonder why the darkness of drug addiction and alcohol misuse is more appealing than a clean and sober lifestyle to many of our young brothers and sisters.

            Why is a voyeuristic enjoyment of internet pornography at epidemic levels? Why are humans seen as objects to be used for selfish, personal gratification?

            Why are the darkness of gang affiliation and its subculture of violence, drugs, guns, sexual promiscuity and mayhem so enticing to many young people as they are beginning their lives?

            What is the allure that entangles our financial leaders in economic intrigues, disrupting financial security  in our country and around the world, and upsetting the lives of people they will never know, destroying their retirement and financial security?

            What do our politicians gain to give more benefits to their supporters and backers and those who are wealthy? What makes them eager to take away the safety net from so many who are on the bottom? Why is “the common good” a concept that is now relegated to the corner?

            How dark must our society be that it is willing to discard an unborn baby, deny health care to those who don’t have it for a political philosophy, refuse to pay a living wage to workers who work full time in a service job, or relegate inner city kids to a second class education?

            Since none of us is perfect all of us here suffer from a “spiritual SAD.” All are made of the weakened and fetid flesh of Adam and Eve, and each of us must contend with a personal “dark side” in our lives. The hope is that none here have gone over to this dark side completely and allowed it to envelope us, blocking out the divine light all together.

            We struggle with our predilections and weaknesses like every fallen human being, yet the light that leads us on is still always before our eyes. As we struggle with the darkness of our own lives, we live in a world that still seems willing to embrace the darkness. We see it in the news every day. That is why Plato could say that we could forgive a child who was afraid of the dark but have to pity more the adult who fears the light.

            I would like to conclude with a piece of advice from Dag Hammarskjold. In his book entitled Markings (p.56) he wrote: “God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illuminated by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.”

            Embrace the divine light that pours down upon us!

Called to be Holy

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Reflections on the readings from Fr. George Berendt, PIME

2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A (Isaiah 49: 3, 5-6; 1 Cor. 1: 1-3; John 1: 29-34)

        This year at the Vatican Pope Francis will declare Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II saints along with several other men and women. A saint, as I have said so many times before and as so many other people have also said, are not perfect people. Saints are people whose lives are worth imitating, people who are good role models and worthy to sculpt our lives after. They were called to holiness and they stepped up to the challenge. If it’s perfection you’re after, look to God, because only God is perfect. Saints are just better than the rest of ours.

        It’s not only the Catholic Church that hold people up for us to imitate, to respect, and to mold our lives after. Do these names ring a bell: Carlos Santana, Shirley MacLaine, Morgan Freeman, James Cagney, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Stevie Wonder, or Placido Domingo?

        Every year at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts several people, from various backgrounds, are honored, wined and dined, and given an award. They are held up before us as people who have made a notable contribution to the United States. The names I read off received this prestigious award from the Kennedy Center. This year is the 36th time our nation will do this. If I’m not mistaken something like 180 men and women have been recognized by our nation for the contributions they have made to our lives.

        All of them endowed and blessed with talent have used their gifts to transform their lives and our lives. Through their genius we have seen what it means to be human with a new vision. They have made us feel more deeply, weep more bitterly, laugh more lustily, love and care more sincerely. They have lightened our hearts, tickled our funny bones with their twist of words, have soothed our anxious hearts with a song from their throats or the strings they plucked.

        As artists, singers, writers, actors, musicians, or opera stars they have enriched our lives, stirred our souls, inspired us to greater heights in our lives, and hopefully, made each and every one they touched better people. They have called us out of the commonplace and pulled us out of the muck and mire of this world to see reality with new eyes and hear the ruckus and din of this world with different ears, and helped us rise above the humdrum of human existence.

        This year, once more, the beautiful milieu of the Kennedy Center will become the stage where a group of our fellow citizens will be ushered in before us to be honored and praised and offered as models to imitate. Why are these people singled out? For the simple reason is that they have transformed our lives and our world by what they have done with their own lives.

        Soon the backdrop of the Vatican’s beautiful Saint Peter’s basilica, where saints are introduced to the community of faith, will become the stage where our Church gives it reward to fellow Christian citizens:  the “halo awards.” The men and women who will be honored at the Vatican took to heart the words of Saint Paul in the first reading from the Corinthians where Paul reminds his readers then and now that they are “called to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2). This call to holiness, this vocation given to each and every baptized Christian, means something and doesn’t mean something.

        First, to be holy doesn’t mean one has to spend countless hours in a church on ones knees praying the night away as so many mystics have done. It doesn’t mean offering your life as a substitute to save somebody else’s life like Saint Maximilian Kolbe did in Auschwitz. Nor does it mean that you leave behind family and friends and takeoff for the Orient as a missionary only to die on a small island off the coast of China as Saint Francis Xavier did. Being holy does not mean running away from the world like Saint Anthony did, living in the desert, rejecting all the material things the world offers, denying oneself food, drink and human companionship.

        No! The call to holiness is simpler. To be a saint, to be holy, is simply to be in tune with God and God’s two great commandments: love God above all things and love the other as you love yourself.

        I like what Saint Francis de Sales said: “…true devotion hinders no one. Rather, it perfects everything. Whenever it is out of keeping with any person’s calling, it must be false.” This saint knew that each of us must serve in a way that is appropriate to our needs, talents, and worldly obligations. A mother on her knees praying all day long in front of a Blessed Mother statue and not preparing supper; a father who is in Church more than he is with his wife and children who is not mowing the lawn; a child refusing to play sandlot baseball or soccer with school chums because he wants to be near the cross for endless hours saying prayers; this is not what God wants from us.

        The call to holiness is what I read in Rediscovering Catholicism (p. 64) by Matthew Kelly. He wrote: “holiness is simply the application of the values, principles, and spirit of the Gospel to the circumstance of our everyday lives, one moment at a time. It is not complicated; it is disarmingly simple. But simple is not the same as easy.” Or perhaps Blessed André Bessette of Canada said it in a more appetizing way: “God doesn’t ask for the impossible, but wants everyone to offer their good intention, their day’s work, and some prayers.”  In the end, attempting to be holy doesn’t change our world. It changes the person who will change the world.

        Second, holiness does not transform us into passive, plaster-like images of the saints that decorate our churches. Any saint that we have ever read about is always dynamic. Holiness makes us alive. It’s like what Saint John wrote in his first letter (1 Jn 2: 6): “…whoever claims to abide in him ought to live just as he lived.”

        What does living like the Master look like? Well, Gandhi can give us some help here. One day he said to his audience: “There are many things to do. Let each one of us choose our task and stick to it through thick and thin. Let us not think of the vastness but let us pick up that portion which we can handle best.” Long before Gandhi came on the scene Saint Teresa of Avila said: “the Lord doesn’t look so much at the greatness of our works as at the love with which they are done.”

        Finally, beauty attracts and so we enjoy looking, listening, and contemplating it. Ugliness, on the other hand, revolts and we find it difficult to deal with. We turn away from it.

        To seek that which is holy is to embrace that which is beautiful and God-like. There is too much ugliness in our lives and in our world. We need more seekers of beauty. The call to holiness and the call to the fine arts are one and the same. Both callings attempt to lift us up to a better level in this world. Both callings attempt to transform the “wanna-be” saints and the “wanna-be” artists into people who are more caring, more feeling and more sensitive to the world and people around them. Both callings made them reach down into the deepest recesses of their humanness, changing them into people they didn’t even know they could be. Both callings gave to our world the best a human can offer.

        In the end, I always found it amazing how a simple dab of paint, a note plucked or sung, a stone chiseled, a slab of wood shaved, or a string of letters joined together can become something so beautiful causing a heart to flutter or an eye to water. In the end the art of living a holy life that every disciple of Jesus is called to is the best form of art that any person can ever create on this planet. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem A Psalm of Life says:

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act to each to-morrow

Finds us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act, – act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

Taking the Plunge

ImageReflections on the readings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

(Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7; Acts 10: 34-38 and Matthew 3: 13-17)

By Fr. George Berendt, PIME

The question to be answered by each and every one of us is: “When?”  When did you know that joining the military and making it your career was the road you had to take in life? When did you know that risking your life and health as a cop or fire fighter would be your life’s passion? When did you know that this person was the one you wanted to wed, have children with, and with whom you would journey into old age? When did I know that the priesthood would be the route to take in life?

Life is filled with mystery. It is also filled with endless choices. Yet in the end when the when of our lives becomes the “now is the time” of our lives, that second becomes the anchor we fix our existence on and we begin our life’s journey. It’s just as that old philosophical medieval dictum says:

“Every choice is a renunciation.”

            Life is always filled with endless possibilities. Nevertheless there is always that moment when we decide and the second we embrace what it is that will define our lifetimes. It’s that moment when each of us “takes the plunge.”

This Sunday we conclude the Church’s final celebration of the Advent-Christmas liturgical season. Our focus during these past several weeks has been on the upcoming birth of a child and the mysterious happenings around his early days. Now today, in the blink of an eye, the child disappears and an adult steps out from the mists of Nazareth.

We have hardly been allowed to digest the mystery of the birth of this special child when suddenly he is transformed from a child in a manger to a young man from Nazareth. It’s as if those thirty years spent in Nazareth didn’t exist or aren’t important. There is so much I want to know about this man but it is all left unsaid. Was Saint Matthew short of ink and paper and had to scrimp on what he could write? Perhaps he thought that these three decades were unimportant. Who knows? What happened to Jesus during these three decades? Inquiring minds want to know! I want to know!

I wonder…Did he, whose hands made the bark of the tree and shaped the leaf, and spread out their roots, need Joseph to teach him how to saw and plane a plank of wood? Did he, who in the beginning stirred the seas and laid out the river’s canal, need to help Mary fetch water for family use? Did he who receives all of humanity’s homage and praise need to be taught how to pray by the local rabbi? Did he whose throne was installed in the highest of the heavens – he who  used the earth as his footstool – need to attend the local synagogue to pray or make the annual pilgrimage to the Temple and offer sacrifice?

For 30 years he hid away in a small, backward village unknown and unseen except by the local folks. He lived like them, learned a trade, helped his mom, and buried his pop. Like his neighbors he gave thanks for his daily bread and did household chores. Like them, he too walked the dusty paths of his village. He didn’t seem that unusual, did he?

All I can say with any assurance is that these hidden decades in the backwaters of Israel prepared him for this day.

At last “the appointed time” (Rom 5:6) had arrived and Jesus was ready to “take the plunge!” The time for Jesus’ manifestation and mission is now here. Leaving Mary and village friends behind, Jesus walked to the banks of the Jordan River – just like countless others before him – and told John to pour water on him.

But mind you:  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for sin and an external, public sign that a person desires to turn one’s life around. Now the Sinless One stands before him and tells him to pour the Jordan’s water over him as he did to many before. Stuttering, the Baptist mumbles: “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me?” To calm him Jesus replies by saying, “allow it for now.”

The time for Jesus had come but who would believe that someone so normal, so much like us, could be the Messiah, God’s Son come to earth? So enter the waters he did and as he came up “the heavens were opened up for him” and the Father and Spirit gave witness: “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” God the Father and the Holy Spirit both testified that Jesus is the One.

We who are the heirs to 2000 years of reflection easily accept Jesus as Emmanuel-God with us. After all, the good religious sisters who ran our Catholic school system and pounded into our heads our catechism lessons taught us so.

In John the Baptist’s age people still searched and waited for the coming Messiah. Not only did they wait, but their expectations and image of what the Messiah would be like and do were all over the board. Some expected a great king like David or Solomon; some awaited a powerful military general to lead a robust army against the detested Romans and drive them out; others expected a great person who would restore the wealth and prestige of ancient Israel.

Now this man from Nazareth steps forward. One just like the rest of them: poor, cracked working hands, simply dressed, dirty, and made of common clay just like everyone else. How could anyone expect Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah!?

Saint Catherine of Siena, that wonderful mystic and Doctor of the Church (1147-1380A.D.) says it so brilliantly when she writes:

O depth of love! What heart could keep from breaking at the sight of your greatness descending to the lowliness of our humanity? We are your image, and now by making yourself one with us you have become our image, veiling your eternal divinity in the wretched cloud and dung heap of Adam. And why? For love! You, God, became human and we have been made divine! (The Dialogue, 13)

            How is it possible that anyone who must slog through the same “dung heap of Adam” and soil himself with our mess could be the Messiah? The heavens must testify! So Matthew shows how the heavens bear witness, how they manifest who Jesus really is.

            Somehow those 30  hidden years in Nazareth prepared Jesus for this moment. It was now time for him to take the plunge. Walking to the waters he accepted the same washing his peers accepted, showing solidarity with sinful humanity. After he exited those sacred waters of the Jordan the heavens were rent open and God the Father and the Holy Spirit bore divine witness to whom Jesus really is. The Spirit descended and the Father spoke: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Jesus was no ordinary clay!

With the imprimatur of the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ mission is now set to begin. Stepping out of the waters his mission begins or as Jesus himself will one day say: “I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn 5: 30). Jesus’ mission is to do the will of his heavenly Father and the Holy Spirit will drive him on in good times and in bad.

Perhaps Saint Paul can help us understand what is going on in Jesus’ life at this moment. He writes:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things (1 Cor. 13: 11).

Today the Divine Child is the adult Son of God. The Divine Child has put aside the things of his childhood and enters his and our world as the adult Son of God on mission. Guided by the Spirit Jesus now sets out to fulfill the will of his Father and our world will never be the same again.

Attractive New Wrappings

giftBy Fr. Dino Vanin, PIME 

It did not take Pope Francis long to let people know that he would stir things up more than a little for the Vatican and for the whole Catholic Church.

His first down-to-earth “Buona sera” (“good evening”) wished from the St. Peter Basilica’s balcony to the people of Rome and the rest of the waiting world, indicated to many that we were about to witness a long streak of changes. It became quickly evident that convoluted protocols and ostentatious trappings connected to the papacy will be done away with so that the successor of the Apostle Peter could be accessible to everyone, especially to the unimportant, the ordinary people, who had previously been important only in the eyes of our Heavenly Father.

Some eleven months into Pope Francis’ papacy, believers and simple onlookers alike are intrigued by the rate of changes which have brought freshness and renewed energy to some stale corners of the Church.

Thus, by now, people are surprised if a week goes by without being surprised anew by this Pontiff.

“Pontiff” is Latin for “bridge builder.” We already knew that the Popes have been the builders of the bridge uniting God to humankind. But this latest Pontiff is hard at work building bridges to reconnect also with those who have left the Church for a variety of reasons.  On his watch, other bridges have been started to reach agnostics and those who had written off the Church perhaps simply for the rigidity of some of her ways. Bridges are now built and doors are open right and left.

The number of people of all creeds who are drawn to this Pontiff is unprecedented in size and unparalleled in enthusiasm.

Quite a few people, obviously unfamiliar with the power of the Holy Spirit, were wondering who and how someone could take the place of Pope Benedict XVI upon his history-making resignation. I hope that, by now, they might have wised up and been pleasantly proven wrong by the boundless power of Jesus’ Spirit.

Not a day goes by without articles being written about this Pope and the media are buzzing in expectation and awe. Here are some of the words that have become common in covering his every move: accessibility, simple lifestyle, frankness, openness, plain talk, sincere warmth, heartfelt caring, and countless others.

Well, all of them are words that we can gather about and assign to Jesus as He is presented to us in the enduring pages of the gospels!

Some of the changes brought about by Pope Francis and some of his off-the-cuff remarks have been twisted, taken out of context and given a spin by unscrupulous people who had been mercilessly critical of the Church’s stance on sensitive moral issues. These activists promote an agendum that is self-serving and contrary to the teachings of Christ. Their deliberate or unintentional reinterpretations have caused considerable confusions in those who do not realize that Pope Francis has not altered a single iota of the Deposit of the Faith, i.e. of the teachings that Christ has entrusted to the Leadership of His Church and that the Church has no power to change.

Pope Francis has only changed the wrappings, leaving the substance of Christ’s teachings intact. Insisting that the Church’s shepherds (priests and bishops) get their hands dirty and live so close to their sheep that their smell would cling to them is a fresh, new repackaging of what Jesus said on the cross: “I thirst,” (John 19:28).  The Pope is living out and proclaiming to the whole world that our God is thirsting for all hearts and longing for all His children to come home to Him.

Pope Francis is wrapping the Gospel in a fresh new package to make it appealing and attractive also to those who, for any reason, are living at the peripheries or completely outside God’s global family.

Undoubtedly inspired by our Heavenly Father, the Pope is repeatedly urging all of us believers to embrace the revolution of tenderness and compassion. And he is firmly convinced that this revolution will be successful beyond our wildest expectations.

Follow that Star

A reflection on the feast of Epiphany by Fr. George Berendt, PIME.

Sunday’s readings: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12Image

The New Testament has four Gospels. The Gospel of Matthew contains 28 chapters. Chapter One of his Gospel is a long narrative of the ancestry of Jesus and the events surrounding his birth. The first word spoken by a human being appears in Chapter Two of his Gospel. The speaker is one of the Magi who will ask King Herod a question. The first human word that is uttered is “where.” The full sentence goes like this: “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Ironically, this will be the same word King Herod will use when he calls the chief priests, the scribes, and his supporters in Jerusalem asking them if they know where this birth took place.

Isn’t it interesting that Matthew places the same word on the lips of men whose hearts are totally different and give opposite meaning to the question they ask?

On the lips of the Magi the word “where” spurts out of hearts that are seeking, looking, and longing for a king to whom they can present their gifts and homage. On the lips of Herod the word “where” comes from a panic-stricken heart, a heart filled with darkness and hatred, a heart that fears the loss of its power and control over God’s people.

On the lips of the Magi the word flows from the hearts of men who have seen a sign in the sky and have searched long and far for the source of this sign, a sign they believe that will lead them to where truth resides. Now after a long and arduous passage they need help in the final steps of their journey to calm and satisfy the desires that have burned so long in their seeking hearts.

On the lips of Herod the question rumbles out of a heart filled with fear and hatred. Matthew doesn’t tell us the details of Herod’s negative emotions but it is safe to infer the reason why Herod’s heart is so filled with fear and hate. The simple fact is that if this unknown child, if allowed to thrive, will become a threat to his position and power. Herod, as king, should have protected God’s people and their faith but didn’t. With the newborn king born this can only mean two things to Herod: rebuke and replacement.

In the breast of Herod it isn’t a heart filled with interest and wonder that beats. Rather it is a darkened heart filled with homicidal intent, bent on lethal action. Herod shows a convincing smokescreen to his visitors from the East but his heart is really filled with nefarious intentions that don’t come to light until he carries out his real plan in the days that will follow. Jesus will escape but others will pay the price as Herod’s henchmen carry out his horrifying plan: the massacre of the innocents.

Herod’s actions are that of a hypocrite, one whose words do not square with his thoughts. As the Newborn King in today’s Gospel who will one day say as an adult: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful  on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth…on the outside you appear righteous, but inside you are filled with hypocrisy and evildoing” (Mt. 23: 27-28).

As Herod’s heart throbs with hate, in the breasts of the Wise Men, seekers of truth, pulse hearts that are “overjoyed…on entering the house” where the child lies and to whom they give homage and gifts. How ironic! The simple word of “where” is symbolic of two hearts weighed downed with two completely different emotions: murderous rejection and joyous acceptance.

Too often we focus on the mystery of the star. Was it a supernova, a comet, or the alignment of Saturn and the moon in the constellation Aries, the constellation associated with Israel? Whatever it was, this heavenly orb and the light of the Hebrew Scriptures transported the Magi to a Child of earth.

Or maybe we rack our brains attempting to determine who the Magi were or from where they came – Persia, Arabia or even as far as India itself. In the end from whence they came is not important at all. They stand in for us, the non-Jews, who seek the Real King of us all.

Then there are those three gifts of gold, a gift fitting to give a king;  myrrh, a resin used to embalm the dead; and frankincense, burnt when one offered sacrifice or set alight in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. All prized things then and today that are loaded with religious symbolism.

The Biblical story of the Magi is also our story. We too ask the same question “where” and begin the footsore journey to find the source of our truth and joy. We too look to the stars to guide us as we set out to find what we are really looking for as Bono sings in his popular song. In our lifetimes abundant stars glitter and attract us like summer fireflies but lead us down dead ends and false trails that trap us and lead us nowhere. In the end we find ourselves in dismal circumstances, trapped and locked in box canyons. The sparkling lure of drugs, violence, wealth, consumerism, promiscuity, internet porn, and countless other attractions seem to shine bright in our eyes and minds but eventually these death stars only lead us to a spiritual demise.

Polaris, the North Star, is the one light in the sky that points sailors and trekkers in a sure and right direction. Our spiritual Polaris is Jesus, our Lord.

In the end, all of us are on a spiritual journey and the tale of the Magi is a revelation of our own personal eagerness or reluctance to seek God. In the end if we follow the correct star and listen to the correct word we will arrive safe and sound to the source of our true joy and there at his feet present also our gifts whatever they might be, great or small. He’ll accept them all from our hearts and hands.