Posts Tagged ‘Pope Francis’

imageGive the Pope a Helping Hand

In three weeks Pope Francis will step onto American soil for the first time in his life, and it will be interesting to see his reaction.  No doubt he’s read about America and seen the movies, but I suspect he’s not been thinking about the place morning noon and night every day of his life.  Had that been the case, he’d have come here a lot sooner.

Anyway, his schedule will be jam-packed, but that’s not deterred people from drawing up lists of things that should be squeezed into his itinerary.  Some ideas have been thoughtful, and others off-the-wall.  But what most of these suggestions have in common is that they are just a little late.  If these things were all that important, why didn’t people send them in months ago, when the pope could have done something about it?

imageOne recent article struck me in particular.  Without so much as a “Dear Pope Francis,” the author plunged right into seventeen things that the pope absolutely must do while he’s in America;  otherwise his trip will be a total waste of time.  This came from the pen of a respected columnist, so I’m not about to question his good judgement on the issues he raises.  Still, I do question both his timing as well as the spirit in which he offered this.  For one thing, he should have put a stamp on it and sent it off  to the pope weeks — if not months — ago.  Second, why is it that the pope has to do absolutely everyting on the list?  Doesn’t the writer have any personal ambitions beyond writing a column that tells other people what to do?  Why can’t he help the pope out by offering to do even one or two things on the pope’s behalf?  I’m sure the pope would be grateful, and he might even scrawl out a personal note of thanks.

There is a larger issue here, of course, and I think it has to do with the tremendous burdens that we heap upon our leaders these days.  We demand action from our leaders — including the pope — but at the same time we don’t want him telling us what to do.  To be more precise, we want our leaders to tell other people what to do, and we’re more than willing to supply the talking points.  And that goes for the pope in particular.

imageI don’t want to sound too shrill about this because my real concern has to do with behavior in which we all indulge, and which Jesus took to task on more than one occasion.  Jesus was certainly not the first to notice that people are eager to impose heavy burdens on others, and these are burdens which they generally prefer not to carry themselves.  They are arm-chair critics of all those they deem unworthy, but they seem hesitant to reach out to help others carry those burdens.

In our hyper-critical society, that sort of behavior is as prevalent today as it was in the time of Jesus.  We love to point out the shortcomings of our brothers and sisters.  We delight in demanding that others jump through hoops of our own making.  And most egregious of all, we expect that our lealders, religious and otherwise, be perfect.

So it is that when Pope Francis comes to America with a relatively short to-do list, he’ll have scarcely enough time to do it.  But given the high expectations that some have placed upon him, it’s a recipe for failure, or at least for disappointment.

As much as some want Pope Francis to be a ruthless dictator, and others prefer him to be an indulgent and all-forgiving parent, I suspect he’s going to be his own man.  Certainly he is aware of the pastoral tradition of the Church, and as such he’s going to be far more complex and skilled a pastor of souls than many might expect or want.

imageThe monastic tradition also offers insights of which Pope Francis is well-aware.  Saint Benedict advises that the abbot should be a wise physician.  He also advises that the abbot should challenge the strong so that they might grow even sturdier; while he should take care lest he bruise the reeds and break the spirit of the weak.  And above all Benedict reminds his monks that the abbot is human, like everyone else in the monastery.  And so it is that the abbot can ask impossible things of his monks.  In those situations the monks should just do the best they can.

Such is the case with Pope Francis.  I tend to place him in the category of the wise physican, but he will disappoint many because he asks too little of some people and from others too much.  But in response I suspect he’d be the first to admit his shortcomings and ask for forgiveness.  After all, he’s only the pope.

And as for those long lists of suggestions, I suspect he’d welcome all those good ideas.  Then he might very well look up and ask us to get started on them.  After all, who wouldn’t want to help the pope carry his burdens?  There’s no time like the present to do our share of his work.


+On August 29th I concelebrated at the funeral of Mary Nigon at Holy Name Church in Medina, MN.  Last spring I had the opportunity to travel with Mary and her husband Dick on a tour through Umbria and Rome, and she was a delight.  We will all miss her, and she departed from her family and legions of friends far too soon.

+Today, August 31st, is the first day of classes at Saint John’s University.  Gone is the tranquility of summer, replaced by an abundance of activity and energy.

+As we enter the home stretch of summer, many of the gardens at Saint John’s are past their prime, while the summer rains have left the greenery soft and lush.  Some gardens continue to do well, and I was surprised by a flock of monarch butterflies that had taken over the Scary Mary Garden.  Meanwhile, there is a touch of autumn around the campus, as the color on one tree indicates.

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imageSacred Leisure or Wasted Time?

For those who track department store sales figures — (and who doesn’t?) — last week’s reports were not at all reassuring.  It seems that same-store sales at most chains have been flat or trending downward in recent months, and that has some economists worried.  And worry they should, because ours is first and foremost a consumer society.

Financial gurus immediately rushed in with all sorts of explanations, but two in particular seemed quite persuasive.  One pointed out that people have begun to shift their spending to experiences such as meals together and family vacations, and this has come at the expense of trips to the mall.  And a second theory had the ring of common sense about it.  This analyst noted that people have filled their closets with clothes and shoes and knick-knacks, and many have now run out of space for any more stuff.  Until they clear some of this old stuff out, there’s no room for new purchases.  So lack of storage is a partial cause of this shopping log-jam.  And in my eyes at least the solution to that is easy:  we need a crash program to build more and bigger garages and storage sheds in every corner of the country.

imageThis unsettling trend is nothing less than a challenge to our national ethos.  If shopping is no longer the central plank of our national mission statement, then what will become of our consumer society?  If spending time with other people begins to edge out the accumulation of things as our raison d’etre, an entire way of life — to say nothing of a few malls — could vanish.  It’s a frightening prospect.

For a long time I’ve railed against the notion that “we are what we own.”  From the Bible as well as from the Rule of Saint Benedict I’ve derived the theory that God did not plop us on this earth for the sole purpose of amassing material goods.  That said, I’m under no illusion that my words are to blame for these recent commercial trends.  While I appreciate the fact that several people read my blog, there simply aren’t enough of them to turn our economic ship of state onto a different course.  Clearly it’s somebody else’s fault, and I’m not entirely sure who that might be.  But it’s not me.

In a recent address Pope Francis spoke about the need for balance in the routine of our lives, and specifically he stressed the importance of taking time off to spend with friends and family.  He pointed out, among other things, that even God took a day off in the work of creation, and I suppose that if it’s good enough for God, then it’s good enough for us.  “Days of rest, especially Sunday celebrations of Mass and time with family, are important reminders that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and is not a ‘slave to work.'”

imagePope Francis could have found no better source of inspiration for this than in the monastic tradition, which has always valued “sacred leisure.”  This is not some euphemism for idleness or laziness, because in fact it sees in leisure the chance to sit back and reflect.  And with that can come insight and creativity.  Not coincidentally, sacred leisure provides the opportunity to renew ourselves and to appreciate one another in an entirely new light.

If time off is necessary, then vacation too has importance, particularly in an overcharged world like ours.  That said, I have to own up to the fact that Saint Benedict made no provision for vacations in his Rule.  To be fair, it’s not that monks in his day had little time for it, or wouldn’t go if they could.  Rather, there simply were no resorts or theme parks available in the early sixth century.  It was also a known fact that leaving the monastery or the security of your village could be a pretty dangerous business.  So the safest course was to stay home and celebrate sacred leisure in security, with people you knew.

imageThat did not mean an endless stretch of monastic tedium, however.  Rather, the cycle of feast days and seasons added texture to the lives of the monks.  Certainly there were long stretches of ordinary days filled with work, but periodically the monks celebrated in both the chapel and in the refectory.  And they also enjoyed the presence of God in their fellow monks and guests.  For Benedict, then, the meaning of a monk was not tied up in his work.  Rather, the monk found meaning in the way he lived a full life, day in and day out.

If Pope Francis has reminded people of the need to spend time in celebration with friends and family, I take heart in statistics that suggest that at least some people are opting for experiences with friends and family, even if it means fewer trips to the mall.  These people have begun to realize that sacred leisure does not mean wasted time.  Rather, this is a decisive moment in the lives of some, when they have decided not to let the pursuit of stuff squeeze them out of their homes, nor let materialism squeeze the life out of  them.  And on a more positive note, perhaps they’ve also come to savor the presence of God in new and unexpected ways.  What a happy surprise to discover God in sacred leisure, spent with friends and family.


+On August 11th the monks of Saint John’s Abbey hosted the clergy of the Diocese of Saint Cloud for vespers, followed by dinner in the Great Hall.

+On August 15th the members of the football team at Saint John’s University returned to campus to begin their regular practices.   They are the first of our students to return, and so ends our summer tranquility.

+On August 16th the Saint John’s Boys Choir sang at the abbey Mass.  This followed their traditonal end-of-summer workshop, and so begins their new season.

+With a nod to Pope Francis, who preferred a “staycation” at his residence at Saint Peter’s rather than go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gondolfo, I managed to stay home for quite a stretch of the summer.  The results were not entirely positive, as the work piled up faster and faster as the summer wore on.  However, I could console myself with memories of escapes that I’ve enjoyed through the years, including a one-day visit to the Cotswolds in England.  I’ve assembled a gallery of photos I took in The Cotswolds, and in this case pictures are almost as good as being there.  The photos in this post are from a small parish church in one of these towns.


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imagePrepare Your Eulogy

If you’ve not paged through The Road to Character, by David Brooks, it’s definitely worth your while.  By now there have been plenty of reviews, and perhaps you’ve read one.  But as an inveterate Brooks fan, let me add to the chorus of appreciation for his latest book.

In it Brooks laments the change in personal ambition that’s taken place over the last fifty years,  For too long now, he notes, increasing numbers of people have spent the bulk of their lives compiling resumés.  To their regret, as they sometimes discover in their twilight years, they should have spent more time on the qualities better-suited for a eulogy.

The root cause of this change in direction is an infatuation with what Brooks calls “The Big Me.”  If, once upon a time, people espoused ideals that tilted toward altruism, that’s simply not the case any longer.  Today “it’s all about me,” and we value others primarily for what they can do for me.

imageHe devotes the bulk of his book to sketches of several gifted individuals who each faced a crisis of character.  Because he’s assembled such a diverse pool of personalities, you wonder what all of these people could possibly have in common.  But the thread that runs through all of them was the dawning awareness that life and civilization and the universe itself was not all about them after all.  In fact, life only began to have meaning when they made room for others in their own lives.  To borrow from the gospels, which Brooks does on more than one occasion, they discovered the nugget of wisdom that Jesus pointed out about those who lose their lives for the sake of others.  Only when they they lose their lives do they begin to regain them.  Only then do they acquire a real sense of purpose.  Only then does life begin to have some semblance of meaning.

If I may be so bold, this is a variation of a theme that I have  hammered away at in retreat conferences for a few years now.  I’ll grant that the point is not unique to me, but my self-interested approach may be a bit on the singular side.  It’s this.  For years I’ve pleaded with people to keep me in mind when they consider end-of-life plans.  “Don’t make me have to tell a pack of lies at your funeral.  For heaven’s sake, and for mine too, give me something to work with.  Think ahead, and give me and your friends some material we can use in your eulogy.”

imageIt strikes me that this is a useful complement to the advice Brooks has to give.  It’s also a chance to leverage self-interest and put it at the service of others.  This is one case in which being considerate of others means doing a big favor for yourself as well.

As a case in point, I cite the eulogy that the abbot has to give on the death of each of our monks.  He usually begins with material that Brooks labels resumé, and he lists the assignments and jobs of the deceased.  What we monks all realize is that these responsibilities were held by monks who went before the deceased, and now that he’s gone we’ll have to find someone else to do them.  So these initial comments of the abbot say little or nothing about the monk whom we remember that day.  It’s not that these things don’t matter;  its just that a resumé does not describe a real human being.

The abbot then shifts to speak about the qualities that this particular monk embodied in his life.  He tries to describe the character and the soul of our confrere, and this is what occasions wistful memories and an occasional chuckle.  This is the description of a real live human being.  This is the monk who loved and prayed and worked and walked alongside us.  This is the man who did some things well and others less well as he joined us in the search for God.

And all the while, as the abbot goes through this exercise, each of us knows that someday our turn will come.  As for me, I’ve begun to wonder whether I’ve given the abbot enough material for a decent eulogy.  Or will it only be data for a resumé?

imageWhen Brooks points to The Big Me as the root of the problem, it occurs to me that this business has been around for a long time.  Perhaps the first instance of it was the offer that the snake made to Adam and Eve.  Since then a myriad of thoughtful people have reflected on this, including Saint Benedict.   His teaching on the need for humility suggests that The Big Me was alive and well in the sixth century.  More recently I’ve been struck by a phrase from the daily prayer of the Order of Malta.  We pray that we be “forgetful of ourselves,” so that we mgiht be clear-eyed to see the needs of the sick and the poor.

The battle with The Big Me rages on within most of us, and as a culture we seem to be losing ground each day.  Given that, it’s helpful to keep one thing in mind.  It wasn’t all that many centuries ago when most people believed that the universe revolved around the sun.  Today we mock them for living in their heliocentric world.  But are we really any smarter for living in an egocentric world?  Only time will tell, and so will our eulogists.  And if we see them heading for the confessional after our funeral, we’ll know we didn’t give them enough to work with.


+On July 22nd I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access the sermon, Sheep with a Shepherd, through this link.

+In addition to reading The Pursuit of Character, by David Brooks, I also recently completed David McCullough’s latest book, The Wright Brothers (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2015.)  I enjoy all of McCullough’s work, and I would only fault this book for being too short.  In the Abbey we are reading in the refectory the new encyclical by Pope Francis.

+The summer continues to be lovely at Saint John’s, and in today’s post I have included photos of the gardens inside the courtyard of the Quadrangle.

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imageMusings on Spring Fever

Spring fever made its ugly appearance at Saint John’s last week, and it was especially virulent.  Many of us were totally unprepared for the idyllic weather, while the early spring flowers and a dusting of spruce pollen reminded those with allergies that winter’s truce was over. By week’s end I had lost all ambition to do anything.  Since I no longer work in the classroom, I at least had the option to run and hide for a day or two.  But it still left me deeply sympathetic to the plight of my colleagues and their students.  How do they manage to stay in the battle when the urge to do nothing is overwhelming?

In his Rule Saint Benedict makes not a single comment about the beauty of springtime.  I can’t imagine that he was oblivious to it, nor was spring absent from the Umbrian landscape where he lived.  The fact is, much of Italy is lovely all year long, but the spring blossoms still act as a wake-up call, even at Monte Cassino.  Even so, Benedict makes no mention of any of it, save for a passing reference to lengthening days.

Lest we give up on Benedict entirely, it’s important to remember that he does comment on the comings and goings of the seasons, via the liturgical calendar.  After the doldrums of Lent, there is an abrupt change of tone with the Easter season.  On Holy Saturday morning it’s all lamentations, but by evening he’s flipped on the switch and alleluias pervade the air.  Liturgically it’s the equivalent of waking up from a deep slumber, and you run the risk of a serious overdose of joy.

imageThere’s a certain irony that comes with Easter and spring fever, and it hasn’t been lost on me during the past week.  Through much of the school  year I scarcely glance at the University’s events calendar.  There’s always plenty going on, but as much as I would like to take part in some of it, who’s got the time?  Now, with a lighter personal schedule, I no longer have the energy or the ambition.  This may be what the Bible has in mind when it reads that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

But the irony does not stop here.  Just when many of us lose the drive to do much of anything, the entries on the events calendar multiply drastically.  All of a sudden, there’s way too much good stuff from which to choose, just at the point when you’d like to sit it all out.  From out of the wood-work comes an overabundance of senior oboe, organ and voice recitals.  There’s way too many honors thesis defenses.  And then there are spring sports, like baseball, and events like the Mom Prom, sponsored annually by the campus council of the Knights of Columbus.  What’s a person to choose from?

Thankfully, I did not cash it all in and give up on life this last weekend.  I’ll admit to skipping the Mom Prom, but I did sit still long enough to take in a concert in the Great Hall, delivered by a visiting high school choir from Bililngs, MT.  I also dragged myself to our new baseball park to see Saint John’s best Carleton in the first of a doubleheader.  Later I took a long hike, and en route I paid a call on our four new colonies of bees.  And I swept by the maple sugar shack, now quiet and closed for the season, after processing 350+ gallons of syrup this spring.

I also caught myself regretting the all-too-quick passage of time.image  What sparked that was a scan of the various senior thesis defenses coming up in the next few days.  Most titles were beyond my skill set, including “The Induced Heart Rate Response to Fish Kairomes in Daphnia Pulex.”  But in the case of the latter, it was the name of the author that caught my eye.  Four years ago I had interviewed this guy when he came as a high school senior to apply for a Trustee Scholarship.  Four years had passed and I’ve not seen him since;  but it’s nice to speculate that his experience at Saint John’s has turned out well.

Through the years I’ve reminded myself that if I don’t show up, I don’t get to play the game.  I’ve meant that to be an incentive to do my duty and make an appearance, even when I’d rather be somewhere else.  But it’s a reminder, too, that good things will still happen, whether I’m there or not.  So I may as well make the effort, and I might just reap the reward.

Spring fever is the seductive temptation to skip out on all sorts of things.  But it’s also insidious, because it frames life in either/or propositions.  Either I sit back and enjoy the beauties of spring, or I put my nose to the grindstone and make the most of every opportunity.  But Saint Benedict, ever the believer in moderation and balance, would likely pose the options differently.  “Why not just go ahead and do a little of both?”  I wish I had thought of that sooner.  But it’s never too late.


+On April 17th Abbot John, University President Michael Hemesath and calligrapher Donald Jackson presented the seventh volume of the Apostles Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to Pope Francis in Rome.  This completes the delivery of the set that has been contributed to the Vatican Library; and through the years we were privileged to present individual volumes to Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis.

+On April 14th I gave a presentation to the chaplains of the American Association of the Order of Malta, at a meeting in New York City.

+On April 15th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible at Concordia University in St. Paul, MN.

+On April 16th and 17th I taught classes in monastic history to the novices of the monastery.

+On April 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access Service to the Poor of the Church, via this link.


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Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

The Pope Speaks, and Sometimes in Silence

On his recent trip through the Philippines there came a moment when Pope Francis found himself speechless.  Standing before an audience that had suffered grievously in last year’s tropical storm, words simply failed him.  These people had lost family members, homes and possessions.  Now, months later, they had scarcely more than their lives and the clothes on their backs.  In the face of such abject poverty there were no words to express the pope’s own grief.  So he stood in silence, trying to absorb the enormity of it all.  And finally the only thing he could offer was the assurance that Jesus still loved them.  Any other words might have cheapened the moment.

Warsaw, Poland

Warsaw, Poland

We’ve come to expect a lot from popes and other religious leaders, but what we’ve wanted from them has varied from time to time.  I recall as a high school student picking up an issue of The Pope Speaks, the official archive of papal pronouncements.  In keeping with the gravitas of the subject matter, the print was dense and there were no pictures.  It had all the appeal of The Congressional Record, and a quick scan of the contents reinforced that impression.  No wonder this journal could sit on the library’s magazine rack for months on end, in mint condition.  This was the official record of the Church, and it was best read with awe and reverence, preferably under the direction of a theologian in good standing.  Suffice it to say that for your average high school student these tomes held zero interest.  That may have been unfortunate, but that’s the way it was.

We’re not that far removed from the day when monarchs and leaders of all sorts were cut from a different bolt of cloth.  Queen Victoria, to cite but one, was notoriously shy and reluctant in the extreme to appear before her people.  In one episode she stubbornly resisted her aides and family, who had urged her to attend the unveiling of a memorial plaque.  She dug in her heels for weeks on end, but finally caved in.  So on the appointed day she was trotted out of the palace and then unveiled the memorial with a speech that stretched on and on for exactly one sentence.  Then she trotted back to the palace and pronounced herself exhausted but satisfied that she had exceeded the limits of duty.  Obviously it’s a long and bumpy road from her to Queen Elizabeth’s concept of duty.

Old City, Warsaw

Old City, Warsaw

We see the same evolution in the papacy during the same 150 years.  This is not the place to recount the history of the popes, but it’s enough to point out that for decades after the fall of the Papal States in 1870 popes simply did not leave Rome.  For better, and mostly for worse, popes made themselves prisoners in the Vatican.  To some they seemed aloof, while to others they had a mystical transcendence that set them apart from the rest of us mere mortals.  So, with the votes counted, these newly-elected popes left off their old selves, and each in turn put on the person of the Oracle on the Tiber.

Fast forward to more recent times and you’ll find bishops of Rome more than willing to step out of their comfort zone, often to the consternation of their handlers in the curia.  And each has  brought talents that have distinguished them individually.  Pope John Paul II travelled widely and spoke to countless groups, as did Benedict and now Francis.  But to my mind each has put his own stamp on his tenure in the office.  Pope John Paul II, in the popular imagiation at least, walked on the world stage and helped to shape international affairs.  Pope Benedict, by contrast, brought a keen intellect and seemed much more at ease in academic circles.  Francis stretches the envelop even further with his love of the pastoral situation.  In Buenos Aires he was at home in the pulpit and in the confessional, and in those venues he continues to shine.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

That, I think, is one of the many gifts that God seems to have given Pope Francis.  When he speaks it is not to dismiss what previous popes have had to say.  Rather, he believes with all his heart that the teaching of Jesus and the Christian tradition are meant to provide solace and support and meaning to people.  So why not translate it into the language of those who suffer?  Why not translate it into word and deed?

Francis, like his predecessors, believes that the message of Christ is too good to be hidden under a basket.  It’s life-giving and it ought not be stored away in solemn tomes accessible only to the best-educated among us.  Far from being irrelevant, such tomes are incomplete until they flow out into the streets where they can inspire and nourish.

Old city, Warsaw

Old city, Warsaw

Pope Francis has been fond of quoting his namesake, who urged people to “preach always.  If necessary, use words.”  And this weekend in the Philippines, he did exactly that — he preached through his momentary silence.  That, it seems to me, is what the gospel asks of all Christians.  And if we can begin to do that, the Gospel will exist not just as words on a page.  Even better, the gospel will begin to come alive both in our words and in our deeds, and even in our moments of silence.


+I am grateful to all of you who sent messages and offered prayers for my mom during the past week.  Happily, the solution to her problems was something as simple as a pacemaker.  After the procedure and two days in the hospital she returned home, with a lot more energy than she had before.  She is recovering and grateful for your remembrance, as am I.

Malbork Castle, Poland

Malbork Castle, Poland

+In the course of reading this blog readers are familiar with the fact that I am a chaplain in the Order of Malta, as well as in the Order of the Holy Sepulchre.  Those are the most significant of the medieval military orders which have survived to this day, but others flourished in the middle ages and have left stunning monuments to their existence.  Among the most impressive is Malbork Castle, built by the Teutonic Knights in Poland in the 13th century.  It remains one of the most amazing fortresses you will ever see, and it is well worth the visit if you ever have the chance.  I once had the opportunity to visit there with a pilgrimage group, and from the many pictures of Malbork Castle I’ve created a small gallery of photos.

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imageThe Feast of Saint Clare

When it comes to Saints Francis and Clare, there’s no denying that Francis hogged the limelight.  One big reason for this has to be his undeniable charisma, and even at a remove of eight hundred years Francis tugs at the heart-strings.  And if people were surprised that Cardinal Bergolio would take the name Francis, we should be equally amazed that no one had taken that name sooner.  After all, sixteen popes have taken the name Benedict so far.

But leaving aside the issue of personality, Francis did a few things that Clare never dared to imagine.  For starters, it was Francis who reportedly stripped off his clothes in front of his father and the bishop and townspeople of Assisi.  Had Clare pulled a stunt like that, it would have been equally shocking, but not quite for the same reasons.  It was Francis and not Clare who went to Rome and knelt before Pope Innocent III.  It was Francis and not Clare who preached to the sultan of Egypt.  In fact, it was Francis who did all sorts of things that pushed the envelope; and not surprisingly, even in the 21st century, Francis looms large.  Meanwhile, Clare seems to be a member of the supporting cast in Saint Francis: The Movie!

imageThere’s no need to rehash the social and economic situation that confronted both Francis and Clare.  Many have done that already.  But suffice it to say that 13th-century Italy allowed men like Francis a lot more leeway when it came to lifestyle.  Francis was a free spirit who captured the popular imagination.  Meanwhile, what people found charming in someone like Francis, they could not and would not abide in a woman like Clare.  They seemed willing to let Francis wander, depending on the charity of others.  But Clare was another matter.  The streets were not safe for women then, just as they are not safe in some cities of the world today.

imageWhether the citizens of Assisi thought Clare was mad or naive we can only guess.  What we can imagine, however, was their initial reaction to her proposal to gather a community of women and live entirely on charity.  They would not own land to support themselves, nor would they make stuff to sell.  Rather, they would devote their lives to love of God and neighbor, and somehow God and neighbor would provide.  “What joy,” a few of the cynics must have thought to themselves.  “It’s what this town has always needed.”

Clare proposed a monastery that was unlike any other at the time.  Undoubtedly all monasteries depended  on some measure of charity, but most made an honest effort to do some work, just as Saint Benedict had demanded in his Rule.  But Clare, like Francis, marched to the beat of a different drummer.

As a monk I’m tempted to join the chorus of the more skeptical citizens of Assisi.  Not a few of them could see where this was going, and sooner or later Clare and her sisters would join the growing ranks of unproductive mouths to feed.   They would depend on the kindness of others, but they would offer nothing in return.

imageClare spoke in an entirely different language,  however.  Certainly she knew the social and economic realities of Assisi, yet she forged ahead and pushed a message that she thought the world needed to hear.

In my mind Clare brought two important ideas to the table.  First, she relied literally on the providence of God.  Just as God cares for the sparrows and the lilies, so God would care for her and her sisters.  God would sustain them in good times and bad, come what may.  But the takeaway here is that God does this for everyone, including the cynics in Assisi.

Second, in order for her vow of poverty to work, Clare would have to depend on the kindness of others.  In this scenario her neighbors became the chosen instruments of God.  Through them God showed lovingkindness to the world, and on such people Clare depended for her very life.  But the same is true for all of us, she would be quick to point out.  We don’t exist in isolation, complete unto ourselves.  For Clare it was important that people know how important they are in the lives of their neighbors.

imageNo wonder some of Clare’s fellow citizens thought her naive.  But to their suprise, people seemed not to tire of Clare and her sisters after all.  Her life spoke to the people of Assisi, and she reminded them that they too were important in the larger scheme of things.  They were more than mere economic units, because their real value derived from God.  They were God’s instruments in the world.

In hindsight I’m glad that Clare never went to the center of town to strip off her clothes, as did Francis.  She didn’t need to do that to make her point.  I’m glad she didn’t kneel before Pope Innocent III.  I’m glad too that she never wasted her time preaching to the sultan of Egypt.  Ironically, Clare had a profoundly important message to deliver, but her message was too important to rely on theatrics to make her point.  The very simplicity of her life, and the surrender of her life to God, spoke eloquently enough.

And what about the cynics of Assisi?  I’m sure they’d be miffed at how everything has turned out.  Today, eight hundred years later, we don’t know their names and we’d all yawn if we recounted their concerns — if we even knew them.  But ironically we do know what Clare cared about.  Clare reminded all of her fellow citizens of their intrinsic worth in the eyes of God.  Such a message was naive and uneconomic then, and it remains so today.  But it’s one we need to consider more often than merely once a year.


+On August 7th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and you can access my sermon, Who do you say that Jesus is? in Presentations.  I remembered at that Mass Mr. Edmund L. Luzine, a member of the Order of Malta who lived in Albany, NY, and who died recently.  I had met Mr. and Mrs. Luzine many years ago at a Saint John’s University event in New York.  Subsequent to that they flew to Saint John’s to be present for the award of an honorary doctorate to Fra Andrew Bertie, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta.

+On August 8th I visited with a former student and friend who now lives in Luxembourg.  He and his family stayed at the Abbey guest house, as part of their annual vacation with family and friends in Minnesota.  That evening, as we walked around the campus, we ran into Bishop Donald Ketler of Saint Cloud, who was showing the campus to a priest-friend from Iowa.

image+On August 9th I said Mass for a gathering of alumni from the class of ’58 from Saint Saint John’s University.  The liturgy, and the dinner afterward, took place in Edina, MN.

+The horrible news from the Middle East has affected so many, but this week it touched our colleagues at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s.  For some time they have worked with the Dominicans in Iraq, in an effort to digitize the Christian manuscripts in that troubled part of the world.  Not so long ago the Dominicans had moved from Mosul and found refuge in a Christian town that they assumed to be safe.  Sadly, like most of the Christians of that town, they had to flee this week after it was overrun by the militants.  But to where will they go?

image+The pictures in today’s post all come from the courtyard of the Quadrangle at Saint John’s.  Dating to the 19th century, this is the oldest building on campus.  For many years the courtyard sat neglected, but it has become the site of a vibrant garden, as the photos indicate.  In particular, it’s been a great year for the hydrangeas there.

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imageBlessed are the Merciful

Most Americans take it for granted that our judicial system is fair and equitable, but we shouldn’t.  The fact is, much of the world doesn’t enjoy this luxury.  And we should never take our own system for granted, because justice only comes with a lot of hard work and honesty.

Take, for example, the recent case of the judge in Pennsylvania who had earned a fearsome reputation for his dealings with juvenile offenders.  Offenses great and small all earned the same punishment: a trip to the juvenile detention center.  And for his zeal in doling out such strict justice, he won acclaim from his many friends and neighbors.  Unfortunately, however, something else was going on here.

imageSomewhere along the line the county had privatized the juvenal center, and investors poured money into a new facility that promised to save the county buckets of money.  In their enthusiasm no one questioned why per-prisoner costs rose far beyond that of neighboring counties.  Nor did anyone wonder that conviction rates rose as well.  But they should have factored in the law of supply and demand.  A bigger facility demanded more prisoners, and among the first to recognize and exploit the opportunity was the judge.  As investigators eventually learned, the judge began to send “guests” at a pace that satisfied the needs of the administrators, while he reaped a per capita reward for his efforts.  So efficient did the process become, that in the morning the judge would send a list of how many prisoners they should expect by the end of the business day — hours before he had heard the cases.

This miscarriage of justice shocked a lot of people, and rightly so.  The vast majority of us appreciate the agony that the vast majority of judges endure as they try to balance justice and mercy.  But here was a judge who had managed to disregard both justice and mercy.  There’s no knowing how many lives he ruined; but justice finally prevailed, and ironically he succeeded in ruining his own life as well.

imageI would not begin to speculate on the fate of this judge when he stands in the divine courtroom, but I’m curious to know how God might apply the fifth of the Beatitudes to him.  At the very least, were I that judge, I would move to throw out the Beatitude that reads “blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”  Then would come the big question on which the judge’s fate would hang.  Would God entertain such a motion?

Mercy is definitely a tough nut to crack, particularly when it is stacked up against the need for justice.  If on the one hand there is no  justice, then laws are pointless and the pushy are free to trample the  helpless.  But if there is no mercy, then we go back to the automatic penalty of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  From such judgements there can be no appeal, especially if you’re the one who paid the penalty.

There are a lot of practical benefits to mercy that we should not forget.  For one thing, mercy lets other people start over.  Mercy accepts their regret and atonement as authentic, and then it lets them move on.  And mercy is in a sense its own reward, since it allows us to move on as well.  It frees us from the stifling grip of past injury.  And what a wonderful thing it is to travel through life without that heavy baggage.

imageMercy also allows us the chance to salvage a relationship.  Being merciful means that we don’t use past hurts as leverage over people who otherwise could and should mean a great deal to us.  Mercy lets us wipe the slate clean, even as it frees us from the need to exact vengeance or the justice that may be due to us.

There’s still another side to the exercise of mercy that’s worth consideration.  There could very well come a time when we might need just a bit of mercy ourselves.  As unthinkable as it may seem, it’s not just other people who do terrible and despicable things.  We  have our own shot at such behavior too, and it’s within the realm of possibility that someday we’ll need, if not crave, mercy.  If we’ve been able to show mercy, perhaps we’ll teach others to render it in return.  And perhaps we’ll also know how to accept mercy gracefully when it comes our way.

imageI suspect all this is what Jesus had in mind when he taught us how to pray.  Not surprisingly, his prayer begins with a request for the simplest of things — our daily bread.  But by the end of the prayer he draws from our mouths words that are a little difficult to put into practice:  “forgive us as we forgive others.”  That’s a pretty bold request to put to God, unless of course we’ve become adept at being merciful already.

Clearly, a world in which there is no mercy is a place where most of us would not want to live.  No wonder Pope Francis keeps pushing this issue.  Who wants a merciless Church?  Who wants merciless friends and neighbors?  And who among us aspires to a life in which we are cold and merciless?  In such a society the mercy of God will be absent.  Why?  Because God chooses to exercise mercy through us.  We are God’s instruments, and God’s mercy enters the world when we show mercy to one another.  Only then will be we blessed and enjoy mercy ourselves.


+Every now and again we all make big and little goofs, and my turn came on June 26th.  I woke up cranky that day, made all the worse when I looked at the calendar and realized that I had forgotten that I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass that afternoon.  I dutifully prepared a homily, and I showed up in the sacristy early (not a trait of mine, by the way.)  To my surprise, my least favorite chasuble was laid out.  Since the sacristan knew that I didn’t care all that much for that particular vestment, I began to wonder if I had offended anyone.  It turned out that my suspicions were groundless, as I had somehow misread the calendar.  I was not the celebrant after all, and all that preparation was for naught.  However, you can still read the undelivered sermon, Strong Walls or Strong Foundation?

+On June 25th the community rejoiced to move back into the abbey refectory, after several weeks of maintenance there.  Our temporary dining spot in the basement recreation room had been crowded and incredibly noisy, and we won’t miss it.

image+This past week the choir stalls for visitors were filled with an abundance of guests.  But the largest group happened to be twenty-six candidates for the diaconate from the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis, here for a five-day retreat.  They adapted quickly to the rhythm of our recitation of the Psalms, and they knew all the hymns we sang.  So they added quite a lot to our prayer.  Not only do we wish them well in their ministry, but we will miss them!

+Each week of summer seems to bring some new delight in the landscape.  Currently the Japanese lilac trees are in bloom, and their pungent aroma fills the air.  We are blessed with many beautiful specimens scattered about the campus, as the photos in today’s post illustrate.

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