Posts Tagged ‘Pope Gregory the Great’


Called To Be a Witness, Not a Fossil

I’d never sat down for a long visit with an abbess before last Friday.  It’s not that I have deliberately avoided such contact, but rather it’s due to the scarcity of cloistered nuns in the United States.  In Europe such houses are more plentiful, though they are definitely not overcrowded.  In any case, I and my fellow pilgrims had come to the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria to visit with the abbess of the monastery which had founded our sister monastery in Saint Joseph, MN.

The abbey has its origins in an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon who came from the south of England.  She arrived as part of the same missionary migration to Germany that brought Saint Boniface, and together they put a Benedictine stamp on the Church in Germany.  Two hundred years later the founding nuns of Saint Walburga gathered her remains, and a thousand years later pilgrims still visit her shrine.  That in itself is remarkable, since most medieval shrines had male guardians.  That alone led me to conclude that the nuns at Saint Walburga have been a pretty tenacious lot.

2FE5D52F-D6A5-4FD5-8AFD-CE5927A5F479To be honest, I wondered what in the world we could talk about for an hour with the abbess.  What could we possibly have in common with someone in a cloistered community?  Would she and her community be something of a curiosity?  Would they be aliens in a modern era, untethered from their moorings in an ancient past?  Not so, we soon found out.

The abbess, Mother Francesca, surprised us with her wit, her wisdom, and her command of English.  We knew we were off to a good start when she gave a review of the restaurant where we had eaten the evening before.  “It’s overpriced and the portions are too small.”  How she knew that she did not say;  but my guess is that not much in Eichstätt escapes her notice.

Mother Francesca has seen a lot as she nears her thirtieth year as abbess.  For one thing, she noted, the abbey used to be much larger, and the huge complex clearly says that.  While she laments the passing of those days, she’s also happy that the community attracts a novice or two each year. Not all stay, but it ensures the future of the community.

CF5B0F89-D08D-45D5-93CB-3EECB3D11170To our surprise we discovered that these cloistered  nuns do not sit around praying and contemplating all day long.  They have a strong work ethic, she stressed, and several of the nuns teach religion in the grade school which they sponsor.  Another young nun, holder of a PhD in mathematics, teaches in the University of Eichstätt.  Still others help in the guest house and make crafts for the gift shop.  So there seems to be no twiddling of thumbs there.

Our conversation ranged all over the map, but Mother Francesca offered three comments that were great takeaways.  First, despite living in a monastery whose bones are medieval and whose façade is baroque, these nuns are not fossils.  “We are not a museum,” as she put it.  They are not relics of a bygone age.

49FEDA0E-5BEE-4C84-88AC-3035BD315289Second, she lamented the divisions that beset the Church today.  In response to this she and her fellow nuns deliberately stand squarely in the middle of the life of the Church.  “We must be here ready and open to talk with anyone and everyone, wherever they might be on the spectrum.”

Finally, she accepts her own lot in life as abbess.  Her sisters elected her for life, and she will serve as long as she is able.  Then she offered this important caveat:  “I may have some administrative responsibilities, but this is not an administrative job.  I am the mother of a family, and you don’t elect a mother for a term or two.”  It’s a vocation within a vocation.

This led nicely to her parting comment.  “All too often our spirituality suggests we become like angels, so much so that we forget to be human.  But Christ calls us to be human, and Saint Benedict calls us to be the best humans we can be.”

Pope Gregory the Great in his biography of Saint Benedict tells the story of the saint’s last visit with his twin sister Scholastica.  His description of their conversation is standard for the era, and he writes that they got so wrapped up in holy talk that they lost track of the time.  I have to admit that I’ve always been skeptical about that claim.  What holy things could be so interesting that they would lead us into overtime?  Well, last week at Saint Walberga I got a sample, and it made a believer out of me.


+During the past few days I have been part of a Benedictine Heritage Tour that took alumni and friends of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to monastic sites in Italy and Germany.  Chief among the monastic houses in Italy which we visited were Subiaco, where Benedict began his spiritual journey as a hermit, and Monte Cassino, where he built a large community.  Today the two places could not be more different, both architecturally and in terms of the life in their respective communities.

+In Germany we visited the Abbey of Saint Walburga in Eichstätt in Bavaria, the place to which our sister community in Saint Joseph, MN, owes much of its heritage.  We then ended the trip with a visit to the Abbey of Metten, in northern Bavaria.  It was from that community that Abbot Boniface Wimmer came to the United States to minister to the German immigrants.  In his extensive work he was the founder of Saint John’s.

+The monks of Saint John’s and all associated with Saint John’s note with sadness the passing of John Gagliardi, who was a revered mentor and coach at Saint John’s University.  In his long career he built a record as the coach with the most wins of anyone in football.  Though in failing health for some time, this fall he still made an appearance at a Homecoming reception in his honor.

+The photos in today’s post show aspects of the Abbey of Saint Walburga.  At top is a statue of the saint that stands above her shrine, and at bottom is her shrine.  The fourth photo shows the choir chapel where the nuns pray the liturgy of the hours, and just above is a photo of Mother Francesca and Sister Martina, together with some of the members of our tour.


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IMG_0038The Stirrings of the Spirit

This fall marks twenty years since we at Saint John’s began discussion about The Saint John’s Bible.  At first it didn’t seem like such a promising idea, and while I liked the concept, I expected that little would come of it.  For starters, it was both ambitious and a little outlandish.  And so, with not a little skepticism, I finally presented the idea to the powers that were, and to my utter amazement we decided to commission the scribe, Donald Jackson, to do it.

A lot has happened in the course of nearly twenty years.  The Bible has been made.  It continues to go on exhibition across the country.  The Apostles and Heritage Editions rest in libraries and museums and universities from Rome to Sydney and points in between.  And by every measure it’s been both an artistic achievement and a spiritual inspiration.  In short, it’s accomplished most everything for which we hoped, and then some.

IMG_9895This Wednesday at Westminster Cathedral in London Cardinal Vincent Nichols will confer on Donald Jackson the papal honor of Knighthood in the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Such honors come to those who make a singular contribution to the life of the Church, and this has certainly been the case with Mr. Jackson.  He created something that had not been undertaken in nearly 500 years; and if this work was not inspired in the sense that the scriptures were inspired, I dare say that the Holy Spirit stirred within his imagination all the same. For that stirring of the Spirit we mortals are indebted to artists, composers, musicians and the like.  After all, they have had the courage to welcome the Spirit, whether gladly or reluctantly.

In any such project there is a great deal that gets learned, and we absorbed a great deal from making The Saint John’s Bible.  First we discovered some of the reasons why no major institution has bothered to do this in nearly 500 years.  We’ve also found that the very idea struck many as ridiculous or wasteful or irrelevant to modern life.  But balancing all his was the appreciation of how art can inspire and move people.

IMG_9906I’d like to think that the broader strokes are what we’ve come to appreciate most.  First of all, economics have been and continue to be an important factor in deciding whether to do something.  This is rightly so, but economics can never be the sole determinant about what is important in life.  Some activities will never make money, and chief among them are art and music.  The same holds true for good conversation, friendship, love and prayer.  Few if any of these things yield a financial return on the investment of time and energy or even money, but they all give joy and meaning to life.

I’ve taken great solace in the habit of Pope Benedict XVI, who  for years has played Mozart at the piano before retiring for the evening.  In his tenure as pope he had to be one of the busiest guys on the planet.  Yet, evening after evening, he set aside time for this one item.  Wouldn’t it have been better to play a CD or get in an extra thirty minutes at the desk?  Perhaps; but he thought not.

In the course of public exhibitions of The Saint John’s Bible I’ve seen people pore over the folios, giving every indication that they were somehow communing with these texts.  To those who studied, the pages mattered in some religious or even emotional way.  That explains why some people have smiled, and on a few occasions a few have even shed tears.  For a variety of reasons people have taken something with them after poring over verses and images.  That little bit of inspiration that Mr. Jackson and his team have shared with others justifies the entire enterprise.

That should serve as encouragement to any people who give of themselves to others.  We never know what, if any, impact our generosity of time or energy or spirit will have on others.  But of one thing we have to wonder.  If we don’t do the giving, then how can we be sure that the Spirit will stir?


IMG_0059+In my last post I noted that I had attended the recent dinner in honor of the new archbishop of St. Paul/Minneapolis, hosted by members of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher.  I  neglected to note that, because of the crowd, I was unable to meet him.  You can imagine my surprise last week as I sat at breakfast in the abbey refectory.  I happened to glance up from my shredded wheat, and there was Archbishop Hebda, preparing a bowl of cereal for himself.  The previous evening he had come to Saint John’s to meet a priest-friend who was staying in the guesthouse.  The next morning the archbishop joined the monks for prayer and breakfast in the refectory, and I finally got to meet him, over a bowl of cereal.

IMG_9927+On June 10th I arrived in London to attend the investiture of Donald Jackson as a member of the Order of Pope Gregory the Great.  Among other reasons, this was a good weekend to be in London, since there were three days of festivities to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday.  On Saturday there was the trooping of the colors, but another activity went on for three days.  In her honor the horse guards took their steeds out of their stalls, and for the duration they trotted around the city pooping all over everything while adoring crowds applauded.  It’s a local thing and not quite my cup of tea.  But it makes them all happy, as long as they don’t step in it.

+Save for the papal letter that confers the Order of Pope Gregory the Great, the photos in today’s post show Westminster Cathedral in London.  Begun in the 19th century, the interior of the cathedral remains unfinished, and someday mosaics will fill in the darker recesses of the cathedral.  Included is a mosaic of Pope Gregory the Great and Saint Augustine of Canterbury, whom the pope sent to evangelize the Angles and Saxons in 590.

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imageSaint Benedict and the Command to Love

I came way too late to the monastery to experience those first heady days of ecumenical encounter in central Minnesota.  To be clear, I’m not writing about the dialogs among Catholics and Lutherans and Episcopalians.  Those talks came much later, and they were possible only because of the earlier breakthrough between the German Catholics and the Polish Catholics.  It’s hard to imagine the day when a mixed marriage in Stearns County, our county, was the term for a union between members of those two communities, and people spoke of such marriages in whispered tones.

Given that disquiet about Catholics of non-German extraction, you can just imagine the level of enthusiasm that our early monks brought to the triad of feast days that sit squarely in the middle of Lent.  On March 17th, the feast of Saint Patrick, the more daring of the monks admitted to trace elements of Celtic blood flowing in their veins; while the more cautious among them owned to having met someone of Irish heritage, once.  Then, on the 19th, came the feast of Saint Joseph.   Way back then there was little of anything Italian in our community, save for the decrees that came by boat from Rome.  Then, in the next breath, the monks celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict on the 21st.  Now that was a feast they could sink their teeth into, despite the glaring note of his accidental birth in Italy.  In fact, he may have been born Italian, but there was something wonderfully German about the man that more than compensated.

imageOur community, since day one, has had a strong work ethic.  This turned out to be a strategic advantage in the pioneering days of Minnesota.  In the days when the option for everybody who came here was hard work or freezing to death, our founding monks came well-disposed to make the right choice.  And so a man like Benedict, whose motto was “work and pray,” had to have at least a little German in him, or so they must have thought.

As for the Italian DNA in Saint Benedict, everyone knew it was there, though they must have hesitated about it.  Here I’m not referring to the strain of legalism that has coursed through the Roman bureaucracy for centuries.  Rather, I speak of the reputation for creativity that Italians have earned as they’ve applied the ideals of Christian doctrine to its lived expression.  To say the least, I’ve always admired them for their genius at sorting out issues of law and love.  But of course they are artists at heart.

Nowhere is the tension between law and love better expressed than in the last visit that Benedict paid to his sister Scholastica.  On the prescribed day they left their respective monasteries and met at some spot halfway in between.  But as the visit stretched beyond Benedict’s self-imposed curfew, the latter grew antsy to get home.  Scholastica was not so eager to call it a day, and she dismissed out of hand her brother’s insistence that his own Rule forbade an overnight absence from the monastery.

imageScholastica then went on the offensive, and in as many words she let her brother know that “we’ll see about that.”  So she prayed and shed copious tears, until finally God got the message.  It rained cats and dogs, and Benedict was forced to admit defeat.  “What  have you done, sister?”

That evening Scholastica got the better of her brother, and Benedict’s biographer, Pope Gregory the Great, did not hesitate to say so.  “Surely it is no more than right that her influence was greater than  his, since hers was the greater love.”  So it was that the writer of the Rule lost out to his sister, and that day her great love trumped his excellent laws.

Stories such as this one abound in the early monastic tradition, and I’ve fondly recalled one that amused us to no end when we read it at evening prayer many years ago.  In that episode an Egyptian monk was walking down a road when he spied a group of nuns headed his way.  Worried that he might compromise his integrity, he hid in the ditch and covered his face until they had walked by.  Then he stood, brushed off the dust, and walked on with more than a smidgen of self-satisfaction.  But while he was still within earshot, the abbess called out to him and stopped him dead in his tracks.  “If you were a real monk, you’d never have even noticed that we were women.”

imageThe monastic tradition has delighted in these sorts of stories, partly because they owe so much to the spirit of the parables in the gospels.  Common to them all is the suggestion that every now and then God really does raise up the lowly to confound the proud.  They also warn that a healthy reserve of humility can come in handy, just when you need it most.  And last but not least, they offer this one bit of wisdom:  law has primacy, and the greatest of the laws is the command to love.  Teasing this wisdom into everyday life is not easy, of course, but that’s what monks and nuns try to do.  It’s also what thoughtful Christians do.

All this is a little disconcerting for those who would like to put law and wisdom into opposite corners and dispense with one or the other.  The fact is, we  need a healthy balance of both.  For its part, law is the practical embodiment of Christian ideals, and they lead us on the path to God.  But the Holy Spirit grants us wisdom for those cases when we’re tempted to walk a straight line down a twisting road.  Weaving the two together, it seems to me, is the challenge of Christian life.  It’s also what makes it wonderfully beautiful.

This March 21st I plan to celebrate the memory of the Benedict who wrote the Rule that still guides the lives of me and my brothers.  But I also plan to celebrate the man who could look squarely at the command to love, and be wise enough to adjust his plans accordingly.


+On March 15th I gave a conference to the Benedictine Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey, who had gathered for the Abbey Mass, lunch, and lectio.  At the conclusion of the day, five individuals made their oblation, completing a year of study and prayer.

+I neglected to mention in the last post that during our visit to Norcia, the city of Benedict’s birth, I was named a citizen of the town.  To my great surprise I received a document signed by some civic official, suitable for framing.  Only later did I have the presence of mind to ask our guide whether this entitled me to any special rights or privileges. “Do I qualify for a pension?” I asked.  “Oh, I guess they forgot to tell you.  We’re broke.  Flat broke.”  I’m now going back to read the fine print and find out whether I’m the first and only citizen of Norcia required by law to pay taxes.

+I’m reaching back a bit to mention that on February 26th I attended a lecture at the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library at Saint John’s University, entitled Templars, Hospitallers and 12-century Popes.  The Malta Study Center at HMML sponsored the talk, delivered by Dr. Jochen Burgtorf.  Dr. Burgtorf is Professor of Medieval History at California State University at Fullerton.

+The photos in today’s post all come from Monte Cassino.  At top is a wonderful modern sculpture, depicting two monks who support Saint Benedict as he surrenders himself to God.


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imageBlessed Too Are the Paranoid

Sometimes the Beatitudes seem idealistic to the point of absurdity.  Take “purity of heart,” for instance.  What in the world does it mean to be pure of heart?  What’s so blessed about it?  And why would any intelligent person want to be pure of heart anyway?

At first blush the pure of heart appear to be little more than innocents abroad.  They’re the sort of people with whom conmen and muggers have a field day, because with them the pickings seem so easy.  They are the lambs who happily march off to the slaughter, oblivious to the fate that awaits them.  Who in their right mind would opt to be such docile prey?

Were Jesus to rework the Beatitudes for a 21st-century audience, and were he playing to the crowd, he’d definitely have to make some accommodation to modern tastes.  For one thing, he’d need to account for the street-smarts that many value as a virtue today.  Out would be ideals like purity of heart, because they only lead to trouble.  In would be a radically different perspective on the world, and better Beatitudes would naturally follow.

image“Blessed are the paranoid, for they will see enemies behind every bush.”  “Blessed are the deeply suspicious, for they’ll never be disappointed.”  And “blessed are the pessimists, for they shall see things going from bad to worse.”  Those would be Beatitudes better suited to our brave new world.

Well, here’s a chance for Christians to put on their counter-cultural hats and stick to the words of Jesus with a rigid literalism. The fact is, Jesus very likely meant what he said about the pure of heart, and he had not a shred of doubt that such people are truly blessed.

It’s important to keep in mind that Jesus never advised his disciples to be naive or simple, and on at least one occasion he counseled them to be sly as serpents and innocent as doves.  So attentiveness to the world and its ways is a must, he suggests.  Precisely because of that, the disciples of Jesus must be sure that their eyes always are wide open, so that they can survey the entire panorama.  They can’t spend all their time looking for the demon behind every door, because that’s only part of the picture.  In fact, there’s all sorts of other stuff going on, and they ought not miss any of it.

Given what’s out there to see, through what filter do we want to sift all the data?  Do we really want to gaze out with unabashed purity of heart?  Do we really want to be people in whom there is no guile?  What’s the benefit of such an approach?

imageOne quick pay-back is a freshness of vision as we see things we’d not noticed before.  If we’re open to others, for example, we might very well discover some of the goodness we had overlooked in them.  If we begin to trust others, we could very well conclude that a great many people are worthy of our trust.  If we begin to give others the benefit of the doubt, we might find that some people — if not a whole bunch of people — are trying to do the right thing and to do the best they can.  And as an added bonus, we just might realize that others trust us in return, and they try to give us the benefit of the doubt.

At the risk of reducing the Beatitudes to a series of either/or options, then, I do think that Jesus intended just such an approach when he speaks about purity of heart.  There are indeed two ways of looking at life, and we have to choose.  On the one  hand, we can look at life through the lens of paranoia, and we’ll see evil lurking everywhere.  In such a world the devil roams freely, unchecked, and things only get worse and worse.  People, as instruments of the evil one, can scarcely be trusted, ever.  And since people generally live up to the expectations we heap on them, we’re never disappointed when we expect the worst of them.

imageBut consider the alternative — the lens of purity of heart.  There’s no denying that the world is a mixed bag of good and evil, but the pure of heart are lucky enough to get frequent glimpses of the good.  They’re not afraid to draw the curtains open and discover that God is at work in the world after all.  The pure of heart also have the courage to let the scales fall from their eyes, just long enough to realize that God does some pretty awesome things.  And God does them through our friends and neighbors, and even through strangers.  Who would have thought!

Anyway, that’s my take on purity of heart.  The pure of heart get the chance to enjoy the big picture, and they’re privileged to see God using some very imperfect people to do great things.  Meanwhile, the paranoid have their work cut out for them too, even if the world they survey is much narrower.  Ironically, blessed indeed are the paranoid, because they always seem to find what they’re looking for.  But blessed too are the pure of heart, for they get to see God.  That’s not all that bad of a choice.


+On June 19th and 20th I was in San Francisco to attend the annual investiture of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  I had two good reasons for being there, the first of which was my sponsorship of new member Maureen Wright, a long-time friend.  I was also a member of the planning committee for the investiture, so I had a personal stake in the smooth running of the events.

On the 19th the investees and their sponsors gathered for a two-hour vigil service at Mission Dolores, the 18th-century mission founded by Junipero Serra.  The next day we gathered for the investiture and Mass at the Jesuit Church of Saint Ignatius, a gorgeous baroque church on the campus of the University of San Francisco.

It was a good liturgy by the Jesuit definition, since no one got hurt.  All in all things turned out wonderfully, despite one small disappointment.  At the hotel entrance, as we waited for our transport to Mission Dolores, a small crowd had gathered outside.  Naturally we assumed they were there to greet us, but we were wrong.  They were waiting for the Boston Red Sox, who boarded the bus in front of ours.  And unlike the Red Sox, no one asked for our autographs, except when it came time to pay the bills.

image+Occasionally I write articles for various publications, and here is the link to a piece I wrote  last winter on Pope Gregory the Great, who served as pope from 590-604.  The article appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Journal, the newsletter of the Western Association of the Order of Malta.  It is part of a series of profiles of several doctors of the Church.

+During the past week four of our monks in simple vows have been attending the annual formation program for young monks, held this year at Saint Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA.  In addition to hearing about monastic topics, it gives monks in formation from houses across the country the chance to meet and compare notes.   Brothers Richard, Lucian, Eric and David are attending the two-week conference.

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imagePope Francis: Do We Have a Verdict Yet?

Pope Gregory the Great has always been a favorite saint within the Benedictine tradition, largely because he was one of us.  Born into an aristocratic family in 6th-century Italy, he transformed one of his family estates into a monastery.  He lived in community thereafter, and this included stints as papal ambassador in Constantinople and then as pope from 590-604.

Gregory was among the most accomplished of popes, and few popes have been his equal in terms of impact on the Church.  He was a prolific writer, though no one thinks of him as an original intellect.  To him we owe the Life of Saint Benedict, as well as his treatise, On Pastoral Care, which became a favorite across Europe within a century.

He was also an able administrator, and he organized the lands of the Church so that they better-served the needs of the poor.  He was an accomplished diplomat as well.  At a time when the Byzantine government was unable to impose law and order in Italy, Gregory threw the weight of his office into negotiation with the barbarian tribal kings.  That initiative upset the bosses in Constantinople, but necessity trumped the niceties of protocol.

imageMost of all, I’ve admired Gregory’s insight in defining what became the diocesan and religious clergy.  Gregory provided no textbook on this, but in his hundreds of letters he formulated a consistent separation of responsiblities and duties.  The diocesan clergy were to dedicate themselves to parochial work; while the monks were to focus on life within the cloister.  In practice, the religious tended to schools and community-based apostolates, and that has served the Church well for centuries.  No wonder his portrait shows up on the walls of so many monasteries.

We celebrated Gregory’s feast day on September 3rd, and it struck me as an appropriate moment to formulate some thoughts on our latter-day religious pope, Francis.  He’s been in office for several months now, and he’s just come off an August of quiet work in his office in Rome.  Will he return to the headlines, or has his media star faded?

By now everyone has some sort of opinion about Pope Francis.  Many admire him for his love of the poor.  A few are disappointed that he’s not a clothes horse.  Many like him for his apparent simplicity.  Others fault him for not tackling the curia with guns blazing.  As for me, I think he’s done an enormous amount of good already.  But as the pundits have noted, Pope Francis is bound to disappoint virtually everybody, sooner or later.  But I think that may be a point in his favor.

imageUp to now a lot of what Francis has done is best understood through the lens of religious life.  Benedictines and Franciscans and Jesuits have distinct missions in the Church, but they all work out of some sense of community.  No wonder Francis preferred not to reside in the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.  There he would live in a gilded cage, tended to by keepers who control any and all access to the pope.  His best option was the Casa Santa Marta, where he can mix with guests at will and can see people whenever he likes.  There he can be his own man, without courtiers guiding his every move.

History will likely judge his daily Masses as the defining element of his papacy.  His homilies in particular have been striking, because in them he gets to say exactly what’s on his mind.  But haven’t popes always gotten to say what’s on their minds?  You’d be surprised.

imageAll the recent popes have been nice guys, but can anyone remember a single line from any of their sermons?  I know I don’t.  In fact, I put those sermons in the category of “non-addictive sleep aids.”  And the reason for all that tedium is simple.  Papal sermons and documents are written for the archive, and have been edited accordingly.  Popes may start with good ideas, but between idea and finished product these documents go through several stages of editorial revision.  There can be no misunderstanding of a text, and hints of enthusiasm are the first things to go to the chopping block.  No wonder they’ve had so little to say that sparked people in the pews.

Pope Francis has side-stepped that process, rather cleverly.  He composes his thoughts in his study early in the morning.  Then he walks the short distance to the chapel to deliver them.  He meets no editors or censors on the way, and the thoughts on the readings  for the day are his thoughts.  This is strangely reminiscent of what parish priests do each morning!

Jesus got a lot of credit for speaking “with authority,” and I used to wonder what that meant.  I now have a better notion, thanks to Pope Francis.  When Jesus spoke he did not churn out commentaries and minute analysis of the Law and the Prophets.  Instead he drew from common experience.  His parables spoke to the imagination of ordinary people, and no wonder they still pique our curiosity after all these centuries.

imagePope Francis seems to do the same thing.  But where does he get his ideas?  Well, I suspect he reads.  He also prays.  And in the course of his life as a priest he’s listened to countless confessions.  Certainly he’s heard all the peccadillos that there can be, but he’s also heard all of the struggles that overwhelm ordinary people.  No wonder he promotes the sacrament of reconciliation. It’s reality therapy for the penitent, and it’s a genuine education for the priest.

My conclusion is that both Jesus and Pope Francis speak from authority.  Their’s is not the authority that derives from academic footnotes.  Nor does Francis lean on the authority that comes from his job as the occupant of the chair of Peter.  Certainly Pope Francis could speak that way, but he prefers to speak as he does because he knows where people are at.  They are pilgrims, and so is he.  And he is not the least bit afraid to speak from his personal experience.  We’re just not used to hearing popes speak that way.

imagePope Francis inaugurated the fall season on Saturday with a prayer service for peace in Syria.  It didn’t bother me in the least that he prayed for four hours in front of the Blessed Sacrament, without benefit of red shoes or ermine-trimmed cape.  Nor will I leave the Church because he didn’t wear cufflinks.  By contrast, I was struck that 100,000 people would join him, and that in the group were many Muslims.  One could find that miraculous, until you realize the object of their prayers.  Such prayer becomes intensely personal when  your relatives run the risk of being killed and your world hurled into conflict.  Such prayer is no longer an academic exercise.

I’m under no illusion that Pope Francis will make the Curia perfect by October.  Nor will he complete all the other goals that you and I expect of him by November.  I’m confident that he’ll give it his best shot, however.  Meantime, I think that each morning Pope Francis will tend to his first and major goal, which is to lead people to an encounter with Jesus Christ.  If he’s successful, it won’t leave much of a mark in the archives.  But he will certainly touch an awful lot of human hearts.


+On September 4th I presided at the Abbey Mass, and I entitled my sermon Jesus Didn’t go into Private Practice.  That same day I began a several-day siege with allergies.  For the better part of three days I had no voice, which my confreres did not seem to mind at all.

+The new school year at Saint John’s University began on August 26th.  The return of the students always brings added excitement, and on the athletic front there were two innovations.  On August 30th we dedicated our new soccer field, and the team went on to win their first game on the new turf.  For me the Prayer of Blessing for a Soccer Field was particularly intriguing.  Though the prior read it in the rite of blessing, it was Fr. Michael Kwatera who authored the prayer.  He is among the most talented prayer writers anywhere.  As for football, our new coach won the first game of the season, and his first as head coach, on September 6th.  If he can keep up this unspoiled record, he could surpass the won-loss record of our retired coach in about fifty years.image

+In the monastic refectory we are reading a book by Elizabeth Rapley, entitled The Lord as their Patron: The Story of the Religious Orders and How They Shaped Our World (Eardmans, 2011).  I find it extremely interesting, as do most of my confreres.

+While in Germany I had the opportunity to stay in a schloss that was originally built to house a community of Benedictine monks.  Its quadrangular architectural style is repeated in the design of the quadrangle at Saint John’s.  In many ways, then, I felt very much at home rattling around in the spacious halls.  Most of the pictures in today’s post come from there.  Also included are two pictures of a small chapel where we celebrated Mass every day.

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