¡Be Back Pentecost 2016!

Fr. Jim Polich of the diocese of Des Moines Iowa died four years ago on this feast, shortly after midnight on the Solemnity of Christ the King. The evening before he died, my wife, a friend and I visited his bedside in the hospice. He had been unresponsive for 9 days. We spoke with him. I read aloud the passage from Luke’s Gospel he had written his dissertation on. Luke 5:1-11. My wife sang to him the spiritual song, Give Me Jesus. And then all three of us sang the Salve Regina. After all this, he let out a groaning sound that sounded intentional. My wife said, “It’s okay to go now, Father. You’ve served Jesus well. You can go to Him.” We all said, “We love you Fr. Jim.” We left in silence. Hours later, the servant-priest departed this life to meet the King. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord. May Fr. Jim rest in peace for all ages with the great High Priest.


Sunset over the St. Clement of Rome Festival in Metairie, Louisiana

There was a venerable tradition in the middle ages of taking “courtly love songs,” popular romantic ballads, and allegorizing them into spiritual canticles that unfold with deep feeling the diverse exigencies of faith. Exactly as the biblical Song of Songs does. Being a theological nerd,  I often pass contemporary music through that same filter spontaneously, sometimes to great personal effect. Last weekend, my wife and I were listening to a local band and dancing. My wife makes me love dancing, though no one can ever make me good at it. They started to play Swedish House Mafia’s, Don’t You Worry Child. As they sang the chorus, I experienced an overwhelming rush of visceral trust in God that, though all good things pass, they will be found again in the Kingdom. It’s been a profound grief in me of late as my children grow and prepare to leave home. That trust has remained.

So here’s the song if you care to hear it through my lens:

The recent terrorist violence in Paris, like all tragic events, has provoked countless reactions and responses. Calls for a just war, ruthless retribution, eschewing fear, reinforcing mistrust, offering forgiveness. It’s all very complex. Those who hope to bring clarity with simple answers inevitably fail. Various words chosen in response reflect and create a very different realities, propose very different futures for humanity. That said, the Jubilee of Mercy is only weeks away. It proposes a single word of response that, for Christians, defines the adaquacy of all others. Mercy, fully revealed deep in the open side of a dead God, offers the world a revolutionary new logic for responding to all violence and evil; a theo-logic revealed by the One Word forever spoken by the eternal Father. Moses heard it spoken (Ex 34:6) as God’s very Name.

Mercy is who God is in the face of evil: Christ crucified.

“The Crucifixion,” by Matthias Grünewald 1516

I’ve been thinking of this at night when I can’t sleep. Quelle différence? What language do we Christians bring to this tragedy, what words do we speak that refuse to surrender to the logic of violence and open fresh vistas of hope? One Eucharistic Prayer says this:

For though the human race
is divided by dissension and discord,
yet we know that by testing us,
you change our hearts
to prepare them for reconciliation.

Even more, by your Spirit you move human hearts
that enemies may speak to each other again,
adversaries may join hands,
and peoples seek to meet together.

By the working of your power
it comes about, O Lord,
that hatred is overcome by love,
revenge gives way to forgiveness,
and discord is changed to mutual respect.

Then my wife sent me a simple news story. No sophisticated analysis. A bit naive, really. A father and a son. Like the father in the movie Life is Beautiful, this father struggled to offer his son a protective language that proposed a response to evil; a language capable of helping a child face evil. This language is born in a world vastly other that the world inhabited by the terrorists. Yet it’s naive. But in some ways, it’s like the seemingly naive author of the book of Revelation, who proposes that the world’s injustices can be solved by worshiping God with prayer-laden incense (Rev. 8). This father speaks so simply of charity in the face of evil. Alluding to mercy. Just watch the boy’s face as he straddles these different worlds…

Because of very heavy work commitments, I will be setting aside my Blog for the rest of the academic year, i.e. until May 15, 2016 (Pentecost Sunday). If you want to continue to receive posts when I resume, I recommend you enter your email in the “Subscribe” window on the right side of the Blog page so you can receive notification that I have re-started.

Here are some Blogs I can leave you with to drink from the fountain of wisdom:

The first is by a man rich in faith, wisdom and long life experience. He goes by the marvelously descriptive pen name, “Dismas Dancing,” referring to the repentant Good Thief, St. Dismas. http://lonelywoodentower.org/

The second is by a passionate and smart woman of lively faith, “Jennifer o’ Canada.” http://jenniferocanada.blogspot.com/

The third is by a woman whom I would describe as a “sensible mystic,” Ona Kiser. http://onakiser.com/

The fourth is by Deacon Joe Fessenden, who is at Notre Dame Seminary, and has an insightful and witty Blog on all manner of things-Catholic: http://www.joefessenden.com/

The fifth is the Blog for the seminary I work at. Great stuff! http://nds.edu/blog-entry/


I will return to posting on November 10

What I imagine I would see were time and space to pass away during the celebration of the Mass. “As I looked, thrones were placed and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came forth from before him” (Dan 7:9-10). mshcdn.com

The Loathing of All Saints


Re-post from 11/1/13 (and I left a comment at the end I had made in response to a question..don’t know what it was, though)

Sometimes I hear it said that those who refuse to judge and condemn others’ misdeeds aren’t realistic about life, burying their heads in the sand. It’s false mercy, they say, that fails to confront the damage evil can wreak when the good choose to do nothing.

True enough.

But on this feast of All-Saints, let me introduce you to a different take by a saint whom many of you likely do not know. Desert Father and monk St. Isaac of Ninevah (d. 700 A.D.) wrote often about what he called the “harm of foolish zeal that has the guise of being divine.” The virtue of zeal, which is a single-minded passion in pursuit of some cause, can become a vice of it is not oriented toward the true good. Isaac often spoke of “foolish zealot-monks” who saw it as their mission to “spew their caustic judgments” on the failures of others, delighting in publicly manifesting and spreading their missteps so others might join them in their “self-righteous calumny.” In this, Isaac says, they err as their motive and goal is shaped not by love but by anger and a loveless justice. The minds of such zealots “are filled with thoughts of judgment and secret joy in the foolishness or downfall of another,” since, he said, it steals attention away from their own inner emptiness and wretchedness.

So what’s the alternative? Isaac says that instead leveling judgments born of self-righteous anger, men of faith should first desire another’s salvation and to bear their infirmities, loathing to voice judgment. If they do find themselves bound by the demands of charity or justice to voice rebuke and judgment, their first thought should be to seek God’s mercy for them and that God allow them to bear the weight of the evildoer’s sins for the sake of their salvation. “Such was the way of he Master.”

Dostoevsky echoed Isaac’s counsel in Brothers Karamazov:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God. (Book VI, Chapter 3)

St. Isaac, while discussing the traits of this anger-driven religious compulsion of the zealots, adds this:

A zealous man never achieves peace of mind. And he who is a stranger to peace is a stranger to joy. If, as it is said, peace of mind is perfect health, and zeal is opposed to peace, then the man who has a wrong zeal is ill with a grievous disease. Though you presume, O man, to send forth your zeal against the infirmities of other men, you have expelled the health of your own soul. Be assiduous, therefore, in laboring for your own soul’s health. If you wish to heal the infirm, know that the sick are in greater need of loving care than of rebuke. Therefore, although you do not help others, you expend labor to bring grievous illness upon yourself. Zeal is not reckoned among men to be a form of wisdom, but one of the illnesses of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance. The beginning of divine wisdom is clemency and gentleness, which arise from greatness of soul and the bearing of infirmities of men. For, the Apostle Paul says, ‘let the strong bear the infirmities of the weak’, and ‘Restore him that has fallen in the spirit of meekness.’ The Apostle numbers peace and patience among the fruits of the Spirit … In this way let us not pray like the hypocrite: “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11)

Imagine possessing the zealous love of St. Paul who tells us of his desire to offer God his own salvation in exchange for that of his Jewish brethren who have rejected Christ. It’s breathtaking:

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and separated from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kin according to the flesh. (Romans 9:3)

Though in my weakness I could only wish to salute such self-forgetful love from afar, it serves as a stark reminder that the merciful, in the face of evil, desire to imitate Jesus who responded to evil by taking on Himself the sins of the world.

Where are we?

Right after we’d moved to Iowa from Florida, we took our annual Christmas photo. Patti had this great idea to have us pose outside in early December as Flordians who still had not come to terms with the reality of life in Iowa. It was 28 degrees out after 4″ of snow had fallen. Too fun.


And the Word was made neurological, and dwelt among us


Re-post from 2013

For all the good the Theology of the Body movement has achieved, there’s always more to be done. Recently, I was prompted to re-think what that might mean.

A friend of mine who is a psychotherapist and a woman of faith was sharing with me some of her research on the relationship between mental health and the body. More specifically, she’s fascinated by the interrelationship between biochemistry, neurology and emotional health. She said she’s always disliked the overly cognitive term “mental illness.” She said,

It makes people think that the problem is really just psychological, mental, that ‘it’s all in your head.’ But it’s very much a somatic problem, in your blood and your brain. The mind is a soupy web of bio-chemical and neurological tissues. That’s the stuff that hosts the soul. For me as a Catholic, when I examine the mind-blowing intricacy of all this I can see the human brain and body are really God’s masterpiece… Mental illness or wellness is inextricably rooted in biology … I’ve always hoped to see a more helpful coming together of brain science with the Catholic spiritual and moral traditions. Imagine if discussions of acquiring virtue interlaced with, for example, the research on neurochemicals. It would help scientifically minded people take more seriously church teaching, I think. Don’t you?

She shared with me some of her research into studies done on human emotion, and the various modes of treatment that can be used to help treat mood disorders or addictions. We talked more about how all this relates to the body-soul relationship and, after we spoke, I thought that any theology of the body that deals with sexuality must be open to understanding the meaning of sexuality not only theologically, employing sacramental-symbolic nuptial language, but also embrace its meaning as an organic mix of divinely fashioned fleshy-sinewy-hormonal complexity. To see divine artistry in our messy, oozing and fluid-secreting bodies is to see creation aright. God is the maker and lover of what we might call “clinical” or “gross.” I can’t help but think here of the words of Aidan Kavanaugh:

Human evolution began not in a neat suburbia, but in terrestrial swamps from which crawled not housewives in slacks and husbands in baseball caps but newts clothed in nothing but warts and slime…We began, Genesis says, not in the antisepsis of a laboratory but as a mud pie shaped by the same Force which either called or pushed the first newt out of a swamp…

Conversations about moral integration and chastity must be as attentive to the Book of Nature as to the Book of Scripture — to neuro-psychology as to the divine mysteries revealed in Genesis’ theologically charged creation narrative. Being made in the divine image, according to Genesis, includes the union of spirit and slime.

What evocative and engaging topics would arise from this exchange! The hypothalamus and chaste living. The medulla oblongata and the virtue of temperance. The frontal lobe and the redemption of erotic love. Clinical depression and the beatitudes. The hormonal dimensions of concupiscence. This talk of bio-virtue allows science, philosophy and theology to demonstrate the rich unity of truth. Imagine being empowered to connect the complex medical diagnostic jargon your doctor throws at you with St. Paul’s command to offer your body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1).

Mrs. Jones, you’ve had a syncopal episode without any evidence of arrhythmia. I don’t think it was vagal but I ordered a 2D echo and holter. I still can’t rule out a vertebrobasilar event.

That’s the grit of what God wants you to offer to Him.

I’ve long thought we could capture this more “messy-soupy” and science-friendly approach to the Theology of the Body via the more graphic biblical word: flesh (basar-sarx). To me, this biblically rich word seems to evince human fragility in its concrete reality better than “body.” A Theology of the Flesh. This would complement the more abstract and idealized tendencies of much Theology of the Body literature.

Catholics celebrate the truth that human biology, divinized and transfigured in Christ, is forever glorified in the heart of the Trinity. In Christ, God assumed to Himself blood and nerves, tendons and bone marrow, hair and spit. In Luke 24:36-43 the risen Christ argues as much:

As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

But there’s an even greater mystery here. God-made-flesh invites us not just to eat with Him, but to feed on His Flesh and Blood in the Most Holy Sacrament. And if the scientific tests on the Eucharistic miracles have any contribution to make to this topic, this great Sacrament reveals the glory of heart tissue. If you have 8 minutes, watch here:

The Great Co-Mission


Over the summer, I was privileged to meet privately with a bishop from up North and speak with him about various areas of church life. We each shared our perspective on what we think needs the most attention in the U.S. church. He said a number of things I found really striking, many of which I wrote down in my journal later. Let me share with you one line of thought we followed. These are some of his words as I wrote them down in my journal later:

Too often, I find, those who seek out leadership positions in the church, whether they’re lay or ordained, are driven not be a sense of mission to serve others and build them up, but by the desire to fill their own personal needs or act out of their own unresolved issues. Good leaders have to be defined by mission and not by personal needs. We have to set ourselves aside for the sake of God’s people. If you’re consumed by your own issues all the time, you can’t make the church’s mission your own. I can tell right away when I’m with a needy minister, because when I’m with them I walk away thinking mostly about them and their needs and problems. The worst thing I could hear someone say about me is, “Poor thing. So sad.” Leaders in the church who are mission-driven should always leave people thinking about Jesus and the church. Feeling built up. They should want to be a better person after working with you, or feel that they’ve been brought closer to God after speaking with you; or feel more impassioned about their own life-mission. The point is that you have to point away from yourself.

It’s why the church says holiness in church ministers is imperative. Holiness always takes you out of yourself and gets you wrapped up in the mission of Jesus. You stop seeking adulation, stop dragging along with you all your clanging baggage. People should walk away from you lighter, more hopeful and encouraged, more joyful and on fire with the mission. The goal of a leader in the church is to be totally forgettable. Not for false humility or because they’re just drab and dreary, but because they always point away from themselves toward the people they serve, toward the church, toward the Lord. Like Pope Francis says it, good leaders are mediators not managers. Mediators convey and communicate mission and grace and the Kingdom, but managers convey thesmelves, their agenda, and try to exploit the church to their own advantage. I always tell my seminarians that it’s really a good thing when they experience opposition and conflict in their leadership work, because it keeps them cognizant of the fact that it’s not about them at all, but about the mission of Jesus. If you’re keeping to the mission, and some people hate the mission, you’re going to feel that. Feel the rub. You can’t change the mission to make sure it works for you. You work for it. And the mission of Jesus is mercy that lifts up the fallen and confronts people’s lies and sins and brokenness. Yours and theirs. So it’s going to grind on you now and again. But good leaders rejoice in the grind and rub because they want the mission to succeed more than anything else.

Tom, it’s like you as a father. Think about it. Your role is not to make your children like you or make life easy for them or for yourself. Your mission is to help them become good people, good citizens, saints. That’s your role, and your role is always much bigger than you. If you’re a good father, a good leader, fathering trumps all your personal needs and issues. The mission is about them, not you. You die to yourself to embody the role, to embody your mission. That’s holiness for you as a dad, right? That’s what we need in the church. The saint is one in whom the person and their mission become one. The Great Commission [Matthew 28:16-20] means [he spoke loudly]: It’s not about you, Tom! It’s the mission, the mission, the mission. I can never say that often enough.

He mentioned Pope Francis’ 2013 interview with America magazine and how insightful he found it to be. Here’s the part I think he especially appreciated:

How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.

Caught in the Matrix


Repost from 2013

I must share this ridiculously marvelous reflection Pope Francis gave Wednesday on the topic of the “communion of saints.” Then I will add a few thoughts of my own.

The excerpt:

John’s Gospel states that, before his Passion, Jesus prayed to the Father for communion among his disciples, with these words: “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (17:21). The Church, in her most profound truth, is communion with God, intimacy with God, a communion of love with Christ and with the Father in the Holy Spirit, which extends to brotherly communion. This relationship between Jesus and the Father is the “matrix” of the bond between us Christians: if we are intimately part of this “matrix”, this fiery furnace of love, then we can truly become of one single heart and one single soul among us. For God’s love burns away our selfishness, our prejudices, our interior and exterior divisions. The love of God even burns away our sins. If we are rooted in the source of Love, which is God, then a reciprocal movement also occurs: from brothers to God.

What an image. Wow.

He’s saying: Real, authentic, lasting Christian unity can only be had if Christians become saints who freely abide in the relational “matrix” of “fiery love” that burns between the Father and the Son. Saints, by definition, are caught up in the mysterious structure of God’s inner life which includes — as we say in the Nicene Creed — the divine acts of eternally begetting, being begotten, born and proceeding. These inconceivably energetic verbs, taken from the Scriptures (see here), describe the interrelationship of each divine Person to the other Persons. All three Persons, though eternally distinct, are consubstantial, which means that each is wholly whatever-it-means-to-be-God. The essence of divine substance is charity, which is wholly other-centered and self-giving.

Being made in the image of God, we are stamped with that substance in our inmost depths. How awesome is that?

This language about who God is in his deepest essence is not simply invented by human speculation or ingenuity, but was revealed to us by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. As my dogmatics professor used to say it, “Only God can speak of God.” It’s mystery-laden language, which means that, though true, the Reality signified by the words always super-exceeds the capacity of faith’s language. In this sense, our Trinitarian creed is like the Niagara River that incessantly exceeds three rocky precipices: Horseshoe Falls, American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls.

Kindly step back and prayerfully consider with me for a moment this: God became man so that man, re-created in Baptism, might possess fully the joy of immortal entry into God’s volcanic dynamism. When you profess the Creed and say “I believe” from the heart, you find yourself plunged into a God who is not a static and immobile noun, but an over-boiling verb, infinitely dynamic and powerfully alive. Maybe it would be more fitting to say, “I believe into one God…” Just imagine what is going on in God at this very moment:

I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial
with the Father

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son…

Let’s allow music to give us wings to soar into this Mystery a bit through this sung version of the Creed in its Eastern form. Feel the dynamism alive:

Mind blowing. I dare not speak so intimately and familairly of this Mystery far from the celebration of the Liturgy, as there alone do finite words dare command God to be thus for us and for our salvation.

It’s really not about us at all. Rather, it’s about God-for-us, God-with-us. St. Catherine comes to our aid:

O eternal and infinite Good, O extravagance of love! You need your creature? Yes, it seems to me; because you behave as if you could not live without it, although you are life and all things receive life from you, and without you nothing lives. You fell in love with your own workmanship and delighted in it as if enraptured with its well-being; it flees you and you go searching for it; it goes away from you and you draw near; you could not have come any nearer than in assuming its very humanity.

In the end, ecclesial unity is not build on 5 year strategic plans, elaborate dialogues or problem-solving ingenuity. It’s something we freely receive and enter into. We didn’t invent unity, it pre-exists creation in God. Ecclesial unity means consenting to be a God-drenched saint, saturated by the matrix of charity which beats in the Heart of God.

Well, what are you waiting for?