Future priests, love the laity!

Yesterday was the last day of a class on the Laity that I co-taught this semester with a colleague. The course was offered to seminarians in their last year of seminary formation. Most of them are deacons now. It was a great privilege. These are truly remarkable men, let me tell you.

I thought I would share with you here today my concluding remarks that I offered during the last 15 minutes of the final class. These comments capture a bit of my vision for the work of priestly formation. For those who read here, this is all familar material (some verbatim from posts).

Pray for them, that they will be priest-saints. Amen.

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Brothers, we have come to the end of our journey of exploring divine revelation together. What a thrill it has been to engage in that quest with you! I wrote a few thoughts out this morning – the overflow of my heart toward you. Cor ad cor loquitur.

It has been a great honor to co-teach this course with Dr. Daniella [Zsupan-Jerome], whose love for human culture, and the ways faith can elevate, purify and enrich that culture, has stretched and fertilized my imagination and deepened my understanding. Her love for catechesis, liturgy, sacramental life finds a wonderful harmony and expression in the way she teaches, writes, relates, prays and, yes, bears her child [she is ~7 months pregnant]. Christ is among us in you, Dr. D, in the uniqueness of your own feminine and scholarly genius.

This class was created to offer you a chance to reflect in a sustained way on the heartbeat of your mission: to be humble fathers and gentle shepherds who feed and do not feed off of the sheep. Your mission to inspire the laity to live holiness in the states and stations of life to which God calls them. To preach to them the word in its fullness, to be urgent in season and out of season, to convince, rebuke, and exhort and be unfailing in patience and in teaching. The lay faithful are hungry to know that their baptism has wrought in them a great thing, a new creation, a sharing in the divinizing energies of the risen God-Man; that their Confirmation has empowered them with all the fullness of the Spirit; that the Eucharist offers them a treasury in which all their daily sacrificial offerings can be transubstantiated and offered up for the life of the world; that all the Sacraments invest their lives with mind-blowing Mystery, with tender Power, with costly Mercy, with aromatic Charity, with every good gift from above, coming down from the Father of lights. The lay faithful are hungry to know that being “in Christ” makes of their life a living, ceaseless, world-consecrating liturgy that detonates new Pentecosts everywhere they bear with them the dying and rising of Jesus in their bodies. Everywhere they live Eucharistic-ly, scattering the logos spermatikoi, the “seeds of the word” everywhere they find themselves.

Brothers, cultivate vibrant faith communities as you are able [with your widow’s mite or mustard seed]. Cultivate places where the communion of faith, hope and love creates fertile, cultivated soil in which the seeds of the word can germinate and sink deep roots and fruit in a vibrant sense of evangelizing mission. Parishes that are schools of prayer, spiritual hostels of hospitality, field hospitals for the wounded to find salve, shrines of Sacramental life, gardens of catechesis, a habitat for poor-weary humanity where Alms are stored in immense barns in plenty supply for wise distribution in time of famine, where the gifts of the Spirit are known and placed in service to Christ’s Body, where neighborhoods nearby remark of your parish: see how they love one another!

Those lay faithful who come to co-work with you, to serve in ministry and collaborate in the up-building of Christ’s Body – help them discern, honor them, nourish their faith, challenge them, respect them, allow them to flourish in placing their gifts in harmony with the whole community. You are a Conductor of a symphony, no matter how modest, that takes its keynote from Christ and makes its own the song of the Bride: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus and save your people!

Those lay faithful who are called by God to live immersed in the world, to be bound up with temporal realities, secular professions, civic and social and family life, must be encouraged to see God in all things. They should hear preaching that announces the Good News that God, who so-loved the world that He gave us His only Son, continues to love the world each day, in each moment through the lay faithful who are His Body in the world.

God’s people should be exposed to a rich conception of vocation that inspires some to be passionate about pursuing the way of perfection in priesthood and consecrated life, wholly dedicated to the “goods of religion.” WHILE you inspire others, called by God to be wholly dedicated to all-thing secular, temporal and worldly, to become passionate about discovering their way of perfection as married, single, single parents, divorced, annulled and remarried, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers, childless couples, lawyers, stockbrokers, janitors, fashion designers, actors, business men and women, doctors, maids, school teachers, janitors, principals, bankers, musicians, factory workers, gunnery sergeants, librarians, machine shop workers, architects, prison guards, manual laborers, accountants, nurses, CEO’s, physicists, counselors, police officers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, secretaries, carpet cleaners, the disabled, homebound elderly or bartenders. And so many more.

Beg the Spirit to lead you to love the secular genius of your faithful people. Fr. Anthony, whom I have mentioned to you before, once spent a whole day, while I was visiting him, in the factory adjacent to his parish so he could understand better many of his parishioners’ daily work lives. He took me with him. One of the men in the factory pulled me aside and said: “Now that’s a great man.” However, had he heard the man say that of him, he would have immediately rebutted the man’s claim by saying (as he often did), “No, you’re the great man. I just look great with these clerics on.”

“Love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).

The laity need apocalyptic preachers who tear open the veils and reveal the Mystery hidden in history; preachers who will help Christ’s faithful see an ordinary world shot through with the glory of God. They need to see a world — unveiled by you! — where simple acts of kindness sustain the world; where simply picking up pins with love (to use the stunning example St. Therese gives us) redeems the whole cosmos because it saves a soul. They need to know that changing the world one diaper at a time, one smile at a time, one act of honesty at a time, one day at a time is possible because they are a kingdom of priests, a guild of prophets, a community of royal servants. God has fashioned the faithful to be His temples where time and eternity intersect; His treasure-laden stewards who leaven, salt and enlighten the world with the Fire they stole at Baptism from the human Heart of God.

Be sure to mark all the exits of your parish church with a fire escape sign, just to remind your people that their mission is to cast Fire on the earth and so consecrate it to God.

You, brothers, need to make real for God’s people Pope Francis’ words in Amoris laetita that I began this course with:

“Hence, those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union.”

No mess or frailty or fault or foible can detract from authentic Christian mysticism, precisely because our mysticism emerges out of the bloody, broken, chaotic mess of the Passion. Remember, brothers, the Passion did something absolutely astonishing: it brought the Holy of Holies outside the walls of the Holy City, outside the Temple, paraded through tangles of shouting, bartering, laughing, callous, cursing humanity. In Jesus, God bore holiness out along a dusty road leading far beyond the godforsaken highways and byways of a lost and barren world. He forsakes nothing, casts away no one. God sojourned from the sanctuary out into St. Elsewhere, which is precisely where each of you will be heading after Ordination.

Please, I beg you, proclaim from your pulpits: All of God’s people, from greatest to least, have equal access to the fullness of the riches God has given us in Christ. To Him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen

Divine ecology, writing and seed-casting

Sunset during the Willwoods Gala cocktail hour — “Tom, look, you need to get a picture of that and write a Blog on it!” I love challenges.

[Another busy week this week so probably no posts till the Triduum.]

I have no idea where this entry will go. Enjoy the ride…

Saturday night, my wife and I were invited to attend the Willwoods Sixteenth Annual Gala. Willwoods is a NOLA Catholic ministry that serves, among other things, the work of strengthening and supporting marriage and family life.

Patti and I love events like this because it’s kind of a “who’s who” in the world of NOLA Catholic culture on-the-move, with laity and clergy who invest their energy and love and faith into a unique aspect of Catholic life. Aided by an open bar, we had lots of lively conversations with a number of people, some of whom we had never met, but now are connected with — which is our favorite part. As I sat early Sunday morning reflecting on that night and the conversations we had had with quite a number of people, I began to think of the way many those people have reshaped me, my worldview, my marriage and my family’s life.

How marvelous is the interconnectedness of humanity! How astounding it is that we, as persons made for each other, are wholly defined by our relationships — for better or for ill. Many of the people I knew at the Gala I would consider people who strive for holiness, who have labored strenuously to permit God’s grace to shape their lives and, through them, influence the lives of those they interact with every day.

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had a few weeks ago with a priest I know, whom I quoted in yesterday’s post. He’s a remarkable man who has an unusual depth of compassion. By that I mean that he possesses a sustained and genuine interest in entering into others’ worlds and allowing them to enter into his. Not to simply accomplish some useful goal, or as a superficial formality, but in order to allow a meaningful human relationship to emerge. It is only, he believes, within such authentic human encounters that Christ can truly enter and reveal His life-enriching glory. It is a marvel to behold the fruits of his approach in others’ lives, mine included. In fact, the most frequent comment I hear said of him is: “He is so caring.” 

Such an approach to life and ministry takes discipline, intentionality and repeated acts of patient love. It comes with a high price tag. You might say his approach lacks a certain product-oriented “efficiency” which demands many — or even most — relationships be functional and goal-oriented. But from what I have seen and heard, the resulting quality-over-quantity “product” he produces bears the sweetest and most enduring of fruits on which alone — he would argue — genuine Christian community can be built.

It certainly was Jesus’ methodology.

As we sat together eating our meatless salads on a Lenten Friday, he asked me to describe the process that goes into my writing posts for this blog. “Where do the insights come from?” Here is roughly what I said:

The vast majority of posts begin with something I read, a conversation I have, a sunset I watch, a billboard I see, an insight that appears while I pray in the waiting room of a car repair shop. Something about this or that experience I have in a particular moment sparks something in me, like a flash of light, which then somehow gets caught up, in my mind, into the matrix of Christ — with it casting light on Him or Him casting light on it.

Then I will feel compelled to jot down the essence of whatever insight I’ve had on a receipt in my wallet, or speak a voice-to-text sent to my email address, or ask my wife if she wouldn’t mind pausing our evening conversation for three minutes while I type an explosive idea I just had into my blog drafts. Bless her heart, she’s so patient with her manic husband.

I have hundreds of drafts sitting in my wordpress account, waiting for me to have time on my hands and a Muse stirring in my imagination.

The amazing thing about writing, for me, is that when these insights detonate inside and I write them, they come alive inside of me. Like, really alive. The whole of my perspective is altered, shifted, expanded, troubled, deepened, stretched, inhabited by something new, something living, something vital that, once released into my thought-world, continues to work on everything I see and do and hear and touch and taste and reflect on and love and pray.

It’s like the ideas I get are living, not simply dead facts or bits of data added to a mental fact sheet. They trouble the waters of my mind until everything else adjusts to their presence. Which is why I love the song, “Wade in the Water,” which captures the “feel” of what goes on inside me as I theologically reflect on some wierd thing that caught me by surprise.

But I’ve noticed that it’s really only when I take these new insights and write them in my blog, or weave them into a talk or lecture I will be giving, that they come alive and begin to reshape the way I see and experience everything. They can’t just sit there, or they vanish. It’s only when I *intend* to give them away that they seem to have the power to re-define the way I see everything. This, it seems to me, is the fundamental difference between faith and knowledge. Knowledge is information added to my worldview, while faith is information, set in motion by love, that reshapes and defines my whole worldview; becomes bit by bit the way I see everything — others, yourself, the world, God. “I believe” means “I see.”

But it’s really when I take the new knowledge into my prayer-time that, like activated charcoal, purfies and enriches and affects everything else, in a strange way, resetting the the whole mess of my inner life.

That’s really quite odd sounding, isn’t it? It sounds odd as I never articulate this. Thank you for asking the question and listening so carefully.

After I finished sharing this, he shared with me a metaphor that floored me. In brief, it went something like this (I will do grave injustice to it here trying to sum it as his phrasing was so succinct and brilliant):

The image that comes to mind as you speak is of an ecosystem, with your intellectual thought being almost like an ecology of the mind. An inner culture. Ecosystems have a certain delicate balance in which each organism adapts to its native environment and learns to cohabit with other organisms in a vital interdependence and network of life which allows all to thrive in an organic web. But when a new organism is introduced, everything gets troubled, disrupted, and needs to realign and re-adapt to the demands of the newcomer introduced. And vice versa. The ecosystem needs to adapt itself and change to move toward a new equilibrium in which everything becomes different, even if only slightly.

This seems to be what you’re describing here. What you allow into yourself, through your senses or in prayer, finds an already established inner-ecology, Tom’s unique personal ecosystem with its worldview that then trustingly yet discerningly welcomes in various new organisms, i.e. a new face, a new idea, a new smell or sight or taste; or divine life. Everything then has to adjust. And it’s all alive, as you say.

And then when you write, it’s then that you actively reorganize your ecosystem to make a fitting place for the new living principles, whatever they might be. Like dreams do at night, defragmenting and reorganizing new information, writing does for you. [Tom: Which makes me a daydream believer? Us: haha] Maybe some new things you’ve taken in have to be chewed up and digested, while others must be expelled or others embraced, while still yet others — like divine grace — well, you have to allow them to consume and digest your ideas, feelings, desires; your soul and spirit … or even the whole of you. Like the Shema commands. So when you consume the Eucharist, as St Augustine says, Christ consumes you; metabolizes you; adapts you to His divine-human ecosystem. The whole Church is this adapted ecosystem, expressed and given birth to in those real symbols of theandric [God-man] biodiversity: Christ in the Sacraments. Saints are the embodyment of the whole Church in its radical adaptation of human life to God-life. Or maybe the other way around, too, if we believe St Irenaeus. [He was speaking of the Catechism #53: “St. Irenaeus of Lyons repeatedly speaks of this divine pedagogy using the image of God and man becoming accustomed to one another: The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father’s pleasure”]

At the heart of your inner culture, Tom, your inner ecology — constituted by your own free act of faith — is the gift of divine love, the indwelling Spirit that is itself the womb of the ecclesial Supernatural Organism, with its own force and vitality and blows-where-it-will purposes. It gets into everything like leaven spreading resurrection through dough. All of which you welcome whenever you pray. Prayer exposes your inner ecology to that of Jesus, joins them.

So whatever enters into you throughout the day encounters not only “Tom,” but God active and living and sorting things out within you. Christ within is busy at work re-creating in you a new creation; a new Ecology; a new Garden. Holiness. Only then, through such saints, can He extend His divine-human culture and ecology into the various ecosystems around you and effect new changes in others’ lives and in the whole material world you inhabit. That’s holiness, and its progress is slow, uneven, filled with setbacks, death and rebirth.

In this line of thought, that means the Cross embodies the event of God introducing Himself into a human ecosystem that has organized itself against, and to the exclusion of, His life. While His love compels Him to risk entry and deadly rejection in our hostile ecosystem, even while He remains long enough (to the end of time!) for that living system to gradually adapt itself to His presence and organize its life around and in and with His life. The Cross is the symbol of God’s willingness to pay an immense cost in order to enter our world and achieve a symbiosis with us. Divinization by hominization. Restructuring our micro and macro cultures according to the omnipotent principle of divine-human love. Jesus. He is the ecosystem of God introduced into the ecosystems of creation, through the consent of a Virgin who welcomes God into our world. 

Something like that.

I said: “What just happened?”

We went off in stunned silence to retire for the night. He showed me where the tea was for the morning. My heart was on fire with this new metaphor. And I could not get out of my mind that night a chilling scene from the movie, Risen, that contains a dialogue between a blind woman and the Roman tribune, Clavius, who is trying to crush the new “Jesus is risen” movement. They are discussing her claim to have encountered the risen Jesus. Listen:

Hopefully in ten years I will have a better way to explain its power.

 

 

Threatening Mass

Cornsheaves. rackcdn.com

Re-post 2014, amplified

This amazement should always fill the Church assembled for the celebration of the Eucharist. But in a special way it should fill the minister of the Eucharist. For it is he who, by the authority given him in the sacrament of priestly ordination, effects the consecration. It is he who says with the power coming to him from Christ in the Upper Room: “This is my body which will be given up for you This is the cup of my blood, poured out for you…”. The priest says these words, or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood. — St. John Paul II

I recently taught a course on the liturgy to seminarians in Omaha. The course explores the theological and spiritual depths of the liturgy to better enable these future celebrants to personally enter more fully into each celebration in a life-transforming way. The hope is that a fuller personal engagement with the mystery of the liturgy will make them more effective mystagogues, i.e. ready to lead the faithful into those same deep mysteries.

One day I invited a priest to come and speak in my class about his own experience of celebrating the Mass. I asked him to give them advice, based on his personal experience, on how to deal with the distractions and obstacles that can prevent them from experiencing a fruitful celebration. Not being a priest, I needed the view of an insider.

As I listened to him, I thought of the immense privilege I have to be such a trusted part of this work of forming priests. Although the seminarians where I work full-time may not realize it, my lay colleagues and I feel insanely blessed to each be a small part of their formation. In fact, I recall once in Des Moines, Iowa an particularly intense sense of this. I was leading a day of recollection for the priests of the Des Moines deanery (itself a terrifying prospect for me!) on St. John Vianney as a model for parish priests. At one point in the morning, as I was speaking, I was unexpectedly overcome by a moment of awe that shook me up. I was commenting on this line from Vianney: “Oh how great is the priest! If he realized what he is, he would die.” Just as I began offering my commentary on its meaning, I felt inside these words ambush me, as if they were from Christ: “They are me for you.”

I stumbled over my words for a moment before I was able to continue. Later I wrote in my journal:

“Me for you” locates priestly identity in the heart of the Eucharist, making them a sacrament of His self-gift: “…this is my Body which will be given up for you…this is the Chalice of my Blood…shed for you and for many…”

Okay, back to my Omaha liturgy class…

Among many other practical points, my guest-speaker priest shared with the men a struggle I’d never considered before. He called it “teetering between ecstasy and dullness.” There is, he said, as with all things in life that are sacred, the danger of routine; of daily repetition which can breed complacency and contempt. He continued,

But there are these occasional lightning bolt moments that leave you a bit startled. That knock you off balance. While routine can breed contempt, the bolts threaten you with getting lost in the Rite. They are never predictable and are mostly about some new awareness of Christ acting in you. Then there are these moments when you are totally overwhelmed by a very real sense you’ve become Christ’s “I”. Acting in the “first person” with and for Him. Christ and I become “one I” at the Consecration. “My Body” — I am almost afraid to say it at times, it’s so intimate. Totally blows my mind. It’s almost too much to bear and threatens my ability to complete my role.

And then there are other times I’m stunned, like when I’m asking the Father to send the Spirit down on the gifts of bread and wine. I’ll become intensely aware that I’m calling Him down by Christ’s authority. He always comes. That’s terrifying.

Then there are other times when I’m tired, distracted, when I just don’t perceive what I’m doing. That’s totally okay, you can’t always be “on,” it’s not all about your personal experiences. But I do notice that often my lack of attentiveness to the mystery I’m involved in is closely connected to my slacking in my personal prayer that day. Or my lack of preparation before Mass, which is sometimes due to pastoral necessity, other times just my laziness.

The key, he told the seminarians, is not allow these two extremes to become polar opposite experiences. And never to seek out the highs or run from the lows. But to allow one to influence the other. Let the dull moments get kindled by the startling ones, and let the startling ones stay anchored in reality by the duller times. “That’s the flux of life, brothers, so get used to it. But don’t get used to it. Priesthood is a fulcrum full of tugs and pulls that makes for greatness.”

That’s great advice for the spiritual life of any Christian.

He then shared with us a poem called Harvest and Consecration by Elizabeth Jennings. I’d never read it before. He focused on the last line of the poem, saying it best captured his sense of these tensions. I wrote in my notebook at the end of his lecture:

It’s a rare person who loves finding him or herself caught in uncomfortable spots, who appreciates that the discomforts of being torn between alternating extremes.

I try.

These swings are what make me feel fully human, more open to the fully divine. Caught between opposites. Most of my personal energy comes from the tensions that emerge between obvious and hidden, exciting and boring, boundless and fenced in, seen and unseen, strength and weakness, transcendence and immanence, static and earthquake. It’s where mystery, left long over fire, remains in a permanent state of what Meister Eckhart called in Latin, ebullitio, “boiling over.” It’s easier to remain exuberant there, I guess. Extremes lack mystery. The middle’s where it’s at. Maybe that’s what’s needed to carry out St. Paul’s impossible command to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4).

Jennings wrote her poem for a priest, to help him augment his sense of how its lowly earthy signs and symbols masterfully convey divine mystery. May our hearts never be protected against the unpredictable inroads of God!

After the heaped piles and the cornsheaves waiting
to be collected, gathered into barns,
after all fruits have burst their skins, the sating
season cools and turns,
and then I think of something that you said
of when you held the chalice and the bread.

I spoke of Mass and thought of it as close
to how a season feels which stirs and brings
fire to the hearth, food to the hungry house
and strange, uncovered things —
God in a garden then in sheaves of corn
and the white bread a way to be reborn.

I thought of priest as midwife and as mother
feeling the pain, feeling the pleasure too,
all opposites together,
until you said no one could feel such passion
and still preserve the power of consecration.

And it is true. How cool the gold sheaves lie,
rich without need to ask for more
richness. The seed, the simple thing must die
if only to restore
our faith in fruitful, hidden things. I see
the wine and bread protect our ecstasy.

Thank you, dear priest-fathers, for your generous self-gift to Christ for us. May He protect your ecstasy…

St. Pink the Recycler

Mary A. “Pink” Mullaney

Another busy week so I may not be able to post until the weekend again.

The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world’s great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord’s vineyard. Confident and steadfast through the power of God’s grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the Kingdom of God in history. — St. John Paul II

I am on a lifelong mission — God willing — to help, in a small way, to prepare the theological groundwork for ordinary, secular, world-loving lay men and women to be canonized en masse — or at least inscribed in some official ecclesiastical hagiography — before the close of the 21st century.

Married, single, single parents, divorced, annulled and remarried, widows and widowers, fathers and mothers, childless couples, lawyers, stockbrokers, janitors, fashion designers, actors, business men and women, doctors, maids, school teachers, janitors, principals, bankers, musicians, factory workers, gunnery sergeants, librarians, machine shop workers, architects, prison guards, manual laborers, accountants, nurses, CEO’s, physicists, counselors, police officers, mechanics, electricians, engineers, secretaries, carpet cleaners, the disabled, homebound elderly or bartenders who strive to love God with their whole heart, soul, mind and strength by loving their neighbor as themselves — especially the poor — quietly, consistently, imperfectly yet heroically. I list these intentionally because, over the 30 years I have actually been noticing, I have spotted people whom I have experienced as saints in every category listed — and many more.

Oh, speaking of bartenders. My wife and I know this 69 year old bartender who has bartended since he was “of age.” He’s a man of gritty, callous-handed, steely-willed faith. He put his children through Catholic school and college by working days, nights and weekends as a bartender. He has been with his wife for 45 years and serves as a philosopher-counselor to countless barroom patrons. He always has a smile to give, attended by some pithy piece of world-wise advice with a moral to it. Last time we saw him, he did us a real kindness. When I thanked him he shook his head and said, “Look son, the good Lord’s got me here to serve my fellow man. And in my line of work, He sends me lots of people down on their luck who need a lift, if you know what I mean. He blesses me, I bless them. That’s the way life’s supposed to work, right?”

When you’re around him, you just feel better about everything, never want to complain again but rather want to give your all.

Canonizing these would give us lots of specific names from that second unsung, singing group of Saints that the book of Revelation 7:9 mentions:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Soteriologically speaking, “no one could count” makes me smile.

These seemingly nondescript, ordinary, mundane mystics may not ascend to God through the mansions of a contemplative flight that lifts them above the earth, but they do, day in and day out, descend with Him into the world, extending the mysteries of His earthly life. The laity grow deeper in their sublime union with Christ as He screams and cries as an infant; contributes, as a child and a young man, to the daily life of His family; grows in wisdom by studying hard; goes to synagogue every week and occasional pilgrimages to Jerusalem; becomes fully a part of the community life in His small hometown of Nazareth; works with His hands for 20+ years as an artisan; roams the highways and byways of Galilee and Judea; parties at weddings; climbs mountains to pray and reflect; dines with sinners, friends, benefactors and religious leaders; forms close friendships with men and women; contends directly with the darker side of local and empire politics; pays taxes; engages with pagans and heretical Jews and hyper-orthodox Jews; teaches and preaches and debates anyone willing; heals the sick; confronts injustice; feeds the hungry; fishes with His disciples; enjoys breakfast; takes a nap; struggles with temptation; flirts with exhaustion; suffers unspeakable pain; weeps and dances and laughs and sings and gets really angry. Loves.

And, according to John 21:25, these are only the tip of the iceberg! Jesus was a busy man, like us in all things but sin.

The laity, called by God to be “tightly bound up in all types of worldly affairs” (Vatican II), are the secular mystics of God’s descent into, and habitating within, the world He “so loves.”  Hidden everywhere in the world like leaven in dough, lay saints can best be spotted by their local shepherds, called in church lingo “secular” priests. These parish and chaplain voyeurs of lay holiness live in closest proximity to the “Church on the Front Lines,” the descriptor Ven. Pope Pius XII gave the laity. These priests, fascinated by lay holiness, are perfectly positioned to write hagiographies that can serve as an inspiration to the billion+ other Catholic lay men and women who long to see accessibly extreme models of the secular genius. These sainted Janes and Joes witness to a fully lived baptismal priesthood that wreaks havoc on sin and death, punching holes in the Font they were once thrust into — so that the whole earth, inundated by the re-creating mercy and love of God, might become an outpost of heaven.

A new baptismal priest, ready to consecrate the world!

So back in 2013, when I read the obituary of Mary “Pink” Mullaney, an 85 year old Wisconsite who left behind six children and 17 grandchildren, I thought (teaching in a seminary as I do): This should have been written by her parish priest! The obit could be the abstract at the beginning of his petition for her canonization.

A friend of mine sent her obit to me today, out of the blue, with the caption: “just rediscovered this. we need to open her cause for canonization. patron saint of the lay trash!” So, I say, let’s get on with it.

Mullaney, Mary A. “Pink” If you’re about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop. Consider: Mary Agnes Mullaney (you probably knew her as “Pink”) who entered eternal life on Sunday, September 1, 2013. Her spirit is carried on by her six children, 17 grandchildren, three surviving siblings in New “Joisey”, and an extended family of relations and friends from every walk of life. We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, child-proof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.

Also: If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn’t leave, brush him for twenty minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after mass. Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. When you learn someone’s name, share their patron saint’s story, and their feast day, so they can celebrate. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to “listen with an accent.” Never say mean things about anybody; they are “poor souls to pray for.”

Put picky-eating children in the box at the bottom of the laundry chute, tell them they are hungry lions in a cage, and feed them veggies through the slats. Correspond with the imprisoned and have lunch with the cognitively challenged. Do the Jumble every morning. Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don’t get lost. Make the car dance by lightly tapping the brakes to the beat of songs on the radio. Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is “Peat Moss.” Help anyone struggling to get their kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot. Give to every charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online. Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass. Take magazines you’ve already read to your doctors’ office for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, “Because if someone wants to contact me, that would be nice.”

In her lifetime, Pink made contact time after time. Those who’ve taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the overheated garbage collector and mail carrier, every baby will be kissed, every nursing home resident will be visited, the hungry will have a sandwich, the guest will have a warm bed and soft nightlight, and the encroaching possum will know the soothing sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back. Above all, Pink wrote – to everyone, about everything. You may read this and recall a letter from her that touched your heart, tickled your funny bone, or maybe made you say “huh?”

She is survived by her children and grandchildren whose photos she would share with prospective friends in the checkout line: Tim (wife Janice, children Timmy, Joey, T.J., Miki and Danny); Kevin (wife Kathy, children Kacey, Ryan, Jordan and Kevin); Jerry (wife Gita, children Nisha and Cathan); MaryAnne; Peter (wife Maria Jose, children Rodrigo and Paulo); and Meg (husband David Vartanian, children Peter, Lily, Jerry and Blase); siblings Anne, Helen, and Robert; and many in-laws, nieces, nephews, friends and family too numerous to list but not forgotten. Pink is reunited with her husband and favorite dance and political debate partner, Dr. Gerald L. Mullaney, and is predeceased by six siblings. Friends (and strangers she would love to have met) can visit with Pink’s family at the Feerick Funeral Home on Thursday, September 5, from 3 until 7 PM with prayer service at 6:45 PM. Mass of the Christian Burial will be celebrated at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Whitefish Bay on Friday, September 6, at 3 PM. Dress comfortably with a splash of pink if you have it. In Pink’s memory donations may be made to Dominican High School, 120 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay, WI 53217, or Saint Monica Parish, 160 E. Silver Spring Dr., Whitefish Bay, WI 53217, or any charity that seeks to spread the Good News of Pink’s friend, Jesus. Valet Parking in front of the funeral home on Thursday.

P.S. Pope Francis loves these saints, and knows exactly who I’m talking about:

St. Not Saint

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Last weekend I watched the documentary on former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason called, “The Diary of a Saint.” It’s really excellent and hard to watch, as it chronicles his personal and familial battle with the degenerative neurological disease, ALS.

There’s so much in this film to comment on, but I will limit myself to a brief exchange between the film interviewer and Steve’s wife, Michel. And I don’t even know what exactly I want to say, just have an intuition, so here it goes. One shot, no editing returns…

Michel is reflecting on public perceptions of both she and Steve as “heroes” or even “saints.” They both cringe over being defined as “heroes” or “inspirations” and wonder how real people’s perception is of their life situation, or what kind of unrealistic pressure it puts on them to be something they are not. Michel says that one time someone even “congratulated” her on the many benefits derived from her husband’s illness. She said very honestly, “that really fucked with my mind.” What these romanticized perceptions tend to overlook, she added, is the brutality and messiness of their daily existence as a family. “Hero” and “inspiration” may make for good tweets or stirring headlines, but they’re just not always really reality. Pushing enemas in his anus, siphoning phlegm from his throat, sterilizing his feeding tube incision, cleaning feces off of his wheelchair, exhaustion, angry outbursts, despair, a screaming baby. That’s the reality they have to face every day.

Michel says, “I’m never gonna be a saint. I don’t want to be a devil. But I don’t want to be a saint, either. I just want to be a real person.”

A real person. I love that.

We had a priest over our house recently to celebrate Mass, and he referenced this documentary, and very specifically that scene. He quoted Thomas Merton as saying, “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” He said that sanctity is not simply about the achievement of a lofty, pristine ideal but about the meeting of God and the real in oneself, in others and in the world. That the God of Jesus is a God of the real, of the real cross and the real resurrection. And so Christianity is for real people, for prostitutes and tax collectors and fishermen as well as for zealots and Pharisees and scholars of the law. It’s for naturally magnanimous souls and for naturally pusillanimous souls; for the patient and the hot tempered; for the petty and the selfless; for those in thriving marriages and those in anemic marriages; for those who articulate the faith eloquently and those who produce more spittle than light as they attempt to explain the most basic tenants of faith; for those full of fiery love and those full of icy hate. Christ comes to all, bears toward each man and woman an infinitely passionate, redeeming love that sees beauty alive and beauty awaiting His loud call: “Lazarus, come forth!”

This is why Christianity is hope. For all.

The Incarnation of God means Christ is the God of the real, the God whose love is wholly identical and equally absolute for the lowest and highest, the weakest and the strongest, the most wretched and the most righteous. Christ calls each in their place, where they stand, kneel, sit or lie, and from there says: “Come, follow me.” Real sanctity, which is the will to maximally echo divine love from within the walls of one’s confining reality, is only for those willing to risk becoming their truest God-made self in real-time, real-space, real-life. The God for whom nothing is impossible is also the God of the hopelessly unworthy, confined, imprisoned, hemmed in. There, in that frame, cubicle, machine shop, classroom, prison cell, nursing home room the Spirit paints His masterpiece. Indeed, these “little ones” must be those Jesus refers to when he says, “So the last will be first, and the first last” (Matt 20:16). The same ones Dostoyevsky refers to in Crime and Punishment:

Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come you also! Come you drunkards! Come you weaklings! Come you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them?’ And he will say, ‘O wise and prudent, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet, and burst into sobs, and then we shall understand everything, everything! Lord, your kingdom come!

Only these real saints will enter. Matthew 21:31. I want to be in that number.

Angry for God?

sciencedaily.com

[re-post from 2015 in honor of today’s Mass Gospel]

A man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God. — Abba Agathon

In Matthew 5:20-26, Jesus gets to the heart of the matter, locating the root of murder in the passion of anger:

You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment…

Jesus is never about behavior modification alone, but about striking at the root of all desire from whence come our thoughts, words and deeds.

St. John of the Cross, master of religious psychology, reflects on the danger of a spiritualized form of anger that can emerge in those who have made significant progress in the spiritual life. He says,

Among these spiritual persons there are also those who fall into another kind of spiritual anger. Through a certain excess in zeal they become angry over the sins of others, reprove these others, and sometimes even feel the impulse to do so angrily, which in fact they occasionally do, setting themselves up as lords of virtue.

Still others, in becoming aware of their own imperfections, grow angry with themselves in an unhumble impatience. They become so impatient over these imperfections because they want to become saints in a day. Many of these beginners make numerous plans and great resolutions, but since they are not humble and have no healthy distrust of themselves, the more resolves they make the more they break, and the greater becomes their anger. They do not have the patience to wait until God gives them what they need, when he so desires.

What is key in his analysis is this: for these spiritually immature religious adepts, the life of faith remains self-centered, self-preserving, self-promoting, and has not yet made the commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself,” their rule of life. For to love the neighbor in this way is to see their welfare or woe as your own, and so whatever you seek for them you also seek for yourself. For these anger serves not love, but self-love.

Those whose religious or ethical zeal is fueled by a seething anger, bitterness and self-righteous fury are often the masters of sarcasm and snark, murmuring cynicism and biting wit. St. John says what is most insidious about these people is that, because their anger is clothed in spiritual, religious or moral language, they are easily blinded to the vice beneath the garb. They feel that the cause they espouse justifies the caustic rhetoric. But, John says, to place the highest things (like faith, truth, justice) in service to the most base things — by placing them in the service of pride, anger, greed, envy, etc. — is profoundly dangerous. The Old Testament prophets are unanimous on this point: the use of God, and the things of God, in service to sinful motives and behaviors, no matter how well-disguised they are, stands among the gravest of evils. Better to be an angry atheist.

God says to Isaiah:

Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression;
defend the fatherless, plead for the widow (Isaiah 1:13-17).

Anger can be a natural and healthy response to any situation where things are not as they should be, to injustice and evil. Anger is both a defense-reflex and a powerful motive for facing hardship or resisting evil with courage in the pursuit of justice. This is often called just or righteous anger. However, detached from mercy, which is love encountering and overcoming evil and injustice, anger turns into wrath. And it is wrath that is called a deadly sin. Wrath, unlike mercy, seeks not to overcome, redeem and heal evil, but rather to retaliate and destroy evil, inflict retribution.

This is why, for the Christian, justice can never be parted from mercy. Justice, when joined to mercy and bridled by patience, becomes remedial, restorative. Justice identifies evil, anger sets justice in (e)motion, and mercy, overcome with love for the evildoer, expends itself, not to destroy or malign, but to rescue, redeem and overcome evil with good. That is the logic of “the word of the cross,” as Jesus on the cross faced the full fury of the world’s injustice and evil with an omnipotent, non-violent merciful love.

The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” They cast lots to divide his clothing. (Luke 23:33-34).

What a vicious scandal it is when people of faith in Christ wage their merciless, destructive and angry warfare out in the midst of the digital public square for all to see. Facebook becomes a space not for revealing the Face of Christ, but for defacing the Gospel. Such a witness! “See how they despise one another!” Indeed. God needs no such favors done for Him.

I recall a number of years ago attending a workshop entitled “Justice for the Poor in the Gospel of Luke,” given by an Anglican Scripture scholar. During his lecture, he addressed this issue of anger in ministry. He said something like this:

There’s a sad irony in the fact that, in my experience, so many of us who have professed allegiance to the “justice and peace” movement are too often driven by anger against our ideological opponents. This, it seems to me, is a bit at odds with the meekness required of the reconcilers and peacemakers Jesus calls ‘blessed’ in the Beatitudes. Who are called to love their enemies, to settle on the way to court. We are our own worst enemies, friends, when we abuse and caricature our debate partners. Come on, just say it out loud: “Blessed are the pissed peacemakers.” This is not what Jesus wanted.

He was very much a sympathizer with the peace and justice movement, and his comment was meant to offer an honest self-critique. Ironically, one of the participants in the workshop stood up and shouted at the speaker: “Bullshit!” He went on to say that this accusation was an insult to the peace-activists’ righteous anger and an unfair assessment of the many people who have faced so much hardship over the years. The burden of unrighteous anger, the man said, rested squarely on the shoulders of war-mongering conservatives.

The biblical scholar replied in a calm voice, “Sir, your demeanor and words do little service to our cause.”

Pope Paul VI, in his 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on evangelization, Evangelii Nuntiandi, argues that it is those who have been freed from sin’s grip by God’s liberating grace who are able to bear the force of joy. I will leave you with his words:

Let us therefore preserve our fervor of spirit. Let us preserve the delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow. May it mean for us an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.

Mother, Hearer of the heart’s cry

nursia.org

At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I do know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will ask, How much love did you put into what you did?” ― Mother Teresa

As I have felt deeply moved these last days to write on Mother Teresa, let me end this series with a quote from Pope Francis’ homily at Mother’s canonization, and a song by the British electropop band, Ooberfüse. I believe it captures well the heart of Mother’s magnificent mission to shine light into the darkness and bring charity alive in the Church and in the world.

Mother Teresa, in all aspects of her life, was a generous dispenser of divine mercy, making herself available for everyone through her welcome and defence of human life, those unborn and those abandoned and discarded. She was committed to defending life, ceaselessly proclaiming that “the unborn are the weakest, the smallest, the most vulnerable”.

She bowed down before those who were spent, left to die on the side of the road, seeing in them their God-given dignity; she made her voice heard before the powers of this world, so that they might recognize their guilt for the crime of poverty they created. For Mother Teresa, mercy was the “salt” which gave flavour to her work, it was the “light” which shone in the darkness of the many who no longer had tears to shed for their poverty and suffering.