Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pilgrimage In the Footsteps of St. Paul

From June 17-29, I will be leading a group of 19 pilgrims to Greece, Turkey, and Rome to mark the end of the International Year of St. Paul. During the trip, I hope to post regular updates to a blog that has been set up specifically for this pilgrimage. There will be no updates to this Perpetual Priest blog while I am away. Check out the pilgrimage blog at:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Mass in Solitary Confinement

Homily for the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year B
Exodus 24.3-8 Psalm 116 Hebrews 9.11-15 Mark 14.12-16, 22-26

From 1975 until 1988, the late Archbishop Francis Xavier Nguyen van Thuan lived in a Communist re-education camp in Vietnam. He was arrested shortly after being named Archbishop of Saigon. For nine of the years he was imprisoned, Archbishop Francis was in solitary confinement. After being released, he was often asked whether he had been able to celebrate Mass while he was in prison. For a priest, the Eucharist is the most important thing we do, and to be forced to go for so many years without attending or celebrating Mass can be one of the most painful punishments imaginable. As it turns out, Archbishop Francis was able to celebrate Mass in prison, even in solitary confinement. The day after he was arrested, he was allowed to write to friends to send him the things he needed most, like clothes and toothpaste. He also asked for a little wine, as medicine for his bad stomach. His friends knew what he was really asking for. They sent him some wine in a bottle, marked “stomach medicine,” and they hid some hosts inside a flashlight. After Archbishop Francis received these supplies, each day he would celebrate Mass with three drops of wine in the palm of his hand, and a piece of host from the flashlight container. He also made a tiny tabernacle out of a discarded cigarette carton and was able to pray all day in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The Archbishop always celebrated Mass around 3:00 in the afternoon, the hour when Jesus died on the cross. As he ate and drank the Body and Blood of Christ, he became one with Christ in his sufferings, knowing that he would also one day share in Christ’s joys. He says that these Masses in solitary confinement were the most beautiful ones of his whole life.*

Last weekend, three men were ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis: Fr. John Hollowell, Fr. Jeremy Gries, and Fr. Peter Marshall. In two weeks, two more men will be ordained priests for our diocese: soon-to-be Fr. Sean Danda and Fr. Chris Wadelton. And this Friday, June 19, Pope Benedict will inaugurate an International Year for Priests. Much as we have spent the past year focusing on St. Paul, the Holy Father is asking Catholics to spend the coming year focusing on priests, celebrating Christ’s gift of the priesthood, and helping all of us better understand the importance and role of the priest in the life of the Church. At the ordination Mass this past weekend, our own Archbishop Daniel used the story of Archbishop Francis and his Masses in solitary confinement as a model of what it means to be a priest. This story may be an extreme example – it’s certainly not the norm these days – but it does help us understand both the life of the priest and the importance of the Eucharist.

As priests, our lives are centered on the Eucharist – the most important thing we do each day is stand in the person of Christ, joining our voices to His as we say, “This is my body … this is my blood.” During the time he spent in solitary confinement, the only connection Archbishop Francis had with the world was through prayer and the Eucharist. The Eucharist he celebrated on the prison floor, the Blood of Christ held in the palm of his hand, united him on a spiritual and divine level to every Mass celebrated throughout the world. Without the Eucharist, he would have been much more radically alone. As priests, our ministry starts with the Mass, but it doesn’t end there – the Eucharist is just a beginning. After being released from prison, Archbishop Francis worked in the Vatican Council for Peace and Justice, trying to make sure that the unjust imprisonment he endured would not happen to anyone in the future. The particular ministry of each priest is unique. But together with all the faithful, priests strive to be the compassionate Christ to the suffering, the teaching Christ to the young, the blessing Christ to the newly baptized or married, the listening Christ to the lost, and the presence of Christ to the lonely. We start with the Mass – whether in a parish church or in solitary confinement – but then we take Christ into the world – through prayer, through presence, and through service. Would any men like to join us?

* Story from Five Loaves and Two Fish, Archbishop Francois-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, Washington, DC: Morley Books, 2000 (p. 41-47).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Visualizing the Trinity

Homily for The Most Holy Trinity, Year B

Take a moment, if you will, and think about what image comes to mind when you hear about the Trinity. When you think of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, what does the Trinity look like – what picture, what symbol represents the Trinity for you. … Of course, it’s impossible for us as human beings to completely understand who God is, and any picture or image that we use is just an analogy, a symbol, a visual way to help us understand one particular aspect of God. St. Patrick used the shamrock to help the people of Ireland understand what is meant by the Trinity, but that’s not a perfect symbol. In art, God the Father is most often portrayed as an elderly man with a long, white beard; God the Son is often depicted as a 30-something man of European descent; and the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove. But in Native American Christian art, God the Father is pictured as a wizened tribal chief, God the Son as a young warrior, and the Holy Spirit as a bald eagle. None of these pictures are accurate, they’re simply human analogies. And then there’s the latest image of the Trinity, one that many people have become familiar with over the past couple years: in this newest image of the Trinity, God the Father is represented as a large, African-American woman named both “Eloisa” and “Papa;” God the Son is an ordinary-looking man of Middle-Eastern descent, a carpenter; and God the Holy Spirit is an Asian woman named “Sarayu” who is a gardener but who moves so quickly that she is often just a blur. This representation of the Trinity is the one portrayed in the novel The Shack, a story of a man whose weekend visit with God helps him understand how to make sense of a tragedy that has changed his life.

Although it is a novel, a story of fiction, The Shack contains a lot of theology – some of it very good theology, some of it more questionable. One aspect of theology that The Shack can help us understand the best is the Trinity. If nothing else, it certainly stretches our minds. Except for Jesus as a human being, the second person of the Trinity, God does not have gender, God does not age, God is not like us. To think of God the Father as an African-American woman is no more accurate or inaccurate than to think of God the Father as an old man with a white beard – God is in all people, but is not like anyone. The Holy Spirit is the same way – the Spirit is not just a dove that flies around the world, it is fire and water and wind – constant movement, always tending for the Church, much like a gardener tends to plants in order to help them grow. It’s not so much in how we picture God, but in who God is, the characteristics that our pictures try to show. God the Father sitting on throne in heaven is a ruler, someone with authority – and that is part of who God is, but not everything. God the Father in The Shack is a person of great compassion, a great cook who makes sure that everyone is fed – physically and spiritually. Jesus pictured on the cross is the one who loves us so much that he will give his life for us. But we also can’t forget the Jesus of The Shack, the carpenter who looks just like us, who is like a brother, but who is a better human being than we will ever be because he is the perfection of everything that is human. No one image is perfect, no one image is complete, because our feeble minds will never be able to grasp the complete wonder of who God is. We try – we get bits and pieces – and those pieces all put together are a beginning, a beginning of a life-long quest to understand who God is.

Think back to the first image that came to your mind when you thought about the Trinity. Remember that image – there’s probably something good and valuable in it – but don’t stop there. Keep thinking, keep reading, and keep looking around you. It takes a world and a lifetime of images to help us understand God, and even that is just a drop in the bucket.

Native American Trinity