The meeting I didn’t attend

I recently received the minutes of a meeting I couldn’t attend… Actually it’s not so much that I couldn’t attend it as I didn’t.  More on that in a minute…

In today’s mass readings, Isaiah (49:1-6) speaks about his beginnings as a prophet.

“from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.”

He also points out that the mission of a prophet is not simply to be God’s lackey, but to be a gift to the whole world.

“It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Beautiful… but an odd pairing with today’s Gospel (Jn 13) in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer.   Then the Lord gave me a clue as to what he wanted me to hear in today’s Scriptures.  Asking the Lord who would turn on him, Jesus replies to the Apostles,

” ‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.”

Wasn’t Jesus offering Judas an out here?  All he had to do was say, “thanks but no thanks; I don’t want the morsel.”  and the moment might have passed by.  Indeed the Apostles themselves were so dumbfounded that even when Judas left the table they thought he was leaving to get the money bag or give alms.  Jesus gave Judas an out, but rather than receive his gift, his opportunity, Judas took the morsel, “and Satan entered him.”

It’s telling.  Isaiah was receptive and became and instrument of God’s light.  Judas took matters into his own hands and became an instrument of darkness.

Back to my meeting…  It was a meeting of good people, all of them well intentioned, talking about good things.  After attending many such meetings as a priest, my prayer antennae perceive something: a distinct flavor of frenzied activity.  …and beyond that, something more… a corporate flavor.  People throw around slogans, lingo and logos.  It’s all very nice and very well meant… but what I don’t perceive (and believe me I’ve tried) is the flavor of the Church.

In trying to take back lost ground in he cause of evangelization, do we sometimes risk taking the morsel instead?  Pushing our version of the Gospel instead of the version we know Jesus gives us?  I think Judas may well have thought he was doing a good thing, jump-starting the “kingdom process” that Jesus seemed to be doing so slowly… but in the midst of all his activity he missed the point.

Think about it: who do parishioners love more, the Pastor who leads them in meetings, or the pastor who leads them in prayer, family life, and service of the poor.  Think of the most successful parish you know.  Is it characterized by endless meetings, posters and peppy slogans?  or is it characterized by people who adore the Blessed Sacrament, visit the sick, and teach their children the faith at home?

A representative of the USCCB once said to me and a group of priests, “If you want to help your parish evangelize, do away with all programs that require posters.”  Of course there was some humor, some sarcasm in his words, but there was also truth.  I asked him afterwards if he’d ever said that to his bosses at the Conference… and there was silence.

The Church is so tempted by the society in which she finds herself to be  corporate instead of a convivial… litigious instead of canonical… sincere instead of sacred.  It’s an understandable temptation; I feel the tug myself.  We want so much to rebuild and to restore… but unless that effort begins with silence, Scripture and Saints… unless we begin by being receptive like Isaiah, we risk becoming acquisitive like Judas.  The proof is there.  “You will know them by their fruits.”  Have any meeting/poster-oriented Church efforts resulted in more baptisms, marriages, confessions?  In ten years as priest I haven’t seen it.  What I have seen is parishes and movements flourishing where there is a receptive attitude and a family spirit present.  Pray this Holy Week that we not take the morsel.

Encountering Gardeners: How do I treat the Body of Christ?

I can’t believe it, but it was almost fifteen years ago… Fifteen years; where does time go?  I was a seminarian living in the city on summer assignment.  Then as now, I loved taking long urban treks to clear my head, work out ideas, relax.  One such trek I was walking along P Street in Georgetown, not far from Rose Park.  It was hot, and -as if the heat wasn’t enough- the low angle of the afternoon sun contributed to an overall sense of fatigue.  The day itself was tired.  It wasn’t any surprise then to see a gardener packing up supplies outside an elegant townhouse.  Looking at the front yard, I’d guess he spent most of his day bagging last year’s wood chips and laying down a fresh layer.  The workman was clearly exhausted.  Long sleeves protecting his arms from the sun’s glare didn’t help preserve them from the heat.  Dust and splinters sat in suspended animation in the sweat on his face.  Even the heavy pants he wore to guard against the rough ground or the weed whacker’s detritus seemed to have surrendered, wilting on his frame.  Drawing closer to the scene, I noticed there was more happening than just end-of-the-day cleanup.  Another man, presumably the owner of the house, came into view.  He was livid.  In sharp contrast to the gardener, the homeowner was rigid with fury.  “Clean it up!  You call this finished?! I am NOT pleased.”  With these and other shrill critiques, the homeowner registered his displeasure.  I tried to look as casually as I could at the gardener’s work.  Some stray chips, a thin veneer of potting soil were strewn across the front walk; hardly a crisis… But there was no telling that to the owner… particularly since it became clear that the gardener didn’t speak English.  I was furious.  Who was this privileged prince to speak to another human being like this?  But for all my indignation, I did nothing.  I kept walking, much to my shame.

The story came back to mind yesterday (Palm Sunday) as we read the Passion narrative of St. Mark (14:1-15:47).  The first thing to strike me was a moment that usually gets passed over.

“When he was in Bethany reclining at table

in the house of Simon the leper,

a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,

costly genuine spikenard.

She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.

Elsewhere in the Gospel (Jn 12:1-11) this is the moment when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair.  It got me thinking, “How do I treat the Body of Christ?”  In the Passion, there are two other examples of treating the Body of Christ.  There’s the soldiers/temple authorities, who treated it as an object, a thing, an inconvenience to be cleared away.  And then there’s Judas who kissed Jesus only to betray him.

We do – all of us – engage in all three ways of treating the Body of Christ.

When prayer is inconvenient, when we just don’t fee like genuflecting in Church, when there’s so many other things that need to get done rather than taking time for a personal encounter with someone…we turn the Body of Christ into an object.  He becomes something limited, controllable, something that can be easily set aside while we get about the truly important work of doing what we want.  We become like the Jews in the desert who made the golden calf: God will conform to this image, my image, of him and no more.  I see this in so many moments of my own life.  I also see it as a real possibility in wider Church life.  Anytime we want to put aside Jesus’ teachings to accommodate our soooo much more enlightened contemporary views/issues we risk objectifying Jesus.  We protest, “No, surely the Lord will understand.”  Only to hear Jesus reply, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (Mt 5:18)” …and suddenly, with the wicked, we may find ourselves saying (quite to our own surprise), “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, he reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. (cf. Wis. 2:1, 12-22)”

We can be smarter than this…and more cunning.  Never doubt the genius of concupiscence.  We say, “No, no, no… I’m with Jesus.  I’m one of his followers.  I’m just trying to live out a more relevant version of his plan.”  We wear the outward appearance of disciples, even apostles, only to betray him to the Enemy… like Judas.  Many have written that Judas just wanted to prompt Jesus, to goad him into throwing off the sham of humility… to force him, as it were to bring about an earthly Kingdom.  So it made sense: betray him, have him arrested and he’ll call down the angels to defeat his/our enemies.  But Judas’ version of providence was not God’s.  As a priest I know that this happens anytime I hide behind… or better yet, “lean” on my collar.  I don’t think it’s often, but I know it happens. “I can cut a corner liturgically.  I can speed through my breviary.  I can delay confession.  It’s ok, I’m a priest.  I know what I’m doing.”  Did you notice that Jesus’ name didn’t enter into that consideration?  In families we sometimes see this when/if we invoke how “right” we are.  “If the poor would just work like the rest of us everything would be fine.”  Or… “I knew bad things would happen to that family.  They deserved it.  Look how they lived.” Or… “I could’ve seen that one coming a mile away, but she got what she deserved.”  We fake to one side and kiss the cheek of Jesus… a momentary nod to righteousness… only to leap toward our real goal: judgment, keeping our fellow man “in his place” based on our vision of things.  How odd that such a lack of empathy should come under the guise of an intimate kiss.

Then there’s Mary… who in a moment of seeming madness anoints the body of Jesus.  She loves him absolutely.  It must’ve looked crazy.  In John’s account, though she’s in her own home, she doesn’t even stop to get a towel.  So crazed is she with love of the Lord she must dry his fee with her own hair.  She doesn’t care about other people’s plans.  She doesn’t think of her own reputation.  She simply loves.  And when the world protests, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?  It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages

and the money given to the poor.” Jesus himself defends her… because the encounter is not about efficiency it’s about love… and love, real love, doesn’t exist on a scale of the efficient or the meritorious.  Love, in its purest form, is utterly gratuitous.  Such love is the only way of treating the Body of Christ with any sort of worth.  Do I treat Jesus like this?  I hope so… not only in the Blessed Sacrament, but it my fellow man: in my family, in strangers, and especially among the poor.  He desires all to be part of him one day in heaven, so all are worthy of that love.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40)”

In another week, we’ll hear about Mary Magdalene encountering a gardener.  When she realizes it’s Jesus she throws herself at his feet.  I can’t walk down P Street without thinking of that day fifteen years ago, of the miniature human drama I saw play out in front of me and of my silence, which made it not just a drama, but a tragedy.  Lord, grant that the next time I see you in a gardener… or in anyone… I may throw myself at your feet, in your defense, in love of you.  Grant that I may treat your body well.  Amen.

A New Restaurant Dedicated to an Ancient Way of Life

Yesterday I made my quarterly trip to Annapolis to get my oil changed. “Why,” one might ask, “do you go all the way to Annapolis to get your oil changed?” When I first bought my car, a friend of a friend connected me with a dealership out there. Aside from the fact that they do great service work, this particular dealer offers free shuttle service into the heart of Maryland’s historic capital, and I’ve gotten into the habit of making a day of it. Drop the car, ride into a charming town, enjoy some sights, the water, some lunch, and then head home when the car is ready. Truly, it’s the nicest oil change experience one could hope for.

Yesterday, I stopped in for lunch at a relatively new restaurant on Main Street, Preserve. Outfitted in proper HGTV style, Preserve is contemporary in so many ways… [supposedly] reclaimed wood adorns the walls, punctuated by various objects d’art meant to make you think they were casually dropped there by longtime residents, when actually they were picked with careful study. Faux industrial-style lighting gives the place a pleasant glow and the front windows are ingeniously installed to look classic, for the winter, and then completely open like a garage door to the street in summer. In so many ways, the place is millennial to the core. And yet…

At the core of Preserve’s dining experience is something very ancient: pickling. As the name indicates, Preserve is all about food that has been carefully kept and even enhanced by various processes long after harvest time has passed. For centuries, this classical practice has used vinegars, oils, and other liquids to forestall death and rot so that families could have nutritious foods through the cold months. As I say, it’s an ancient process, but ever new. Rock star Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson (Featured in several wonderful foodie documentaries like, Netflix “Chef’s Table”) has put the practice back on the map as he strives to introduce the world to traditional Scandinavian cuisine… and given the climate in his native land, one can easily imagine how important preservation of food from the growing months is.

As with so many dimensions of culinary culture, preservation is not just about the utilitarian act of keeping food for the winter. People attach to it all the joys that humanity can bring so that the experience, like the nutrients in the food, remains fresh and invigorating. In my family’s ancestral home of Capua, for example, families will have whole block parties for canning summer tomatoes. Songs are invented, poems recited, family histories passed on while children play and those old enough to work all help each other extend summer life through the canning process.

Looking at Preservation through eyes of faith doesn’t take too much imagination. The New Testament is replete with examples of this preservation process which the Church calls, “tradition.” From the Latin tra-ditio, it literally earns “to pass across or hand on.” In II Timothy 1:6 Paul advises his disciple to fan into flame and hand on the gift he received when Paul laid hands (i.e. ordained) him. Jesus likewise never bashes the old, but preserves and fulfills it for the purposes of the New Covenant. He himself observes Mosaic law and practices. Indeed today, though there was no need for it, he is presented by his parents to the Father in the Temple (Lk 2:22-40). At several points he cures people by the grace of the New Covenant then tells them to go and observe the rituals of the Old (e.g. “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Lk 17:14. Or “therefore all that they say and tell you, do and observe…” Mt 23:3).

Popular culture tends to abhor the idea of preservation. Our inborn American sense of progress (which sometimes suffers from the heresy of progressivism) suggests that the old must always burn to fuel the new. We chalk it up to our revolutionary foundation, but even here, careful examination may reveal the faint odor of vinegar… and the preservation process. What is our Constitution based on if not the Magna Carta. When James Madison locked himself in his library to begin drafting the document, he was accompanied by 2,000 volumes of Greco-Roman and English law. Even the most revolutionary progress owes something of its substance to preservation and handing on of what came before. Perhaps what we as modern Americans, and modern Catholics, need to do is rediscover the JOY of preservation… like those families canning tomatoes back in Capua. Or… to give another more contemporary example… like St. John Paul II quietly handing on Polish music, drama and poetry in secret student meetings even as the communist guards tried their best to squelch all remnants of Polish identity.

Preservation of culture, or of law or of faith doesn’t have to be a musty museum process; in fact it shouldn’t be. It can be a joyous event that hands on the light of life and defeats death! Think about that this week, or the next time you munch on a pickle… or if you happen to be in Annapolis getting your oil changed.

The Bars We Set

Last week, speaking about a group of students, a parent commented to me, “You can’t expect from them what you expected in your previous parishes… This is a different demographic.” And my heart broke… not for the student, but for the parent.

So what about inner city kids in DC today?

Earlier this week, on WAMU’s Kojo Show, a speaker commented on gentrification in America’s urban centers. On the one hand, he noted that gentrification pushes out the poor. On the other, introducing new possibilities – newer higher bars to be met – into the cultural vocabulary of inner city kids tends (studies show) to raise their test scores and achievement levels in school and careers. Might there be a way of raising those standards without displacing longtime residents? Yes… Mother Church!

A school principal once commented with dripping irony, “If you set a low bar for your children, don’t worry, they’ll meet it.” The TV show West Wing once said of leadership here in Washington, “It seems to me that more and more we have come to expect less and less of each other.” But Jesus says, “With God all things are possible!” (Mt. 19:26). This is the challenge and the glory of the Church: because with God all things are possible, we dare not back down from expecting the best, setting our sights high, doing miracles. The Society of Jesus, of which St. Francis Xavier (our parish patron) was a member, was famed for this. St. Ignatius would set a seemingly impossible missionary goal and send his priests to achieve it with the help of God… and they did! As a result, the faith spread to the Americas, subsaharan Africa and East Asia. Our own local saint, Mother Seton was the same way: Archbishop Carrol asked her to build a school in Emmitsburg, MD in 1806. It’s a small village now, it was barely a speck on the map then… but Mother Seton did it, and founded an order that would build the largest private school network in the world, our nation’s Catholic Schools. One of my favorite examples: St. Peter’s in Rome. Largest Church on earth… we built it before all the math even existed to complete it. When Pope Julius II began construction and destroyed the old Basilica (built by no less than Constantine), some thought it hubris… but I think it may have been an act of FAITH.

High standards are a hard bar, but they keep us in a world of miracles in which we can rejoice! This coming week we begin Catholic Education Week. We also take up the Cardinal’s Appeal. The task seems impossible: to alleviate poverty and lift up children to the glory of God by illumining their minds with Gospel Truth… But brothers and sisters, this is who we are. This is what we do. With our God, we do the impossible. Our St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy works miracles each day. I’ve looked over the test scores and I’ve shared anecdotes with our principal. Stories of children who come to us as almost non-verbal in pre-K, but graduate and go to reputable Magnet Programs and Catholic high schools are not uncommon. In our schools, miracles happen because with God all things are possible! Truly, our kids are blank slates: the only limits on them are the one’s we impose. So if you ever think that phrase, “The kids today…” stop… back up and reexamine your own faith… because as our inner city Catholic Schools prove, “With God all things are possible.”

And another thing…Walking Annie at the dog park I meet some great local folks. Often enough, when they see I’m a priest they’ll poke at me with hot button questions like, “So isn’t it great that you guys are changing your teaching on divorce?” In the most appropriate way possible I try to explain the vast nuances of Church teaching and current events to my new friends in five minutes while watching our dogs wrestle in the dirt… the gist of it comes back to this teaching on divine standards: We haven’t changed our doctrine. We are renewing our commitment to walk with all our brothers and sisters under any circumstance. The reason we can’t change our teachings is because they come from Jesus himself. (This doesn’t usually carry much weight with my listener, but what follows does) The reason I would never want us to even contemplate changing doctrine is this: I would rather live in a Church and a world that believes in miracles, a world of “With God all things are possible,” than any other world of lesser standards. And when things get hard, or human beings make terrible decisions… then with God, we in the Church are called to embrace our neighbors through whatever else may come until one day by observing all our disciplines with love we are ALL in heaven.

Renewal from without and within

The Gospel this Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Mt. 2:18-22) offers us two lessons.  He tells the assembled crowd that his disciples rejoice because, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” He goes on to teach, “New wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”  A few thoughts on these lessons, which fall providentially on MLK Day this year.

Dr. King’s witness was unique and uniquely effective.  It was peaceful and thoroughly grounded in the Christian message.  Those who followed him turned the other cheek to the verbal abuse, legal intimidation, and even the physical violence of their persecutors.  They responded with words and even hymns of peace and hope.  They could do this because they kept the bridegroom with them in their hearts.  They knew that even should the struggle claim their lives, they had something greater to look forward to in the true promised land of heaven.  Like the first martyrs of the Church suffering in the arenas of the pagan world they shocked onlookers with their peace… the peace that only Christ can bring.

This peace comes from being filled with the love of the bridegroom like wine filling a wine skin.  And Jesus wants us to have an ever greater share of his loving presence in us.  Herein lies our challenge, because each time he renews us, each time he tries to fill us with a new share of his love we need to prepare “fresh wine skins,” to receive him.  We need to reinvent ourselves a little.  Back in the days when wine was stored in animal skins, the skins would – over time – become brittle.  New wine expands with fermentation, requiring a more flexible storage space, hence fresh wine skins.  How do we achieve this renewal?

Renewal comes from without and from within.  Without: It helps us to get beyond the echo chamber of our daily lives.  Last week I was in Arizona at a conference with Catholics from all over the US.  A member of our DC group remarked, “Father, do you notice how happy and optimistic all these people are?”  She made this observation in contrast to what she perceives as a gloominess in Washington.  I’m sure folks all over America have their own struggles… and that our fellow participants found the DC delegation a cheerful bunch.  The point is this: stepping out of our routines gives us a chance to re-assess things with fresh eyes, make new resolutions and return home different people.  Whether it’s a trip to Southern Maryland, or the Shrines of Emmitsburg or the wine country in Virginia, consider getting out of town just for a day.  You may be surprised at the new person who comes home.  Within: Renewal comes from within as each of us is washed anew by the stream flowing from the pierced side of Christ.  We turn to him in the fountain of the Word.  We turn to the fountain of the sacraments flowing from his pierced side.  In confession, at mass, and through our sacramental relationships (marriage, holy orders), we find an internal refreshment and inspiration to make ourselves anew in his image.  Turn to the sacraments frequently.  Stop by Church to visit the Blessed Sacrament or attend Adoration on First Saturdays.  You’ll be amazed at what Jesus does for you.

Thus recreated we can be filled ever more with the presence of the bridegroom and equipped -like Dr. King’s followers- to achieve whatever our circumstances may call for.  I came back from my conference very much renewed and look forward to sharing the fruits of that experience and that prayer over time.

Frozen Time

The Frozen Tidal Basin reflecting the Washington Monument

It’s been cold in DC this week… frigid really.  Walking along the river with my dog it took me a minute to realize that something was different… and then it hit me: the Potomac was frozen!  …not just frozen, but immobile.  When a city sits astride a river, the movement of the water gives a sense of the passage of time, but today time stopped.  It was cold, not many people out, quiet without birds chirping or traffic beeping.  The whole scene was actually rather monastic… just me, Annie (my dog), and all the silent time in the world to contemplate the Lord loving us.  Winter doesn’t often feel like a time for outdoor activities, but there are gifts to be received in the frozen landscape, if we look on it with eyes of faith.

The Potomac Frozen on New Year’s Day

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

– Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (#1)

Praying for and with Peter

Yesterday’s feast of St. Thomas Becket is a great day for:

Thoughts about personal conversion – Thomas’ transformation from “BFF of King Henry II” to “staunch defender of the faith, man of prayer and servant of the poor” is legendary and beautifully portrayed by Richard Burton in “Becket.”

Cheering for the freedom of the Church – Thomas advocated for the freedom of the Church from the interference of the state, and it cost him his life.

Praying for and with Peter…

St. Thomas had a great affection for the Pope. On the one hand, one could easily say that his affection was out of political necessity: The freedom of the Church in England, threatened by the King, depended on the external power of the Pope to keep it safe. On the other, Thomas’ own words look to a deeper appreciation for the Petrine Office. “…the Roman Church remains the head of all the churches and the source of Catholic teaching. Of this there can be no doubt. Everyone knows that the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given to Peter. Upon his faith and teaching the whole fabric of the Church will continue to be built until we all reach full maturity in Christ and attain to unity in faith and knowledge of the Son of God.”

Praying with Thomas’ words yesterday, I️ was taken back to my own time in Rome, studying in the shadow of the dome. That Peter is the principle of unity within the Church cannot be doubted today anymore than in Thomas’ time. But that rock solid certainty doesn’t make the life or job of the Pope any easier. Indeed back in the twelfth century, even though Church authorities knew Thomas was right, they hedged… The Pope took a certain amount of politics into consideration and forced Thomas to negotiate… perhaps more than the saint would’ve on his own. Who was right? We’ll never know… Thomas’ martyrdom took care of that, fundamentally changing the equation. In the same letter quoted above (From Thomas’ Office of Readings), the saint goes on to say, “…many are needed to plant and many to water… Nevertheless, no matter who plants or waters, God gives no harvest unless what he plants is the faith of Peter…”. Peter is essential, but he does not exist in a vacuum. Others are needed to help by “planting and watering.” In Peter’s own time it was Paul, who corrected him about the place of Gentiles in the Church… Andrew his brother who no doubt supported him as only family can… John the fearless beloved who inspired… and Mary the Mother of Jesus who loved and forgave Peter in his weakness. Only by working together did the Church move forward under Peter’s guidance. In St. Thomas’ time the Church only moved forward through unity with Peter, the service of the other bishops, and Thomas’ own supreme sacrifice. Life really isn’t much different today. Peter is absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t make him perfect any more than St. Peter himself or the medieval Popes of St. Thomas Becket’s day. He needs our help and our prayers. In this way, we can all participate -in our own degree- in the collegiality so often called for by the Holy Father. Saint Thomas, pray for us, and for Peter!