Four Days at the Monastery — Winter 2018

The week of January 7 looked good on my calendar for a visit to the monastery. Sunday and Monday were the last two days of Christmastide in the church calendar — Epiphany and Baptism of the Lord. Then “Ordinary Time” resumes. My own calendar was open — once I rescheduled a visit to bring Communion to a shut-in — until a meeting of the Task Force Against Discrimination on Thursday evening. The guest master said my dates were fine (and I’m “always welcome”), and in fact I was the only guest after Monday morning.

Of course, the monastery was still decorated for Christmas when I got there Sunday afternoon: immense Christmas tree in the chapter room (one of the older monks said it was their best ever), nativity set with fairly small figurines in the church. wreaths in windows and on pillars, plants in front of some statues in corridors, tables pushed together in the center of the refectory instead of along the sides. I have pictures, and if I can figure out how to upload them, I’ll add a few.

I brought along a book titled “A Retreat with Fr. Cedric,” by Father Cedric Pisegna, C.P, who had given a mission at my parish in October. It was very down to earth and easy to read. It identified various areas where people might need to change, explored possible reasons for the problems and steps toward improvement. Somewhat to my surprise, I got through the 219 pages with ease, and I gained some good insights and ideas. Now all I have to do is follow through.

As usual, I also brought some “secular” reading for breaks between the retreat book. This time it was a book on medieval political philosophy by Francis Oakley, “Empty Bottles of Gentilism.” It is the first of three volumes in which he develops the point that the middle ages saw significant development of the idea of consent of the governed limiting the power of kings. The Renaissance didn’t recapture the idea democracy full-blown from the Greeks and Romans. I had already read most of it as my dinnertime “table reading” at home.

One of the monks mentioned at dinner on Sunday evening that the freshmen were being required to read “Democracy in America in their introductory humanities course. It’s about time I read it myself, so I went to the college bookstore to buy it, but it wasn’t there. It turns out they only read certain chapters, not the whole book. But while I was looking among the authors with names beginning “To,” I noticed “The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Short Stories,” by Tolstoy, and bought it. There was enough time for me to read the main story, as well as to complete the retreat book and finish the one by Oakley.

Although I’m usually awake at midnight, at the monastery I’m usually in bed by 10:00. Then I get up at about 5:00 and am ready for the first prayers of the day — mostly psalms, recited and chanted — a service that runs from 6:00 to 6:45 or so. On this visit, I read and reflected on my retreat book until breakfast (7:30), then more retreat and shave before Mass at 6:30. During the day, I’d spend some more time on retreat, as well as reading my other books and looking at the newspapers in the chapter room. Midday Prayer and lunch were at noon. At “haustus” (snack time in mid-afternoon) there were usually a couple of monks in the refectory to chat with. Vespers was at 5:30, followed by dinner, recreation (community members chatting, reading newspapers, playing bridge, etc.). Compline was at 7:05, and then I’d do more reading until I felt sleepy.

The book being read at meals was “Leonardo da Vinci,” by Walter Isaacson. It has been a best seller,and the portions that were read while I was there, dealing with the painting of The Last Supper” and Leonardo’s return to Florence, were interesting enough. Still, I’m not so fascinated that I’d buy the book in order to read the rest, as I did with Metaxas’ biography of Bonhoeffer and “The Quartet,” by Joseph Ellis, after I had heard sections of each on previous visits. Since the dinners on Sunday and Monday were festive, the reading wasn’t done on those evenings, dinner flowed into recreation, and after compline those days we cleaned the dishes from dinner. It’s really fun to pitch in with all the monks — from the abbot through the novice — in the kitchen.

At recreation on Tuesday evening, the abbot introduced me to cribbage. It’s very different from any other game I know, and the scoring is amazingly complex. The next evening, there was an empty seat at the bridge table, so I played, and I think I did adequately.

In order to get to my meeting on Thursday evening, I had to leave by 5:15, which meant I couldn’t stay for Vespers, much less dinner and recreation. Finally it occurred to me that it would be better to drive home in daylight and before rush hour, so I was on the road about 1:00 and home by 2:30.






Sunday Scriptures — Fifth Sunday of Easter A, May 14, 2017

The past three Sundays have given us readings from Acts and 1 Peter. Two of the gospels have been from John and one from Luke. The pattern continues, with some changes of scene.
In past weeks, we’ve been hearing from Peter’s speech to the crowd on Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2. This Sunday’s first reading — Acts 6:1-7 — takes us forward to the situation in which the first deacons were appointed to ensure fairness in “the daily distribution.” In the gospel we will hear Jesus tell us that he is the image of the Father. Here, the deacons become the image of Jesus, who came to serve, not to be served. This passage is an example for us. We too should be images of Jesus, and thus of the Father, by our service to others through performance of the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We should also note that it is a well ordered community that enables attracts others to the faith and experiences growth.
The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 33, with v. 22 as the refrain — calls us to trust in God, foreshadowing Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to have faith in him.
In the second reading — 1 Peter 2:4-9 — we have a metaphor of stones. Christ is a living stone, and we too are to be living stones built into a “spiritual house,” the Church, with Jesus as the foundation. As parts of the Church, we are not inert. Being living stones, we are to be a priesthood, offering sacrifices to God. Of course the most important sacrifice is the one in which we join with the Church as the Church unites with Jesus in offering the sacrifice of Calvary. Beyond that, through Christ we can offer our personal sacrifices to the Father by enduring sufferings and obeying God’s will as we understand it.
The gospel — John 14:1-12 — presents a scene at the Last Supper. First, Jesus promises that he will prepare a place for the disciples (and us) in his Father’s house and he will take us there. He tells Thomas that he is the only way to the Father, the truth, and the (eternal) life. He assures Philip that his identification with the Father is so close that to see him is the same as seeing the Father.

Although Jesus is the sole way to the Father, we are told in Matthew 25:31-46 that explicit faith in him is not required. Works of mercy toward his least brothers are sufficient.

The Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, so that he is the image of the Father. In the same way, the parable of the vine and the branches, John 15:1-10, tells that Jesus is in us and we are in Jesus, which makes us images of him and, by extension, of the Father, which is what imposes on us the duty of loving one another and letting our love overflow in service to our neighbors.

Five Days at the Monastery — Beyond the Schedule

It’s now six weeks since I arrived at the monastery, and over five since I came back home, so I’d better get to this before I forget everything.

The evening I got there, the monks had a buffet dinner, cooked by one of the monks, in the Chapter Room, instead of the everyday dinner in silence with table reading. This is the usual practice on Sunday evenings. It gave me an opportunity to tell the junior monk who had tweeted a recommendation of Destiny of the Republic that I had bought the book and begun to read it. He told me had come across it one day browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The next day at haustus (snack time in mid-afternoon) some monks were talking about a student at the college, Louis, who was spending the weekend with the Franciscans exploring whether he might want to join them. Naturally, they would rather see him join the monastery. As it happened, since the day was a holiday, the abbot chose to have dinner in the Chapter Room again. Unexpectedly, Louis was at Vespers. Since the campus eateries were closed for the holiday, the abbot invited him to join us in the Chapter Room, and he accepted. It almost looked at times as if some of the monks were putting the “full court press” on him to get him to consider the monastery. Well, I suppose all religious orders can always use new members, but the abbey needs to maintain numbers to be an effective presence in the college. It happens that last summer one of the two junior monks who had taken temporary vows in 2014 had decided to leave, so now they only have two people “in formation,” the remaining junior and a novice who was admitted last January. I hope Louis will ultimately decide to join there. I don’t know him, so I can’t be sure he belongs, but the monks who do know him seem to think he’d be a good fit.

One thing I enjoy about the Chapter Room meals (held outdoors in the cloister in warm weather) is that afterwards, the monks clean the dishes and utensils, because the regular kitchen employees get the evening off. It’s fun, but it’s also impressive to see everybody, from the 80+ year old retired bishop of Portland to the novice, chipping in to do the work. I’ve noticed that other guests don’t join, but I go to the monastery to visit the monks as well as for private benefit, so I’m happy for the additional opportunity to spend time with them.

On Tuesday, when the campus bookstore reopened, I went to get some cough drops and something or other else. As I entered, the clerk cheerfully called out, “Happy Monday,” to which I replied, “or Tuesday, as the case may be.” After I had made my purchases and was walking away, I thought of a pun and went back and told her that “Tuesdays after a holiday can feel mundane.” She and a customer got a nice chuckle from it.

One day I went out to the cemetery. I know who most of the monks buried there are, since they were monks when I was there in the 60’s. Another day, I asked the abbot about visiting Fr. William in the nursing home. He wanted to go, but there were meetings of the College trustees that week, and he ended up not having a chance to go see Fr. William.

I had planned to leave on Friday afternoon in time to get home before dark. But then I noticed on the bulletin board that the Mass on Friday (at 5:15 because college was in session) would be for all the deceased monks of the abbey and its sister abbeys of the American-Cassinese Congregation of monasteries. With that added incentive, I decided to stay for the Mass, and the following dinner, recreation and Vespers. Leaving the Chapter Room a the end of recreation, I tried to say good bye to the junior and the novice, but couldn’t get to them.

As we were all walking down the corridor toward the church, Father Peter twice urged me to visit again soon. For services in the church, the monks file in led by the juniors, with the abbot at the end of the procession. Leaving, the order is reversed, beginning with abbot, and ending with the most junior. After they’ve all left, the guests leave. I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Vespers on Friday to find that the junior monk and the novice had stopped at the door into the corridor to say good bye. Then, a little bit farther on, the abbot was waiting to bid me good bye.

It had been a very pleasant visit, and I’m looking forward to going back in the not-too-distant future. I’m trying to remember the big points I took from the book I had found in my room. I had thought I might set aside some time each day to continue reading the Pirenne book, the follow-up by Scott, and then other books, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, when I finished Destiny of the Republic as my dinnertime book, I turned to the Pirenne, which is better organized in the final chapter than in the earlier ones. One change which has continued is that I’ve expanded my usual morning prayers into something more like the Vigils they pray at the monastery at the beginning of the day. It’s interesting that it took me three yearly visits to be motivated to do that. “Third time never fails.” But seriously, it seems that sometimes it takes several exposures for something to sink in.

Marriage and Family Symposium

I’m very happy about an event in my parish earlier today. It was a luncheon with speakers and moments of prayer around the theme of Marriage and Family. Speakers were a couple who have been married 58 years, a couple married 8 or 10 years (I forget) with two children, two widowed people, and a high school senior and his parents. All offered useful perspectives on the topic.


The program was the brainchild of our pastor, whom I’m increasingly admiring for his pastoral concern. As you may recall, there were two years of rather intense focus on this topic, including two synods, concluding with Pope Francis’ statement “Amoris Lætitia” (The Joy of Love), which still needs to be digested and implemented in many respects. Fr. Steele wanted to do something to help present the teaching and last May came up with the idea of this symposium. Over the summer and early fall he developed it in consultation with parishioners, and today it took place. In addition to the speakers and prayers, he also provided all couples with a copy of a booklet titled Pope Francis Talks to Couples: Wisdom on Marriage and Family, which consists of the two sections of  “Amoris Lætitia” which deal directly with married life.


The lady who had been married 58 years went on too long, but overall, the program, which was very well thought out, was very good. It was necessarily limited in attendance. A number of couples had been directly invited to participate in planning, and more were invited to attend, but registration was also open to all. I hope there will be a ripple effect as those in attendance share what they gained with their friends and acquaintances.


One thought, which was set aside, was to have a discussion of “Amoris Lætitia.” It is too big a topic for such an event. The booklet, however, is an important beginning.Father Steele has also scheduled a lecture by an expert from Boston College for an evening in January.


This is the most recent example of Fr. Steele’s resourcefulness in providing various types of programs for adult faith formation. Perhaps he is better known for involving children in vibrant “family liturgies,” but his devotion to offering adult programs is also a highly admirable element of his deep pastoral concern for all.

Sunday Scriptures — OT C 15, Jul. 10, 2016

On this Sunday, we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan. It comes as part of a dialogue initiated with a question about what one must do. Our first reading assures us that God’s law (what we must do) is not difficult to know.
The first reading — Deuteronomy 30:10-14 — presents Moses pleading with the people —us — to heed the voice of the Lord expressed for them in the book of the law. But it is not merely a matter of careful adherence to specific commands. It is a matter of returning to the Lord with all one’s heart and all one’s soul — phrases which find their echo in the gospel for today. The law is not remote or arcane. It is already in our hearts, planted there by God. James 1:21 speaks of “the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” It is a word of which we must be doers, not just hearers.
There are two alternative responsorial psalms. The first — verses of Psalm 69 — tis the prayer of one who is in distress, followed by a promise of help from God. It puts us n the place of the victim in the gospel who is rescued by the Good Samaritan. The second — Psalm 19:8-11 — is praise of God’s law.
The gospel — Luke 10:25-37 — presents a scholar of the law asking Jesus what he must do to be saved. Jesus asks him for his opinion. The scholar gives what seems to have been a commonly held opinion at the time, and Jesus endorses it. It is a matter of loving God with one’s whole being and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It is worth noting that neither the scholar nor Jesus specifically references the ten commandments, much less the entirety of the specific commands of the law. A slavish obedience to rules done without love, but out of fear, is not what God seeks. When we are animated by love, our specific good deeds will have value. This is also the underlying principle in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel. Mere observance of the commandments is not enough. The spirit behind the commandments must form our actions so that we transcend the commandments.
It may be that the scholar was asking his question in the sense of seeking to kow what was the minimum standard of conduct. His follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor,” can be read as an attempt to establish a limit to the breadth of the love that is commanded. At any rate, Jesus refuses to set any limit. The scholar must follow the example of the Good Samaritan. Given the mutual hostility between Jews and Samaritans, it would have been easy enough for a Samaritan to be unwilling to help a Jew. But this Samaritan loves the Jew as himself, not merely in some theoretical way, but with a love that leads to action. Jesus is saying that all people, without exception, are the neighbors we must love, and if that love is genuine, we will help those we can when they are in distress.
There may be an implication also that there are some rules which love must override. The avoidance of the victim by the priest and the levite may have been because they would incur ritual impurity by touching the victim. But that rule should not have been controlling in such an urgent case of need.
Finally, in the light of the first alternative responsorial psalm, we can see ourselves as the victims in a spiritual sense. We are sinners, in danger of spiritual death if left to ourselves. But Jesus comes to our rescue, taking on our humanity and giving the care we need — namely his own life, on the cross.
The second reading — Colossians 1:15-20 — is the first of several that we will hear from this epistle. It is not intended to have any direct connection with the other two readings, although the emphasis on Jesus’ work as savior does correspond with the interpretation of the gospel which sees him as the Good Samaritan par excellence. We can see much of it reflected in the creed we recite at Sunday Mass.
“[T] image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” —“[T]he Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages.”
[I]n him were created all things in heaven and on earth.” —“[T]hrough him all things were made.”
“He is the head if the body, the church.” — “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
“He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” — “[H]e suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day.”
“[T]hat in all things he himself might be preeminent.” — “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
The final lines of the reading recapitulate these passages of the creed, while expanding what it says about Jesus saving work on our behalf.

Pulse (Orlando*)

* Although the attack occurred in Orlando, the most important fact about it is that it was perpetrated in a gay club. Just as the assault at the offices of Charlie Hebdo became known by the target, rather than the city where it occurred, this terrorist attack would better be known as Pulse than Orlando. The city is an appropriate designation for attacks where the victims are random and the location is not associated with a specific target group. In this post, I’ll be considering this attack in its character as an attack against gay, or LGBTQ, people.

The choice of Pulse for the attack, when any number of other clubs were available, is itself enough to show that the attack was motivated by hatred of gay people. The widely reported account by the killer’s father of his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing in public confirms the fact. Many comments and a candidate for President blame the hatred on Islam and target all Muslims in response. Other comments have blamed Christians who have opposed homosexuality for creating a climate of hatred.

I think it is inaccurate to blame Islam for this attack, even though the attacker was Muslim. The “Joint Muslim Statement on the Carnage in Orlando” shows clearly that many Muslims believe that such violence against gay people is wrong — this despite the fact the Islam considers homosexual conduct immoral and deserving of death. So it is unjustifiable to blame Islam as such for the actions of that Muslim, in the same way as it is unjustifiable to blame Christianity for violence against gays — despite the fact that some Christian churches continue to maintain the traditional doctrine that homosexual conduct is wrong. In fact, I think some Catholic bishops did very well in expressing that homophobia should not have any place among us.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some Christians do believe that violence against gays is justified, even that gays deserve to be put to death. The rest of us should explicitly reject such ideas. This is clear enough. But we need to go beyond that. This incident should be recognized as a wake-up call. We need to acknowledge that the insistence with which many of us have made an issue of homosexuality, the forcefulness with which we have upheld our positions — even if justified at the level of moral theology — have indeed been factors in promoting the climate of hostility within which some people feel justified in resorting to violence.

Somehow, we needed to be clearer that, while we were appealing to the consciences of individuals, we were not seeking to compel those who disagreed with our theology. In the first place, though, we needed to be clearer in our own minds about that. For many, homosexual conduct seemed to be some sort of “super sin.” That view doubtless shaped the thinking of those who turned to violence.

I think we “conservative ” Christians still need to be clearer in our own minds, as well as in our ways of expressing our beliefs, about our love and acceptance of gays as deserving of respect, and welcome in our churches. Some people say “Love the sinner, but hate the sin.” At a theoretical level, that may be cliché; but in reality it is hypocritical when the only time we say it is when we are talking about people who engage in homosexual conduct. We don’t say it about fornicators or adulterers, the proud, the avaricious, the calumniators, the rash judgers, the lustful. Some people have the attitude that homosexuals have to refrain from homosexual conduct as a condition of being welcome, but we never withdraw the welcome from gossips, from money-grubbers, from cohabiting couples.

The problem for many if us is that there are ingrained habits of mind which it will take sustained effort to change, but we have to do it. We have to catch ourselves whenever we find ourselves making judgments on gay, when we think of them as cases in moral theology, when we start regarding being on good terms with them as something we need to justify to ourselves. We need to see them as individuals, not as members of a category. Which means we have to be willing and able to become acquaintances, friendly acquaintances, and friends, with whom we deal as ordinary people. When enough of us do that, perhaps fewer gay people will perceive us as enemies.

It may be that the anti-gay prejudice which exists is similar to racism or prejudice against Jews. It can exist in us unnoticed or nearly so, and it can be overcome only with conscious effort. One thing which helps, of course, is getting to know people as individuals, so that we can no longer think of them merely as categories.

Beyond looking at our own attitudes and manners of expression, we should also do what we can to promote a climate in society where expressions of anti-gay prejudice are unacceptable.

Some responses to the killings have suggested that the expression of doctrines which hold homosexual conduct to be wrong is, in and of itself, so damaging to gay people’s sense of acceptance and so productive of a climate of fear among them that those doctrines must no longer be proclaimed. To me, that seems to go too far. It must be acceptable for simple traditional doctrine to be taught by churches to their members. That, however, doesn’t mean that churches need to or should make public statements condemning the private conduct of others.

At this point my thinking on how we should go forward is provisional, but it seems to me that our church leaders should refrain from public statements, press releases, or the like, proclaiming opposition to homosexual conduct. Such positions are already well known and do not need to be repeated. What is needed is a living out of Pope Francis’ “Who am I to judge?” If someone asks a question about what we think, we should answer truthfully, simply, and as non-confrontationally as possible. But otherwise, for those of us who aren’t someone’s pastor or spiritual director, their perceived or proclaimed orientation isn’t really our concern and shouldn’t be an issue, and the sooner we can realize that and live accordingly, the better it will be.

For gay people to feel accepted in our churches, it is necessary that they actually be accepted. For them to feel safe in our society, it is necessary that they be safe. We need to do what we can to promote that acceptance, based on love and respect, and to bring about that safety

Sunday Scriptures — Sixth Sunday of Easter C, May 01, 2016

Ascension Thursday will be this week and Pentecost two weeks from today. So the Church is turning our attention toward the events they commemorate.


In the gospel — John 14:23-29 — Jesus is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. What he says about going away, going to the Father, foretells the Ascension. What he says about the Holy Spirit being sent by the Father foretells the event of Pentecost.

The Holy Spirit will do two things for the disciples: he will teach them everything, and he will remind them of everything Jesus told them. This assures us that their proclamation of the gospel was true. But what does it mean for us in our lives today?

In the first place, we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and Confirmation. So we can expect the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This comes principally in the promptings that come to mind that suggest good things we can do at a given moment or that tell us we shouldn’t do something we are thinking about. We need to try to follow these promptings. It’s easy to dismiss the Holy Spirit’s suggestion, “You should do this,” and say, “not right now.” “Why not spend a few minutes in prayer?” “Later. Right now I’m going to have lunch.” or “That person seems to be struggling with those packages. Lend a hand.” “They’ll be okay.” It’s easy to dismiss all sorts of impulses to do something worthwhile. Likewise with impulses to refrain from something bad. “Slow down.” “But I don’t have much time.” You don’t need that second piece of pie.” “But it tastes so good.” “You shouldn’t be looking at that stuff.” “Just one more video.”


But our first reading — Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 — shows that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just speak to us as individuals. Jesus’ promise is one for the whole Church. That’s why we call Pentecost “the birthday of the Church.” The question about whether all Christians needed to follow the Jewish law wasn’t about the details of one person’s life: it involved the whole Church. So a decision had to be made for the whole Church. The apostles were in Jerusalem, so it fell to them to give the answer, and the Holy Spirit was there to teach them. The answer they sent to Antioch noted that the Holy Spirit had given them the answer that circumcision wasn’t necessary: the details of Jewish law don’t apply. As one commentator has pointed out, the decision was accepted by all concerned. The one side didn’t say, “You’re wrong. Circumcision is still necessary,” and the other side didn’t say, “You’re wrong to give those minimum standards.”

The Holy Spirit still guides the successors of the Apostles, the Pope and the bishops. When they clearly teach something, we should be like the early Christians. There can be legitimate questions about how definitive a specific teaching is, but our expectation, like that of the Early Christians, should be to hear the Holy Spirit teaching us through the Pope and the bishops.


In the responsorial psalm — Ps 67:2-3, 5, 6, 8 with refrain from v. 4 — we reflect on the call of all nations to join the worship of God by his people. This inclusion of the Gentiles is what occasioned the events of the first reading, and it’s success was greatly facilitated by them. If Gentiles had to follow all Jewish dietary and ritual law, the acceptance of the gospel might have been much less widespread.


The Church is that holy city, the Jerusalem whose foundation is the twelve apostles that we hear of in the second reading — Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23. Although we think of Revelation as telling us of the end times, the letters to the churches at the beginning of the book were about the time it was written, the conflicts it describes symbolically were happening to the early Christians, the heavenly realities it tells of are ongoing. If the new Jerusalem is not physically visible yet, it is still a reality in which we participate spiritually as members of the Communion of Saints.


So the question for us is how can we be more alert to the Holy Spirit when he speaks directly to us about what to do, and how can we be more alert to what the Holy Spirit says to the whole Church? Hint: Catholic radio and TV and Catholic newspapers will give us much more and clearer information about what the Church is saying than we can get anywhere else other than the Vatican website.

If that’s the question, there is also the great promise behind it: Jesus has promised us his peace, and he has promised us the Holy Spirit. At Mass we claim the gift of peace when we offer the sign of peace, and we claim the gift of the Holy Spirit when the priest asks the Father to send him to consecrate our gifts and again when he asks him to send the Holy Spirit to bring unity to the whole Church through our receiving of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Sunday Scriptures — Fourth Sunday of Easter C, Apr. 17, 2016

In all three years of the lectionary cycle, the Fourth Sunday of Easter is “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The opening prayer of the Mass (the same all three years) prays that the flock may follow where the shepherd has led, namely, to heaven. Each year’s gospel is taken from chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus calls himself both the gate of the sheepfold and the good shepherd.: Year A, verses 1-10; Year B, 11-18; and Year C, 27-30. The first two readings do not directly relate to the theme of the sheep and the shepherd. The title of Good Shepherd was popular with early Christians. Images of the shepherd with the sheep on his shoulders (Luke 15:5) were common as depictions of Jesus, and the logo for the current Jubilee Year of Mercy develops the image, substituting a human for the sheep.
After the opening prayer, we begin with Acts 13:14, 43b-52. (The omitted verses report Paul’s speech in the synagogue at Antioch in Pisidia.) Paul’s address met with great success among many hearers, which is why a large crowd gathered the following sabbath. But just as Jesus met opposition from those in authority in Jerusalem, so Paul and Barnabas met opposition from the leaders in Antioch. We mustn’t think that in Paul’s time the Christians saw a distinction between Jews and Christians. Clearly, Paul and Barnabas considered themselves Jews. But gradually they came to realize that in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 49:6 (quoted in v. 47 of today’s reading), they must preach to Gentiles as well, and they ended up bringing more Gentiles than Jews to faith in Jesus. Over the course of several decades, with the increasing numbers of Gentile Christians and the opposition of the leaders of Judaism, Christians and Jews came to regard themselves as separate religions; but in Paul’s time that had not happened.
In the responsorial psalm — Ps 100:1-2, 3, 5 with 3c supplying the refrain — we have the themes of ourselves as the sheep of God’s flock (meaning that God is the shepherd), and the call of the Gentiles, “all you lands,” to join the worship offered by Israel.
The second reading — Revelation 7:9, 14b-17 — begins with a reference to the call of the Gentiles: a crowd “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” Jesus is identified as the Lamb of God who purifies his followers, and, in the final verse, the Lamb is also their shepherd. This leads to the gospel.
In the gospel — John 10:27-30 — Jesus, having earlier identified himself as the good shepherd who gives his life for his sheep, characterizes his sheep as those who follow him because they hear and recognize his voice. The result of following him is his gift to them of eternal life. No one is more powerful than God, who has given the sheep to Jesus, so Jesus’ promise of eternal life is solid. Indeed Jesus identifies himself with the Father: “The Father and I are one.” How this is true was the subject of decades and centuries of reflection, as the doctrine of the Trinity was developed.
To synthesize the messages: we Christians of all nations have been gathered into a single “flock,” the Church, which is being led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd, into the eternal life of heaven.

Sunday Scriptures — Third Sunday of Easter C, Apr. 10, 2016

This Sunday’s readings continue the pattern from last Sunday: first reading from Acts, second from Revelation, and Gospel from John. This will also be followed in the remaining Sundays of Easter, except where the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday. It seems to me that the readings of a particular Sunday were not selected to develop a particular theme. Each stands on its own, although it may be possible to see some resonances between some of them.


The first reading — Acts 5:27-32, 40b-41 — brings us some of the account of the second appearance of the apostles before the Sanhedrin. Peter and John had healed a cripple and proclaimed that Jesus was the Lord through whose power it was done. The Sanhedrin had ordered them to stop preaching in the name of Jesus. When they persisted, they were brought in again, and today’s reading gives the account of this second appearance, leaving out the speech of Gamaliel, who warned the Sanhedrin that if the apostles’ preaching was from God, they would be opposing God if they opposed the apostles. It also omits a line that says the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before releasing them, which lets us know what the line about suffering dishonor for the sake of the name means. Peter’s speech is a synopsis of the more extensive proclamations reported elsewhere in Acts.

It is because the apostles have seen the risen Lord (one instance being given in today’s gospel) that they can stand firm in the face of the Sanhedrin’s orders, threats, and punishment. We, too, must be prepared to stand firm when our faith is challenged.
In the responsorial psalm — verses from Ps. 30 — we have a prayer that reflects the apostles’ thanksgiving after their release.



The second reading — Revelation 5:11-14 — gives us a view , in language and images that may be figurative rather than literal, of what is happening in heaven. Jesus is the Lamb, prefigured by the Israelites’ Paschal lamb, who is slain but who saves us from death not only by giving his flesh and blood, but also by rising from the dead, thus conquering death. The whole universe recognizes his glory. Chapter 4 of Revelation presented a scene in which 24 elders worshipped God who was seated on his throne surrounded by four living creatures — one like a lion, one like an ox, one with a human face, and one like an eagle in flight. The appearance of the living creatures recalls Ezekiel’s vision of four living creatures, each of which had all four faces (Ezekiel 1:1-28). In chapter 10, Ezekiel again has a vision in which he realizes that they are cherubim. Beginning with St. Irenaeus in the second century, it has been common to see the four living creatures of Revelation as representing the four evangelists: the lion, Mark; the ox, Luke; the human, Matthew; and the eagle, John. Scholars think that in context they are intended to be angels that govern the physical world, while the elders represent the Church. In this reading, then, their worship symbolizes that of humanity and all creatures of the universe, now directed to Jesus, and joined to that of the angels.

In the first Eucharistic prayer, there is a sentence which asks that our offering (the consecrated elements, the Body and Blood of Christ) may be carried to God’s altar in heaven so that all who participate in the reception of Communion from this altar on earth may be filled with heavenly grace and blessing. Our worship is a sharing of the worship of God in heaven: one meaning of the “communion of saints” referred to in the creed.



The gospel — John 21:1-19 — presents three parts of a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus: a miraculous catch of fish, a meal of fish and bread, and a dialogue of Jesus and Peter.

The catch of fish recalls the catch of fish which took place at the call of Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee (James and John) in Luke 5:1-11. In both, the fishermen have caught nothing all night, but Jesus tells them where to lower the net, resulting in a catch so large that they cannot haul the net into the boat. In Luke, Peter confesses his sinfulness. In John, the beloved disciple recognizes that the man on shore is the Lord.

In John 6: 1-14, Jesus feeds a large crowd with five barley loaves and two fish, which leads to their recognition of him as one promised by God in Deuteronomy 18:15 (see also Malachi 3:1&23). That previous miracle occasioned the Bread of Life discourse in which Jesus identified himself as the bread of life, whose flesh and blood he would give for the life of the world — whoever consumed them would possess eternal life. At the Last Supper and on Calvary, Jesus fulfilled his promise, and after his resurrection, the disciples in Emmaus recognized him in the breaking of the bread — Luke 24:35. Thus the miraculous meal of fish and bread symbolizes the flesh and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.

In the scene of the call of Matthew, Matthew acknowledged that he was a sinner. He is again a sinner, having denied Jesus three times. Now Jesus undoes that denial by requiring a threefold declaration of love. But it doesn’t only mean that Peter’s denial of Jesus is forgiven. Peter’s leadership of the post-resurrection community of Jesus’ followers is affirmed three times as well. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:1-18) who has laid down his life for his sheep and taken it up again. Now Peter becomes the shepherd.

Finally, Jesus tells Peter what he can expect. Just as Jesus was bound and executed, so, in his turn, will Peter suffer a similar end (with, of course, the promise of eternal life given in John 6).
So Jesus in effect constitutes his Church around the sacred meal of his body and blood with Peter as the shepherd. The success of the disciples as “fishers of men” depends on Jesus.

Jubilee Year of Mercy: 2015/12/08 – 2016/11/20

When I was watching the opera “Tannhäuser” recently, I was struck by the point that the pilgrims were going to Rome for the “Gnadenfest,” the Feast of Mercy. I knew that Pope Francis had proclaimed Dec. 8 – Nov. 20 as a “Year of Mercy” and the Pope John Paul II had designated the Sunday after Easter as “Divine Mercy Sunday and I wondered what this mediæval predecessor might be. Was it Wagner’s invention, or did something of the sort actually happen? We know that pilgrimages crisscrossed Europe to various destinations: Rome, Compostela, Canterbury, and many other, less famous, shrines. But a specific Feast of Mercy at Rome was unfamiliar to me.

It all became clear when I was looking up the topic of Jubilee Years. I found an article on Wikipedia which gives a history of Jubilee Years in the Catholic Church. The article notes that although the first one which is fully documented was proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, it seems probable “that the proclamation of the Jubilee owed its origin to the statements of certain aged pilgrims who persuaded Boniface that great indulgences had been granted to all pilgrims in Rome about a hundred years before. It is also noteworthy that in the Chronicle of Alberic of Three Fountains, under the year 1208 (not, be it noted 1200), we find this brief entry: ‘It is said that this year was celebrated as the fiftieth year, or the year of jubilee and remission, in the Roman Court.'” So the Feast of Mercy in “Tannhäuser” wasn’t a particular day, but the Jubilee Year of 1208 — which is consistent with the timing of the action of the opera.

The original idea was to have a Jubilee Year once every hundred years, but another was held in 1350, and in 1475, a 25 year interval became the norm. This gives most people a chance to participate in one during their lifetime.

But what is a Jubilee? The Book of Leviticus, 25:8-55, prescribes a year of jubilee for the Israelites every fiftieth year. Prominent among its requirements were that all land revert to its original owner — any sale was only valid until the next jubilee. Indentures ended with the jubilee as did slavery to aliens in the land of Israel. In the Church, the concept of jubilee was transformed into one of spiritual liberation. Those who went on pilgrimage to Rome and visited the four major basilicas for a specified number of days could gain a plenary indulgence: a remission of all temporal punishment (in this life or in purgatory) for previous sins.

Pope Francis decided to proclaim an extraordinary Jubilee Year* (the next ordinary one would be in 2025) to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council. Prominent themes are God’s constant mercy toward his people, the Church’s proclamation of God’s mercy to all people, and our personal practice of mercy toward one another in the form of the traditionally identified corporal and spiritual works of mercy. While the Bull of Indiction proclaiming this Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (summary here) does not give specifics about the required pilgrimages and the available indulgences for participation, it is clear that the elements of pilgrimage and the granting of indulgences are part of it. To provide for the widest possible participation, there are to be places in every diocese in the world to which the pilgrimage may be made, as was the case with the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000.

Here is an article about the opening of this Jubilee. And here’s one about the Jubilee in general.

*This is different from the special themes that Popes often assign to years to encourage the faithful to pay attention to those themes. We have had years of the priesthood, of consecrated life, and various elements of church life recently. I had thought until recently that the Year of Mercy was another such year. Being a Jubilee Year notably raises its significance.