Monday, December 23, 2013

Reflections at the end of 2013

As I look out the window a few days before Christmas, I see a skating rink of a street - ahhh, just ruined by a sander!. We are between ice/ rain storms, apparently. On this busiest of shopping weekends, we are told. 

Text message tells me son #two, wife and child safely off the 401, arrived in Kingston. Thank God.

All of this a bit of a metaphor for this past year. Deep freezes followed by thaws. And vice versa. Nature (as influenced by the Bush Administration and others nearer to home) serving up weather contortions like never seen before!

Civilization doing its best to imitate. The 1% outdoing themselves. The poor being outdone. Government official asking 'is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.” 

Publisher of the Toronto Star (December 21, 2013) writing his own editorial, says:

            Minister Moore’s words were neither compassionate nor particularly conservative..........          (For a growing number of  Canadians and Americans) Theirs is a world in which we don’t live our lives as caring neighbours and united citizens but as isolated, self-motivated economic actors.     Relationships are transactional in this world — not based on trust or tradition........ This is the world of A Christmas Carol, published by Charles Dickens as a satiric attack on the economic attitudes and morality of his day 170 years ago this week. 

But son#2 and his family did get safely off the highway on an icy, dangerous day, in spite of weather that makes us think of climate change wrought by humans. 

And good will does live on in spite of growing cynicism and greed. Numerous articles talk about the joy of volunteering and giving in Christmas campaigns for the poor. They also talk of people helping each other in the middle of power outages - and so on. 

The bah humbug factor? Jewish authors Bernie Farber and Avrum Rosensweig have written another of those great articles that appear this time every year in which non-Christians puzzle about the resistance  to saying Merry Christmas. I love it, and I always make a point to answer whether online or in print. Wishing Happy Chanukah or Eid Mubarak to authors who earnestly want us all to get in touch with what these feasts mean. They are times of goodwill, expressions of oneness among all peoples, respect for each others' religious traditions, and reminders that we have work to do in the world.

In the end, we have to decide. My own temptations to cynicism need to give way to rejoicing in the very thing I fear we are trying to get rid of: the celebration of the birth of Christ. The Savior. The One who ensures we truly are not alone and don't need to act like fools going it alone!

A very Merry Christmas to all, and a healthy, peaceful 2014!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Lots of rest, and a new word. Retreat 2013.

Loyola House in Guelph never lets me down. I guess that means God never lets me down. I guess that also means God is able to feed me as he so much wants to do. He can do that because I am hungry and here I know it. Easy to lose the awareness of what I need, when the demands of the everyday world seem to be, ‘be strong’, ‘look competent and confident’. No matter what. The god thing. You know.
It is so nice, so freeing, to claim the reality of my poverty. The poverty that comes from knowing that it is in my weakness that I get my strength. Not a platitude, just an awareness that anything I have is a gift. That my call is to be fully human, not falsely divine. God enters space that is emptied out of all that ‘fulness’. The Pharisees were ‘full.’ No room for God whatsoever. Please.

Being fully human and being aware like this, and being emptied out and poor means accepting my reality in life, not constantly raging against it. Yes there are problems to be solved, conflicts to be dealt with. But gently. Different ballgame.

And the key to it all? Staying in relationship with Christ. Not like a tourist. A pilgrim.

All of this is familiar. The gift is to be able to renew, reaffirm, recommit. That's what retreat does for me.

Finally - the new word. From Ron Rollheiser in Forgotten Among the Lilies. The word – for men and moment of today’s culture – is ‘re-virginizing.’ Love it. He means that our culture has become so entitled, that we take anything we want, at anytime, anywhere. Taboos mean nothing. We wait for nothing. The sacred gets defined out of existence. We then get bored by it all since we have or can get it all, and so we have to jack up the stimulation or else depression and anxiety set in. ‘Re-virginizing’ means developing restraint in the face of what is not ours to have; and rediscovering delight with what is ours to have. The sacred becomes sacred again, and we call sin, sin – not another rationalization or neurosis or entitlement. Impossible to do? Yes it is if we play the god thing and get ‘full.’ No it isn’t if we stand poor before our God.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A brief look around

Blog post way overdue!  Feels like I have just come up for air. In retrospect, the spring of 2013 was one of those periods that I said would never happen again after I closed my office to active everyday practice. 

I very much enjoy giving presentations, doing training and workshops, etc, and that is what was going on. The payoff is a lot of very nice contact with people and a sense of satisfaction at something of value.  But it has to be paced.  It is actually dangerous if one does not learn that lesson.  I talk to people regularly who have yet to learn it, and I see one every time I look in the mirror!  The danger is in how preoccupying this can become, and how it can take one away from things like family interaction, prayer, and even recreation.  I suppose it even shares some qualities with addictive behavior, in that good judgment sometimes goes out the window.  I speak from experience when I say that the evil spirit does his best work at times like that.  So, with no ‘events’ other than preaching assignments currently on the horizon, perhaps the coming year can be an exercise in taking a decisive pause from it all.  The hardest thing in the world is saying no, especially to people that you know well, but here goes...

Apart from all that, this has been a time of poignant transitions.  A time of moving on.  A time of being aware that life truly does not stand still as it takes you through the stages that you knew a long time ago were coming.  Over the course of time, you find yourself in the middle of them, and suddenly when you blink your eyes, you are seeing them behind you.

Thus it is that youngest son has graduated, and has moved out.  Six grandchildren form the current contingent of our next generation, and are the delight of our lives.  Young kids that I have watched growing up in the parish were once in Youth Group or were altar servers, etc.  I recently presided at the wedding of one of them, have baptized the children of others, and am watching as still others move off to college.  Coincidentally, changes are occurring in my consulting work.  Organizations have evolved or are evolving, and long-standing programs are ending or are changing.

These are all the things of life moving along.  One says goodbye to them.

A number of other good-byes have taken place. Two aunts have died this year, and in June my mother died. Roll all these events together, and one has to develop a new perspective on life. Because if not we will find ourselves steeped in nostalgia and melancholy.

The new perspective is that of new life. And it is wonderful. Not only do kids growing up bring a refreshing energy, the death of elder family members brings its own new life in the forms of modelling, heritage, values - all the stuff of new life for those who follow. Now I understand the mustard seed a bit better. Very small but dynamite in the fruit it produces. I think our job is to ensure that the seed does not blow away. All of us have the responsibility to ensure there is something to hand on to those who follow us. It is all new life. And energizing.

Friday, March 15, 2013


It seems our prayers may have been answered. We have a Pope who is a pastor before he is an academic. We have a Pope who focuses on poverty before he allows luxury in his own life and to which he is entitled by office. We have a Pope who in his first homily as Pope, said, “...(I)f we do not confess Jesus Christ..... we will become a pitiful NGO, but not the Church.... When we walk without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, and when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord. We are worldly, we are bishops, priests, Cardinals, Popes, but not disciples of the Lord.”

This is a shot across the bow of those in places of power in the Church – anywhere in the Church – that live with the perqs and talk out the other side of their/ our mouths about the great social/ moral issues of the day. Without Christ at the centre of our lives and of our way of thinking, and of our efforts, we become as just one more among many NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations – think Greenpeace, Amnesty International and hundreds of thousands of bodies like that who take on social justice, environmental etc causes). And by way of contrast with Benedict who taught those things, Francis starts by living them.

As his namesake St Francis of Assisi said, ‘Preach always, and if necessary, use words.’ The model he is setting is not one of saying what is wrong about living in privilege while talking of poverty, but rather of showing how to make it right in your life.

In addition to all this, Pope Francis seems to have a spine. There is some debate happening about his relationship with the Argentine military dictatorship of years past, and we will learn more about that. What we are focused on in the near term, however, is how he will handle the financial and power scandals in the Vatican, and how he will deal with continuing fall-out from the clergy sexual abuse scandals around the world. We have a good sense of some of his thoughts, from his 2010 book ‘On Earth and Heaven’. In the book he says that moving offending priests around “... is stupid, because the priest continues to carry the problem in his backpack.” Rather, the priest should be ‘sacked and tried, that putting the church’s reputation first was a mistake.’

Oh my goodness, how refreshing.

In talking about St. Francis of Assisi he says, “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.”

Does this sound like someone who will play the ‘old boys’ club game? I think not.

But beyond all this, there is something moving about him, something that gets me. I am more than delighting in the prospects for the Church, more than intrigued by his credibility regarding simplicity and poverty. I am finding it compelling and inviting. These aren’t brilliant ideas as Benedict could conjure, but rather warm invitations. Easy to relate to. Easy to imagine following. Making the call to holiness sound do-able, sound better than the alternative. In short, I find him changing me. Did not have that reaction in 2005. More later.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Election

   Catholics around the world are watching the lead-up to the election of a new Pope. It will be a pivotal moment, as the movement for new openness meets the urgent need for tradition, conservation of values, and maintenance of all the authority of the office whose origins are with Peter 2000 years ago.

   If you find yourself in the latter group, it appears you will be happy with Cardinal Ouellet, the more so since he is Canadian. I am not sure who would be open to renewal and openness, maybe him? No-one was prepared for what Pope John XXIII did when he called Vatican II in the early 1960's. Perhaps it is not about the person's track record as much as it is about his ability to 'read the signs of the times', as Pope John XXIII said back then. We Catholics believe that the Pope above all needs to be a person who is open to the movements of the Holy Spirit about things like that.

   So what are the signs of the times? Two articles in the February 24, 2013, Toronto Star - New York Times section - caught my eye. The news and viewpoints in them are quite negative. But they report disturbing trends. One, 'Church Faces Test in Brazil' notes that the Catholic population of that country has shrunk from 90% in 1970, to 65% in 2010. Evangelical Protestant churches are becoming popular as people want more expressive forms of worship. Priests who provide Catholic liturgies with such a flavor, bring in larger congregations. Perhaps more importantly, though, the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion, is growing. From that perspective, secularism, not other Christian churches, is the problem there. The author's point: a continuation of the same conservative stances in the next Pope will continue these trends. Is this true?

   The second article, an opinion piece, is titled 'The Pope's Muffled Voice.' Author Frank Bruni speaks of the Catholic Church in the U.S., and notes that American Catholics "don't feel bound by the pope's interpretation of doctrine or moral commands...... A 2011 survey published in the National Catholic Reporter showed that while 73% of American Catholics described their belief in Jesus' resurrection as "very important' to them, only 30% described the teaching authority of the Vatican that way, and only 21 percent  characterized an all male, celibate priesthood in those terms."

   The Church will never be run by polls the way U.S. elected officials run their government. You actually have to stand for something. And the Catholic Church does and always will.

   However. Presentation runs a close second to substance, in importance. I know this so well from working with families. Authoritarian or authoritative. You do not want the former, you will do anything for the latter. Authoritarian parents/ leaders give the impression they are full of the importance/ legitimacy/ entitlement of their role or office. With such an air about them, the validity of their message gets lost because their children/ subjects/ employees tune them out. It is not enough to have a good message, your people have to be open and teachable. Like it or not, you make them that way. Think of the teachers you loved. You know they loved you and wanted the best for you and would bend over backwards for you. You in turn would absorb anything they taught you, and you would do anything for them.

   Authoritative parents/ leaders convey that they know who they are, but at the same time convey that you and everything about you matters to them personally. That means they will always listen. They will always be open to doing things differently when dialogue with you persuades them to do so. With that kind of fairness and openness established, they can draw limits on the same process and you will accept those limits.

   Over and over I am hearing the issue of the validity of Catholic teachings being confused with the issue of how the Church presents itself. It is precisely at this juncture that Pope John XXIII heard the movement of the Holy Spirit and responded with the brilliant idea that we know as Vatican II. John XXIII clearly knew who he was. A leader like that gives away nothing by opening up the process. If our next Pope reads articles like the ones I have cited, or generally catches that kind of news and sentiment from around the world - if he tunes into that and becomes afraid things are getting away, he may very well act in a way that ensures they do get away: authoritarian.

   While we wait, important that we get our heads around all this. Time to throw open the windows, as John XXIII said. It is not only about what is inside, it is about letting people see inside. It is about looking out also, and at least puzzling over what it all means in God's great creation. The last thing we need is someone who is afraid of what is happening. The last thing we need is someone who will not puzzle about what they are taking to prayer. At this pivotal juncture in history, pray for an authoritative Pope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Pope's resignation - some reflections

I must say I had mixed feelings over this huge news.

But they were at least mixed. Unlike when I heard the news of his election in 2005. Then, I was nothing but stunned. After John Paul II, we were clearly going to go in reverse.

And we did. The most egregious evidence of this was the turn to the ethos of the past which had above all the imperative to avoid scandal to the faithful. Fair enough in its original intention, but it clearly morphed over the years into hiding culprits, then hiding them again, then refusing to admit that you hid them, and refusing to release documents that would show everything. I am thinking especially of Ireland where we know all that happened, because Archbishop Martin released 60,000 documents after he was appointed. It was clear to us when we visited Ireland that the abuse was not the biggest irritant for the people, bad as it was. The cover-up sucked the life out of them. And around the world, the message now is, avoidance of scandal involves better selection of candidates for the priesthood, better nourishment of them during their priestly life. Things like that. NOT cover-ups.

The other turn back to the past was the new translation of the Mass. Made it clear that the Mass is clerical. Not for the people, just ask them. People do not talk that language, they want a language they speak every day, and with which they can make a joyful noise, or whatever. But Benedict chided the Church for that very thing in his address to the world at the end of the Eucharistic Congress in Ireland. Great opportunities have been missed to welcome people to our beautiful liturgies.

So from this vantage point it has not been great. But you know, in spite of it all I have developed a fondness for the Pope. What gets me is his deep deep love of Jesus that manages to come through even his most scholarly of scholarly writings.

That is a take-away for me, and I thank him for it.  And I have mixed feelings as he departs.

So now I nominate Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin as the new Pope. Won't happen. But please God the Cardinals listen to the Holy Spirit, and please God they are led to a really new era that begins as Benedict leaves. And if the new Pope wants to go back a bit, he can go back to Pope John XXIII who somewhere around 1962 before Vatican II said:  "I want to throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in."

The windows have been closed for the last many years. The world is waiting for them to open again.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Great questions and living well

St. Paul the Apostle parish here in Kingston has a thriving Youth Ministry, thanks to the vision of pastor Fr. Leo Byrne, and the indomitable energy of the Youth Coordinator Nadia Gundert - along with her husband Mike and a great support group of Team Leaders. There are actually two programs: LifeTeen (for high school kids), and EDGE (for grades 5 to 8). I try to be a resource to both, and I am constantly amazed at the energy and the 'buy in' of what appear to me to be pretty ordinary kids. The LifeTeen meeting leads in to the 730pm Mass on Sunday. Something you will never see anywhere else happens here after Mass: parents are waiting in the gathering area of the Church while their kids are hanging out IN the church yakking with each other. Wasn't it always the other way around?

Activities I like in both groups are the question and answer sessions that go with certain of the meetings. Questions are always stimulating, challenging, thought-provoking and even tricky! The other night at EDGE it was about the last line of the Apostle's Creed: "I believe in ..... the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting." Having to do with judgement and eternity! Heavy duty! Big questions about resurrected bodies, about Jesus' body after his resurrection, and how his friends did not even recognize him at first. The whole judgement thing. And why does it say Jesus "descended into hell"? Then this, my favourite of the evening: Will we have an idea in this life if we are going to heaven or hell? 

I answered that one with the image of a grown-up friend - might be a teacher or grandparent or adult whom you have come to know really well - who is crazy about you, and wants you and all kinds of other people to come over to their house. Promising you a wonderful time with people you love. Promising your safety. Promising you no-one will ever hurt you, and you cannot get sick there. Then one day this friend sees you outside the house, but you are throwing eggs at the house. You are beating up on other people (s)he has invited. You have a rock ready to throw. You have a can of spray paint ready. When he comes to ask you if you really want to come in to all he has promised, what are you going to say? Sounds like the answer might be 'nahhhh.' And you already know that. On the other hand if he sees you waving at him, if he sees you taking care of the other people he has invited - then when he comes out and asks you if you really want to come in, sounds like the answer is 'yessss!!!' And you will already know that too. So the judgement thing really has to do with how we live now, how we are already answering God's invitation in our hearts, how we are taking care of all his other friends - how we are loving, just as God loves us.

Later, after the meeting, I came across something on Twitter. It was a statement made by Bishop Brendan Leahy on Jan 10 2013, on the occasion of his ordination as Bishop in Ireland. The full text included the following paragraph:

The day a new bishop is announced in a diocese is an opportunity for the person concerned but perhaps also for the whole diocese to “begin again” in faith, hope and love. A few days ago, I attended the funeral of the father of a friend of mine. As we walked through the graveyard, we were noticing the headstones with people’s dates of death. Suddenly, I came across one that had “Brendan Leahy” written on it in bold letters and the deceased had died at 52 years of age – my own age! I did check I was still alive! But I also felt it was as if God wanted to remind me – we only have one life. It’s important to live it well.

Well said. I guess that is part of the answer to that kid`s question. It is not about doing the right thing all the time, we drive ourselves crazy with that. It implies that perfection is the minimum, and it is not. But we do need to remember that we will one day have a headstone. Awareness of that reality brings us back to the relationship we have with our God who loves us so desperately.  `Living well` involves having at all times a mindset of `yes` as our answer to the invitation to `come home` to God. Remembering that `yes`especially when we do not do well on a given day, and making things right. It starts with our desire. With it before our minds guiding all we do, we surely will have an idea where we are going in the next life. It is not a roll of the dice. Great question!