My “Inner Iggy”: Barefoot, Hungry, but Unafraid

There is a lesser known passage in Saint Ignatius’ Autobiography that has always struck me. If you know the whole story, you know that Ignatius does a lot of crazy and over-the-top things on his pilgrim journey. This one is definitely over-the-top, but in a good way (I think):

“The Spaniard whom he had as one of his first companions, who had squandered his money without recompensing him, left for Spain by way of Rouen. While awaiting passage at Rouen, he fell sick. From a letter, the pilgrim heard of his falling sick, and conceived the desire of going to visit and help him, thinking also that in this union of souls, he might induce him to leave the world and give himself entirely to the service of God.

In order to obtain this he wanted to make the twenty-eight leagues between Paris and Rouen barefoot and fasting from food and drink. While he was recommending this adventure in prayer, he was seized with a great fear, until he went to the Church of St. Dominic and there determined to go as was said, when all the fear of tempting God passed away.

But on the next day, the morning of his departure, as he was getting up early, he was seized with so great a fear that he could hardly get his clothes on. In this conflict of emotion he left the house and indeed the city before daybreak. It continued with him as far as Argenteuil, which is a walled town a few miles from Paris on the way to Rouen, where the vesture of our Lord is said to be preserved. He passed by this town in the grip of that spiritual struggle, and as he began to climb a hill the dread began to slip from him and in its place came so great a joy and spiritual consolation, that he began to cry out through the fields and talk with God. That night he spent with a poor beggar in a hospital, after having covered fourteen leagues. The next night he spent in a straw hut, and the third day he reached Rouen. All this time he had taken nothing in the way of food or drink and had walked barefoot, as he had planned. At Rouen he comforted the sick man, helped him board a ship bound for Spain, and gave him letters of introduction to his companions at Salamanca, viz., Calixto, Caceres and Arteaga.”


Three days! For three days, Ignatius walked barefoot, with little to eat or drink, to visit a former friend who had done him wrong, who had basically stolen his money. I’m almost certain I would never go to that much trouble to console an ex-friend who had betrayed and abandoned me like that. And, I’m not even sure that I think that was really a good idea for Ignatius.

But, when it comes to getting in touch with my “Inner Iggy,” what I notice is this—Ignatius doesn’t let his fear get in the way. It’s not that he doesn’t experience it, because it’s pretty strong, but he gets past it. I can imagine all the kinds of fears that he could have had, because they are the ones that I have. Will his anger at this man get the best of him, despite his good intentions? Will his gesture make his former companion guilty and ashamed? Maybe, after three days of strenuous and grueling travel, he might not even receive him! Or, just maybe—and sometimes this can be the most fearsome thing—his friend might ask forgiveness, and they might achieve reconciliation. Often enough it’s easier, and far less risky, to simply hold on to our resentments. Still, for me, I know that my journey toward a possible reconciliation, while hard, is likely to be far less burdensome than Ignatius’ three days.

So, the inner Iggy that I’m looking for this week of our society’s founder’s feast is the one that doesn’t spend time obsessing about how the other person is going to react, or what the other person might be thinking. It’s the one who lets the dread slip away, finding “so great a joy and spiritual consolation” that, like Ignatius, I begin “to cry out through the fields and talk to God.” I want to be the “Iggy” who puts those fears aside so as to be the person I truly am with that other person, hoping that in doing so the union of souls which results will be one that gives glory to God, even if the specific outcome may be neither what I feared nor what I hoped. Like Ignatius, I can only be who I am, trust in God’s grace, and leave it to the other person to react however he or she will react. My fears and imagined outcomes cannot change that.

Gender Justice Monday?

SusannaI have written about this before.  But it bears repeating.

On Monday of the fifth week of Lent we have a rather striking pair of readings which, it seems to me, demand some mention of gender justice.  Yet I wonder how many people attending mass today actually hear anything of the sort.  Did the homily say anything about the fact that both readings today focus on a woman who has been wronged and treated differently just because she is a woman?  Were prayers offered for victims of domestic violence, or sex trafficking?  Or did the prayers and the homily treat this day with these readings just like any other day?

I faced these questions myself when these readings came up during my first year of priesthood (see “Angry Mass”).  My homily that day did discuss how Susanna had been wronged, sexually accosted by men who, when she rebuffed them, accused her of adultery.  The men, of course, were given the benefit of the doubt, and would have succeeded in having her shamed and executed for refusing them, if not for the intervention of the prophet Daniel.  God took her side against the evil men who, confident that they had all the power, treated her as if she had no dignity to be concerned with.  Today of all days then, shouldn’t we encourage our fellow Christians to, like Daniel, to take up the cause of women who are still treated unequally and as if they have no dignity?  I said something to that effect that first Lenten Monday, and was immediately struck after the homily that the prayers of the faithful prepared for that day said nothing of the sort!  As if we hadn’t heard the readings that we had just heard!

Perhaps some hesitate though because while Susanna is innocent, and courageous in her resistance, there is no question that the woman in the Gospel reading for today is guilty of the adultery of which she is accused.  Still, it’s hard to ignore that the man who was complicit in her adultery is not being threatened with the same punishment that she is, or any punishment whatsoever.  Doesn’t Jesus’ intervention on her behalf in essence tip the scales aright, such that the male accusers are forced to abandon any notion that they are above reproach? (And, some have wondered whether her partner in adultery might have been among the men ready to stone her to death)  Sure, it might be enough to focus on the Gospel as a statement about God’s mercy even for the guilty, and leave it at that.  But I can’t help but imagine that many in the congregation, especially the women, would see that as ignoring “the elephant in the room.”  Sadly, I worry that many a priest would fear that taking up this topic even for one day might risk him being labeled a “feminist”or, given Cardinal Burke’s recent comments, as somehow contributing to the “feminization” of the Church.

Perhaps a modest proposal could be offered that would make a focus on gender justice (which is indeed a concern of the Church, even if sometimes it doesn’t appear that way) more likely in our prayers and homilies on this day.  Why not designate  Monday of the fifth week of Lent “Gender Justice Monday,” or something to that effect?  Make it a day during Lent that we can reflect on the inequities that still exist in the treatment of men and women both in our society and around the world, and a day that we can speak out against rampant crimes such as domestic violence and sex-trafficking.  Maybe feeling obliged to do it for at least one day might give us the courage to talk about it more, and bring an end to the sins which have their root  in the kind of attitudes that, it seems to me, God challenges in both the stories of Susanna and the woman caught in adultery.

Ashtag, Smashtag

The Ash Wednesday selfie debate is on again.  Here’s a take on it from my homily today:

It has become popular in recent years for people to post their Ash Wednesday “selfies” on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This year even the U.S. Bishops have gotten into the act, encouraging people to post their photos with hashtag “ashtag.” 50 lucky winners among them will also receive a book of Lenten reflections by the Church fathers as a reward. If you think this is all rather silly, you’re not the only one.

Indeed, the very idea of the Ash Wednesday selfies has sparked some debate among Catholics. Some arguing that it violates the spirit of Ash Wednesday and penance itself, which we are not meant to be boastful about. Others argue the opposite, saying that this is a great way for people to witness to their faith, showing their friends and followers that it is something important to them. Others say “lighten up” it’s just harmless fun. But some bristle at this since, of course, Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, which is not supposed to be fun.

Fortunately, we can look to today’s readings for guidance in this matter. In the Gospel, Jesus says not to perform righteous deeds so that other people can see them. Don’t look gloomy, pray in secret, and when you give alms, “don’t blow a trumpet before you.” The first reading from the book of Joel warns earlier that a day of darkness and doom is coming. It urges the people of God to return to God with fasting, weeping, and mourning, rending our hearts, not our garments. “Blow the trumpet in Zion!”, it continues. “Proclaim a fast, call an assembly, gather the people.” Let’s make sure that others can’t say of us, “Where is their God?” But, hold on, wait a minute. Maybe the readings aren’t as helpful as we imagined they might be. Jesus says “don’t blow a trumpet.” Joel says “blow the trumpet.” So, today, are we meant to blow our own horns, or not? Well, let’s not deny the obvious. Today, we’re going to spend the day walking around with ashes on our forehead, drawing attention to ourselves. That would seem to many like blowing a trumpet. Especially here in the largely non-Catholic South, where more than one person might kindly point out that we have some sort of smudge on our head. I must admit that when I lived in South Carolina, I found Ash Wednesday to be quite fun, for this very reason. It might cause the other person a bit of embarrassment, but it also gave me an opportunity to tell them what it was all about.

And, for me, the second reading tells us what it’s all about. Think about what Saint Paul is saying about us, reminding us: “We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” “Working together, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” This is both the call we are meant to answer, but also who we are meant to be for others: God appeals to others through us. God uses us to bring his mercy to others. And, working together, we can show others the grace of God offered to them. To do so, we certainly shouldn’t boast about the things asked of us specially during this season of Lent: Our prayer, fasting and giving to those in need. We should seek God’s mercy and be Christians always, and not just when others are looking. That is the extreme that Jesus warns us against. But we also must take care not to be so secretive or self-effacing in doing these things that people fail to see that at the root of all that we do is our faith and commitment to God. People should see us and say “there is their God,” not “where is their God?”, that’s the extreme the prophet Joel is warning against.

Let our ashes today, then, and those special sacrifices and commitments we make this Lent show us to be sinners, who need the love and mercy of God; servants, who are confident that God will give us his love and mercy not in return for what we do, but freely; and ambassadors who, having experienced God’s love and mercy can offer the same to those who are most in need of it. There are plenty of people out there who will tell you what Lent should or shouldn’t be, and who will give you advice about what you should or shouldn’t do. But, consider as you pray, fast and give: how is God calling me to receive and give his mercy this Lenten season? How will your Easter “selfie” compare to your Ash Wednesday “ashtag”?

Joseph the Introvert?

On the feast of St. Joseph, my reflection on Joseph from the Sunday before Christmas.  Well-received buy Josephs and introverts especially!



Have you ever taken the time to imagine what Joseph might have been like?  I have to admit that I haven’t though about it very much, but when I do bring Joseph to mind what I come up with is a rather flat character.  One might even say dull.  After all, when it comes to the nativity story, we all know that the stars of the show are Jesus and Mary.
Joseph’s is merely a supporting role.  He stands next to Mary.  He’s the protector.  He doesn’t say much.  In fact, in the Scriptures he says nothing at all!  Yet, still, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that in today’s Gospel we see that, like Mary, Joseph has his own experience of the annunciation.  But whereas Mary has her Magnificat, and Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, his song of praise—both of which are recalled daily in the Church’s office of prayer—Joseph’s response to the miraculous events surrounding him is just silent obedience.

Still, I have to wonder if Joseph gets short shrift.  Maybe he’s a bit more interesting than we’ve given him credit for.  After all, look how God speaks to him.  The angel doesn’t appear to Joseph physically, but instead in a dream.  And this dream, perhaps, is meant to have us recall the previous Joseph, son of Jacob.  He of the famous “technicolor dreamcoat,” he the “master dreamer.”  Was the young Joseph, like the earlier one, someone who dreamed great dreams, someone who was destined to be great?  Perhaps he too like Mary had been specially prepared to accept the role of father of the savior, and was not simply the guy who happened to be betrothed to Mary when she was asked to conceive and bear the holy child who would save his people from their sins.  Maybe Joseph deserves a second look.

But I want to take a second look at Joseph not in order to show how he can be as exciting as that other Joseph, or as Jesus and Mary, but because I think that the reason we tend to undervalue him should challenge us.  There is currently a book on the best-seller list called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” by Susan Cain.  And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there has been a lot more talk about introverts these days.  Estimates are that about 1/3 to ½ of the general population are introverts, and that the number may be growing.  We don’t see it as much in the U.S. because our culture is dominated by extroverts, and an extrovert-biased mindset.  But what Cain argues is that we must learn to value and make room for introverts today because we might just need them like never before.  Indeed, our society has become so frenetic—and unfortunately the Christmas season has come to epitomize this—that most of us could stand to learn what it might be like to be a little more introverted or, for the introverts here today, learn that it’s OK to seek quiet and solitude away from the pressure of holiday parties and non-stop shopping.  Indeed, she goes on to say that the most creative—or at least alternative—thinkers among us are the introverts, and if we don’t give them, or ourselves, whatever the case may be, the permission and space to find the creative solitude they need, we all suffer.  As much as they might like to, it’s not a good thing if only the extroverts rule the world, or the company, or the Church.  This is perhaps why we need to pay more attention to figures like Joseph.  He might just be-especially during Christmas—the patron saint of introverts.

Consider his annunciation.  Why is it different than Mary’s?  It may be because both God’s message and Joseph’s response take place in the best context in which Joseph can faithfully and reflectively respond—in the interiority of a dream, in the slowness and silence of waking and in the determined act of quiet obedience, taking Mary as his wife and choosing to be father to Jesus.  Indeed, when describing introverts like Ghandi, for example, who became great and inspiring leaders, Cain could well have been describing Joseph.  “People could feel,” she says, “that they were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others, not out of the pleasure of being looked at, but they were there because they had no choice, they were driven to do what was right.”  Joseph’s actions suggest that he knew he had no choice because he was able to let God speak to him.

And that is really my point.  I’m not saying that everyone should be an introvert.  Indeed, I learned from Susan Cain that I’m probably an “ambivert,” that is, someone who sits right at the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum.  And, like all “verts,” I need to own that.  Rather, I think what we can take from Joseph’s example is that we each need to invite God into a space where God can speak to us in a way that we can trust.  What strikes me about Joseph is that he never seems to have any doubt that it is God speaking to him.  And before the story is over, the angel comes to him in a dream three more times, and Joseph acts accordingly.  Perhaps with the exception of Herod, Joseph is the busiest guy in the first two chapters of Matthew.  So, maybe his isn’t just a supporting role after all.  The pantheon of heroes is not without its strong, silent types.  But not all of us need to be silent to hear God’s voice, and act on it.

In these waning days of Advent, then, with Christmas fast approaching, perhaps we can turn our attention away from the in-your-face, extroverted, commercial Christmas enterprise, and instead embrace the real Christmas surprise—God with us in the more ordinary moments of giving and receiving, of celebrating together and enjoying time in solitude and rest, and finding that place in the midst of all of where God best speaks to the person that I am—in a crowd, all alone, or in a dream.  And as we witness the birth of Jesus into our world 2000 years ago, we might also ask God to show each of us—whatever “vert” we are—how we are called, like Mary and Joseph, to introduce Christ to the world, acting quietly, audaciously, or even sometimes uncharacteristically, according to calling, the gifts—and the temperament—that God has given each one of us.  There are just 3 more stopping days until Christmas, take a step back, enjoy them, and have a blessed Christmas!

St. Damien, Mr. Stevenson, & Rev. Hyde

Damien StatuePreparing to preach yesterday on the Feast of St. Damien of Molokai, I found one of those historical incidences that appealed so much to my various sensibilities that I just had to share it.


It seems that not long after Father Damien’s death, a certain Protestant clergyman in Hawaii, named (interestingly, as you’ll see) Hyde, set out to describe Damien to a colleague, and his comments were made public.  He wrote:


“In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to

Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”


This letter received a rather strong and lengthy response by the author Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde fame) in the form of an open letter.  It’s an often harsh, but also quite inspiring response in defense of the saint, calling the clergymen out for his jealousy (worth reading the whole of):


“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever.

One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away. Common honour; not the honour of having done anything right, but the honour of not having done aught conspicuously foul; the honour of the inert: that was what remained to you. We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen compete for the favour of a lady, and the one succeeds and the other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging to the successful rival’s credit reaches the ear of the defeated, it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the circumstance, almost necessarily closed.

Your Church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence . . .”


Stevenson basically says what can be said of many—if not most—saints: He may not have been perfect, but he served more faithfully and lived more heroically than most of us.  Reason for silence indeed.

(Above photo is of the statue of Damien which stands in the U.S. National Statuary Hall)

Jesuits: Why Do They Hate Us? Why Do They Love Us?

Jesuits LincolnPreaching to fellow Jesuits can always be a challenge, especially when the Gospel reading begins, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first . . . ‘”  I did just that today, and received some good feedback.  And though the intended audience was primarily Jesuits, other friends were also interested in what I came up with.  There are insights here that I think both Jesuits and non-jesuits can appreciate it.  So, here it is:

Shortly after the election of Pope Francis, columnist George Weigel wrote in The National Review:

The first Jesuit pope? [in bold, with a question mark] Well, yes, in a manner of speaking.  Bergoglio is an old-school Jesuit, formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth—qualities not notable for their prevalence among members of the Society of Jesus in the early 21st century.”

Not a wholly unexpected observation from Weigel who is not known for being shy in expressing his lack of affection for the Society of Jesus.  He and others are well-known for making broad, sweeping statements about the perceived failings of most Jesuits today.  We might ask: Why do they hate us?  I once elicited a response from Richard John Neuhaus on this very question when I accused him of mischaracterizing the Society in a similar way.  His response was almost literally: “I don’t hate Jesuits.  Some of my best friends are Jesuits.”

We often don’t ask, “Why do they hate us?”  Instead, we wear it is a badge of honor.  Insisting, in the spirit of today’s Gospel, that it must be an indication that we are doing something right.  And, rather than lament the fact that some are so easily inclined to criticize us so, we point to such persecution as an example of getting what we prayed for in the Spiritual Exercises.  Though we might find some justification for this, perhaps we might hesitate to be too self-congratulatory.

I have made something of a hobby analyzing the various forms of “hate” leveled at the Society.  In the case of most of those who are generous and far too quick with their criticism, I think relatively few of them can truly be characterized as “hating” us, even perhaps George Weigel.  Strangely enough, many of them even claim a great love for the Society, but they love an idealized, romanticized version of the Society that likely never existed.  And since they rightly recognize that we are not that Society, they will be perpetually unsatisfied.  Yet, still I think we do well to listen to what they have to say.  Indeed, hasn’t George Weigel described the new Pope in precisely the way we would hope to describe ourselves, as men “formed by classic Ignatian spirituality and deeply committed to an intelligent, sophisticated appropriation and proclamation of the full symphony of Catholic truth.”  It seems to me that this is far more prevalent than he recognizes, but also indeed an ideal that we sometimes fail to live up to.  We might wonder instead: Why is it that he and others fail to see this?  I have many theories, but I won’t ply you with them now.

But the strange truth, I have found, is that those who heap praise upon us are just as likely not to see who we really are.  They, too, often imagine us to be something we are not.  So, we might, with equal vigor and introspection ask the question: “Why do they love us?”  And we may be equally displeased with the answer.

As we mull all these things over, Jesus invites us in the Gospel to consider a further question: If people do in fact hate us, do they hate us for the right reasons?  Do they hate us for the same reason that people hated Jesus?  Do they hate us because we are like Jesus?  This is the deeper reality to which any response to our critics—whether they love or hate us—must penetrate.  After all, the Spiritual Exercises invite us to pray for persecution not so that we can engage in lively debate or because we are masochistic, but because we want to be like Christ, “to desire and choose poverty with Christ poor rather than wealth; contempt with Christ laden with it rather than honors, and to be regarded as a useless fool for Christ, who before me was regarded as such, rather than a wise and prudent person in this world.”  If we can discover that this is, at least in part, why people hate us, then we can rejoice that we are not greater than our master.

One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

Liturgical Doggerel?: Pope Francis’ Mass Appeal

“In Latin America,” so the joke goes, “a mass is not valid if a dog is not present.”


Traditionalist websites are abuzz with doomsday scenarios because it seems the new Pope’s liturgical style is, well, too simple, too minimalist.  There is outrage and concern being expressed, and not without a bit of arrogance.  A Washington Post article quotes a canon law professor at Catholic University, who points out that “even small changes to the visible, symbolic parts of Catholic worship are noticeable to traditional Catholics, who treasure them.”  Point well taken, but he continues by saying of himself and other of said “traditional Catholics” (in charity, I hope that he was misquoted): “This is the group that is the most faithful.”

I have no problem with people having misgivings about the new Pope’s liturgies.  I, too, prefer a more elaborate liturgy, but, let’s face it, that’s not what most people get.  And I would never presume that my preferences with regard to liturgy somehow count me among “the most faithful.”

Indeed, some of the most faithful people I know have never experienced a high liturgy, and some perhaps never a mass in which a dog was not present!  The poor of Latin America, at least in my experience there, take what they can get as far as liturgy is concerned.  They don’t have the luxury of driving to the nearby parish where the liturgy is celebrated just the way they like it.  And, indeed, they probably would never think to do it, because for them the mass is as much about the people there to celebrate it as it is about the visible symbols, and whether they are precisely right.  In fact, in Latin America I rarely experienced what I would consider great liturgy, and I can count on one hand the number of masses I’ve attended there that I would consider “high mass.”  Masses there generally are more simple, especially where the poor live, and this, it seems to me, is what is reflected in Pope Francis’ liturgical style.  Maybe he’ll have to step it up a bit, now that he’s on the world stage.  But might we consider that the more simple kind of mass we’re seeing from Pope Francis is the more common experience for the majority of Catholics in the world?  And let me be the first to admit that a lot—if not most—of them are far more faithful than I, despite my liturgical taste.

In fact, I may hate the liturgical experience, but I’ll take a mass with God’s faithful poor—and even a dog thrown in—over a high mass with smells and bells and great music celebrated with people who think that because their liturgy is more beautiful, more symbolic, in a word, better, that means that they are more faithful.

Like I said, I hope that person was misquoted.  But perhaps our misgivings about Pope Francis’ brand of liturgy is an invitation to ask whether we do indeed think that our higher liturgical preferences somehow make us more Catholic than those who prefer it more simple, or simply don’t have the luxury of the choice.

Forgetting the Women

Today’s first reading tells the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel.  Two old men corner Susanna as she was walking through the garden, and demand sex from her.  Should she refuse, they tell her, they will publicly accuse her of having sex with another man—not her husband—and she will face a penalty of death.  Susanna chooses to take her chances with their false accusations, rather than submit to their demands.  She will almost certainly die, but prays to God for deliverance.  God sends Daniel to rescue her, and expose the men’s lies.  The men are then delivered to the same fate that they would have visited upon the innocent Susanna-death.


I couldn’t help but think, given the coverage of the rape trial in Steubenville, OH, what the reaction would be should the priest presiding at mass choose to preach about what a shame it was that the old men suffered as they did, with no thought to what they had done to Susanna.  That, essentially, was the perspective adopted by news agencies such as CNN in their coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville trial.  It was all about how the lives of the two young men found guilty were being ruined by this verdict, and the punishment that went with it.  There was almost no mention of the victim of the rape, and nothing in the way of sympathy for her suffering, how her life had been ruined.  And, while I certainly cannot be without sympathy for the dire consequences these men’s actions have led to, the lack of any sympathy expressed for their victim was more than disturbing.

I did not have the opportunity to preach today, but I would have felt myself remiss had I not made that connection, and I hope that some priests today had the courage to do so.

Indeed, when the story of Susanna comes up and the readings, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery in yesterday’s Gospel, I can’t help but remember an “angry mass” that I experienced in my first year of priesthood, when both readings came at the same mass.  I wrote about it then:

As I considered what to say in my homily this morning, I realized that there was no way around it–today’s readings definitely had something to say about injustice against women. To avoid the issue, as some might have, seemed to me to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Today’s readings clearly had something to say to use about gender justice, and the injustice perpetrated against women by abuse of power and sinful double standards. That’s what I spoke about in my homily. I admitted that I myself haven’t exactly been the best advocate of gender justice, and have been known to roll my eyes at academic discussions of the evils of patriarchy, but that it was clear in these two readings that gender justice is something we are meant to be concerned about. We are called, like Daniel, not to stand idly be but to speak up when we see injustice being perpetrated against women. And, we are challenged by Jesus to examine the ways in which our own attitudes and opinions ignore such abuses of power, and conform to sinful double standards. And while we can often point to more egregious examples of injustice and violence against women in other countries, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing that there is plenty happening here, right in our own communities.

Honestly, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and so I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleased with the homily, though it took a lot out of me. And, as I reflected for a few moments afterward, I was confident that what I had said indeed reflected God’s concern.

And that was why I was so appalled and angered by the prayers of the faithful! Now, they come from a book which the parish bought, so no one there is to blame, but I couldn’t believe that after I had said all that, the first prayer was for “our bishops, priests, and deacons.” And it only got worse. There was not a single mention of women, never mind injustice against women. I wanted to scream! Instead, I did the more genteel thing, and added my own prayer at the end for women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. I wonder if I should have said something more, but I always want to be careful not to distract people from the liturgy of the Eucharist (and I’d already said quite a bit). And, hey, I’m saying something more now.

But I was distracted, and I wondered if people noticed that I was angered by how the prayers had indeed managed to ignore the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate omission, and whether the people who wrote the prayers had considered how out of sync that first prayer was likely to be with many a homily today. Sometimes at mass I’m taken by how well the prayers, usually written independently of me, fit with the subject of my homily. And sometimes when they don’t, I wonder if I missed something. But today was the first time that I felt the prayers didn’t seem to get it at all; that it wasn’t me who missed something . . .

These news reports coming out of Steubenville certainly missed something, and they should be ashamed.

A Palpable Papal Silence

Was the Pope’s silence a sign?

Much, of course, can be made of nothing.  But, in this case, that’s the point.

One of the first acts of the new Pope Francis was to invite the crowd gathered in Saint Peter’s square to silence, and prayer.

Monks are more known for their silence, and Jesuits for their bluster.  Yet, truth be told, if there was one moment where the new Pope’s Jesuit-ness shone through the most, it was this one.  In Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, one retreats from the noise of the world to encounter Jesus in silence.

We live in a world of ever-increasing noise, and information overload.  If we are to deepen our spiritual lives then, we need silence more than ever.  And so the Jesuit Francis may have given us a sign, and an invitation, by his early silence.

True, the new Pope might still go on Tweeting.  But I suspect he might also, as Saint Ignatius would, urge us to unplug and go retreating, meeting God in prayer, and silence.