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.

Advertisements

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.

Image

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.