Sunday, March 24, 2013

By his stripes...

This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII, given at the assembly during Holy Week, 2013. 

The last three hours of my mother in law’s life were so horrible that I find it difficult to speak about even now. She died of congestive heart failure. One of the symptoms of that illness is that your lungs fill up with fluid. Early on you take diuretic drugs to remove the fluid, and she did this for over a year, but eventually, the diuretics cannot keep pace, your lungs fill up and you can’t breath, and the sensation is you’re drowning because you can’t get a good breath. In her last hours, my wife, Daniel and I stood by her side in utter horror, completely helpless, watching our mother and grandmother drown before our eyes.  When she finally passed away, we were deeply saddened, but we were grateful that her suffering was over.

Though I try not to think about it, I am reminded of all this when celebrate the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection during Holy Week this week. We read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death from one gospel during our Palm Sunday liturgies yesterday, and we will read it again on Good Friday from a second gospel.

The problem, of course, is that the story of Jesus’ death is so familiar to us that it’s almost as if we are inoculated from feeling any of the horror or pain that Jesus experienced. Those of you who are Catholic know how we read the story at Mass: the priest is Jesus, the "narrator" is usually the deacon or lector, a third "voice" is usually another lector, and the congregation plays the "crowd". So at that climactic moment just before death, when Jesus is in so much pain that even HE feels abandoned by God, here’s how we read it (in dull monotone): 

Narrator: Then Jesus cried out in a loud voice:
Priest: “Eloi, eloi, lama sabbachthani”
Narrator: Which means
Priest: “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me. "

I don’t think so! 

This was a man who had been scourged. We imagine scourging as being whipped, but the Roman practice resembled more of a beating, as the whip was very short, with ropes tied to a handle, and at the end of the ropes were lead balls or pieces of bone. When the whip hit the back, it wasn’t so much as a whippow! snap! as a thud, as the bits of bone landed on the back and tore at the flesh. 

Then Scripture tells us that the soldiers mocked Jesus by making him a crown of thorns, which they pressed onto his head and scalp. These are areas, if you’ve ever been cut there, that bleed profusely, so it’s quite likely that Jesus could barely see through the blood in his eyes.

Then Jesus was made to carry his cross to Golgotha. Archaeologists say that Golgotha was just outside the main city gates of Jerusalem, which like most ancient cities, was walled —part of what the Romans wanted to achieve by crucifying people was to send a warning to whomever might violate Rome’s dictates.  To add to that, the person to be crucified often had to carry the upper beam of the cross, which was tied behind his head, and weighed anywhere from 75 to 125 pounds.  Tradition has it that Jesus fell three times on the way to Golgotha, and if you think about it, he wouldn’t have had any way to break his fall, And though our Christian sensibilities require us to put some sort of loincloth around Jesus—we don’t want a naked man hanging in our churches—the reality is the crucified were stripped naked to humiliate the victim.  

When he arrived at the site of crucifixion, he was flung to his back, and his wrists and feet were nailed. Rome was expert at this, and wanted to prolong the agony, so they were careful to avoid puncturing any major arteries, which would have allowed the person to bleed to death too quickly. He was likely nailed through his wrists. Then he was hoisted up.  From there, the victim might live on 12, 24 or even 36 hours, depending on how badly beaten he was before hand.  The most common cause of death wasn’t blood loss but asphyxiation, or suffocation, caused by the pressure on the lungs from hanging. Rome knew this, which is why they nailed the feet to the cross, so that when the lungs were about to burst, the person’s survival instinct would cause him to push up from the nail in the feet, despite searing agony, thus prolonging the suffering. That’s why it was considered merciful to come and crush the man’s legs, because without the ability to push up, the person would suffocate more quickly.  (If breaking someone’s legs is an act of mercy, it gives you some sense of the horror of it). 

So we come to the part of the story where Jesus cries out to God. But with nails in his feet and wrists, with blood from the crown covering his face, with his back ripped apart by the scourging, as his lungs gasp for air, I tend to think it was more like this: (screaming) MY GOD! MY GOD! WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?

Back to my mother-in-law: Part of what happens to you when you see someone suffer so much is you ask yourself why? My mother in law was a saint. She prayed daily. She suffered some hardships throughout her life, but always remained faithful. She and my father in law had seven kids and sent them to Catholic schools all the way through, which meant she didn’t have much money to go on vacations or enjoy some of the finer things in life. Now that her children were grown up, why didn’t God give her good health and allow her the chance to travel and enjoy the golden years of her life? 

And the longer you allow yourself to go down that path, and the more you think about how much she suffered at the end, the less sense it all makes, and the angrier you can get at God. Maybe he doesn’t truly care. Maybe he’s not truly all-powerful. Maybe he doesn’t answer prayers. Maybe her faith in him was misplaced. MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN HER?

For those of you who have gone through something painful—maybe you’ve lost someone close to you—a parent, a grandparent-- maybe your parents have gone through a divorce and now you don’t see your dad much and you miss him, maybe a friend of yours has betrayed you, or someone that you thought was a friend has said something deeply cutting or unkind about you behind your back—these are occasions of real suffering, and it’s OK to recognize them for what they are. Jesus clearly suffered. So do we.

We live in a society of comfort, of pampering, and of instant gratification.  In such a society, suffering is seen as the ultimate evil—if you’re suffering, you’re cursed, or acting stupidly, or not seeing things the right way and have to change your perspective. Something’s wrong with you. But the story of Easter that we celebrate this week tells us something dramatically different: suffering IS.  It was a fact in Jesus’ life, it is a fact in our lives, and it’s a fact in the lives of people we love and care about.

But it’s not the ONLY fact, and ultimately, it’s not the FINAL fact. The final fact is the resurrection! --that somehow, through our suffering, God redeems us and lifts us up. The Jesus beaten down and crucified becomes the risen Jesus, transfigured and glorified.  My mother in law, once sickly and dying, is now with the saints in heaven, pain-free, enjoying the company of her husband, her mother and father, and all of her friends and family who died before her. 

This is what we celebrate this Easter. This is our ancient faith.  In some of the most beautiful poetry of the Old Testament, centuries before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah foretold of what we celebrate this Easter, saying:

He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity,
one of those from whom people hide their faces,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.

Yet it was our infirmities that he bore,
our sufferings that he endured,
while we thought of him as stricken,
as one smitten by God and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our offenses,
crushed for our sins;
upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole,
by his stripes we were healed.  (Isaiah 53:3-5)

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A "To Do" List for Pope Francis

I am pretty sure that in the blitzkrieg of events that unfold within ninety minutes or so--from finding out he received 2/3 of the vote from his brother cardinals, to accepting the position, to the white smoke, to choosing a name, to being dressed in papal garb, to praying in the chapel for a few short moments-- that this was the moment, as he was being introduced to the world as Pope Francis (seen here), that the enormity of his responsibility must have hit him. 

It's always interesting to listen to people talk during these times of papal transition. We have a tendency to project our own hopes onto the "new guy". Some of my more conservative friends were thrilled when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected as Pope Benedict, believing that "God's Rottweiler" would clean the Church's house of all the so-called "liberals" in universities, seminaries and chanceries. Many commentators this time around have clearly been intrigued with Pope Francis' humility and seem hopeful that the pomp and circumstance that has developed over the last two thousand years around the papacy will melt away. I doubt it!  Pomp isn't itself wrong, except to the extent it becomes the "ends" and not the "means" of elevating the papacy to be a more effective instrument of Christ. 

I have my own "to do" list for Pope Francis, no doubt influenced by my own biases and hopes. Here they are: 

1) My greatest prayer is that he will lead the worldwide Church to build a deeper relationship with Christ, receive the sacraments more frequently, and participate more fully in the life of the Church.  

2) May he re-present the papacy as the gospels represent Christ, who lived simply, preached boldly and eschewed worldly wealth, fame or glory.

3) May Pope Francis take seriously God’s directive to St. Francis: “Go, rebuild my church” by reforming the Vatican curia from within.  The pettiness, careerism and backbiting is destructive to the Church’s witness and diminishes the papacy.  

4) May he speak boldly against all forms of abuse and direct bishops to deal strongly and swiftly with priests against whom credible accusations are made.

5) May he use his standing as the first pope from Latin America to travel extensively in these countries, so as to embolden the faithful to stand up against corruption, poverty, drug trafficking, and prostitution--much like JPII emboldened Poland to stand against communism.

That's a pretty daunting set of tasks, especially for a seventy-six year old man!   May God give him the strength, stamina and courage to do these things. 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Papa Villero"

Last Wednesday, you watched a historic event in this auditorium, the election of Pope Francis as the 266th pope of the Catholic Church, dating back to St. Peter.

What makes his election "historic" is he is the first ever Latin-American to be named pope, the first non- European pope in 1,000 years, the first Jesuit and the first pope to take the name “Francis." Over the course of the last week’s news cycle, we’ve been able to listen to many talking heads explaining the significance of all these firsts.

What interests me the most, however, isn’t the reaction of journalists, theologians, or even clerics but that of the common, ordinary people of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he had been auxiliary bishop and archbishop since 1992. I’d like to read an excerpt from an A.P. story written by a correspondent from Argentina who does a nice job of presenting their point of view:

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — For more than a billion Roman Catholics worldwide, he's Pope Francis. For Argentina's poorest citizens, crowded in "misery villages" throughout the capital, he's proudly known as one of their own, a true "slum pope."

Villa 21-24 is a slum so dangerous that most outsiders don't dare enter, but residents say Jorge Mario Bergoglio often showed up unannounced to share laughs and sips of mate, the traditional Argentine herbal tea shared by groups using a common straw.

People here recall how the Buenos Aires archbishop ditched a limousine and would arrive on a bus to their little chapel; how he sponsored marathons and carpentry classes, consoled single mothers and washed the feet of recovering drug addicts; how he became one of them.

"Four years ago, I was at my worst and I needed help. When the Mass started he knelt down and washed my feet. It hit me hard. It was such a beautiful experience," said Cristian Reynoso, 27, a garbage collector trying to kick a cocaine addiction through the church's rehab program.

"When I saw the news on the TV, I began screaming with joy, and look, I'm still trembling," Reynoso said. "El Chabon (The Dude) is so humble. He's a fan of San Lorenzo (the soccer club), like me. You talk to him like a friend."

Long after he became a cardinal in 2001, this "prince of the church" wore a simple black T-shirt with a white collar. For many at the slum's Virgin of the Miracles Church, it's nothing short of a miracle that their friend is the pope.

"He was always part of our slum," housewife Lidia Valdivieso, 41, said after praying while resting her palm on a statue of St. Expeditus, patron saint of urgent and impossible causes. Her 23-year-old son has cerebral palsy and is learning carpentry at the church's technical school.

"When I heard the news I couldn't believe it. Having a `papa villero' (slum pope) is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us. I still remember him going on long walks through our muddy streets or talking to our children," Valdivieso said.    (By LUIS ANDRES HENAO). 

(For a similar article, go here.)

Given our new pope’s passion for the poor, it’s no accident that he chose to take the name “Francis,” after St. Francis of Assisi, a saint who was originally born from a wealthy Italian family, but gave all of his wealth away and became known as a saint for the poor, eventually beginning the Franciscan order, whose special ministry remains to this day to work among poverty-stricken areas. 

You are old enough now to appreciate subtlety. Much of the pomp and circumstance, the papal dress, the pope mobile, the Swiss guards, the ceremonies and the pageantry convey the papacy as a kind of regal position, typical of princes or kings. A pope who rides busses, a pope who asks for the tens of thousands in St. Peter’s square to pray for him before he gives them his first papal blessing, a pope that dresses simply, talks plainly, spends time with the poor in slums, laughs and smiles –these are not signs reminiscent of princes or kings, but of a man from Galilee. 

May the Lord bless our new pope, and may we be encouraged in our Christian faith by his leadership and example.

Sunday, March 10, 2013


We are ambassadors for Christ--God, as it were,  appealing through us.” (Corinthians 5:20)

This passage is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians and was one of our readings this Sunday. I’ve always thought it’s a pretty powerful statement about our Christian vocation. To be an “ambassador,” the dictionary tells us, is to be a “diplomatic official of highest rank, sent by a sovereign of one state to be his or her resident representative in another.” We are, then, God’s representative here on earth—in this school, among our friends, on the ball fields, in our neighborhoods. God’s best chance of being influential in these venues is, scarily, us: what we say, and much more importantly, how we conduct ourselves.  We are to “Preach the gospel,” St. Francis once famously said,  “and if necessary, use words.”

But the word “ambassador” itself holds a clue as to how we are to best be this “gospel”. It derives from the Latin word, “ambactus,” which means a servant or a vassal. Our best way of being Christ’s representatives is to serve others.

I recently listened to a fascinating talk by Ernesto Sirolli, a successful entrepreneur who as a younger man worked for an Italian non-government organization in Africa in the 1970’s. His motives were pure—he wanted to make a difference--but he said that every single project he was involved with in Africa failed.  Here’s how he describes it:

I thought, at age 21, that we Italians were good people and we were doing good work in Africa. Instead, everything we touched we killed. Our first project was where we Italians decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So we arrived in southern Zambia in this absolutely magnificent valley going down to the river, with Italian seeds to teach  the people how to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini. And of course the local people had no interest in doing that, so we paid them to come and work, and sometimes,  they showed up. And we were amazed that people in such a fertile valley wouldn’t have an interest in farming. But instead of asking them how come they weren’t growing anything, we simply said “Thank God we’re here, just in the nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.” So everything we planted grew beautifully: we had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy these tomatoes grew to the size of a baseball, but in Zambia, they were the size of grapefruits. We couldn’t believe it. Look how easy this is, we told them. But when the tomatoes were nice, and ripe and ready to be picked, some 200 hippos came out of the river and they ate everything.  And we said to the Zambians: “The hippos—they ate everything!”  And the Zambians said “Yes, that’s why we don’t grow things here. “ “But why didn’t you tell us? “You never asked us.”  I thought it was only the Italians blundering around Africa, but when I watched what the Americans were doing, what the English were doing, what the French were doing, I became quite proud of what we Italians were doing, because, you see, at least we fed the hippos!”

He goes onto say that the mistake that they and every other country made in the 1970’s was one of paternalism: I know what’s good for you, I’m the father, you’re the child, so I am going to teach you. But if we want to make a difference in other’s lives, we must respect them first, and ask THEM, “What is of interest to you? “ and only then,  “How can I help you achieve what you want?”   So as he got older he realized that the best way to help a country wasn’t to host community meetings where he gave out sage advice to the masses—no one showed up at those meetings. Rather, he began to meet one on one with people in local restaurants and let THEM do most of the talking--about their ideas, about their dreams to start a business or do something in the villages of note—and then and only then, would he advise them and work with them to achieve it.  And if he were successful with one person, another would hear of that success and seek him out, and then another, and then another. And he learned he could make a difference in a country, not from the top down, but growing from the inside out, one person at a time.

There’s wisdom in there for all of us. If we want to be an effective ambassador for Christ, if we really want our faith to make a difference, it isn’t a function of us being wise so much as being humble, not about eloquent teaching or preaching so much as good listening, trying to understand what people want and then serving them.

Being Christ’s ambassadors in this way, we can truly make a difference in a world that desperately needs reminding that life is good, not evil, that though the cross may come, that the resurrection is on the other side, and that in the end, God’s love and mercy triumphs. May we have the courage to be these kind of ambassadors!

Sunday, March 03, 2013

An Ecumenism of Time

You may remember last week at our school Mass we were led in praise music led by P.J. Anderson. I was thinking, as we sang, how it gives us a very different experience of the Mass than when we sing more traditional hymns.

There are some people that like singing praise music better and tell me “We ought to be doing that all the time for Mass.” There are others that prefer more traditional music, and really don't like the praise music. 

One of good things that Deacon Edwards does here is he exposes us to the many varied traditions of our faith.  You may remember that three years ago, we had a Tridentine Mass here. The Tridentine Mass was the Latin Mass that all Catholics attended for nearly four hundred years, from 1570 until 1962, until the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, which allowed the Mass to be said in the country of origin’s native tongue. Those of you who were here three years ago remember how oddly different that Mass was, not just because of the Latin, but because the priest had his back turned to us most of the Mass.  And yet as uncommon as the Tridentine Mass is within Catholic circles today, Pope John Paul II said that “respect must everywhere be shown for the feelings of all those who are attached to the Latin liturgical tradition,” and urged bishops to allow the Tridentine Masses to be said in their dioceses, if people desired it.

There is great broadness to the treasury of liturgical practice and piety in the Christian tradition, a treasury borne out of many musical traditions, but also a treasury that is the result of a two thousand year old history of different peoples, through different ages, worshipping the Lord together.  Whatever our personal preferences, the mistake is when a pastor or school chaplain elevates a portion of this tradition as the only form of authentic liturgical practice for his Church or school, robbing his people, in my view, of the richness and fullness of this broader tradition.

George Weigel, in his recent book entitled: Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st Century Church, says that an authentic faith is one that acknowledges an “ecumenism of time,” and by that he means a faith that is open to its own history, avoiding the twin mistakes of what he calls “antiquarianism” and “presentitis.” A faith that practices antiquarianism believes there was some “Golden Age” to which we should return if we’re going to restore the faith to its rightful place, whereas a faith that practices “presentitis” seeks to be relevant before all else, watering down the demands of the gospels to shibboleths from pop psychology, often ending in relativism. In contrast, Weigel argues that authentic, evangelical faith gathers together the fragments of our past, our present and our future in such a way as to lead the Church to holiness.  The Church’s witness, in faithfulness to its founder, Jesus Christ, ought not be judged by the question “Do we like what the Church is doing in our liturgies?” but instead “Is it true? Is it beautiful?” and “Does it inspire us and others to holiness?”

In the end, that's the most important question. It’s the same question that Jesus asked his disciples in a different form, and the same question the Church has proposed through the ages since. Jesus asks  us “Who do you say that I am?” May our liturgies and religious practices help shape us, so that we can say with courage, as Peter did, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”