The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

More Big Birds

Cormorant with a fish
If you're a regular reader of this odd blog of mine, you'll know that I find birds especially interesting. Over the years I've taken note of a wide variety of things, ideas, and experiences and gathered them under the heading "Personal Proofs of God's Existence." They are "personal" proofs because many likely have meaning only to me or to those few who share my strange way of viewing creation. The number of these proofs now approaches 100, and the presence of birds in our world was among the earliest. Some day, perhaps, I will list and explain them all...but not today.

I find the existence of birds to be inexplicable from a human or scientific perspective. Those who believe that birds and other flying creatures simply evolved are fooling themselves. When you consider all the physical changes that would be necessary to turn a terrestrial creature into a flying creature...well, those changes simply could not happen all at once; and there would be zero likelihood of them happening one at a time over time since each change in itself would have no evolutionary purpose. 

No, to me birds are wonderful examples of God's whimsical approach to creation. It's as if He looked forward to us still-to-be-created humans and thought, "Let's give these earth-bound, air-breathing creatures of My image and likeness something to contemplate, something to set their minds a-soaring, something they would never imagine on their own. We'll give them birds and bugs, creatures that can fly above the earth and through the air." What a delight that creative act must have been -- and "God saw that it was good."


Owl #1 giving me the eye
As a former Navy pilot, someone who truly enjoyed flying, I was amazed that I, too, could fly above the earth and through the air. I also enjoyed watching birds in flight and could only marvel at their capabilities. And then, one day, while flying my Navy helicopter off the coast of Southern California, I spotted a large cormorant maneuvering over a school of fish. He was beautiful to watch, a remarkably skilled aviator, who suddenly dove into the sea and finally surfaced with a large fish in his beak. It was then that I asked myself a fascinating, rather profound question. Would man have invented airplanes and other flying machines had God not created birds or other flying creatures? Without God's creative act would man have even considered the possibility of flight? It's an interesting question without a definitive answer. But my guess is "No."

Anyhow, as you might recall, some weeks ago I was enthralled by the osprey who had taken up residence in a large live oak tree behind our home here in Florida. (See posts here and here.) He visited us daily, usually in the morning and evening, for almost six weeks. And then, just a few days ago, he was gone. We had grown accustomed to his high-pitched screeching and his shyness when it came to photography. Whenever I entered the yard, camera in hand, he would stare accusingly at me, and then moments later fly off. We will miss him but trust he'll return next year.
Owl #2 ignoring me
Interestingly, though, nature has apparently replaced our osprey. Two days after his departure, we noted the arrival of two large owls that have taken up residence in the same tree. I know little about owls, so perhaps a reader can let me know what type we have here. Sometimes the two of them perch on the same branch, five or ten feet apart, but they're usually father apart on separate branches. We see them in the late afternoon or early evening, probably getting ready for a night of hunting. Our neighbors have begun to notice them too, especially those who own tiny, yappy, toy Yorkies -- you know, the kind some women carry in their purses. I suspect a three-pound dog wouldn't have a chance if one of our large owls chose him for dinner. 

God is good. Through His Creation He gives us so much to think about and talk about.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Homily - Video

The parish has been perfecting our audio-visual capability to make acceptable videos of homilies preached by our priests. These are then posted on the parish website

We deacons aren't asked to preach too often, but the technical folks made a video of the homily I preached at Mass yesterday morning. The readings were for Saturday of the 20th Week of Ordinary Time. You can read the homily on yesterday's post, but I thought you might want to see and hear it as well, so I have included the video below. 

In the video, the homily is preceded by the Gospel Acclamation (Alleluia) and the proclamation of the Gospel (Mt 23:1-12).



Saturday, August 20, 2016

Homily: Saturday, 20th Week of Ordinary Time - Year II

Readings: Ez 43:1-7ab • Ps 85 • Mt 23:1-12
__________________
As I read this Gospel passage the other day, I thought immediately of Pope Francis and a homily he preached a couple of years ago. It was one of those daily Mass homilies he preaches to the residents of the Vatican’s St. Martha guesthouse where the Holy Father lives.

His homily began with a prayer that echoed the words of Jesus in the Gospel:

"Lord, free your people from a spirit of clericalism and aid them with a spirit of prophecy."
During the course of his remarks, Francis described how the Pharisees, like so many of those who had preceded them, willfully misunderstood the prophets who had all pointed to Jesus. Blind to God's Revealed Word, they couldn't recognize the Incarnate Word as He lived and taught among them.

Today we'd accuse the Pharisees of being "spin doctors," all about image. Yes, for them it was all appearance, an outward display of their holiness, their importance. The Pharisees made a point of exercising their authority over the people, and so they saw Jesus not as the prophetic fulfillment of God's Revelation, but as a threat.

But the people thought otherwise. They seemed to recognize that the words and acts of Jesus were the manifestation of a unique authority that came from within Him. Sadly, the Pharisees, motivated by pride and fear, were concerned only with questioning Jesus' authority:

"By what authority do you teach?"

"By what law do you make these claims of yours?"

"How is it lawful for you to heal on the Sabbath?"

Indeed, Jesus was seen as so great a threat that they plotted to kill Him.

How many of us today are like them?

Brothers and sisters, the Gospel is proclaimed for our benefit and reflection; this is why these words are here for us today. This passage isn't simply the description of some incident involving people in the distant past, so we can say, if only to ourselves, "Oh, yes, those nasty Pharisees..."  and then forget about it.

No, like the entire Gospel, this passage is written to us and for us; but all too often, like the Pharisees, we hear the Gospel, the Good News, but fail to make the connection with ourselves. We, too, focus on authority and legalism; we become so wrapped up in the rules and rites and traditions of the Church -- in themselves all very good things -- that we forget their purpose. They are not ends; they are gifts. They are the means by which we can deepen and strengthen our relationship with God.

As Pope Francis stressed that morning, all too often we forget the promise of Jesus Christ, the Good News, and like the Pharisees focus only on authority. The pope concluded his homily as he had begun it, with a prayer:

"Lord, let us not forget your promise. Let us not grow tired of going forward. Let us not close ourselves in with legality."
Yes, some bishops, priests and deacons are certainly guilty of a clericalism through which they don't practice what they preach. They forget that without humility the other virtues cannot exist.

I suppose we deacons are fortunate. Not only do we minister at the very bottom rung of the clerical ladder, but the word "deacon" itself means "servant." With our name constantly reminding us of our lowly status, we are blessed. If only we could all remember this.

Today's Gospel passage is also used by some Christians to criticize the Catholic practice of addressing a priest as "Father," as well as referring to the pope as the "Holy Father."

Perhaps we should remind them of St. Paul's words to the Corinthians in which he calls himself their father [1 Cor 4:14-16]. This is no contradiction. Paul understood, just as the Church has always understood, that Jesus is making a spiritual point, reminding His disciples of their status as servants of God's people. But in that role as both teacher and father they are also servants. And Jesus reminds His disciples that they must also be teachers. Indeed, with His final command, he instructs them to "make disciples of all nations...teaching them to observe all that I have commended you" [Mt 28:19-20].

Yes, as disciples, we must become like servants. Interestingly, one of the pope's titles is "Servant of the servants of God." 

And so a father, whether in the Christian home or in the sanctuary, whether through sacramental Matrimony or Holy Orders, is called to lead his children, God's children, into the life in Christ.

Jesus simply reminds us not to clamor for honor or respect. It is through service that we become great. It is through humility that we are exalted.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Death Penalty and the Vinyard Owner

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you...You were with me, and I was not with you...You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.” -- St. Augustine
Decades ago if anyone had asked me if I supported capital punishment, I would have given an unequivocal positive answer. I saw no reason not to execute a criminal who'd been convicted of first-degree murder, especially if the circumstances of the crime were especially horrendous. And as a naval officer and naval aviator who had lost many friends in times of both war and peace, I felt the same about egregious acts of treason. These beliefs were unshakable, or so I thought, although I suppose I'd never seriously questioned them.

Earlier this week, on Wednesday morning, as I proclaimed the Gospel at daily Mass, I could not help but recall another morning, perhaps 25 years ago, when that same Gospel passage (Mt 20:1-16) was proclaimed at Sunday Mass. 

Even then I'd probably heard or read this passage about the generous vineyard owner a hundred times. I'd studied it years before in a New Testament course. And I'm sure I'd discussed it on several occasions with others. But I'd never considered that it had anything to do with capital punishment. Indeed, as the visiting priest began to preach on that long-ago Sunday morning, he focused entirely on social justice and the need to ensure working people received a living wage. I remember thinking he was certainly correct in that a living wage was a just wage, but I also found it curious that he said not a word about the "Kingdom of Heaven" which, at least according to Jesus, was the central theme of the parable. 

Anyhow, once I realized where the homilist was headed and that he intended to take some time to reach his destination, my mind began to wander. In my defense, my wanderings didn't stray too far from the subject at hand. In fact, I found myself thinking about the parable in a quite different way.

My thoughts that morning centered on all those last-hour hired hands in the parable, the ones who'd worked for only one hour and had yet received the full daily wage. I realized how merciful God is, how His justice is so different from the world's justice, how He continues to call us to repentance, and how He offers forgiveness and eternal life to all. If only we could be like God. If only we could be perfect as the Father is perfect. But because we so often insist on equating fairness with equality, God's generosity just doesn't make sense to us.

As I mulled this over my thoughts inexplicably turned to the death penalty, our most extreme punishment, a punishment designed effectively to shorten the lives of men or women convicted of serious crimes. And yet through capital punishment society quite possibly prevents those sinners most in need of God's saving mercy from experiencing the last-hour salvation God offers. God, of course, can and will act regardless of the designs and schemes of human beings. But we should not be testing God, in effect challenging Him to overcome the obstacles we place in the path of His holy will.

Yes, God will always prevail, but how arrogant of us to presume we can just trash God's greatest gift, the gift of life itself. The desired end of both murder and capital punishment is the destruction of life. It is this end, among other things, that makes murder sinful. By taking the life of another person the murderer attempts to usurp that which belongs to God alone, life and death. The use of deadly force in both self-defense and just war is, of course, a moral exception since its desired end is the protection of life and because all other means are either impractical or ineffective. 

Some consider the death penalty a societal form of self-defense from the most violent and depraved among us. This might make some sense if we were unable to incarcerate criminals safely and indefinitely. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) addresses this clearly when it states:

"The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent'" [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56].
Others call for the need to provide "closure" for the families and friends of victims, as if the death of a murderer will somehow restore the victim's life. Closure, of course, is simply a convenient euphemism for vengeance, and we should call it what it is, because vengeance is antithetical to Christian belief. After all, how can we pray daily the only prayer Jesus taught us, in which we say, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" [Mt 6:12] -- how can we pray this and still accept the legitimacy of vengeance?

By listening only to the proclamation of the Gospel that Sunday morning, and disregarding a rather boring homily, I had experienced an epiphany, one that forced me to challenge my own opinions regarding capital punishment. I didn't experience an instant change of opinion, and this internal challenging continued for some time, ultimately leading me to question my earlier, strongly held beliefs.

A few years later -- actually on February 3, 1998 -- the state of Texas executed a woman by the name of Karla Faye Tucker. She had participated in two ghastly murders and was the first woman executed by the state of Texas in 135 years.
Karla Faye Tucker

Not long after her incarceration Tucker had experienced a total conversion to Christianity, and spent the next 15 years on death row. Although some questioned the sincerity of her religious beliefs, her final words to those who would witness her execution convinced all but the most cynical -- which, sadly, included then Texas Governor George W. Bush -- of the reality of her conversion. Her words:
"Yes sir, I would like to say to all of you — the Thornton family and Jerry Dean’s family — that I am so sorry. I hope God will give you peace with this. [She looked at her husband.] Baby, I love you. [She looked at Ronald Carlson.] Ron, give Peggy a hug for me. [She looked at all present weeping and smiling.] Everybody has been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I am going to be face to face with Jesus now. Warden Baggett, thank all of you so much. You have been so good to me. I love all of you very much. I will see you all when you get there. I will wait for you."
With Tucker's execution I experienced another epiphany of sorts. It caused me to question the stated purpose of our so-called correctional institutions. What exactly is their purpose? Do they aim to correct, to rehabilitate those who have committed serious crimes? Or are they institutions determined only to mete out punishment according to the latest societal or political whim? If a prisoner, regardless of the seriousness of the crime, truly repents, reforms, and becomes a new person in Jesus Christ, what do we do with him? And if this reformed prisoner -- one who has actually experienced the "correction" advertised by the institution -- is on death row, do we execute him anyway? Is this justice? Or is this simply vengeance?

Such questions lead one to make comparisons, to examine man's justice in light of God's justice. Should we be content as we crawl through life aware that we are more often than not acting unjustly? Or should we strive for the perfect justice God desires of us?

From the Christian perspective, Karla Faye Tucker was very fortunate. She experienced a conversion early in her incarceration, continued along the rocky path of repentance and forgiveness for the next fifteen years, but went to her death fully aware that she was loved by God. Because she had accepted God's forgiveness, she was able to forgive herself. It is noteworthy that she did not beg for forgiveness from the families of the man and woman whose lives she had taken. I'm sure she knew that forgiving her at that moment might be a hard thing for them, and a failure to forgive could even present an obstacle to their own salvation. No, she instead hoped God might give them His peace.

Still another concern related to the exercise of capital punishment by the state involves government's tendency to expand its influence and control over virtually all aspects of society. This is clearly evidenced in totalitarian regimes which try to control not only the actions and words, but even the thoughts of the people. And the most severe method of exercising such control is through the expansion of the death penalty as a punishment for so-called "crimes against the state."

We encounter this as well in some Muslim-majority states where sharia law is established as the law of the land or accepted as a legitimate alternative to a nation's constitutional law. Sharia, of course, rejects the concept of religious freedom and calls for capital punishment for those guilty of such religious wrongs as apostasy and blasphemy. I suppose in an Islamic theocracy, in which religious teachings pervade every aspect of the society and the state functions as Allah's agent, these "crimes" are considered crimes against both Allah and the state.

The citizens of constitutional republics in which capital punishment is permitted must remain vigilant. As the people allow their government to expand and become increasingly authoritarian, they can expect to encounter changes too in the application of capital punishment.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Homily: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Readings: Rv 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; Psalm 45; 1 Cor 15:20-27; Lk 1:39-56
_____________________

Many years ago, back in my Navy days, I was sitting alone in a restaurant in Keelung, Taiwan. It was Christmas Eve, but you wouldn’t have known it – no Christmas decorations, no crèche, no last-minute shoppers, not even the secular symbols of reindeer or snowmen. It was just another bleak December evening in this country of few Christians.
Keelung Night Market

The restaurant was fairly crowded and so a young Chinese couple asked if they could join me at my table. Of course I agreed. They wanted to practice their English and so we talked as I picked at my rice and pork.In those days Navy chaplains gave out pocket-sized copies of the New Testament and Psalms. One was sticking out of my shirt pocket and the young woman asked if it were a dictionary. I think she wanted a copy. "No," I replied, “It’s a copy of the New Testament, a book of Christian Scripture.”

Well…that generated a blank look. So I asked if they were Buddhists. They said their parents were but that they weren’t believers. Then the woman said, “Can you explain it, tell us about it?”

Have you ever tried to explain Christianity to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it, nothing of Jesus Christ and His saving work? Where to begin to tell these two well-intentioned people about our faith? I suppose I could have started with Abraham and Moses and David, but that would take hours.

For some reason, maybe because it was Christmas, I instead went back to Nazareth, to the greatest event in human history, to that day when Mary gave her consent to God to become His Mother.

After brief stops in Nazareth and Bethlehem, I went on, struggling to tell them something of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, something of the Gospel and the gift of faith. I told them of the Holy Spirit, and about the universal, Catholic Church founded by Jesus, and its mission to make disciples of all nations, even Taiwan.

But throughout it all, I found myself coming back to Mary, the Mother of God, this unique woman who always points to Jesus and by doing so has inspired and brought faith to so many; for she is humanity’s greatest advocate. Throughout her life, again and again, she pondered in her heart the mysteries of the Incarnation; and as St. John reminds us, in total faith and remarkable strength of character, “She stood by the Cross of Jesus” [Jn 19:25].

Yes, her life of faith, fullness of grace, and perfect discipleship is bracketed by two miraculous events, two of God’s gifts to Mary and to all of humanity.

Her life on earth began with the Immaculate Conception, when she was brought into being with a perfect, sinless soul – for the vessel that will carry and nourish our divine Savior must be perfect.


And that earthly life ended with the Assumption, when her body too was brought into perfection, into God’s heavenly presence. After all, how can this body, this body that gave flesh and blood to God Incarnate…how can this body suffer corruption?

Telling all this to my young Taiwanese couple while struggling to eat with chopsticks is no easy task. And so to reward me they bought me a beer. I repaid them by giving them my New Testament. As I left them I hoped that my weak attempt at evangelization might have yielded some fruit. But that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

Later, walking back to the ship through a soaking rain, I remembered that I had used a holy card as a bookmark in that little New Testament. On one side was that beautiful painting of the Assumption by Titian, a painting that hangs today in the Frari Basilica in Venice. On the other were the words of the Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of praise and thanksgiving.

Titian's Assumption behind the Frari's Main Altar (Venice)
Yes, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – today’s solemnity.

Although the Assumption wasn’t officially declared a dogma of faith until 1950 by Pope Pius XII, it was a common and accepted belief within the entire Church for centuries. Indeed, we find homilies on the Assumption, or the “Dormition” as it is often called in the Eastern Church, dating to the fifth century.

The Assumption celebrates Mary’s singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection by which she was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory when the course of her life was finished. Why did God do this for her? With partial understanding, we can say that Christ has a unique relationship with the body and soul of Mary, for her body held the Incarnate Body of God Himself.  And so, when her life on earth ended, God glorified Mary, both body and soul.


We see implications of this in our first reading, from the Book of Revelation, where Mary is seen as the "woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" [Rev 12:1] – as one who is above all of creation. She’s also depicted as a mother, which she is, many times over: Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Mother of us all.

But as a disciple of Jesus Christ, she’s also our Sister. And as the perfect disciple, she’s our model, our model of how to live the Christian life, our model of faith and hope. She is among "the first-fruits" [1 Cor 15:20] that Paul refers to, the first-fruits of "all who are called to belong to Jesus" [Rom 1:6] and who share in His triumph.
 

We see her in her role as disciple most clearly in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. What a remarkable scene! The young Mary, now Mother of the Incarnate God, is told by Gabriel of her aged cousin’s pregnancy; and in a humble act of love, she leaves in haste and makes the difficult journey from Galilee to Judea to visit Elizabeth.

Yes, Mary is a true disciple, a fact that Elizabeth points out when she greets her: “Most blessed are you among women...”  An inspired Elizabeth, recognizing who has come to visit her, continued, “…and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” [Lk 1:42-43] But the Spirit’s not through, for John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting.

Mary acknowledged the divine grace that filled the whole scene: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior” [Lk 1:46-47]. All three, Mary, Elizabeth and John, greeted one another filled with the Holy Spirit, and filled too with thanksgiving and joyful anticipation of the fulfillment of God's promise to give a Savior to all of creation.

How fitting a reminder to us today that Jesus Christ was greeted first by a baby in the womb, an unborn infant who pointed to His coming as the Holy Spirit revealed the presence of the King to be born. This is the power of the Holy Spirit, brothers and sisters, the gift that enables us to know and experience the indwelling presence of God and the power of his kingdom. The Holy Spirit is the way in which God reigns within each of us. And so Mary, filled with the Spirit and full of grace, joyfully receives the gift of God’s presence.

From this you and I learn that God visits us in the everyday experiences of our lives, encounters steeped in God’s love. We also come to realize that God remains with us in all our human activities, for He is the presence that holds us up. As St. Paul reminds us, “In Him we live and move and have our being” [Acts 17:28].

And it is through these divine encounters, these everyday meetings with God and His people, that we are saved by God’s tender mercies. As our model of faith and hope, Mary shows us all this and more. She accepted her mission with uncompromising faith and obedience. She acted with unwavering trust because she believed that God would fulfill the Word He had spoken.

Her great hymn of praise proclaims the favor of the Lord: He has "
lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things” [Lk 1:52-53]. And He does so through us. The Holy Spirit is ever ready to renew faith and hope in God's promises and to make us strong in love for God and our neighbor. Yes, Mary is our model in this too, especially in this age of violence and hatred, an age that celebrates the culture of death.

Let us, like Mary, be the vessels that carry God’s love, God's life into the world. For her Son came that we “might have life and have it more abundantly” [Jn 10:10].

Let’s thank Mary, our Mother, for her fiat, for her acceptance of God’s presence within her, so that today, through the Holy Spirit, we too might receive within us the Body and Blood of her Son, all for the Glory of the Father.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Memories Unsought

In early 2004, when the Bishop of Orlando assigned me to St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Wildwood, Florida, this church was just a small mission of St. Lawrence Parish in nearby Bushnell, Florida. But with the growth of The Villages we quickly outgrew our mother parish and the bishop made us a separate parish. 

Because of our earlier association with Bushnell and because Central Florida's National Cemetery is located in that city and barely a half-hour drive away, we deacons of St. Vincent de Paul Parish are often asked to conduct committal ceremonies at the cemetery. Of all the liturgies I am asked to conduct, few have more meaning for me than these services honoring our deceased veterans and their spouses. As a veteran and retired naval officer, I consider myself particularly honored to take part in them and to help bring a sense of consolation to the deceased's grieving family and friends.

Yesterday I was again asked to conduct a committal ceremony at the National Cemetery. The deceased was the 84-year-old spouse of a Navy veteran. Although she had been ill for some time, her death was still unexpected and her husband of 61 years was grieving deeply. Because I try to ensure my homily relates to the deceased's life and situation as well as her relationship with her family, a few days before the service I spoke at length on the phone with her husband and one of her sons. The family is of Irish heritage and at one point the husband joked with me about our common Irish roots. As we ended our conversation, he said, "Slán go fóill," a traditional Irish good-bye, and a phrase my paternal grandmother occasionally used.

Now this is where the oddness of memory comes into play. After our phone call, as I sat down and began to write my homily for the committal service, my mind wandered back to my grandmother and the songs she sang at my bedside. I was just a little tyke, maybe four or five years old, and as she tucked me into bed she would most often sing the well-known Irish Lullaby, better recognized by its refrain, "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral". But sometimes she sang another song of which I understood not a word. She sang it completely in Gaelic. I don't believe my grandmother understood or spoke Gaelic -- at least with any fluency -- since she came to the United States as an infant. I suspect she knew a few common phrases and had probably memorized the song.

Anyhow, here I was, trying to write my homily, while this song I couldn't understand nagged at my memory. And so I did what any 21st-century person would do: I set aside the homily and Googled the song.

Grangi (c. 1950s)
This wasn't so easy because I could recall only a few of the song's Gaelic phrases, and that language is by no means phonetic. My only other clue was that Grangi (that's what we called her) once told me it was about God's harvest -- not a lot to go on.


Eventually, though, I had my Eureka! moment and discovered that the lyrics were written as a poem 100 years ago in 1916. Written by a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Sheehan, the poem is called, "Ag Críost an Síol," which means "The seed is Christ's."  But by the time it was written my grandmother was almost 40. Where she came across it, and how she learned it...well, this remains a mystery. But I know they're the words she sang to a much younger me.


Even better, though, I found an English translation. After hearing my dear grandmother sing this song probably 100 times, now many decades later, I finally know its meaning. Here's the translation:
The seed is Christ's,
The harvest is Christ's:
Into God's barn
May we be gathered.
The sea is Christ's,
The fish is Christ's:
In God's nets
May we be caught.
From birth to adulthood
And from adulthood to death,
May your two hands, O Christ,
Be drawn over us.
From birth to the end
Not an end but rebirth.
In the paradise of grace
may we be.
As I read these words, I couldn't help but realize that Grangi was sending me a message. "In the paradise of grace may we be." What perfect words for a committal service. And so the words of this song -- well, the English translation, anyway -- became a part of my homily to this grieving family. It was very well-received.

But in the midst of all this online sleuthing, I uncovered a second baffling mystery. After listening to several different artists sing the song, I realized dear Grangi sang it to a completely different tune. That's when I discovered that the music to the version sung today was written in 1968 as an Offertory Hymn of a Gaelic Mass. This was a good 20 years after Grangi sang her version to me. And so I'm left with the unanswered question: Did Grangi make up her own melody or had someone else put this poem to music before the 1968 version? I suppose it's just another of those wonderful family mysteries that we'll never solve.

After all this, though, I thought it might be nice to share the song with you. The below version, sung by three tenor priests, is of course not the melody I heard as a child, but it's still quite beautiful.




Slán agus beannacht leat.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Popes of My Life and Benedict XVI

Our current pope, Pope Francis, has been a remarkable witness to the love, forgiveness and mercy of God. He has taught us to embrace the sinner, to welcome the outcast, to love the unloved, to forgive the unforgiven. He has taught us to look deeply into our own hearts instead of trying to judge the hearts of others. He has taught us to laugh at ourselves and to share the joys and sorrows of those God places in our lives. He has taught us to be Christians by being Christ-like

Pope Francis was preceded by a series of remarkable men.
When I consider those who have been pope during my lifetime, I realize how God has showered his blessings on today's world.

By the time I was born in 1944, Eugenio Pacelli had already been Pope Pius XII for over five years. During the chaotic years of World War II, he not only saved the lives of thousands of Jews and others who were on the Nazis' death lists, but also managed to steer the Barque of Peter through some of history's most turbulent waters. But then, years after the war, he became the target of a constant stream of vilification from a parade of fools whose hatred for both pope and Church led them to lie blatantly about Pius' efforts to save the lives of European Jews from Hitler's Nazis and Mussolini's Fascists. Fortunately, the Church listened only to the Spirit and has consistently preached the truth about this great pope.

In 1958 the saintly Pius XII was succeeded by Angelo Roncalli, Pope Saint John XXIII. Although his reign was brief, less than five years, he gave us the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Church's first truly pastoral council. Now, after five decades of study and implementation, the Church has come to understand, accept, and reap the benefits of the comprehensive teachings of the Council Fathers.

After Pope Saint John's death in the midst of the Council, he was succeeded by Giovanni Montini, Pope Paul VI. Like so many of his predecessors, Paul VI was subjected to attacks from both outside and inside the Church. His external attackers were the usual suspects, but he suffered much from the public criticism of his brother bishops and priests. This criticism reached a crescendo with the 1968 appearance of his prophetic encyclical, Humanae Vitae. 48 years after its publication it has become apparent that Blessed Pope Paul was not only remarkably prescient but also possessed a keen understanding of the modern world, its strengths and weaknesses.

With the death of Blessed Pope Paul VI in 1978, the Holy Spirit elevated Albino Luciani to the Chair of Peter. With his election the "Smiling Pope" took the unique double name, Pope John Paul I. Sadly this first John Paul would serve for only 33 days before suffering a fatal heart attack. Although the last in a long string of Italian popes, John Paul would bequeath his name to his great Polish successor. And it would be a well-traveled name recognized throughout the world.

Karol Wojtyla, a man who had experienced totalitarian oppression first hand and personally battled with the two enslaving ideologies of the last century, was elected pope in 1978 and would serve God's people tirelessly for almost three decades as Pope John Paul II. He has been called John Paul the Great for good reason. He carried the Church into the world, literally into every corner of the world, preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ and sharing God's love with the millions he encountered. Devoted to Mary, humanity's Blessed Mother, he credited her with saving him from the assassin's bullet as he greeted pilgrims in St. Peter's Square. As he traveled the world, visiting well over 100 countries, he stressed the "universal call to holiness" building bridges across the world's religions.

With the death of John Paul in 2005, the Church turned to the man who had served the future saint for a quarter-century as his close confidant, lead theologian, and protector of Christian doctrine. Joseph Ratzinger, a humble, soft-spoken German theologian, who had hoped to spend his remaining years in study and writing, was instead elected to the Chair of Peter and chose the name of the patron saint of Europe, Benedict. As pope, Benedict XVI did what he did best: he taught. His catechesis and his writings addressed a wide range of theological themes, including "Friendship with Jesus Christ", something he believed essential to overcoming the great errors and temptations of our time. He also strongly condemned what he called the "dictatorship of relativism" which he believed was the great challenge facing the Church and the world today. Of course, Benedict shocked the Church and the world when, due to the infirmity that comes with old age, he resigned from the papacy in 2013.
Cardinal Ratzinger and I Meet in Rome
Pope Benedict XVI is the only pope I have met personally, although at the time of our meeting he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. I suppose this brief meeting in the year 2000 has placed the man a step above the others, in my mind at least. For that reason I tend to pay a bit more attention to news stories about him. One of these stories (see the below video) relates to a Master's Degree program focused on the theology of the pope emeritus. Offered in Rome by the
Augustinian Patristic Institute it drew 90 students for its first offering. How wonderful that the life work of this wonderful theologian will be studied by so many. If only I were 20 years younger and lived in Rome.