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!


Monday, April 20, 2009

Susan Boyle - Her Pastor Speaks

By now anyone with a TV, PC or radio has probably heard or heard of Susan Boyle, the 40-something Scottish singing sensation who surprised the world with her angelic voice. Miss Boyle, a competitor on Britain's Got Talent, the UK's version of America's Got Talent, is, in her words, "short and plump" and certainly bears little resemblance to the usual lineup of far less talented "beautiful people" who appear on these shows. But, Oh, can she sing!

The media, in its own insatiable way, is now digging into any and all aspects of her quiet life so they can feed the public's equally insatiable appetite for personal information on those it has raised to celebrity status. And so they interviewed her pastor, Father Basil Clark, who spoke about how, when he first heard her sing, he was
"absolutely blown away by the quality of the singing and by that fantastic voice."

According to Fr. Clark, Miss Boyle has made several Legion of Mary pilgrimages to the Marian shrine in Knock, Ireland. She sings in her parish church, Our Lady of Lourdes, and also "enjoys karaoke in her local pub." He also revealed, perhaps unwisely, that she suffers from a learning disability. It's a disability, however, that has certainly not affected her voice or, apparently, her outlook on life.
Until her mother died in 2007, Miss Boyle had been her full-time caregiver. Since then she spends much of her time visiting elderly shut-ins. She sounds like a pretty good celebrity role model to me.

Click here to read Amy Welborn's interesting take on the interview.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Homily: Thomas & Us

The following is my homily for the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday). Reading: John 20:19-31
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What a wonderful gospel reading this is! And how fitting for today, Divine Mercy Sunday. The passage not only tells us much about Jesus, but also tells us much about Thomas and about ourselves.

Between the Resurrection and the Ascension, St. Paul tells us that more than 500 of the disciples saw the risen Jesus. These weren’t ghostly apparitions. He sat with them, talked with them, walked with them, touched them, ate with them, even cooked a meal for them. He came to them in the flesh. His body, although glorified and not subject to our earthbound limitations, is still the flesh that grew from Mary, the flesh that died on the cross, the flesh that still bears the marks of His passion. What a wonderful compliment to our humanity: that the Son of God wanted the flesh He took from us to be His forever.

I think we sometimes forget that. We forget that right now, today, the risen Jesus is truly alive, just as we are. His body might be glorified, but it’s still a body of flesh and blood. And just as His flesh rose from the dead and was glorified, filled with God’s life, so shall yours and mine. The Risen Christ is the Good News in the flesh!

We also learn something today about Thomas…and about ourselves.

Do you ever doubt? Do you ever question your faith? Well, if you do, you’re in good company. You’re right there with the Apostles and most of the saints.

When I was a boy, my parents gave me a book on the lives of the saints. It was a wonderful book, but I can recall being surprised by the doubts and crises of faith experienced by many of these holy men and women. You see, at the age of 10, I still had a childlike faith. Such questions as the existence of a loving God, the Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus, His death and resurrection, eternal life, heaven and hell…well, none of these were questions for me. They were facts, and like the words in the “Act of Faith” that the good Dominican Sisters taught me, I firmly believed in them.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still firmly believe in them today, but this doesn’t mean there haven’t been doubts and crises along the way. Faith is a gift, and doubt is a normal, very human reaction to it.

The Good News of Jesus Christ – His death and resurrection, our redemption and forgiveness, the promise of eternal life – is so good, so remarkable, that sometimes it seems almost too good to be true.

As an agnostic friend once said to me, “You mean you actually believe that this God of yours who made the universe really cares about you?”

I said, “Yes, and because He made the universe and everything in it, He’s your God too.”

He just shook his head and said, “Look, you’re just another infinitesimally small piece of matter on this insignificant speck of a planet. Assuming God exists, you can’t honestly believe that He’d become on of us and let us kill Him.”

“Yes,” I said, “I can. And that’s the good news we Christians are always talking about, that God is a God if love, of a love so great it’s impossible to fully comprehend it.”

Like my friend, Thomas, too, was struggling with these same concerns. Poor Thomas. Because of this one incident in his life, he’ll always be known as doubting Thomas. And yet, until they had actually seen the risen Jesus, the other Apostles had reacted no differently.

When Mary Magdalene and the other women told the apostles what they had seen and heard at the empty tomb, the men thought “their story seemed like nonsense and they did not believe them.”

Now, we don’t know why Thomas wasn’t present when Jesus first appeared in the upper room…but it really doesn’t matter. For whatever reason, he wasn’t there. Earlier, when he left, this little group was in hiding, filled with doubts and fears. But when he returned…well, you can imagine how excited they must have been. “We have seen the Lord,” they tell him.

Poor Thomas. We know how he responded: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

But what was he really thinking? Was he perhaps a bit jealous, may a little fearful? Was he thinking, “If Jesus did come, why did He come when I wasn’t here? What could this mean?” Just a week or so before this, when Jesus decided to return to Judea, and ultimately to Jerusalem, when so many were plotting against Him, it was Thomas who, full of bravado, had said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” The reality, of course, had been quite different. Thomas, like the others, had abandoned Jesus. Was Thomas thinking of this?

Whatever his thoughts, it would be another week before Thomas would see the risen Jesus for himself. It must have been a rough week for Thomas. The others, their spirits rejuvenated by their encounter with Jesus, were probably telling him, “Don’t worry, Thomas. He’ll be back. You’ll see.” And Thomas, not knowing what to believe, his thoughts conflicted, full of serious doubts and wondrous possibilities.

But when Jesus appears the second time, Thomas moves instantly from doubt to genuine faith. You might say, “So what. He had his proof didn’t he?” Well, yes, he did, but proof only in the resurrection of Jesus. Thomas didn’t exclaim, “My risen Lord,” when he saw Jesus. No, Thomas’ faith takes him well beyond that and he says, “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus had been called many things -- Lord, master, rabbi, teacher, prophet, Son of Man, Son of God – but only Thomas, Thomas moved by the Holy Spirit, makes this ultimate declaration of faith in Jesus Christ.

This is the Spirit’s gift to Thomas and Thomas’ gift to us. This grace to believe, a grace that is never forced on us, and, like Thomas, we can accept or reject it with complete freedom. It wasn’t by chance that this chosen disciple was missing that first day. Or that on his return he heard, in hearing he doubted, in doubting he touched, and in touching he believed.

This was God’s Divine Mercy in action. And how wonderfully it worked! For when Thomas touched his Master’s wounded flesh he cured the wound of our disbelief…and so doubting Thomas, who actually touched, became a witness to the reality of the resurrection.

It can become so for each one of us. We’re all invited to become today’s living witnesses to the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thomas touched the wounded side of beloved Savior to heal the wounds of our own disbelief.

How does this touch us, we who have not seen and yet believe? None of us has seen the risen Christ, but he is present with us. He’s here today in His word. He’s here today where two or three are gathered in His Name. And in a most unique and special way, He’s here in the Eucharist, just as real as He was in the upper room, just as real as He was on the Cross.

The trouble is, we can’t see Him the way Thomas did. And this can test our faith. And there are times in all of our lives – fearful, terrifying, lonely times -- when we especially feel his absence. When Jesus seems to have brushed the dust of our lives off His feet. Little wonder He calls us blessed. We don’t see, we suffer, and yet we still believe. We can still drop to our knees and utter with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

But is our cry of faith enough? Jesus tells us our love for others will be a visible sign that He’s among us -- that this is how the world will recognize Him. And so, if the world doesn’t recognize Christ, it must be because the world doesn’t see Him in the lives of those who claim to believe in Him. It would seem we have our work cut out for us.

Fortunately, it’s a work that Jesus will share. And that’s where our hope must always rest, not in ourselves, but in Jesus – in Jesus who died for us, who rose for us, who lives for us, and who promised to be with us forever.

Because we believe in the Jesus Christ we have never seen, we may, with the help of God’s grace, learn to love and serve the Jesus Christs we see each day. They’re all around you.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Am I a Terrorist?

An interesting question. Am I a terrorist?

I admit it's a question that had never before occurred to me. But with the release of the Department of Homeland Security's report on domestic terrorism among right-wing extremists, it would seem I have some serious soul-searching to do. The report -- its full title is Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment (try saying that quickly three times) -- performs a unique and invaluable service to the American people by identifying those among us who pose a serious threat to our way of life and to the fulfillment of the president's political agenda. My personal thanks to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano (pictured below perfecting her homeland security skills).

After reading the report (the unclassified version is only ten pages long -- click on the above link), I realized that among those most likely to commit acts of domestic terrorism is...me! That's right, I am apparently a potential domestic, extreme, rightwing terrorist...and I never even knew it.

First of all, I'm a veteran. And since I wore the uniform of our country for 30 years -- giving the military more time to radicalize me -- I suppose that makes me an even stronger candidate. In the words of the report, radical rightwing extremist organizations can easily "radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat." The report seems to equate all veterans with Timothy McVeigh, the only veteran specifically mentioned in the report...and probably the only veteran DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has ever known. (She was involved in the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing.) And so, to all you veterans out there: Watch out! They're coming to take you away. Please go peaceably.

Secondly, I'm prolife or, as the report phrases it: likely terrorists among rightwing extremists "include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration." The Obama administration would never, of course, call us prolife, a tag that carries a far too positive connotation. I suspect I get a double whammy from this one because not only am I prolife, but I also belong to an organization that has backed the prolife cause for about 2,000 years, the Catholic Church. To all you prolifers out there, remember, resistance is futile.

As for immigration, I'm all for it. Thanks to immigration my grandparents were able to become Americans after leaving the hellhole that was 19th Century Ireland.The only pride I have in my Irish heritage relates to the thanks I give that my ancestors were smart and industrious enough to leave the blasted place. But when it comes to illegal immigration, I'm of a different mind. If our political leaders, our representatives, believe that our immigration laws need to be changed, then they should change them. But that takes courage, and might endanger their reelection chances. It's much easier simply to ignore existing law and pay lip service to the protection of our borders. I would rather see our government focus more of its energy on the source of our immigration problem: encouraging the reformation of the corrupt regimes to our south that lead their people to flee in such large numbers. But, again, that would take courage...and so the illegal immigration problem persists. I see no change in the offing.

Secretary Napolitano lumps folks like me, those concerned about the proximate and long-term effects of illegal immigration, right in there with today's wacko nativists. And so, once again I apparently fall into the potential terrorist category. I can already feel the tasers.

But that's not all. Secretary Napolitano also sees a threat from those who believe that the Bill of Rights, specifically the 2nd Amendment to our Constitution, protects the citizen's right to bear arms; i.e., to own and carry a gun. She indicates that "a correlation may exist between the potential passage of gun control legislation and increased hoarding of ammunition, weapons stockpiling, and paramilitary training activities among rightwing extremists." Apparently the secretary is aware of congressional plans (and administration support) to pass new gun control legislation, and worries that "rightwing extremists—as well as law-abiding Americans—" might take to loading up (so to speak) on weapons in advance of such governmental action.

Uh-oh. Strike four. I have always accepted the Founders guarantee of my right to own a firearm -- although I will neither confirm nor deny that I currently possess anything that goes BANG -- and once again find myself smack dab in the middle of another demographic that identifies me as a potential domestic, rightwing, extremist terrorist.

There's more, but I'm too shocked to go on. I never intended to be a terrorist, but I am obviously guilty. No trial is necessary. Just send me off to Guantanamo...oh, wait...they're closing that place. Can't send me there. OK, send me to San Francisco. That would be a lot worse. I'll just pack my one small bag, sit by the front door, and await the knock in the night.

Pray for me.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Hand of God

As one who has studied and always enjoyed astronomy, I occasionally drop by some of the NASA and other related websites. This image (below) was posted on NASA's site about a week ago.

The image was released by the folks who operate NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. It's the image of the results of a pulsar's X-ray emissions. Pulsars are neutron stars that rotate very fast and have extremely strong magnetic fields. In a sense pulsars are a glimpse of the death throes of formerly large stars that expended their fuel and collapsed in on themselves. We can observe their emissions only during those brief periods of their rotation when they are pointed towards us, so they seem to "pulse" -- hence, the name "pulsar."

The particular pulsar in this image is only about 12 miles in diameter, but it's period of rotation is just 1/7 of a second. The emissions seen in the photograph extend out about 150 light years and seem to have taken the shape of a giant hand in space. It is located in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and is approximately 17,000 light years from earth.

I just thought it was a neat image. To view a larger image, click on the photo.

Monday, April 13, 2009

More Odd News

One of the odd and unexpected things I've discovered about aging: I don't seem to need as much sleep as I once did and so I now wake up early every morning, usually about 5:30. Under this new regimen I say Morning Prayer a good hour earlier than in the past, and then, after a quick scan of the local paper, take some time to casually browse some of my favorite Internet sites. Here are just a few of the more interesting items I gleaned from these sites this morning.

The first item comes from the Netherlands. According to a study in which 10,000 Dutch nationals were surveyed, only about half of them knew that Easter is a Christian holy day. Now if that upset you, get ready for a big surprise. The same study found that only 15 percent of Dutch nationals correctly identified Good Friday as the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I think we can all agree that Europe is no longer Christian in any sense of the word.

A similar, but not identical, Marist Poll conducted in the US indicated that 63 % of Americans and 74% of Catholics planned to attend church on Easter Sunday. The poll also showed that 86% of Americans (and 88% of Catholics) know that Easter Sunday commemorates Christ’s Resurrection. I guess we're marginally more religiously informed than our Dutch bothers and sisters.

In Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn has leveled a strong attack on those in the Church who openly dissented against Church teaching when Pope Paul VI issued his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae. These dissenters -- bishops, theologians, pastors -- assured Catholic laypeople that artificial contraception was morally acceptable and were thus largely responsible for both the catastrophic birth rate in Europe and the decline in Church attendance. The Cardinal especially criticized the bishops who, “frightened of the press and of being misunderstood by the faithful,” distanced themselves from the Church’s teaching. Now, the Cardinal said, Europe is “about to die out,” and part of the reason is the lack of commitment by the bishops to the Church’s true, fruitful, loving and beautiful pro-life teaching.

In Scotland, Keith Cardinal O'Brien, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh, issued a public denunciation of Scottish society. In his words, "Scotland is staring into the abyss of social collapse. Too many of our young people are caught up in a maelstrom of drug- and alcohol-fuelled promiscuity, hedonism, vandalism and outright nihilism. It is a whirlwind, which we will reap for a long time to come.We are paying the price for denying too many of our young people security, stability and morality, a price paid in shattered lives and broken children. Yet as the human debris of our failure accumulates, our politicians have become paralysed by a chronic fear of moralising. In place of leadership and a moral compass, a stifling political consensus seems to compel our parties and our parliament into ever more frenzied regulation."

Do you, like me, see the connection among the above supposedly disconnected news items? Poor Europe! Pretty soon the whole place will be just a large museum and mall. Look for me in the food court.

Another interesting item is a report that Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg was proposed by President Obama as US ambassador to the Holy See but was subsequently rejected by the Vatican. The Vatican denies the story which leads me to believe that the appointment was not a proposal but only an informal suggestion, one that received the anticipated response: "No way, Barack." Rumor has it that Schlossberg was the third such "suggestion", which leads me to question the intelligence of the Obama administration. Haven't they figured out that no openly pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-embryonic stem cell research Catholic will ever be acceptable to the Holy See? Personally, I think the problem is that the President and his staff don't know any pro life Catholics. It will be interesting to see whom the rock star eventually appoints.

Isn't it interesting how many important people, the so-called movers and shakers, talk so much about their faith in God and yet act as if He doesn't exist? As our tiny earth makes its way through God's vast universe, far too many of its inhabitants seem to believe that they actually run the world. Far too many think that they, and not God, are in control of the destiny of the human race. Let's pray that they all come to accept Christ the King, the only ruler of our world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pope Benedict and Holy Week

Whenever the weirdness of the world and the stupidity (Is that too harsh?) of humanity drive me to consider a self-imposed exile to the wilds of Montana or the Nevada desert, I turn to Pope Benedict and see what he has to say about our current condition in the light of eternal truths. I am never disappointed and always brought back to earth.

And so today, on this Easter Sunday morning, I will refrain from pontificating and leave that to the real pontiff, Christ's Vicar on Earth. The following links will take you to a few of the Holy Father's Holy Week homilies and other addresses that are certainly worth your time:

Homily at Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday -- a beautiful reflection on the priesthood

Homily at Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday -- the remarkable gift of the Eucharist

Good Friday Address at the Colosseum (Stations of the Cross) -- Jesus' sacrifice of love on the Cross

Easter Vigil Homily -- Alleluia! Christ is Risen: a celebration of Christ our Light and the healing, salvific waters of Baptism.

Urbi et Orbi Message on Easter Sunday
-- Christ's Resurrection brings light to a world plagued by darkness

Should you prefer to watch videos of Pope Benedict's Holy Week liturgies, visit the Vatican's YouTube site.

These reflections by Pope Benedict should be good fuel for your meditations on this Easter Sunday.

Alleluia! He is risen!

Friday, April 10, 2009

Holy Week

It has begun! Once again we commence the high point of the Church's liturgical year with the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil. Yesterday, Holy Thursday afternoon, we celebrated the Mass of the Lord's Supper at our parish. Our pastor, Fr. Peter, assisted by six deacons and accompanied by our parish's choir, lifted up our hearts in thanksgiving for the gift of the Eucharist and for the example of our Lord who came to serve, not to be served. And all went wonderfully well. We did make one or two minor liturgical errors, of the sort that only a few, if any, people might notice. Both resulted from my failure to anticipate them. Ah, well, I'm sure God was pleased nevertheless.

And so today, on Good Friday, our church has undergone a change. The tabernacle is empty and open, the altar is stripped of altar cloths, holy water fonts are dry...all to prepare us to watch with Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane, to walk with Jesus along the Way of the Cross , to be one with Jesus as he hangs on the Cross and dies for our sins.

There is no Mass today. Instead we enter together into Jesus' passion and death by reading the Passion story from John's Gospel. Then, through a series of intercessions, we pray together for all of God's people, for His entire world, that all may turn to Him, their Redeemer.

This is followed by our veneration of the Cross. It is through this veneration that we call to mind the great paradox, the great irony of human history: how a device, symptomatic of mankind's cruelty, can become the very instrument of its salvation. This is something only our loving God can accomplish. Praise Him!

Finally, we come together to receive the Eucharist, the gift beyond words -- the only gift that keeps on giving. It is through the Eucharist that Jesus makes good on His promise to be with us always until "the close of the age."

Tomorrow night we will begin our celebration of Jesus Christ's Resurrection, the event that fills us with hope and gives us a glimpse into what awaits those who love the Lord.

More on that tomorrow...

God's peace.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Parish Deacons

For several years now I have been my parish's Director of Liturgy, an interesting assignment for which I am uniquely unqualified. I am certainly no liturgist, since I often find myself at a loss when faced with a particular liturgical issue, and usually have to run to the books and documents for the answer. Most liturgists I have known always seemed to be able to provide ready answers to pretty much any liturgical questions that came their way. Ah, well...I will muddle through and trust our liturgies do not stray too far from what the Church intends.

The reason I bring this up is the nearness of Holy Week and Easter, a time of the year when liturgy takes a front row seat and all its elements must be blended smoothly, with grace and holiness. The problem for me is that I spend so much time preparing for the Triduum liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil that I really don't have the opportunity to prepare for them spiritually. Even worse -- for me, at least -- is that I usually function as a sort of Master of Ceremonies during the Triduum and find myself necessarily focusing only on the liturgical process, making sure everything "goes well", and unable to appreciate the liturgy as it really is. I suppose that's just the way it is for anyone with liturgical responsibility and rather than whining, I should just thank God for the opportunity to serve Him, even as a part time liturgist. And, fortunately, I have the full support of my pastor and my brother deacons in the parish.

Because our parish is located adjacent to The Villages, a large retirement community here in central Florida, a significant majority of our parishioners are retired age. As you might expect we have relatively few young families and so baptisms are not very common in the parish. We will, however, celebrate an adult baptism at our Easter Vigil Mass, followed by four adult confirmations -- all the result of our budding R.C.I.A. program. We look forward to welcoming these new members into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

Another benefit of our location is the size of our parish's diaconal community. We have a total of eight deacons assigned to the parish, and all eight of us are transplants from other dioceses. Four are seasonal deacons (for some reason, they prefer not to be called "snow birds") who spend only part of the year with us; but the other four minister here year round. Given the rapid growth of our parish -- 20 to 30 percent per year -- these men have been a true blessing, and we will certainly miss our seasonal deacons as they begin their northern migration next month.

Seven of us and our wives got together last week for a little R&R in advance of Holy Week. (One of our brother deacons and his wife had to go north to care for a family medical emergency and were unable to join us.) We drove to the nearby resort town of Mt. Dora, enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the lovely, old, 19th century Lakeside Inn, and then took a two-hour boat tour of Lake Dora and the old Dora Canal offering us a glimpse into a more natural, almost primeval Florida. It proved to be a wonderful trip to view some of God's marvelous creatures: bald eagles, osprey, storks, herons, alligators, hawks, snapping turtles, and many other critters that I couldn't identify. I placed a few of the photos I took during our boat trip on flickr.com. Click here to view a slide show of these photos.

Above: Parish deacons and wives on the steps of the Lakeside Inn, Mt. Dora, FL

And so, we had a wonderful day. We not only strengthened the bonds of our community of deacons in the parish, but had an opportunity to enjoy and reflect on the wonders of God's creation, right here in our own backyard.

Blessings and God's peace.