Thursday, December 30, 2010

National Migration Week 2-8 January

National Migration Week 2011

Immigration is not an easy issue to write about because it is so easy to be misunderstood or labelled politically.

Sometimes I find that my "conservative" friends think that talking compassionately about migrants is a "liberal" thing. 

Of course, I get the opposite from my "liberal" friends who think that speaking about the moral depravity of procured abortion (as we will during the week of 22 January) is a "conservative" thing.

As Catholics, our positions do not easily fit political categories. 

We Catholics defend, protect, and advocate for life in every situation, everywhere. Political labels like "liberal" or "conservative" sometimes get in the way. In fact, we Catholics, through our social teachings, know that the Church must inform the political order, not the other way round.

The United States Catholic Bishops have asked all people of good will to be more conscious of the needs of Migrants.  They have asked the Church to commemorate National Migration Week from 2 through 8 January 2011 with the theme "Renewing Hope, Seeking Justice." You might want to check out their website on this -

Pope Benedict XVI has written often about Migrants (on World Migrant Days, for example); many popes have done so previously. It is certainly not something at the periphery of Catholic teaching.  The Holy Family were migrants in Egypt, much like the Jewish People were before them. The Church, being Catholic, is concerned that we human beings treat one another justly as brothers and sisters.

We Catholic Americans in particular ought to be sensitive to this issue since so many of our families came, not too long ago, to this great country as immigrants. I think of Emma Lazarus' famous sonnet in this regard:

The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

My family arrived here poor.  Mine is the American story, not unique, but all the more profound because we share the story. My great grandparents came from Ireland and Germany and from Slovakia (then the Austrio-Hungarian Empire).

They passed the Statue of Liberty and thought of their future.
Now, I think of them when I pass Lady Liberty.

I think of us too.
I think of this nation of poor immigrants.
I think of the Polish priests and nuns who taught me,
         my Italian piano teacher,
         my Colombian childhood friend
         my Indian kindergarten classmate
         my Korean high school student
         my African-American colleague at Turner-Carroll
         my many Irish relatives.
I think America is at its best when it embraces the poor immigrant family.
I think this is one of the reasons we are the greatest nation on earth.

But, of course, it is more than an American issue. 
My German students often speak of the Turkish migrants in their country.
My time in Egypt made me aware of the numerous refugees from Sudan. 
My French readings remind me of the many Algerian immigrants in Paris and Marseilles.
Teaching on the border between Thailand and Burma, I saw firsthand the everyday "migrations" of young students so they could simply go to school.
England is dealing with the many Pakistani immigrants in their nation. 

Immigration is a global issue.
America is far from alone dealing with this issue.

The Immigration issue is fundamentally about human dignity.

Contrary to a lot of nonsense out there, no one is claiming that illegal immigration is to be encouraged.  Quite the opposite. In fact, it is precisely here where the role of the Catholic Church on this issue can be most appreciated. It seeks to insure human rights while acknowledging the reality of national interests. 

The Church looks at the systemic issues, not just the political "quick-fixes" that so often do more harm than good. The Church, this Mystical Body of Christ continuing Jesus' teaching in the modern world, seeks economic justice, human dignity and the common good -- EVERYWHERE and for EVERYONE. Remember - we are brothers and sisters regardless of race, creed, or nationality.

It is clear that there are no "easy" answers to the practical problems of migrants and immigrants; however; it is equally clear that it is sinful to think of the problem without thinking of the people.

It is clearly sinful to maltreat the poor, to ignore the hungry, or to deny the reality of international economic injustice. Human beings do not lose their right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness just because they don't carry the right "papers." They were endowed by their Creator with those rights.

Rational men and women can, and do, disagree about HOW to address the issues of migration / immigration. We need wise, educated, orthodox, conscientious, lay Catholic leaders in the political forum.  While we wait, all American Catholics have a moral obligation to speak out clearly on this issue.  We cannot simply stand by while some of our elected officials sweep this issue under the rug, or worse, suggest immoral solutions that treat poor people with disdain or contempt.

I encourage you to study the Church's substantial teachings on this subject. Let the Church inform you, not just TV news stations or talk radio. In fact, may I suggest that we spend as much time studying the Church's teaching as we do watching/listening to the "news." The "news" often accents problems over solutions, and extreme positions over moderate wisdom. This seems particularly true on the immigration issue because of the passions it engenders.  Please let the Church's teaching inform your conscience.

The social teachings of the popes are available on  Also, please check out the United States Bishops' website - and note the common misconceptions section in particular.

Let us pray for migrants, for immigrants, and for wise political leadership, especially during this National Migration Week, 2011. Let us do more than pray...let us stand up for the poor and marginalized pilgrim people of God.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmas Thoughts - Dn. Bill+

Merry Christmas!

As you know, because of the Incarnational accent in my preaching, I often quote the Prologue of St. John's Gospel - "The Word became Flesh and dwelt among us." 

That is Christmas in a nutshell. How appropriate that John's Prologue is read at Christmas morning Mass.

The Son of God, the Eternal Word, took flesh.  He became one of us.  He is like us in all things except sin. Jesus is truly God and truly man! He is God Incarnate.

I have been meditating and reading on this topic during Advent. I have been drawn particularly to understanding the Mass - Christ's Mass - in this regard.

At every Mass, the Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us.  Christ's Mass is here all the time.  All the worldly celebrations of Christmas pale in comparison to the Liturgy. Christ DOES come to us. It is all happening now.  Christmas is not an historical celebration for us. Liturgy is our way of seeing as God sees.

The older I get and the more seriously I reflect on my faith, the more impressed I am with the depth of our Catholic Faith. Again and again I see that we Catholics do not just "talk" about Christ, but really see Him. 

His Presence is not just a "feeling" in us (though it can be that too!), but real, true, and substantial in the Eucharist.  I am understanding the essential unity of Bethlehem and Calvary, not to mention the essential unity of the liturgical year. This unity makes eternity more approachable for me.

After five years with you at St. Benedict's, I am grateful for all you have done for me. But one thing tops the list - You have helped me see Jesus in new ways.

I am reminded of a line by my favorite poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.  He wrote:
...Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Like the star of Bethlehem, you have brought me to Jesus.
I am honored to be your servant.

A Merry and Blessed Christ-mass to all!
deacon bill+

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mystery and Music

The cardinal points of our lives all have their rituals. There are the sacramental milestones: baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination. All are celebrated in church with ritual signs: water, bread, wine, oil, rings and hands. There are flowers, candles and music. After church, there is a party, and gifts. Sickness and death bring anointing, get-well and sympathy cards, flowers, sometimes a wake, usually a luncheon. Birthdays, graduations, anniversaries, and housewarmings are all celebrated with a meal together, and gifts are given. Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter all bring a family dinner. Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and Veterans’ Day are sometimes observed with a parade, fireworks, perhaps a visit to the cemetery, and a picnic.

We sometimes talk about our individual, day-to-day rituals, like making breakfast, going shopping or doing the laundry, but real ritual implies community, and therefore it is shaped by our culture. We assume that a table with a tablecloth, candles and flowers means, without anybody saying anything, that there will be a special meal, or if there is music somewhere, that people are getting together. These are signs common to both culture and church. There are even parades: the ministers enter the sanctuary in procession. The casket is brought to the church in procession. Brides process to the altar with their attendants. Gifts are brought forward in procession. The community processes to the altar to receive Communion. They process with palms to commemorate the Passion, and they carry the Blessed Sacrament in procession after Holy Thursday Mass and on Corpus Christi.

We learn the meaning of ritual by doing it, but ritual should be transparent and self-evident. Explaining it is like explaining a joke or a rhyme: it gets destroyed in the process. Why, for example, does a bride come down the aisle? Why do people hold hands at the “Our Father”? What is the meaning of the “unity candle”? Rituals are signs which have some transcendent meaning, a window through which we can see something eternal. Since ritual has a cultural element, it may lose meaning as the culture changes. If families no longer get together around the dinner table, perhaps we are losing the symbolism of a shared meal. It is possible that the use of incense is a ritual that has lost its meaning in contemporary culture. On the other hand, what does it mean at a rock concert when the audience holds lighters and cell phones high as they sing along with the most profane lyrics, which they know by heart?

If rituals are performed carelessly, they may lose their meaning. I suspect many modern eyes cannot see any connection between the ritual of the sacraments and eternal truth or salvation history. They appear to be empty, neurotic actions, and people will not want to participate in anything resembling neurosis. The American bishops’ document, Sing to the Lord, states: “Faith grows when it is well expressed in celebration. Good celebrations can foster and nourish faith. Poor celebrations may weaken it.” Over the last 40 years, we have had pains growing into our revised rituals and we have often stumbled over our symbols, making fools of ourselves while trying to figure out what is required of us as we make the ritual our own.

Why then do we come together as church, and what is supposed to happen in church? We are all temples of the Holy Spirit; Jesus lives in us, and we can place ourselves in God’s presence. We can each read Scripture and meditate on it. But there is Jesus’ legacy: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there am I in their midst.” There is an aspect of Christian life – a mystery, if you will – which can only be experienced in community. Perhaps we can take a clue from large gatherings like the aforementioned rock concerts, sports events, movies, performances of plays and musicals, and convention gatherings of a thousand or more people. Those who attend these events are there by choice; they are of one mind with a single purpose. By focusing on a single action, by cheering together, singing together, dancing together, laughing and crying together (what, you don’t cry at movies?), boundaries collapse and a crowd of individuals becomes one body. We imagine this is what happened when Ezra the scribe (in Nehemiah 8) read from the book of the Law from morning till noon, and “all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Law.” So Ezra tells them, “Rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.” “Then all the people went to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been expounded to them.”

I believe this scene illustrates what Jesus was describing when he said that “authentic worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23) Genuine worship, grounded in sincerity and honesty, connects us to the Holy Spirit and to the universe of eternal truth. It reaches into the core of our being and lifts us out of kronos, clock time, and into kairos, the teachable moment, the eternal Now. So, as Pilate once cynically asked: “What is truth?” (John 18:38) This raises a thorny, fundamental issue: what do we believe? Do we find truth in “Time to Say Goodbye,” but figure that scripture is “nice,” inspiring, but that Jesus lived in a dream world that has nothing to do with our 21st-century lives? This question impinges on many issues, from why people don’t sing in church to the disaffectation and absence of young people. If music is to bring us to “worship in Spirit and in truth,” it has to “sound and echo in our soul” and reach to the roots of our personal truth. It must be an utterly honest expression of what we bring to God. Whatever we sing has to be good music: that is, the words have to be poetry and the tune must make musical sense and fit the words like a glove. Just because the words rhyme does not make them poetry. Unfortunately, there is plenty of filler material in our hymnals which is no better than Hallmark verse. That’s the nature of the hymnal business. I won’t impugn the writers’ sincerity, but their writing is full of pious clichés. We have to be very careful of our “God-talk.” No one wants to sing anything they don’t believe. Singing something is a sign that you believe it. Thus, music used in the service of worship must be honest and genuine. If a hymn is worth singing, you should know more about what you believe and why you believe it after you sing it than before.

Father Clarence Rivers used to say, “Liturgy is either entertaining, or boring.” He was using the root sense of “entertain,” from the French entretien, a conversation, something “held between.” Perhaps “engaging” might have been a better word, but the meaning is clear: worship in Spirit and truth means involvement. Worship involves a dialog between God and people, between ministers and faithful, listening and responding, what Vatican II (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 14) describes as “full, conscious and active participation”– probably a steep demand for 8:00 Mass. The concept of entertainment requires a closer look. Everything we do in church is “per-formed,” formed by and through us. The Word of God lives because it is proclaimed, not silently read. Music must be sung. Rituals are acted out. The sacraments are given and received. Because of the classic arrangement of sacred space, with the major players up front and the “audience” as spectators, the unconscious model of church, for people of all generations, is that of entertainment. The role of the ministers and musicians is to perform; we will chuckle when appropriate, applaud on occasion and put our money in the basket.

This point of view calls for re-penting, a total change of mind, an opening of eyes and ears and heart, so that we realize that we get out of church only what we put into it. We cannot be ministered to unless we minister. What goes around, comes around. You will take from church only as much as you put into it. Liturgy, leitourgos, the “people’s work,” is hard work. It requires active listening and responding. What were the words of the psalm antiphon? If I listen to the cantor sing the first verse of an unfamiliar hymn, am I ready to come in on the second verse? At church, we cannot buy our ticket at the door and then settle back into our seats. There has been a “paradigm shift” from the church of 50 years ago. Folks of a certain age learned to worship in a context where nearly all the singing was done by the choir, except for a repertoire of some two dozen English and Latin hymns which could be sung at low Mass, benediction or novenas.

The entertainment model of church becomes pernicious when those celebrating weddings and funerals want popular music as part of their celebration. Sometimes they envision nearly all of the music being “performed” as well, either as vocal solos or instrumentally, and the music which is integral to the liturgy is given only an after-thought. They expect a popular song to sustain them when the going gets tough instead of the eternal word of God. Friends and family have been summoned to lend witness and support at this milestone, and they are tossed a bit part in the celebration. Again, the question: what do we really believe? Is the chosen scripture simply pretty words, the ritual only an act, the ultimate truth to be found in “our song” or the deceased’s favorite tune?

It might seem nonsensical to ask if entertainers and rock groups believe what they sing. But if they don’t perform the music with their whole heart, mind, soul and body, they won’t be able to “sell” the song, whether the song is “New York, New York” or “Seasons of Love.” If we can sing along with the top 40, but can’t sing the “Holy, Holy” or a hymn, what does that say about where we think the ultimate truth lies? Consider, for a moment, a birthday party. It would make no sense at all to gather around a lighted cake and recite “Happy birthday to you.” Nor do people recite “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It is ironic to recite in church Psalm 71: “I will sing of your salvation,” or for a lector to exhort us to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98). The Gloria, in its structure and expression, is a great hymn of praise, yet for most of the year it is recited. The rubrics tell us to skip the “Alleluia” unless it is sung. If our actions are to match our words, certain things cry out to be sung.

Perhaps something about worship takes us back to a formative time in our faith, memories of first holy communion and novenas, of hymns sung to the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Mother and a cathedral full of people singing “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.” These hymns may resonate deeply, express our faith, and be part of our spiritual truth. But can the contemporary community worship in Spirit and in truth with 19th-century language? Can people today honestly sing about lisping children, soothing those wracked on beds of pain, and the Heart of Jesus burning with fervent love for men? It is only human to prefer what is familiar and comfortable. “No one,” says Jesus according to Luke 5:39, “having drunk old wine, wants the new. They like the old wine better.” Some of these hymns were sung every month, and the music of the 80s was sung every week, in season and out of season, whether or not it carried the message of Scripture for that day. The latter repertoire is now the nucleus of what is sung at funerals, whether or not the words actually have anything to do with death and resurrection. “Be Not Afraid” is a song for one setting out on a journey, but once one has made the journey of death, there are no more barren deserts to cross, no more speaking in foreign lands, standing before the powers of hell (hopefully!) or bearing the insult of wicked tongues. “Here I Am, Lord,” referring to the call of the young Samuel, is a hymn about listening for the voice of God. To interpret that voice as the call of death is a stretch. The reason these songs are chosen for funerals, besides their popularity, is their emotional content. Not only are the words charged with emotion; they were learned during a time of spiritual excitement, and they carry memories of those times.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Newman - Blessed Cardinal

I wish I were in England this week. 

John Henry Newman, or Cardinal Newman as he is more commonly called, will be beatified by Pope Benedict the XVIth Sunday.  I wish I were there to share in the moment.  I am particularly grateful to God that the required miracle of Cardinal Newman was done at the behest of an American Deacon.  This simply draws me closer to Newman.

Cardinal Newman's book "The Idea of A University" is my favorite book.  It is, in fact, the book that convinced me to become a religion teacher. I often reread it before the beginning of the school year to remind me of the integrity of Catholic education and how my vocation as a teacher fits God's grand plan. I sometimes recommend it to more intellectual high school seniors on their way to undergraduate studies.  I am so grateful to my high school religion teacher, Fr. Vincent Butler, SJ, for introducing me to Newman at an early age.

I still find myself turning to Newman often.  I am taken with how many times I have quoted him in the footnotes to my homilies here at St. Benedict's.  I reread his "Parochial and Plain Sermons" and his "University Sermons" frequently. My meager home bookshelves contain seven Newman volumes, all well-turned.

Last Christmas, I made it a point to visit the chapel and place of the university which Newman founded off St. Stephen's Green in Dublin, Ireland. I share Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ's profound respect for Newman's intellect, honesty and catholic vision. Hopkins taught Greek in the university's brownstone building. Hopkins died there as well.  [None other than James Joyce - certainly not known for his love for Catholicism! - attended the school too.]

Newman's "Apologia Pro Vita Sua" had a deep impact on me when I first came across it. It grounded me and convinced me of the intellectual power of Catholicism.  I have pointed more than one intellectual convert in the RCIA process to Newman's writings.  He is, I think it is true to say, the patron of those who seek the kindly light of Truth.  I often find myself reciting his poem "The Pillar of the Cloud" more commonly called, "Lead Kindly Light," in times of doubt and uncertainty.

Many of us believe that Cardinal Newman will also become a "Doctor" of the Church at some point.  This is a rare and prestigious title for canonized saints.  It is bestowed when the teachings and writings of the saint are of special merit. Newman, you will note, is already quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for his views on the primacy of conscience.

I encourage everyone to read something by Newman this week. He has been a profound influence on my spiritual, intellectual and professional life.

Blessed John Henry Newman - pray for us.

Pope Benedict's Homily -

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

For He has regarded the low estate of His handmaiden,
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

For He who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with His arm:
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.

He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy;
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to His posterity forever.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

(Luke 1: 46-55 from RSV)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mystery and Music

On Trinity Sunday, Fr. Paul’s homily was a meditation on the Trinity as a mystery. On a recent Sunday, our reading from Colossians (1:26) spoke of “the mystery hidden from ages and generations past” and of “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” I would like to explore the idea of mystery for a moment, since mystery is ultimately what we bring to church and what we celebrate in church. Mysteries are often connected to rituals, which are what we do not only in church, but as part of our lives. I suspect that some of our traditional rituals have become less transparent in our 21st-century culture, even though we still have a deep longing for ritual in our lives. All of this impacts why we do what we do in church, and even whether we decide to bring the realities of our lives to church at all.
We are all familiar with mystery novels, movies and TV shows like “CSI.” (Actually, every story is a mystery, including the author’s purpose in telling it.) The word comes from the Greek mysterion, one meaning of which was a battle plan which became evident as the battle unfolded. And that is the way mysteries unfold: we have to piece the clues together and even follow some false leads until everything finally falls into place and hidden motives are revealed. In the Old Testament, mysterion refers to God’s plan of creation and its purpose, and God’s process of revelation. St. Paul and his followers apply mysterion to the life and person of Christ. In Lumen Gentium, the major document of Vatican II, the Church is described as the mystery and sacrament of the union with God and unity with all of humanity.
How does mystery touch our own lives? There is a saying: “Yesterday is history and tomorrow’s a mystery; today is a gift, and that’s why we call it the present.” Actually, our entire life story is a mystery. The longer we live, the more we can begin to discern God’s purpose in our lives. Why did I take this road and not another? What if . . .? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? How did the challenges of life early on prepare me for even greater challenges later? All of these questions lead ultimately to the meaning of life. Growth is a mystery. Love is a mystery, particularly between “incompatible” persons, or between parents and their teenage children! Birth is a mystery. Death is a mystery, particularly the death of a relative, a close friend, or someone who dies unexpectedly or prematurely. All of these experiences are encounters with something or someone bigger than we are. We connect these experiences to the cosmos with rituals, which are actions and signs of a spiritual reality. Birthdays, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, and funerals all have their rituals. So do the events in our spiritual journeys: conversion, initiation, baptism, Eucharist, marriage, ordination.
The early Church Fathers translated mysterion into Latin as sacramentum. Sacramentum was the oath of loyalty that soldiers took; the oath was their initiation, an outward sign of inner loyalty. St. Augustine defined a sacrament as the visible sign of invisible grace. We can see the mysterious nature of these signs: flowing water washing away sin, bread and wine becoming Body and Blood; hands and oils bringing the power of the Holy Spirit. But the sacraments are also mysteries in the way they play themselves out in our lives. How has the grace of baptism (or eucharist, or confirmation, or marriage) unfolded in your life? How is grace at work in the life of a baby who is baptized, and then not catechized? Of someone who is confirmed, and then claims to be an atheist? Of someone who leaves the priesthood? Of someone who is divorced? Each person’s encounter with Christ in a sacrament is certainly an unfolding mystery, and there is no map or GPS for that journey except prayer.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Sri Lanka 13 - From the Frontlines

Every 50 yards or so there was some young man aiming his gun at me during my visit to northwestern Sri Lanka.

I do not have a personal photo to share of these men and their guns.  I sensed that they would not take kindly to a foreigner pointing his camera at them or their outposts. So here's a stock photo of the Sri Lankan Army. It gives you an idea of the faces and guns I saw constantly up north.

They stopped us at many checkpoints.  They even took our passports for over an hour when we tried to enter a certain war-torn village. My American passport (I was travelling with Sinhalese, Tamil, Australian, Mexican, Maltese and Indian Brothers) seemed to raise particular suspicion. 

"Must be a journalist!" 

The international press has been covering the slow pace of reconstruction in Tamil areas.  The Sri Lankan Government does not want any more stories or photos coming out of these locations. 

We were denied entry.  However, we eventually entered the village via another route, less well guarded.

The heightened security remains because of suspicions that there still exist elements of the "Tamil Tigers" (LTTE), especially in the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka.  The United States, by the way, also recognizes the Tamil Tigers as a terrorist organization. So peace here is tenuous indeed. There are soldiers and frequent checkpoints throughout Colombo as well.

While the omnipresent guns certainly unsettle me, land mines frighten me more.  The signs are in abundance in the village we stayed in. There are so many types to watch for.

LAND MINE caution tape bordered our roads. 
Clearing fields is a slow meticulous process. 

The USA has given 12 million dollars 
for demining operations in northern Sri Lanka.

Families cannot return until the property is cleared.
It will be a long road back to normalcy.

Although the war is over, many people remain in IDP (Internally Displaced Person) Camps.  These camps stretch for miles along the road. UN vehicles, with their huge antennae and baby-blue coloring, drive back and forth in front of them. The camps are guarded by the Sri Lankan Army, and edged about with barbed wire and concertina wire. Barbed and concertina wire are everywhere in fact!  After the war, people do not seem to know what to do with it. It is rolled up and placed in corners now, almost decoratively. Kept just in case, I guess.

Destruction, war's only souvenir, is everywhere.  
Take a look.

 Remnants of homes.

Houses riddled with bullet holes.

The Brothers' School - bombed.

I cannot share all I have seen.  
I cannot show the man maimed by a land mine,
or the young widow's raw grief, 
or missing girls and stolen boys,
or the dead, buried in forgotten places, stumbled upon now.

The parish priest making rounds on his motorcycle

I can share with you that 
the Church is here:
 feeding the hungry;
    giving drink to the thirsty;
       clothing the naked;
          sheltering the homeless;
            visiting the sick;
              ransoming the captive, 
                and burying the dead.

Residents of the Christian Brothers' Home for teenage Tamil Orphans

The Church is here: 
   instructing the ignorant; 
   counseling the doubtful; 
   admonishing sinners;
   bearing wrongs patiently; 
   forgiving offenses willingly;
   comforting the afflicted;
   praying for living & dead.

The Church is here gently showing a wounded world Christ's peace.
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
deacon bill+

I have never had so many guns pointed at me in my life!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Sri Lanka 12 - Ut Pictura Poesis

Giving Form to Matter
Do you ever look back and wonder "does life matter?"

Life matters dearly
  to the orphaned girls I met today
  whose giggles reminded me
  that they too
  want to live, and move,
  and have their being.

Life matters dearly
   to those manly builders -
   dreaming of restful lives
   in earth's sleepy corners.

Life matters dearly
   to the quiet people, barely seen,
   hemmed by fear, hatred, violence.
   Robbed of all, but life itself.

Life matters dearly
   to the boy who swings the censer
   - honored to perfume the world! -
    to let the living breathe anew.

Life matters dearly
   to old women whose gift is rice,
   who toil stirring, stoking, serving
   every day of their lives.
   (This day for me.)

Life matters dearly
   to children 
   who cannot get enough of it.
   They wonder: who? and why? 
   and will you stay to play?

Life matters dearly
   to this villager at rest.
   "Thanks for noticing me."
   Few photos in my life.   
   "To whom would I show them?"

Life matters dearly
   to this gentle old Brother
   and aged guest,
   one in wisdom, in grace,
   and in Christ, 
   the Bread of Life.

Life matters dearly 
to me too.

And I am reminded...
...what we have heard,
what we have seen with our own eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life.
for this life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it.   1 John 1-2

blessing and peace from the village mission church of St. John Baptist de La Salle,
Jakaduwa, Sri Lanka.

your deacon+

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sri Lanka 11 - Tsunami !!!!

The signs are everywhere. 

Go to high ground.

It can be a bit unsettling. 
I cannot even swim.

All of a sudden, on 26 December 2004, over thirty-thousand Sri Lankans lost their lives in a matter of minutes. Many were simply swept out to sea; their bodies never found. Many of the poor who died were buried in mass unmarked graves. 

It all happened so quickly. If you can bear it, here is a short (26 second) video from National Geographic that captures just a little of the instant destruction, terror and helplessness:

It is almost unimaginable. 

The high ground I am staying on overlooks the small fishing community of Mutwal.  The tiny thatch homes there were washed away.  All of them.  

79% of the fishing boats were lost - their only source of income. Vestiges of that fateful day are still around.
            That day, the villagers ran up to our school.
They lived here for a month.  
       They were afraid to return to low land. 

They had nothing to return to.  

144 families, over 600 people, ate, slept and prayed at De LaSalle College until their fear subsided enough to move on with their lives.

Sri Lanka is a small nation. For comparison sake, New York State alone is almost 4 times as big as Sri Lanka. But they have had more than their share of heartache.

I am proud of the work the Church is doing here.  Brothers of the Christian Schools, like Br. Tarcisius F.S.C. the principal of De LaSalle College, are humbly doing God's work every single day, not just when a disaster strikes. Their level of commitment is extraordinary because to them it is so ordinary.

Young Br. Anton F.S.C., pictured below in his white robe, is a religion teacher at De LaSalle College (what we Americans call  "high school"). Many of his students and their families still suffer the material and emotional effects of the 2004 tsunami.  Br. Anton and I have had many discussions about religious education; we compare and contrast religious education here and in the USA.  He would like to see America.  I hope he comes to visit soon!

Say a prayer with me for all the victims of the tsunami...
Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.

Blessings from the now tranquil Indian Ocean,
deacon bill+

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sri Lanka 10 - A Catholic Feast

Sri Lankan Catholics - about 7% of the population - celebrate their parish feasts with great festivity. The Catholicism on the Island comes via the Portuguese who arrived in 1505. They called the island Ceilão, thus the name Ceylon. [I have fond childhood memories of my mother drinking Lipton's Tea from Ceylon.]

I am in the parish of St. James Church, Mutwal.  They celebrate their patronal feast with grand exuberance!  Poles with crosses on top, like ship masts, are raised throughout the area. Red and white banners, like sails, fly in the wind. 

Even the streets and the church parking lot are decorated with banners in anticipation.

There is a solemn novena to St. James.  Hymn singing, a litany, the rosary and Mass are all broadcast over speakers every evening from 7 to 9 pm. It drowns out everything for about a mile around! An arch decorated with coconuts is constructed for the feast.

I attended the final evening Mass in Sinhala.  St. James' Day fell on a Sunday this year. Well before Mass, people were coming up just to touch the statue of St. James that would be carried in procession...

vendors lined the procession route...

and people stopped by to see the "boat" St. James would be carried in. (btw - I vote Sri Lankan women the best dressed of anywhere I've been in the world.  Colorful and elegant at all times. Whether in saris, salvars, dresses or skirts, they are always beautifully attired.)

After Mass, the procession through the streets began.  There were throngs of people vying for the best vantage point.

The procession wound its way, under lighted arches, to the sounds of loud fireworks and four marching bands. They pulled out all the stops for their parish feast day!

It was an amazing nine days.

I prayed for the people of St. Benedict's this week.  May our parish community be filled with exuberance too!

For more information about St. James, the parish or the annual novena, visit the website of St. James Church, Mutwal at:

Peace and blessings from Colombo,
your deacon.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sri Lanka 9 - Loudspeakers!

I am staying near Mutwal Jumma Mosque shown here. I can see the minaret clearly through my kitchen window.

More noticeably, however, five times a day the loudspeakers announce Allahu Akbar!  God is great! (and the rest of the adhan). Having visited Muslim places before, I am used to it.  But it can be jarring sometimes no matter how accustomed you are to Muslim practice.  In fact, that is the point - the announcement is supposed to jar you out of the secular sphere and into prayer. 

FYI - Muslims, like Catholics, comprise about 7% of the population of Sri Lanka.  For comparison sake, the USA is about 22% Catholic; Muslim numbers are notoriously difficult to pin down in the USA so I'll let you do your own research on that. Worldwide, Catholics and Muslims have about 1 billion adherents each.

It's always a good practice to quote Church teaching directly when dealing with another religion.  Here is what the Second Vatican Council taught in Nostra Aetate 3: The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.

Notice how many things we have in common with Muslims!  Our histories have taught us that we must work together diligently to achieve peace and freedom for all people.
God is great indeed.

Sri Lanka 8 - Tamil Children

Every child has a story to tell.
I travel to hear them.

I will not tell their stories here.
They will.

Read about war and peace, fear and love in their young eyes.

All photos were taken in ministries run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools (F.S.C.) in northern Tamil areas. Thank you for supporting their work and mine.
[I will tell some of their stories in a later post.]

Peace and blessings from Mannar.
Your deacon...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sri Lanka 7 - "All experience is an arch..."

Studying a map in California!

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink 
Life to the lees...
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro' 
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades 
For ever and for ever when I move. 
- Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

My High School English teacher, Fr. Robert Cregan, SJ, now of blessed memory, made us memorize Tennyson's entire poem.  It is still stuck in my head after all these years.

I love travel because it is another form of learning.  While I travel to teach every year, I really travel to learn. Travel humbles me. It makes me more human, thus it makes me more catholic.

I traveled to a Hindu Temple Monday. It is only a short walk from where I am staying. There are many Hindus in Sri Lanka.

Once my shoes were off,
and I crossed the threshold,
a world of gods and goddesses awaited.

There is the playing of instruments, chanting, movement, blessings and offerings....

And lots of bell ringing!

The Hindu priest moves fire in a circular motion around the deity (aarti).

Here are some close ups of the god/goddess shrines

Nandi facing Shiva linga.

After offering their gifts of fruits to the gods/goddesses, the faithful carried coconuts with camphor burning on top, as they circumambulated the shrine.

As I watched these faithful Hindus,
I thought of all we have in common:
sacrifice and reverence,
     intercessory prayer,
          holy shrines and images,
               pilgrimages and priests,
                    bells and smells,
                         humility and humanity,
but mostly I thought of how
all experience is an arch wherethro' gleams the untravell'd world.
I cannot rest from travel.
I have too much to learn.

from the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate 2, 1965.
Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust...

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.(4)

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.