Celebrating Francis

Today is the feast day of one of my favorite saints, Saint. Francis of Assisi. Even during the years I practiced Buddhism, I felt a great affinity for Francis. I am not alone; this is a saint who is beloved by many, including the current Pope, who took Francis’ name.

In a talk I gave this past Monday night, at the first session of a monthly series on Christians mystics I am co-presenting at St. Catherine’s, I reflected on several elements of Francis’ spirituality.

One of the central elements of Francis’ spirituality was a life of poverty and concern for the marginalized. Francis looked at the Gospels and read:

“if you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions, and give to the poor…and come, follow me.”

“Take nothing for your journey, neither staff nor knapsack, shoes nor money.”

“If any will come after me, let them renounce self, take up their cross and follow me.”

Francis read these lines and he took them seriously. For Francis, poverty was a way both of imitating Christ and of growing in love for his brothers. It was also a way of avoiding the temptation to sin that exists when one has property. In the words of Sister Ilia Delio

Just as Francis realized that God humbly bends over in love to embrace us in Jesus Christ, so too he realized that the suffering of humanity and all creation could only be lifted up through solidarity in love. Francis lived a poor, itinerant life but he wrote very little on poverty. What was important to him was to live—not without possessions—but without possessing (sine proprio). He was keenly aware of the human person as weak and fragile and thus prone to greed, selfishness and power. To be poor is to live without possessing anything that could prevent true human relatedness as a brother.

In a similar vein, Steven Clissold writes:

Francis passionately believed that the love of material possessions lay at the root of society’s ills and of man’s estrangement from his maker. Property implied the needs for arms with which to defend it, and led to the struggle for power and prestige and to the chronic warfare which was the scourge of his times.

We would do well to emulate this aspect of Francis’ spirtuality. His wisdom is as relevent today as it was in the 12th Century.

Note: I neglected to record the talk I gave on Francis last week. But for those who may be interested here is the prayer material I distributed to participants for their individual reflection during our session.

The U.S. is reeling from yet another school shooting – the 45th this year – in which a 26-year old man killed ten and wounded seven others at a community college in Oregon. The shooter had six guns with him (and another seven at his apartment) and was also armed with a flak jacket with steel plates and five magazines of ammo.

“America is the only developed country where when someone asks if you heard about that campus shooting, you have to clarify, ‘Which one?’ That is unacceptable. Something has to change,” Colin Goddard, one of the survivors of the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, commented.

This is unacceptable. In the words of President Obama the other day, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough.” By all means, let us pray for those who were killed and injured, and for their families and friends. And let us pray for the shooter. But that is not enough. We need to do more.

I believe that part of what we have to do is enact meaningful gun control, a position I know not everyone agrees with.

But I also don’t believe gun control is the total answer. The shooter in this case, according to one news report, left behind a document that “bitterly referred to his lonely existence with few human contacts outside of the Internet.” He spoke of an “isolated life with little promise.”

Too many young people fall through the cracks. They lack family ties or other supports. In his speech to Congress last week, Pope Francis called attention to “those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young.” He said that while many of them look forward to a future of countless possibilities, “so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”

The question is: What are we as a society, as a Church, as brothers and sisters, going to do about that?

Many dioceses around the United States are celebrating the annual Red Mass during this time of year.

The Red mass is an historical tradition within the Catholic Church that dates back to the thirteenth century when the Mass officially opened the term of the court for most European countries. It is currently celebrated in dioceses throughout the United States to invoke God’s blessing upon all those involved in the passage and administration of laws, including members of the judiciary, lawyers, legislators, and law enforcement and governmental personnel.

We celebrated the Red Mass earlier this week at the Law School. After communion, the law school dean, Rob Vischer, led us in the Prayer to St. Thomas More, patron saint of the lawyers. Here is the prayer:

I pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, that I, with you, St. Thomas More, may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients’ tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul.

Pray for me, and with me, that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain – their good servant, but God’s first. Amen.

Yesterday was the third session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  As I’ve already shared in my posts following the first two sessions, the reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ. Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

We began our session with a rich discussion of insights participants gained from their reflection this past week on the Beatitudes. Then we moved on to the focus of today’s session: the Eucharist. In my talk, I shared some implications that flow from the belief of Catholics and some Protestants that the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ, some thoughts about why that changes everything about who and what we are in the world and in relation to each other.

I also invited participants to reflect on the Eucharist as an agent of transformation – of us and of the world. In that context, I quoted something Michael Himes wrote about the Eucharist in his book The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism (a small volume which I frequently recommend to people). Himes writes

Not only does the Eucharist make us who we are, it tells us where we are going….[If bread and wine] can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point….The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ…That is the destiny that the Eucharist reveals to us now: the transformation of the universe into the presence of God, so that the presence of God may be everything in everything. The Eucharist makes us who we are and reveals to us where we are going. That is why we are a Eucharistic people; because we are made into a people by the sealing of the covenant in the Eucharist, a people who know what the destiny of the world is.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:29.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the “Great Commandment.”

One of the books I am reading is Journeys Home 2: The Journeys of Men and Women to the Catholic Church, edited by Marcus Grodi. As its name suggests it is a collection of conversion stories of a number of men and women who have found their way to (or back to) the Catholic Church.

I want to share a small excerpt written by someone who was formerly a Dutch Reformed Calvinist. He writes

Like all converts I ever have heard of, I was hauled aboard not by those Catholic who try to “sell” the Church by conforming it to the spirit of the times by saying Catholics are just like everyone else, but by those who joyfully held out the ancient and orthodox faith in all its fullness and prophetic challenge to the world. The minimalists, who reduce miracles to myths, dogmas to opinions, laws to values, and the Body of Christ to a psycho-social club, have always elicited wrath, pity of boredom from me.

Francis and the Family

We kicked off the new year of Adult Faith Formation at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes with a program on Pope Francis. Our goal was to have some discussion both of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. and of the themes of the first two and a half years of his papacy.

Family was one of the themes that generated a lot of discussion in our gathering. The family has been a frequent theme in Pope Francis’ talks. He has repeatedly said that the family as an institution needs to be protected. Speaking in Bolivian he said,
“I would like to mention in particular the family, which is everywhere threatened by domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest, the abandonment of the elderly, and children left to the streets.” In his address to Congress on Thursday morning, he said

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and beauty of family life.

And in his talk during yesterday’s Celebration of Families, he called family “the most beautiful thing God has made”, calling it a “fundamental pillar of social life.

Pope Francis has resisted efforts by both the left and right to pigeonhole him into limiting family discussion to controversial topics like same-sex marriage, divorce, or contraception (and in his speech to Congress he did not mention any of those by name). Rather, he wants to focus on the range of challenges affecting the family, and he has called on the bishops to find concrete solutions to the difficult and significant challenges facing families. In his speech to Congress, the particular family issue he called attention to are (in his words) “those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young.” He said that while many of them look forward to a future of countless possibilities, “so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”

During our discussion, someone raised the question of what we, as Catholic parishes, are doing to support families, especially families with young children and single mothers. It is an important question. As our discussion of this question suggested, there are a range of issues, including young couples who don’t feel they have the wherewithal to start a family, to those who do not have an extended family to help support in times of difficulty.

There are a range of things we might do to support that family. A start is asking ourselves what we are doing now and what are the needs of our communities. These are questions all of our church communities should be asking themselves.

Yesterday I had the fortune to be present at two events featuring Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in NY and a prolific, challenging and inspiring author. In the afternoon I attended her visit to a small seminar of MAT at St. Catherine’s University, where I teach as an adjunct, and in the evening I attended the public talk co-sponsored by St. Kate’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

The afternoon session was informal. No presentation, just dialogue with Johnson, with questions ranging from her recent ecologically-focused work and some of her earlier writings. At one point, when the subject of women in the Church had been raised, someone asked her why she stays in the Church. She spoke about the need to stay in to help move the institution forward and about the value of community.

More importantly though is the truth of our faith. In that context, Johnson relayed a story from the event at Fordham a couple of years ago that involved a dialogue between Steven Colbert and Archbishop Dolan of New York. At one point during that, someone asked Colbert why he stays in the Church. As relayed by Johnson, Colbert said, “because the story has a happy ending.” At which point he stood up and walked to the front of the stage and gesticulating, said excitedly, “The tomb was empty!” A good reminder during time when our discussion of various issues involving the Church – whatever they may be (and they vary for different people) – get us frustrated or angry or upset. We have a truth claim about death and resurrection, and above all, that is what matters.

In the evening, Johnson focused on the environment, making a case for our concern for the whole of creation and for moving away from a human-centered locus of concern. She grounds her argument in both evolution and Christian claims about creation and Christ, connecting Christ not only to human beings but to all of creation and the world. (For a full exploration of her argument, see her newest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.)

She ended her talk discussing the need for conversion to the earth, suggesting three aspects to that. First, intellectual conversion, that is, a turn from a human-centered to a God-centered view that has room for seeing all creation as meaningful. Second, emotional conversion, by which she means a need to feel compassion for all living creatures and all of nature. And finally a practical conversion that calls us to think about all of our choices in terms of their effect on the environment.

It may be that Johnson overstates in saying that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si, is the most important encyclical ever written by a Pope. But no one can ignore the damage we are doing to our home and the importance of taking action to preserve it.


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