Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boston's Blizzard of January 27th

To see photos of the blizzard in Boston, Massachusetts, click on the link below:

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Righteous Anger

The U.S. news circuits have carried stories all week long about the air pressure in footballs marked below the required levels. The New England Patriots have been vilified and condemned with benefit of the results of an investigation. No one wants a sport that they hold dear to be tainted by an imbalance of power by breaking the rules.

This message is not about the Patriots but is about our relationship to rules.

From early on in life, rules are introduced to our childhood games so that no one gains an unfair advantage over another. We are not given equal skills and abilities to succeed in each endeavor and we have all found ourselves in situations where we want to bend the rules to our advantage or we stop playing the game because we recognize we cannot compete well. Those rules become an important sense of equilibrium for us and we appeal to the rules as principles of integrity. Sometimes, we do not even bother finishing the game if we feel like someone has unfairly gained an advantage on us. Rules become our friends and cling close to them, especially when we are the weaker competitor.

We also hate rules. In competitions, we sometimes react with glee when we found a way to win that bent the rules and no one but a few of us know. Weren't we clever? We cry foul when the rules no longer serve us and we demand that they be changed to give us a better advantage, whether it is fair or not.

We disregard the rules whenever we can. We do not want to wait in lines so we try to cut in line because we know someone closer to the front. We are proud of our cleverness. We take whatever advantage we can. We also scan to see if there is shorter line and we will dash across aisles to get to that line, even if we cut off an elderly man or a mother who is trying to get her children to follow her.

When we are driving down the road, a thought enters into our mind and we bang a U-turn rather than follow the rules for safety. Or, we are in the left lane and we decide to take a right hand turn so we pass recklessly into the two other lanes to get what we want right away. We throw out our sense of safety and concern for the other for our self-centered concerns. We are bullies in just about every sphere of life. We hold ourselves as clever people because we made a decision that benefits us immediately, and though we threatened the safety of others, we made it to our goal. Is that action laudable? I do not find it to be so.

Books that instruct us how to take the best advantage of situations abound in stores and online. Be clever. Be surreptitious and cunning because the strong survive and are rewarded. Many cheat on taxes because they do not want to pay the government. We remain silent when a market charges us less for the cost of the goods we purchase, but we hold the store in disdain if they accidentally overcharge us. If the value of our mortgage goes down below market rate, we want to send the keys back to the bank. We resent our neighbor who was able to take an advantage of a program that gives them a financial break while we try to follow the rules and do things the right way.

Wisdom Literature in the Bible provides many instructions on dealing with those who do wrong while we try to do what is good and right. We have no blueprint for making the right choices - other than our Scripture and our conscience, which must be continually informed.

We get annoyed if we get a speeding ticket and we were not going as fast as the car next to us. It does not matter than we speed every day and place others' safety at risk. We simply do not like that the law told us our actions were negative. Everyone else speeds, runs red lights, disregards pedestrians and cyclists, and texts while driving. Why is it that poor little old me is caught? Surely, we want mercy.

We want the enforcers of the law to forgive us because we are basically good guys. At least, we are not evil people, like others. Surely people can see my goodness and my disregard of the law has no bearing on my goodness. Mercy, please! I'll do better next time (with fingers crossed behind my back.)

A whole week has passed with people on the airwaves casting dispersion on a situation in which they do not have data. Perhaps it is better for society if we were to examine our relationship to the law and mend our ways to promote the common good. When do we want mercy and compassion versus anger and condemnation. Who put us in the place to judge anyways?

Deal with your own actions and make sure they are positive. Drive safely, not fast. Obey the laws of society and promote the positive behavior and attitudes of others. Build up and encourage rather than taking down and destroying. We have a lot of work to do to change our hearts and attitudes. Perfect yourself and pay no mind to judging others. If we take care of our commitment to the law, we will simply find that we are more content, happier people. We will accept the transgressions of others with an open mind. We will create a more balanced world that has greater harmony. Work on these things first! This world needs your moral leadership. This world is longing for a better way to live.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

'If you don’t learn how to weep,' says pope, 'you’re not a good Christian!'

Thomas Reese  |  Jan. 21, 2015Faith and Justice

The most extraordinary event of the pope's Asian tour was his encounter with a weeping 12-year-old Filipina who asked why God lets bad things happen to innocent children. The encounter was unscripted so the Pope had to respond in Spanish because his written text was inadequate.
I confess that as a priest, I was never attracted to hospital ministry because I feared being hit with such questions. As a young, inexperienced priest I remember walking into a hospital room with a mother caring for a dying child. I wanted to help but felt totally inadequate with nothing to say.
Yes, I had learned all the canned explanations: It's God's will; God has a plan; she will be happy in heaven; we have to bear the cross God gives us. I was smart enough not to inflict such trite responses on a grieving mother, but I did not know what to say.
Glyzelle Palomar and so many children suffered through the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines last year. "Why did God let this happen to us?" she asked the pope, covering her face with her hands as she sobbed.
"There are many children neglected by their own parents," she told Pope Francis. "There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them, like drugs or prostitution. Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children? And why are there only very few people helping us?"
The pope first affirmed the girl for expressing herself so courageously. He told the crowd of young people at Manila's University of Santo Tomas to pay attention because she "asked the only question that does not have an answer."

The pope did not respond with a theological lecture on the mystery of evil. Rather he affirmed her tears saying, "Only when we are able to weep about the things that you lived, can we understand something and answer something."
He acknowledged that "The great question for all is: Why do children suffer? Why do children suffer?" But he finds an answer not in the head but in the heart. "Only when the heart is able to ask the question and weep can we understand something."
For Francis, the world needs to respond by helping the victims of disasters with aid and money. He notes that Christ cured the sick and fed the hungry, and so should we. But he adds, "It was only when Christ wept and was able to weep, that he understood our dramas."
Those who suffer need not only help but tears. "Today’s world needs to weep," he said. "The marginalized weep, those left aside weep, the scorned weep … but those of us who lead a life more or less without needs, don’t know how to weep. Certain realities of life are only seen with eyes cleansed by tears."
He then invited the young audience to ask themselves, "Have I learned to weep? Have I learned to weep when I see a hungry child, a drugged child on the street, a homeless child, an abandoned child, an abused child, a child used as a slave by society?" Or do we only weep when we want something for ourselves?
"Why do children suffer?" Francis asked. "The great answer we can all give is to learn to weep." He pointed to the example of Jesus in the gospels. "He wept for his dead friend; he wept in his heart for that family that had lost their daughter; he wept in his heart when he saw that mother, a poor widow, taking her son to be buried; he was moved and wept in his heart when he saw the multitudes like sheep without a shepherd. If you don’t learn how to weep, you’re not a good Christian!"
In conclusion, he says, "When we are asked, ‘Why do children suffer?’ ‘Why does this or that happen, this tragic thing in life?' May our answer either be silence or a word born of tears. Be courageous; don’t be afraid to cry."
The mystery of evil is beyond my comprehension. The answers that I have heard I find unsatisfactory. I don't find any words in the Bible that explain it. I have concluded that since it is beyond our comprehension, Jesus came not to explain suffering but to weep with us and to suffer with us. I prefer to see the cross not so much as reparation for our sins but as God's way of joining us in our suffering. Instead of preaching from the sidelines, he gets down in the dirt and suffers with us. That is real love.
The pope's words also remind me of a scene in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. When a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows begins weeping (it's a fake), a woman who lost her son in an earthquake experiences healing and says her first words since his death: "She understands."

The mother of Jesus weeps at the foot of the cross, and that is why through the centuries women who have lost their children through sickness, accidents, wars, and natural disasters, have turned to Our Lady of Sorrows for comfort. She lost a child. She understands.
Only when we weep can we can understand. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Upcoming Seraphim Concert

"For heaven is a different thing":
Choral Settings of Sacred Poetry
Jennifer Lester, Music Director

Sunday, February 8, 2015 3:00pm 
First Church (Congregational)
11 Garden St., Cambridge, MA
$20 regular / $15 students & seniors 

Friday, February 13, 2015 8:00pm
St. Cecilia Parish
18 Belvidere St., Boston, MA
$20 regular / $15 students & seniors 

Composers give voice to the exquisite beauty of the written word of poets including George Herbert, John Donne, Jones Very, and Hildegard von Bingen. Featuring a world premiere setting by Richard J. Clark, a U.S. premiere by Norwegian composer Jon Laukvik, and works by Charles Stanford, Gerald Finzi, 

Visit for more information.

Are you interested in ushering at a Seraphim Singers performance? 
Please contact Alison ( to learn more.

The Seraphim Singers

Monday, January 19, 2015

Weston Priory

Since it is a long weekend because of the Martin Luther King holiday, I retreated to Weston Priory in Vermont with the Benedictine Monks. The place is only three hours from Boston, but it certainly is a different universe. Mountains prohibit mobile signals to connect phones to one another so the sense of isolation from one’s daily world is abrupt. However, the place affords that thin space where God’s presence seems more palpable.

It is only 7:00 p.m. but the pressing darkness makes it a challenge to keep my eyes open. I want to sleep. A nearby cottage behind the one I am in shines a soft beacon of light, but the view before me as I face the mountainside is devoid of electrical lighting. Silence presses upon me as the darkness does. I want to sleep, but I go outside refreshed by the 20-degree air that makes me appreciate the warmth of my temporary abode. The dazzle of the stars lets me know there is great activity in the pervading stillness. I am aware of nature’s eyes gazing upon me as I stand in the midst of the still forest.

Compline begins in less than an hour. I wonder if I’ll make it there or whether I’ll be fast asleep. I brought three books, some work, four painting canvasses, and much to read as I’m blessed with abundant spare time, but sleep beckons.  

Update: Compline was beautiful. It is always my favorite service as it entrust our rest to the Lord’s care. At the start, I felt so sad for the brothers. One hobbled out with a cane, another advanced with a walker. The other twelve are healthy but they are aging noticeably. However, the songs were familiar and consoling. While it is not a form of music that I would often want to hear during liturgy, it has remained constant over the years. I know the monks produced records in the 60’s and 70’s and have maintained these psalmodies throughout the next decades. In the end, it lead me to consoling prayer.

Update 2: Meals with the brothers were special. You can tell from the way they relate to one another that they respect and honor each other and their guests. I was not expecting to enjoy my time with them so much and I wanted to give them space because it is a challenge to always have open hospitality for guests. Sometimes the community needs quiet times and spaces.

Five of the brothers are priests. They were diocesan priests before they became monks. I was surprised that that singing and worship appealed to me so much this time. It was very Christocentric. I happily attended each liturgy because it gave so much glory to God.

I helped the brothers clean a bit and we had nice conversations after the meals. We enjoyed one another and they were incredibly kind and gentle. As I left, I prayed for them in their difficult journey of faith. On Sunday, they leave for Mexico for  a month to commune with the Benedictine sisters.

I am always reminded of how good it is to get away from the busyness of life. Even though I just ended a sabbatical, it was full and I needed time to make an adjustment in time. I feel like I stepped off a musical carousel and I’m not ready to get back on. Ministry feels more about being than doing – a nice shift in my way of thinking.

The mountains, sunsets, stars, and the forest noises return us to nature to a place of greater harmony.

Finally, I stopped at the Vermont Country Store and I bought a Bozo the Clown punching bag. My eldest sibling, Dawn Mari, who had profound mental retardation would always receive a punching bag like this at Christmas. I bought one for my mother so she may keep memories of Dawn Mari alive.

Spanish language masses

Mass in Spanish has gone fairly well. People have been very patient with me as I learn their language. I said three masses in one week and I realized that it takes a great deal of energy to preside in another language. I decided that I would help myself out by making it easier. I chose to sing parts of the mass instead of speaking them. I figured I would be more concerned with how the singing went rather than paying attention to incorrect pronunciation. When I have been at English language masses, I noticed that I am saying a few words in Spanish. Go figure.

What I liked about this initiative is that I am dealing with a population that is remote from me. I seldom have even driven through Roxbury, but these faces became very human to me as I interacted with them after mass. It really helps me understand what it means to be Catholic because this is what unites us. People are seeking God, especially as expressed through our sacraments and rites. The nicest thing is that I am meeting nice people and they are bringing their best to church so God may address their needs.

I must have been a little convincing in my pronunciation of the language because many people start speaking to me as if I’m proficient. I keep saying “Lentamente, por favor.” The funniest part of the whole celebration was when a woman came up to me and said, “Father, thank you. I really liked your homily.” At least, I knew I communicated something about God to them.

The church is more than just the pope

Thomas Reese  |  Jan. 16, 2015Faith and Justice

Anyone who reads this column knows that I am a big fan of Pope Francis. I never thought I would see a pope like him in my lifetime. His simplicity, compassion, and commitment to the poor are genuine reflections of the Gospel message of Jesus. His support for openness and honest discussion and debate in the church are marks of his trust in the Spirit. His stress on justice, peace, and care for the environment show his focus on issues that are critical to the 21st century.
That said, I wish he knew how to talk about women in a way that would be more acceptable to educated women. I wish he would ask for the resignations of bishops who have lost credibility with their people by not following the church's rules on dealing with abusive priests.
I also get nervous when people place all of their hopes and dreams about the church on the shoulders of Francis. The pope is not the Catholic church. He has a very important role in the church, but the church is much bigger than him. It includes all of us.
For example, many journalists have asked me about the "Francis effect." Is Francis bringing people back to church?
Anecdotally, we hear from parents and grandparents that their children, who don't go to church, like the pope and say that he has changed their attitude toward the church. But so far we have no polling data to support the hypothesis of a Francis effect.
Part of the explanation is that the pope is not the Catholic church. Tip O'Neil said that all politics is local. I would argue that all religion is also local.
After a television interview, I was talking with a young producer who told me of her experience. She had been raised Catholic, but stopped going to church in college. Now she is engaged and was encouraged by her fiancé and Francis to give the church another try. After going to church a few times, she felt called to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. It was a disaster. The priest yelled at her and told her that everything bad that had happened to her was because she had not gone to confession in 10 years.
There will be no "Francis effect" if when people return to the church they do not meet someone like Francis at their parish. Going to confession today is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know whether you will meet the compassionate Jesus or some angry, judgmental crank who thinks it is his job to tell people how bad they are. This is a form of abuse about which the church has done nothing.
Nor should we limit our focus to the clergy. Parish staff can be tempted to clericalism, and parish communities can ignore new parishioners who can feel lost in a crowd of people.
Try this experiment. Go to a Catholic church you have never attended and see how long it takes before someone initiates a conversation with you. Then go to an Evangelical church and try the same experiment. The Evangelicals will win every time.
Organizational theorists remind us that to reform an institution requires more than just rearranging the organizational chart. It requires a change in culture, or what we Christians call a spiritual conversion. A pope can point the way through both word and example, but unless we get on board there will be no permanent change in the church.
For centuries, the Catholic church has presumed that the role of the clergy is to be active and the role of the laity is to be passive. The Second Vatican Council tried to kill that notion, but old patterns die slowly.
In Brazil, Francis led the bishops through an examination of conscience, which included the question: Do we give the laity “the freedom to continue discerning, in a way befitting their growth as disciples, the mission which the Lord has entrusted to them? Do we support them and accompany them, overcoming the temptation to manipulate them or infantilize them?”
When conversation turns to the priest shortage, I sometimes joke, "Maybe God knows what she is doing. Maybe this is the only way to end clericalism in the church."
The positive side of the priest shortage is that the few remaining priests (and sisters) can't do everything and if the church is to survive, the laity must step forward and be empowered to make the church prosper. One pastor I admired used to joke, "More power to the people; less work for the father."
Francis has given us hope and shown us the way, but it is up to us to pick up the ball and run with it. There is no room in the church for passive observers; we are all called to be the body of Christ active in our world today. That means participating in or supporting parish programs for liturgical music, hospitality, continuing education, Scripture discussion, youth ministry, and social justice, to mention just a few.
Francis' desire for a "poor church for the poor" or for the church to be a "field hospital" has to be incarnated at the parish level or it will not happen at all. 
[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]