Happy New Year

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language,And next year’s words await another voice – To make an end is to make a beginning. (T.S. Eliot)

I look forward to sharing thoughts with you in 2017!


Journey of the Magi

December 22, 2016
Dear Friends,

Once again, this year my Christmas reflection is T.S. Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi. Eliot retells the story of the Magi who travelled to Palestine to visit the newborn Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. This narrative, told from the point of view of one of the magi, expresses themes of alienation and feelings of powerlessness in a world that has changed. Many would resonate with that today. For all of us, however, the message of Christmas is a sign and an assurance of hope. We need to remind each other about that from time to time…..
Many kind regards and every good wish for Christmas 2016. May 2017 be a year of grace for all.


The Journey Of The Magi

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

A New Social Morality

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
17 December 2016 

Intense and often hateful polarization in politics and religion are a result of changing values within major segments of our population. As people reaffirm their identity, the assertion of opposing beliefs and values threatens people and creates anxieties. How one responds is crucial. 

Some forms of political and religious polarization have always been with us, of course, and probably will always be with us. When polarization and accompanying violence reach a dangerous high point, however, the warning lights begin to flash. 

Historically, our survival as individuals and as groups within U.S. society has been based on shared values sustained by government, churches, schools, and the media. When there is no longer a socio-cultural common vision and fake news and fiction are promoted as truth, polarization becomes life-threatening. That of course is what’s happening today. The packaging of information has become more important than the content. The best-selling news story more important than the most truthful. Honesty becomes what people want to buy not what is truly honest.

Within less than an hour, for instance, a hateful Twitter comment or an unfounded Facebook remark can get promoted as reality; and life becomes intensely unpleasant and often mortally dangerous for the people mentioned in the posting. Opposing groups dominate and attempt to vanquish the other. Mr. Trump is an example. The people he despises the most are not America’s traditional “enemies” but the American men and women who disagree with him 

This post is not about Donald Trump, per se, but his conflicted election has underlined the new predicament in which we find ourselves. Some observers fear the situation is life-threatening. Are we becoming a house divided against itself? Will America explode? 

We have inherited transforming ideas from the cultural revolution of the 1960s, key among these: the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, the drive for women’s equality, the questioning of institutional religion, and the whole question of hard-nosed militarism as a solution for contemporary international problems.  

In our contemporary American socio-cultural growth and change, we see as well increased hatred and violent social intolerance within segments of American society. They have gone hand in hand with a weakening of what we call social morality, our social glue, that is an essential part of civility and shared civil life. 

Social morality directs, guides, and restrains individual and group behavior. In day-to-day conduct, social morality is normally more important than the law. Generally speaking, law prescribes minimalist standards of conduct. A person can act legally and still not act ethically or civilly or politely. That’s where we are. It has been front page news. 

Today, we observe almost routine ethical scandals in American political and corporate life. We witness increased hatred for blacks, gays, Mexicans, Muslims, and assorted immigrants. Ironic of course for a country of immigrants. We see a lack of civility in public places, denigrating language from political and religious leaders, and increasingly violent public confrontations. Donald Trump is, in fact, example, symbol, and instigator. He is not the grand inquisitor but the great self-centered authoritarian leader whose authoritarian followers, more comfortable in their 1950s fantasy life than in our contemporary changing society, trust and follow him blindly. A very unAmerican situation. 

So we have the big contemporary dilemma in American life: How do we reconstruct a viable social morality that will unite us in our diversity? A social morality that stresses that all are created equal. A social morality that stimulates and promotes tolerance, dialogue, and collaboration. A social morality that will promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. 

I remain the long-term optimist. It can and will happen. I believe Millennial Americans have a key role to play here in constructing a viable new social morality. (It is a deadly risk for churches to ignore the Millennials.) 

In constructing a new social morality, we need the close and consistent engagement of families (in the great variety of family forms), schools, businesses, and churches.  

And they all need to affirm a set of eleven core American values: 

(1) Patriotism that sees the USA as a collaborating country in an interdependent world. 

(2) Self-confidence rooted in the belief that every American has self-worth. 

(3) Individualism for self and for the other. 

(4) Belief in hard work and productivity that enhances human life. 

(5) Religious beliefs that should critique a country but not control it. 

(6) Child-centeredness that pushes right to life beyond simply arguing about abortion. 

 (7) Community and charity seen as essential exercises in civil life and responsibility. 

(8) Pragmatism and compromise as we walk down the same road. 

(9) Acceptance of the diversity of ethnic and cultural and religious backgrounds, and our ability your respect and live with each other. 

(10) Cooperation with other countries as the authentic way to make America great.

(11) Hunger for common ground. 

I close with the prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood as to understand,

to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Where Are We Going? What’s Happening?

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent
Posted on 9 December 2016

The first reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this week end reminds us:

Strengthen the hands that are feeble, 

make firm the knees that are weak,

say to those whose hearts are frightened:

Be strong, fear not!

Those thoughts are in the back of my head as I read news stories about the new Vatican document, The Gift of the Priestly Vocation, issued on Wednesday, December 7th and signed by Pope Francis. Most surprising in this new document is not just that it reaffirms celibacy for priests but that it reiterates the narrow teaching of a document issued in 2005 by the Congregation for Catholic Education. That Vatican directive had been issued in response to the clergy sexual abuse crisis; and it was seen by many as way to (unfairly) blame sex abuse on gay priests. 

I quote from The Gift of the Priestly Vocation:
The Church, while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture’. Such persons, in fact, find themselves in a situation that gravely hinders them from relating correctly to men and women.” 

When I first read about this most recent document, signed by the pope, my thoughts went back immediately to his famous July 22, 2013 airplane interview, when he said: “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” Francis spoke to reporters in Italian but used the English word “gay.” 

What does this latest Vatican document mean? I really don’t know. Will it force more gay men to lie about their sexual orientation if they want to be ordained? Will it encourage more Catholic institutions to fire gay and lesbian employees? Will it encourage more priests to simply move on? Commenting about this document in the National Catholic Reporter (8 December 2016), the Jesuit journalist Thomas Reese observed: “I sometimes think that it would be good for the church if 1,000 priests came out of the closet on the same Sunday and simply said, ‘We’re here!’ I don’t think the church is ready for that yet, but someday it should be.” 

Like many of you, I know more than a few very fine Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, and Protestant ordained ministers and seminarians who are gay. Over many years I have helped educate a great many gay seminarians, most of whom were healthy and well-balanced men of faith and Christian zeal. Thinking about these men, I never thought about “don’t ask, don’t tell.” My concern has always been “does it really make a difference?” 

One of my homophobic friends said not so long ago: “I thank Almighty God that Jesus was not gay.” With a chuckle, and wanting to edge him on a bit, I replied “I guess we really don’t know. The historical Jesus did seem to have a thing about the ‘beloved’ young fellow John.” We will never know. It is all hypothetical. To me it makes no difference.  

One thing we do know about Jesus of Nazareth, of course, is that he was not a white, male, supremacist. These Trumpian racist days, I find that important to emphasize. 

Gaudete!  In Jesus, we rejoice.

Mixed Voices: Contemporary Catholic Sounds

Second Sunday of Advent

4 December 2016

Once upon a time, Roman Catholic bishops sang in unison. Today one hears a variety of tunes, not always harmonious. Theological polarization from the papacy to Philadelphia is the new thing. All in all, I suspect it may be more a sign of life than a reason for anxiety. 

This week’s reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent begins where our independence began, in Philadelphia, the city of fraternal love. In new guidelines issued by Archbishop Charles Chaput, Catholics in Philadelphia, who are divorced and civilly remarried, will be allowed to receive Holy Communion, ONLY if they abstain from sexual relations and live like “brother and sister.” Fraternal love? 

In his guidelines, the Archbishop of Philadelphia also asks his priests to help Catholics who are attracted to people of the same sex but “find chastity very difficult” by encouraging them to seek penance more frequently. And of course, people living in a same-sex marriage cannot receive Holy Communion, because they are living in serious sin. 

The Philadelphia guidelines are Archbishop Chaput’s response to Pope Francis’ appeal to bishops, in his apostolic exhortation on family love Amoris Laetitia that they be more understanding of divorced and remarried Catholics as well as people in same-sex relationships. Amoris Laetitia called on bishops to show greater mercy and flexibility to bring Catholics back to the church. I don’t think brothers and sisters will be running back to the Catholic Church in Philadelphia. 

They might, however, out West, where we hear a different episcopal sound. 

Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, by way of a follow-up to a diocesan synod held in October, has asked his priests to encourage Catholics, who are divorced and remarried, to consider whether “God is calling them to return to the Eucharist.” McElroy has instructed his pastors to post notices in parish bulletins, inviting divorced and remarried Catholics to “utilize the internal forum of conscience” in making their decisions whether they should receive Holy Communion. The decision is theirs, the bishop stressed. 

Back on the East coast, in the Archdiocese of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, has praised the pro-life stance of the President-elect Donald Trump and said he hopes the new administration will correct eight years of abuses by the Obama administration. “Sadly,” Cardinal Dolan stressed, “the Obama administration has been an ally to abortion advocates in advancing oppressive policies. It imposed the so-called HHS mandate forcing even religious organizations to cover contraceptives, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance plans.” 

Cardinal Dolan did not comment about Donald Trump’s (pro-life?) rhetoric about immigrants and refugees. His new cardinal neighbor, Joseph Tobin, however, has been more than outspoken. Tobin, the new Cardinal Archbishop of Newark — as the crow flies, only about 9 miles from Dolan in New York City — warns that the church will have four difficult years ahead if it insists on providing a welcome to immigrants and refugees during a Donald Trump presidential administration. Tobin stressed that anyone who wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out migrants — as President-elect Trump has proposed — is “not Christian.” 

Another newly-named U.S. Cardinal, Kevin J. Farrell, believes U.S. bishops, working together, should have discussed pastoral guidelines for implementing Pope Francis’s exhortation Amoris Laetitia, before individual bishops, like Archbishop Chaput, began issuing guidelines for their own dioceses. Farrell, the former Bishop of Dallas, has just been appointed prefect of the new Vatican Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. About Philadelphia’s Chaput, Farrell is very clear: “I don’t share the view of what Archbishop Chaput did, no…. I think there are all kinds of different circumstances and situations that we have to look at – each case as it is presented to us.” 

Some fascinating contemporary episcopal rhetoric, is echoing from Australia as well. Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane says it is time for a Catholic re-thinking of some traditional Catholic terms if the church is going to have any relevance and credibility today. Terms he specifically mentioned are: the “indissolubility” of marriage; the “intrinsically disordered” nature of homosexual acts; calling divorce and civil remarriage “adultery;” and the old maxim of “love the sinner but hate the sin.” 

One final bit of contemporary Roman Catholic drama. The senior Vatican lawyer, Archbishop Pio Vito Pinto, who leads the Vatican’s appeal court, says that by calling into question Pope Francis’ faithfulness to Catholic doctrine, four cardinals (see last week’s blog), among them the U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, have caused a “grave scandal” in the Catholic Church and should be demoted and forced to surrender their red hats.  

Cardinal Burke, who already has had to surrender his Vatican job, and has no desire to hand in his crimson hat and cape, responded by launching a crusade of prayer on December 1st, called “Operation Storm Heaven,” praying: “That bishops and priests will have the courage to teach the Truth and defend the Faith against all her enemies both within the Church and outside the Church.”  

I close with a citation from the Australian Archbishop Coleridge, who stressed that being pastoral means getting “in touch with the facts of human experience.” 

“It means,” says Coleridge, “that we, like God, abandon the world of abstraction to engage the real lives of real people…. This will mean a new kind of listening to the truth of people’s experience. From a new listening, will come a new language that people can understand because it’s in touch with their lives. That’s what it means to be a truly pastoral Church.” 

In the Advent Wreath Prayer for the First Week of Advent, we asked Christ to come to our aid. This week, we ask him to move us to action.