I think we can learn a lot from simple people. The Amish are a small community of Christians that few notice, but I think they, and people like them, will inherit the earth.
Yesterday I rode my brother’s old bike over country roads to the farmhouse where I grew up near Shippensburg, Pennsylvania. The rolling hills and Appalachian ridges were splendidly sunbathed in unusually dry and clear air. Over the years, Amish families have bought many of the farms along these roads. A tranquility has descended upon this part of the country because the Amish do not use gasoline-powered machinery. Amidst all the hand-wringing about climate change, this good folk consume the least natural resources and emit the fewest toxins into our air and water. They have never driven a car or flown in a jet-fueled aircraft. While the global warming experts officiously fly to and fro between important international conferences, luxuriate in carbon-consuming hotels, and pump position papers into the environment, the Amish quietly till the land with horse and human muscle. The Amish are, if you will permit me, the true “experts” in climate change. They know how to live with less and respect mother earth.
So the country roads in rural Pennsylvania are exceptionally peaceful. On a three-mile stretch I passed only one boy in a straw hat (no synthetic fibers for them!), quietly pedaling his bike. We waved at each other, the only humans within shouting distance under the wide blue sky. People are more friendly on bikes than in cars. I came upon a farmyard where a young father was leading a prancing horse in one hand and a tottering foal in the other. A little boy leapt excitedly beside the foal, with the family dog running along for the sheer joy of it. Two girls in ankle-length calicoes bolted from the house to catch up with the parade, sunbonnets flapping behind their flaxen hair. I waved to the father, who nodded gaily from under his straw hat, as both his hands were occupied with equine attentions.
My older brother, whose old bike I borrowed, is not Amish. But he works quietly to feed his family, spending only what he needs of this old earth’s bounty. When he and his wife came out to visit me in California a few years ago, it was their first ride in a jet plane. It was in a jet plane that I watched part of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. I gave up halfway through because, while Al Gore made some good points about our consumption of petrochemicals, he did so by using vast amounts of petrochemicals. In every other scene he was boarding a personal jet or riding a snow cat through Antarctica. The inconvenient truth, it seems to me, is that those who shout loudest about climate change are also offenders.
I think we can learn a lot from simple people. The Amish are a small community of Christians that few notice, but I think they, and people like them, will inherit the earth.
The Great Feasts of Our Lord and Our Lady
We have returned to the simple green of “ordinary time,” having just come off the liturgical highway of feasts which began last December. We traveled through Advent and Christmastide, then back into Lent and Eastertide with its grand finale of Pentecost followed by Trinity Sunday. The feasts of Corpus Christi (last Sunday) and the Sacred Heart (last Friday) followed by the Immaculate Heart (yesterday) cap this great liturgical sweep. We live the core mysteries of the Incarnation and the Resurrection through the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary, communicated to us at every Mass within the Body of Christ. Truly our own hearts are restless until they rest within the hearts of Jesus and Mary. The Church of the Eucharist is our earthly home while on pilgrimage to our eternal Home, the House of the Father.
The Day we became Homeless
The first reading today, from Genesis 3, tells the sad tale of the day humanity became homeless. Adam and Eve decided to leave their Father’s House by a fundamental act of distrust. “After the man had eaten of the tree”—that is, after he had lost his trust in God’s perfect will (we call this the Original Sin), God asks Adam … why? Why did you not trust me? Adam blames someone else: “She gave it to me—the woman you gave me.” It’s her fault, and really, it’s your fault! God then asks the woman: why did you give death to your husband? Eve blames someone else—“The serpent tricked me” and now implies, with Adam, that God himself is at fault: why did God put a snake in Paradise in the first place? With Adam and Eve, we say that God cannot lay all sorts of traps in our lives and expect us not to get hurt.
Isn’t it true that I’m messed up because someone else—probably in my childhood—messed me up. And they keep messing me up. My husband or my wife, my employer or my coworkers—someone right now is messing me up. I’ll always be messed up, so I’ll just have to self-medicate with food, or alcohol, or marijuana, or porn, or anger, or the internet. The temptation, when we mess up, is to think that we are helpless victims of this messed up world.
A New Adam and a New Eve
But God sent a rescue mission, a New Adam, born of a New Eve. The First Eve gave death to Adam. The Second Eve gives life to the entire human race by giving birth to a Savior, who trusts that God really is looking after him. In the Gospel this New Eve asks for Jesus from the edge of the crowd. Maybe she had a basket of food for him (she had heard, perhaps, that the crowds kept her Son so busy he had not even enough time to eat). Maybe she just wanted a word with him (she had heard, perhaps, that the leaders had decided to kill Him). The mother just wants to see her son for a moment. But Jesus says: “Anyone who does the will of my Father is my mother, and my brother, and my sister.” He directs our eyes to his own Mother, the perfect disciple, perfectly committed to the will of God. But Jesus also says that we all have a place in God’s house, if we do the will of the Father. Mary broke the chain reaction of rebellion begun by Eve, and now no one has to sin. Everyone can be a saint, and no one is excluded from the House of the Father.
The journey begins and continues with prayer. Only within prayer could Mary have responded to God’s Word through the Angel Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to your will.” She trusted where Eve did not trust. Prayer is essentially silence, a stillness that can learn to trust the quiet voice of God. “In the Silence of the Heart God speaks” Mother Teresa would say. Today, in this parish, we begin the Forty Hours Devotion: 40 uninterrupted hours of silent adoration before the Eucharistic Face of Christ. It is only in this grace-filled emptiness that God can fill us with his perfect will. You are not OK, and I am not OK, but that’s OK because we have a heavenly Father who welcomes us into His home, the place where His Son awaits us in the most Blessed Sacrament. Give yourself an hour with Him over these next two days.
It is best to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost, because Thursday commemorates Holy Thursday, when the Eucharist was instituted. But while we processed the Sacrament inside the church before Pentecost, after Pentecost the Holy Spirit boldly inspires us to take the Eucharist into the streets. And so we did last Thursday.
Now, if you ask just about anyone in San Francisco what great thing happened last Thursday, they will say that our team, the amazing Warriors, won our first game against Cleveland for the NBA championship. But few know what I know, and what you are about to know.
We began our Corpus Christi procession at 8:15pm. Fr. Mark and I had torn ourselves away from the game with only five minutes remaining and the score just about even. We were worried. We were not concerned about the Warriors losing (how could they?), but that 50 Catholics would be processing past the sports bars on Clement Street just as the game was getting out. It could become awkward or even sacrilegious as fans in various stages of inebriation pushed their way through the narrow sidewalk.
But as we turned the corner onto Clement Street, we found it deserted. I’m pretty sure we were the only Eucharistic Procession winding through San Francisco at 8:30pm, which (we discovered later) was just when the Warriors drove the game into overtime. The game was in pitched contest as Fr. Fewel carried the heavy monstrance bearing the Eternal God. He was blessing the City at the very time the Warriors pulled ahead to a stunning victory. Little did Fr. Fewel know (he’s not even basketball-aware) that he bore the fate of the NBA Finals in his arms.
Facetious? Yes and no. The mystery of Corpus Christi is that God pitched his tent among us, and still walks with us, blessing every dimension of our lives. Jesus concerns himself even with the NBA finals, because he is the lover of mankind and everything human fascinates Him. I would say it is fortuitous that San Francisco’s first game was played on Corpus Christi Thursday, as the parishioners from Star of the Sea blessed the City with Christ’s loving presence.
Too seldom have I visited soldiers’ cemeteries on Memorial Day. In fact, too seldom do I visit cemeteries in general, for to forget the dead is to forget the living. They in fact are more alive than we are, and how rude it would be to give them never a thought. As kids we would play hooky in the cemetery behind St. Jerome School, hiding with the dead from the truant officers. Today I walked the long rows of soldiers’ graves in late afternoon, and had the entire cemetery almost to myself.
San Francisco, in fact, has only two remaining cemeteries, aside from several columbaria: the little graveyard behind Mission Dolores, and the large National Cemetery in the Presidio. In this second cemetery, thirty thousand soldiers and their wives lie interred on a slope above the Bay. Today 30,000 American flags fluttered beside their markers, and more wondrously, 30,000 roses had been laid beside the markers of 30,000 souls. I walked on the lush grass between these rows of plain white stones, praying my rosary as I read the names and the dates and the wars in which they fought. The Spanish American War. The Boxer Rebellion. World War I. World War II. Korea. Vietnam. My father fought in the liberation of Manila in 1945, and could well have been one of the dead in this field. He lives yet, but none of his children have served in the military.
The older I get the more I appreciate those who serve in the nation’s armed forces. God bless America for laying a fresh rose at their gravesides.
Happy Feast Day of St. Philip Neri, the fourth since Fr. Patrick Driscoll and I conceived of establishing an Oratory here in San Francisco. Although the idea seems to be in deep freeze for the moment, a copy of Guido Reni’s portrait of St. Philip still presides over our common room (thanks to the donor who had it commissioned!).
God graced St. Philip with a charisma of drawing people together. Part clown (as in “fool for Christ”), part philosopher (the “Roman Socrates”), and part apostle (the “Second Apostle of Rome”), St. Philip essentially congregated people. He drew them in by relating the Scriptures to their lives, with irresistible joy in music and art, and through simple humor. His aphorisms are as fresh today as they were in Renaissance Rome.
This City, and cities across the planet, need more Saints Philips. The people in our cities are frighteningly disconnected despite, or perhaps because of, “social media.” The technology is not bad in itself, of course, but we are using it badly. It will take a generation or two, as with any new technology, to learn to use digital connectivity well.
At the base of all social connection is “religion.” That statement is fairly anathema today, but consider the etymology of the word itself. The word “religion” comes from re and ligare in Latin, meaning, to “reconnect.” The premise is that we have suffered a vital disconnection from our First Principle and therefore with all the natural world (Christians call it “original sin”). We need reconnection. Right religion fundamentally reconnects humanity to its first principle and so reestablishes the normal connections with the entire web of life. Can I prove this? Philosophically yes, but consider the simple evidence: in societies which distance themselves from religion, social disconnectedness increases. In our own society, suicide and drug abuse (the ultimate disconnection with the web of life) is now a young person’s primary killer. Firearms regulation may help curb school shootings, but it certainly doesn’t address the real issue. If people are violent, they will find some way of killing. I think they are violent because they are disconnected, despite the three hundred “friends” they may have on Facebook.
Let me end with a charming story. Yesterday I was driving back from a retreat house in rural California. I was planning to gas up at the shiny new superstation at the freeway, but my gas gage forced me to stop at the local Mom-and-Pop station. I looked at the antique pumps with dismay—no credit card slots! I would have to go inside and talk to someone! Inside the little store, a scruffy man was chatting with the store owner. She was no supermodel, but she knew how to run a store. While talking to the man (who needed someone to talk to, apparently), she thrust out a stout arm for my payment. “$30 on #7” I called over the scruffy man’s drawl. “OK hon,” she said. I got a little tingly all over. She called me “hon!” No one has called me “honey” in a long time (my Mom used to). She gave me some change, and I walked toward the door. “Hon, did you say #7?” “Yes, Number Seven,” I replied, feeling a little warm and tingly again.
I think I’ll stop by for gas again, the next time I’m in the neighborhood.
Happy Ascension Friday! We look forward to the day when Ascension Thursday is again celebrated on it’s proper day (Thursday), but in the meantime the Church simply celebrates the Feast from Thursday through Sunday, a kind of popular octave (or “quatrave”) by default. Yesterday I climbed a mountain here in San Francisco (Bernal Heights, actually) and called my mother from the summit. She used to take all six of us kids out of school every Ascension Thursday for a picnic in the mountains. Kids never forget when their parents give them a day off from school; the lesson we got loud and clear was not to let our schooling get in the way of our education.
It’s been two weeks since I last wrote a blog. Actually I’ve written three blogs since then but never quite got to revising them for posting. The project consuming my time these past few weeks is a new curriculum for our parish school: “Catholic Liberal Education”. Ironically, it would be considered a bold move in San Francisco to implement “Liberal Education” because some are saying “liberal” is a code word for “conservative.” I think we are all confused about what liberal and conservative mean. More and more critical thinkers, however, including our school faculty and a growing number of parents, are realizing that Catholic Liberal Education is indeed “liberal” in that it frees the mind to think broadly but also “conservative” in that it conserves the great western intellectual treasury of art, history, literature, and science. A successful school must be both liberal and conservative, in the fullest sense of those words. And so we are moving forward with the Catholic Liberal Education model here at Star of the Sea, but it will take a lot of everyone’s time and energy.
My time is also given to the Missionaries of Charity here in San Francisco, for whom I’m giving a five-day seminar on the Sacred Liturgy. To save time, I’ve dusted off some old talks I gave years ago in Rome to the Novitiate there. These talks are based largely on the documents of Vatican II and Joseph Ratzinger’s landmark Introduction to the Spirit of the Liturgy (now reissued by Ignatius Press with new prefaces by Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah).
I haven’t had much time to “prepare” this seminar. Lack of time never bothered Mother Teresa. She would ask a priest to give a retreat or seminar to her sisters on very short notice. If the priest objected that he needed more time to prepare the talks, Mother would reply: “Father, you are a priest. Just tell them about God.” We don’t take that advice strictly literally, lest we priests become lazy in preparing homilies and lessons. St. John Vianney, patron saint of parish priests, spent hours preparing his homilies. But if you simply don’t have time, you trust the Holy Spirit to make up for your lack. Mother Teresa didn’t want priests to trust too much in their own intelligence when preparing talks. The work is God’s, not ours, she would insist.
And indeed the first day of my seminar was inspired. I was inspired, and the sisters were inspired, at the 6am Mass on Wednesday which began our seminar. I’ll tell you about what happened, if I have time to finish this blog, in a subsequent post. Right now I’ve got to get on my scooter and get over to the convent for another day of seminar.
A group of Missionaries of Charity novices, led by their novice mistress Sr. Stefie Jose, on Bernal Heights Hill in San Francisco, celebrating Ascension Thursday yesterday.
In the beautiful month of May our parish will offer three Solemn High Masses: May 1 (St. Joseph), May 10 (Ascension Thursday) and May 31 (Corpus Christi). Learning the Solemn High Mass, and celebrating it well, is challenging, both for priests and for servers. But it’s a challenge that invigorates.
For much of the Church’s history the Solemn High Mass set the gold standard for iconic Catholic worship. If Hollywood wanted “the Catholic Church” in a movie it would show a High Mass in the cathedral, clergy and servers engulfed in clouds of incense, backed by a Gregorian choir soundtrack. To a liturgically sensitive person, there is nothing more beautiful than a Solemn High Mass done well. Our parish is one of the few in Northern California that attempts the High Mass, and we are finally, they tell me, doing it tolerably well. It is a treasure made possible by God’s grace and the hard work of our music department, our dedicated servers, priests, and support staff. Earlier this month Fr. John Chung, Fr. John Fewel, and I offered a High Mass for the Feast of the Annunciation. For the first time I felt at home in the Solemn High Mass, moving with the other priests as one body, in serene prayer.
On April 7 seven young men became deacons at St. Pius in Redwood City, ordained by Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu. Among them were Michael Rocha, who was one of my faithful altar boys while I was pastor in Modesto. I joked with him that many hearts were broken that day; young Catholic women across the archdiocese were in mourning because seven good Catholic men were no longer available. Michael began his journey to the priesthood as a lowly altar boy. “Why do you like to serve so much?” I asked him fifteen years ago. “It’s so bright and beautiful near the altar,” he replied. Michael will find much in the priesthood that is not so bright and beautiful, but it is the shining grace of the Mass that draws us, and that sustains us. Nothing inspires a boy or young man more for seminary than a robust altar server program. Last year we sent four men into the seminary from our little parish, three of whom were altar servers. As the Church teaches, altar boy programs are one of our strongest sources of priestly vocations. Serving the Latin Mass is particularly challenging and so particularly inspiring for a young man. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
I’m a believer in Retrouvaille, a weekend workshop for marriages needing help. And which of our marriages does not need help? I think everyone should do this workshop at some point in their marriage! Last weekend I helped at a Retrouvaille, and I was again inspired by the heroism of couples fighting to rebuild and protect their families from the floodtide against marriage. As one of the presenting couples said, “Growing up I didn’t have a clue about real marriage. Everything I had seen in movies and TV, or heard at school or learned from my extended family, taught me that no one really keeps their marriage vows. They told me in so many ways that taking chastity seriously was unhealthy.” Every one of us must thank those couples who fight for their marriages, and so fight for our whole society.
Another tide rises to meet the toxic waves of the “sexual revolution.” The world is charged with the grandeur of God, and grace swells all about us. Eighteen couples arrived last Friday night at the conference room in Mountain View, overwhelmed by tides of sadness, hurt, and despair. They were drowning, but the Retrouvaille couples at our weekend (five of them, all of whom had been drowning themselves not so long ago) threw them a life line. The couples who began the Retrouvaille movement in French-speaking Canada in 1977 chose the life preserver as their symbol.
My favorite moment in the 44-hour workshop is Saturday night, when we open it up to individual testimonies. The sad darkness from just the night before has been replaced by smiles. A lightness of spirit fills the room as couples witness to the glimmers of hope they are beginning to see. Maybe we can recover love, they say. The presenting couples have done it. Why can’t we, if there is a God?
My second favorite moment in the 44-hour workshop is a three-hour break in the presentation schedule for the couples to spend quiet time together. It’s also free time for the priest, and as soon as I was released from the conference room I got on my bike to find a church with the Blessed Sacrament. After all, I needed to spend some alone time with my spouse too. But as I drove up to the nearest church I could hear horns trumpeting from inside: a Quinsinera was in progress. I drove on to the second church and saw a stretch limo out front—a wedding was in progress. So I ended up sitting on a hillside under the bright sun. Not a bad holy hour, but I longed for the Blessed Sacrament. The next morning my guardian angel woke me quite early, and I drove to the nearest church again. It was not yet open, but an old man was sitting in his car in the empty parking lot. “Is there a way I can get into the church?” I asked him. “Sure, padre. I’ll let you in.” And so he did, and he prayed with me before the tabernacle. Others came in, even though the first Sunday Mass wouldn’t be for another hour, and the church became a beautiful and quiet and prayerful community.
But the church building was not beautiful. It had been built as a gym, and then the church never got built, although a state of the art gymnasium did get built, while altar and tabernacle remained in the old gym. As we prayed in that drafty and plain structure, I gazed at the cheap felt banners, threadbare carpet, dull concrete walls, and naked tabernacle. Hooks meant to hold the veil were still in place, but the veil had been torn away. Despite the “bare ruined choirs” of many of our parishes, where sports is given so much more time and money than divine worship, people still come to pray. The faith has not been completely eradicated, nor can it be. No one can stop the work of God in our parishes and schools. We can delay it, through fear and neglect, but we cannot stop it. A rising tide of grace will always flood the earth, now that Christ is risen and sent his Holy Spirit among us.
Peace be with you
Yesterday seven men became deacons at St. Pius in Redwood City, ordained by Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu. Among them were Michael Rocha, who was one of my faithful altar boys while I was pastor in Modesto. I joked with him yesterday that many hearts were broken yesterday; and young Catholic women across the archdiocese were in mourning because seven good Catholic men had made vows of perpetual celibacy. Giving up a wife and family is not easy for a priest, but it’s not the greatest sacrifice to which God calls us. To bring Divine Mercy to an unbelieving world will cost us much suffering.
Immediately after ordaining these men, Bishop Silva embraced them with these words: “peace be with you.” Our Divine Lord, in today’s Gospel, says those same words four times to His newly-ordained priests. It was Easter Sunday night, and these eleven men were cowering in the upper room, afraid that the Jewish authorities would arrest them as they did Jesus. They were also afraid that the Messiah had actually come back from the dead. What would He who was able to raise Himself from complete death do to them, who had all deserted Him? A priest will always, to some degree, betray and desert the Lord, but Jesus passes through the locked doors and utters His post-Resurrection first words: Peace be with you. He says it four times to reassure the disciples. And then He gives them the authority to forgive as He forgives them. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Whose sins you lose are loosed, and yes, whose sins you retain are retained.” He gives them the charism of divine mercy, which includes the charism of moral authority. In God, mercy and truth are one act of divine love, guiding us gently to heaven.
In 1931 a poor Polish nun received a vision of the Risen Christ, which she described in her diary: "In the evening, when I was in my cell, I became aware of the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand was raised in blessing, the other was touching his garment at the breast. … there came forth two large rays, one red and the other pale. In silence I gazed intently at the Lord; ... After a while Jesus said to me, 'paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the inscription: Jesus, I trust in You.'" One hand raised in blessing, in mercy, His infinite outpouring love for us; the other hand at His breast, pointing to His heart slashed open on the cross, the price of that mercy.
Sr. Faustina, born Helen Kowalska, grew up in southern Poland just after World War I. The nations of Europe had turned on each other like wolves, and God was apparently silent as 41 million people suffered death and destruction. Europe had been so traumatized by World War I that when Adolph Hitler began arming Germany again, no one had the strength to resist. It was at this time, in 1931, that God spoke to a poor, uneducated farm girl, assuring us that God is not silent, and that love, not hateful fear, moves the world. In the year 2000, St. John Paul II canonized this farm girl and established the Feast of Divine Mercy, always to be celebrated on the Sunday after Easter. Mercy, God’s tender love, is the only thing that will remain at the end of human history.
Do not doubt but believe
But let’s return to the Gospel. The Apostle Thomas refused to let go of his bitter disappointment. As in the Great War, God was silent as His Son died in agony on Calvary. A week after Jesus’ first visit to the upper room on Easter, that is, today, Jesus returns to that room and goes straight to Thomas: Touch me, and believe. Let go of your fear. Trust in me. Thomas surrenders, and so becomes a saint on the spot: “My Lord and my God.” Paint an image, Jesus told Sr. Faustina, according to the pattern you see, with the inscription: Jesus, I trust in You.
Let us also trust in Jesus’ Divine Mercy. I finish with Sr. Faustina’s own prayers to Jesus. “Help me, O Lord, that my eyes may be merciful, so that I may never suspect or judge from appearances, but look for what is beautiful in my neighbors’ souls and come to their rescue. Help me, O Lord, that my tongue may be merciful, so that I should never speak negatively of my neighbor, but have a word of comfort and forgiveness for all. Help me, O Lord, that my heart may be merciful, so that I myself may feel all the sufferings of my neighbor. May your mercy, O Lord, rest upon me.”
This morning, Holy Saturday, I did my holy hour at a favorite hideout in Golden Gate Park. On only these two days of the year (Good Friday and Holy Saturday), Jesus’ sacramental Presence is absent from our churches. Tabernacles stand empty, doors agape, little red flames extinguished. We pray in our empty churches to an absent God, and we sit under the blue sky in parks and backyards in silence. Yesterday was warm and sunny in San Francisco, and so this morning I looked forward to a delicious hour in the predawn park. But it was the droning boom of foghorns that greeted me from beyond the window pane as the alarm woke me up.
Every hour is different with Jesus. Sometimes they begin in sunny warmth, filled with joyful expectation. Sometimes they begin in disappointment and doubt. Indeed, it was hard to get out of bed this morning and I wondered about spending time with Jesus later in the day. But earlier is always better, so I bundled up and started out for the park.
Today my hour began in darkness and fog. An ocean wind lightly whipped condensation droplets about my bench. My friend the night owl was still softly hooting as the daybirds began waking up. I gradually began to perceive the Presence from my bench, and then I read a few lines that brought Him to me full force. “There is a scene in the Gospel that anticipates the silence of Holy Saturday … a portrait of our historical hour. Christ is sleeping in a boat about to sink….” Joseph Ratzinger wrote these words some years ago as he watched our little human boat flail about in the waves of history. “God sleeps while His affairs are about to sink. … Do the Church and the faith not appear like a little sinking ship ... while God is absent?”
My hour began today without God, but in a moment He came to me. The fog had not cleared, but the birds were singing lustily—all kinds of them! Again they sing, and again a new day begins with God’s Word: “It was I who brought you here. Stay with me and discover what your life means. You are in the right place.”
Every hour with God is different. Some hours begin in darkness, others in light. Some end in vapidity, others yield inspiration. But always, always He is there. It is ours simply to show up, to stay still, and to listen.
Fr. Joseph Illo
Star of the Sea Parish,