Wednesday, December 7, 2011

My 8th Graders are Sending Me to France!

Today, I celebrate my 50th birthday. If you want to know how my 8th graders celebrated my birthday click on the following links!

Lourdes France

God has blessed me in so many ways. Thank you Holy Name Class of 2012. You will forever be remembered in my heart! May God bless you with all that is good.

If you want to read one more article you can read this one from the Criterion.

Love and Prayers,
Sr. Nicolette

Monday, November 28, 2011

1st Week of Advent 2011



Be Ready

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13

One of my longstanding memories of grade school years at St. Mary’s in Huntingburg is belonging to the Boy Scouts. St. Mary’s had its own Scout troop. The Scouts provided many vital activities for young boys. The Scouts tried to encourage boys to become helpful and productive members of society. You could learn various skills by acquiring merit badges. You learned to appreciate nature by camping out on weekends. Above all, you were taught to "be prepared" to deal with any kind of challenging situation that might arise. The traditional example was helping an elderly lady to cross a street. There were, of course, some aspects about the Boy Scouts that seemed contradictory. For example, we had a wonderful Scout cabin at St. Mary’s that served as our private meeting place. But the inside of the cabin was decorated with various items that had been stolen from different places the Scouts had camped through the years— road signs with place names were preferred. Nonetheless, the overall purpose of the Scouts was the motto, Be Prepared, to deal with anything.

From this perspective Jesus appears to be a distant precursor of the Scouts. One aspect of his teaching is to "Be Prepared," as shown in today’s gospel story about the foolish and wise virgins. There are, of course, quite different purposes between Jesus and the Scouts. The Scouts wanted to be prepared to be a helpful member of society. Jesus message of "Be Prepared," aims at expecting the sudden coming of the Kingdom of God. St. Benedict has his own version of "be prepared" in his admonition to "keep death daily before one’s eyes."

In each case "be prepared" addresses the common supposition we often have that each day is going to go pretty much as we expect it to. And many days they do. But sometimes things change—suddenly and drastically. Frequently it’s something you never saw coming. I think of that in the mornings when I’m watching the news on TV, seeing car accidents that are changing the lives of people forever—in ways they probably never thought of. I never thought my severe back problems would return after I gave up golf. But here they are and I am trying to cope with a new direction in life. On a larger scale most Catholics in the 1960s never saw the Second Vatican Council coming. We see now what the last fifty years in the Church have been like. In no case is it ever easy.

We might consider this an essential step in developing a solid spirituality—that from time to time we need to stop and consider all that we take for granted in life and faith and consider that anything might change radically. And that includes our relationship with God and with Jesus Christ. These are very special areas where we do like to get into a "comfort zone." We like to get a particular style of prayer that we feel comfortable with and then just stay there. Any kind of change can really upset us. And often our first reaction to change is to think that something is wrong with us or somehow God has changed attitudes towards us. We find ourselves swimming in the dark, not knowing which way to turn. But a spirituality of an instability moment might help us better in our initial response. By an instability moment I mean, when a shocking change occurs in our lives, we might recognize that big changes have come upon us and realize that we are going to have to do some serious rearranging in our lives. And God, in fact, deals with us that way. We have heard so often the biblical saying from the prophet Isaiah, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways, says the Lord." (55:10) There are times when we really, really have to take that to heart.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Mal 14-2:2; 1 Thess 2:7-13; Mt 23:1-12

When I was giving lots of talks to groups, both Catholic and ecumenical, one of the questions I was most frequently asked was: "Why are priests called ‘father’ when there is a clear prohibition against it in Jesus’ teaching?" The short answer is that it just became a custom at a later period of history when a local leader was often called a father. The longer answer is to explain why this passage is in the gospel in the first place. To explain that will take us far deeper into history.

We must understand the early history of both Christianity and Rabbinical Judaism to get at that. Throughout the first century Jews were disturbed about the presence of the Romans in control of their country. The most radical group of Jews were the Zealots. They wanted to throw the Romans out altogether. By about mid-century they had gained sway over the majority of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. They wanted all the various Jewish groups to be on their side. But the Christians, who at that time were still considered a variety of Judaism, refused to revolt and fight against the Romans because the Christians were basically pacifists. As a result around the year 66 the Zealots expelled the Christians from Jerusalem, and they fled to the city of Pella. That began a feeling of deep animosity between the Christians and the Jews.

As things eventually turned out, the Zealots did rise up against the Romans, but they didn’t have a chance. The Roman army overwhelmed them. In the year 70AD the Romans captured the city of Jerusalem and executed all the leading Zealots. They destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and killed most of the priests. Out of the ruins of this tragedy one Pharisee, Yohanan ben Zachaii, asked the Roman generals if he could go to the small town of Yavneh, west of Jerusalem and found an academy there; he promised it would be entirely peaceful. The Romans gave him permission. And so began the reconstruction of Judaism under the leaders, who called themselves Rabbis or teachers. They worked hard to rebuild a Jewish identity and often called themselves children of their father, Abraham. This grew into what is traditionally called Rabbinical Judaism.

But the old hostility still lingered between the Jews and the Christians. They didn’t trust each other. That distrust gets written into Christian writings, mainly the later gospels of Matthew and John, and also into Jewish documents. The gospel writers put that distrust into their stories about Jesus. What they were trying to do is to make Jesus comment on a historical situation that actually occurred fifty years after the time Jesus lived. We need to know that about the gospels.

So when Jesus says, "do not be called rabbi," this is actually referring to the Christian view of the rabbis fifty years after Jesus lived. And when he says, "Call no one your father," it is actually a criticism of the rabbis who called Abraham their father. Here’s the key: this is meant to refer to that specific historical situation in the first century and not for all time.

Now the problem with all this process of critique is that it makes the New Testament very difficult for ordinary believers to understand and interpret. And there’s no two ways about it—this is one of the most serious pastoral issues of our day. And there’s no quick and easy way to fix it. But at least you can know why there is a ban on calling any human being your father in the words of Jesus.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Ex 22:20-26; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40

Way back in 1968 when I was doing my graduate studies in Rome at Sant Anselmo, it was an exclusively scholastic and intellectual atmosphere. I was deeply seeking to get involved in something pastoral. That’s not easy to find in a foreign country. Well, by a long and complicated series of events, I found myself as the assistant scoutmaster of the American Girl Scout troop in Rome. The girls were all children of military personnel, diplomats or international business managers. My task was to prepare the Girl Scouts to present a play at the end of the year for their parents on the site of Cicero’s villa in the Alban Hills. To do this I had to travel to the far north side of Rome to the American school one afternoon a week after their school let out and work with them for an hour. And so I found myself with twelve fifth to eighth grade girls trying to prepare a play. To get a play for them I adapted and wrote a version of the book of Ruth.(Still have it.) But getting the girls to practice the play was something else. I would take a couple of them, practice their parts, but when I wanted to take the next group....they were all gone. They were all outside playing, laughing and running in the schoolyard. I would go out and round up the next group. By the time I had got them back to the classroom, the first group had disappeared. And so it went, for weeks and months. Finally, I just gave up at one session and sat in a chair and hung my head down. After a while someone touched me. I looked up and there they all were, standing in a semi-circle around me. One of them said, "Is something wrong?" I answered, "Look! I’m supposed to prepare you for this play. But you won’t practice. You are always running outside, laughing, playing and yelling around. This play is going to be a disaster and I’ll be blamed for it." There was a pause and one of them said, "But when we are with you is the only time we ever get to have any fun during the week." I thought about it and said, "You know what: go play, have fun and I’ll take the blame for it."

Over the course of that year I got to know a number of those girls pretty well. Their world was so very different from the world I grew up in. Their family would move somewhere different in the world every two or three years. I asked one of them, "How do you make friends?" She responded, "We don’t even try anymore. It’s too hard to make a friend and then move in a year and never see them again." I thought to myself, "What a different world they live in." I struggled to understand it.

It’s not easy to understand the mindset of someone who sees the world so differently from you. And yet that’s what the book of Exodus in the first reading asks the Israelites to do. "You shall not molest an alien for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt." We should remember that the Israelites for whom this was written had no living memory of being slaves themselves. They were powerful individuals in their own land. Now they were told to see the world as a stranger does.

The same thing is true of all pastoral ministry. If you are going to serve someone well, you have to make a real effort to see the world as they do. And that’s not easy. It’s not just the angle of perspective you try to see, it’s also all the emotions that flow from it, the personal relationships that result, and the hopes and goals in life the person has. That’s at the heart of good pastoral ministry.

By the way, at our last scheduled practice all the girls on their own showed up in the classroom. I walked them through all the parts of the play. Four days later they absolutely aced the performance at Cicero’s villa. They aced the performance with one practice. Unbelievable!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

I had a request to continue posting Fr. Matthias' I am honoring that request. Enjoy and God bless your journey!

Readings: Is 45:1-6; 1 Thess 1:1-5; Mt. 22:15-21

Next month we will celebrate the feast of Thanksgiving, one of the most beloved of our American holidays. This day has a diverse history of sources. The most common one takes it back to the Puritans in 1621 and their celebrating their first harvest in their new land. But all the European settlers in America brought some kind of feast celebrating the end of the fall harvest season. Scholars today dispute whether the first thanksgiving feast on American soil took place in Massachusetts, or Virginia or even Florida (with the Spanish explorers).

Religiously, thanksgiving goes back a lot farther in time. The oldest materials in the Old Testament, from the book of Psalms, shows that praise and thanksgiving were the two dominant responses of the ancient Israelites to their God, Jahweh. That was quite unique among all the religions around them. In those other religions people feared their gods, appeased their gods, and then made requests to their gods. Seldom do we find any mention of praise and thanksgiving. But it runs through the whole Psalter of the Old Testament. There were sacrifices of thanksgiving offered to the Lord God, and these were accompanied by people praying the psalms of thanksgiving while a priest was doing the sacrifice. Here’s an example of that: "I praise you, Lord, because you have saved me....You have changed my sadness into a joyful have taken away my sorrow and surrounded me with joy...Lord, you are my God; I will give you thanks forever." (Ps. 30)

Those same attitudes of praise and thanksgiving carried over into the early Christian communities. All of their literature is characterized by them. I’ve always been impressed by the passage of today’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is probably the oldest Christian document we possess. I still remember the first time I read it as a novice at St. Meinrad. As novices, we were encouraged to read the Bible, especially the New Testament, during our novitiate year. When I first read those lines, "We give thanks to God always for all of you, remembering you in our prayers..." I just sat there in stunned silence for a while. Wow! I thought. Thanking God for the people who are and were part of my life. I realized how easy it is to take them all for granted. I just started right there to pray for my mother and my father, my two sisters, my teachers in high school and so on. I realized for the first time that to thank God for these people IS to pray.

That same attitude of thanksgiving carried on in the whole Christian Church. They called their basic worship service Eucharistia, the Thanksgiving. What we call the mass—they called Eucharistia, the Thanksgiving. What we are doing here today is one big act of giving thanks to God.

It would be good for all of us to call that to mind explicitly and often.

Thanksgiving is, indeed, one of the basic characteristics of Christian spirituality and life. Sometimes it can be very hard to be thankful for our lives. There can be so much illness and such difficult settings in a person’s life that it’s hard for people to be thankful. And that’s understandable. But that’s all the more reason to participate in the Eucharist. There people can join a general setting of thanksgiving and participate in a group setting, when they find it very hard to be thankful on an average day. So we are performing here today a group act of thanksgiving, not just for ourselves but for all the people we know who find it hard to give thanks themselves. Let’s take a moment now and remember them in our hearts.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Thank you for taking time to read this blog over the years. My energy for blogging is depleted for now. I'll no longer post entries. I'll post a few pictures every now and then. I won't delete this site. Who knows what may happen in the future!

Let's continue to give God the glory and pray for one another.

Sr. Nicolette

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43

Sometimes the Apostle Paul seems so idealistic, it’s unreal. I have a pretty good idea how people today would react after hearing the second reading: "Have no anxiety at all." I think most would respond, "Maybe you can say that, but I can’t. I have too many responsibilities that are hanging over my head all the time." People have families to feed, children to raise and educate, debts to pay, aging parents to look after. The list goes on and on. "Have no anxiety at all? You have to be kidding."

But maybe we are looking at Paul’s words from the wrong perspective. Maybe he’s not talking about the daily pressures and cares of life. Paul knew very well that we will all have to bear our share of the cross. For many people those daily anxieties are part of the cross that it is theirs to bear. Maybe Paul was talking about our basic relationship to God. In other words he was saying: "Have no anxiety about this: the God of Jesus Christ cares for you. If you remember that, and bring that to mind often, then you will have a basic peace of heart." We should remember that Paul is writing to people who were a part of a very religiously diverse Greco-Roman culture. There were many, many religions and thousands of gods in the Roman Empire at that time. People worried about offending a god, maybe a god from some religion they didn’t even know about. Paul is also writing to people who are only recently Christian, so they may very well have carried some of their old religious attitudes with them. Paul wants to reassure them. In the Christian faith there is only one God and that God cares deeply for them. I am always moved by the words of the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer for Various Occasions: "By his words and actions Jesus proclaimed to the world that you care for us...." That says so very much about our Catholic Christian faith.

So the issue that is placed before us today is: what is our basic attitude toward our relationship with God. That’s a weighty issue, to be sure. In the last fifty years the Catholic Church has gone through a monumental shift in this regard. In the Counter-Reformation Church over the four hundred years before Vatican II, the general image of God was not of a caring God. God wasn’t angry or punishing, but he was sternly just. And he kept close tabs on each one of us. He was always watching over our shoulder and keeping his little notebook to mark a good grade or a demerit for every action we did. Just like the sister used to do in the grade school classroom. I recall one time when I was riding home on my bicycle and I came to a point where I could cut off a lot of my trip by cutting down an alley and then through a man’s private driveway. I knew I shouldn’t do it, but I wanted to get home quickly. I stood there for a long time and I swear I could see God with his little notebook and pen in hand ready to make a good or bad mark against me. (I honestly don’t remember what I did in the end.) But that was a common view of God before Vatican II.

The Second Vatican Council began to change that image of God for me and for lots of other Catholics. My classes in theology, especially in Scripture, really made me think and reassess my views. One passage that had a profound effect on me was from the prophet Hosea: "When Israel was a child, I loved him. ... It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. ...I led them with cords of human kindness, with hands of love." (11:1-4) Slowly my image of God shifted from the one with the notebook and pen to that of a parent coaxing a child to walk, holding hands on either side to catch the child if it falls. My image of God became one of an invisible power who wants us to discover our abilities and share them for the good of others. So Paul’s exhortation to "have no anxiety" is a good reminder for all of us to examine our own image of the basic relationship between God and ourselves.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

Last Monday morning I was watching the news on TV and there was a guest being interviewed; he was a marriage counselor. Some of his observations perked up my ears. He said that, on average, when a couple comes to see him for the first time they have been having problems in their marriage for six years. And in more than half the cases they are not really coming for marriage counseling; they are coming for pre-divorce counseling. He was asked what were some of the more difficult issues that people have to face. One of the first ones he mentioned was "forgiveness." He said, "Most people don’t know what it is." They either underestimate it or overestimate it. They underestimate it by thinking that it’s not really important. They overestimate it by making it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. Wow! I thought; many people don’t know what forgiveness is. That’s a crucial issue not only in religion but also in basic human relationships.

I know what he was talking about. Having been a spiritual director for over forty years, I’ve seen the same problem in lots of people—seminarians, sisters, priests and lay people. The biggest problem is that they overestimate forgiveness and make it into something that is almost humanly unreachable. And then they criticize and blame themselves because they can’t reach it. They think that forgiveness is to wipe the slate clean. The offense one suffered isn’t remembered anymore. All animosity is set aside and it’s like we are good friends again. Nonsense! In a human perspective forgiveness means that we no longer seek any retaliation either from ourselves or in general. I used to give the seminarians this example. You’ve had a longstanding disagreement with another student. He has said some things that really made you mad and embarrassed. But now you are trying to forgive him and put it behind you. But you keep having occasional remembrances and then traces of the old anger flares up. Have you truly forgiven him? Well, ask yourself this: if you were walking alongside a river and you noticed that particular individual struggling to swim and crying for help. You also see that there is a life preserver right beside you, would you throw it to him? If you can say, "Yes, I would," even though you don’t like him, then you have forgiven him. If you say to yourself, "No, let the him die," then you haven’t.

One of the problems is that people think they have to completely erase any bad thoughts from their memory, so that the whole unpleasant event is never thought of again. That doesn’t happen with human beings. Unpleasant events leave psychological scars that remain all our lives, just as some physical events leave bodily scars that remain all our lives. I have a scar on my leg that I got from some roughhousing we were doing in the boy scout cabin when I was in grade school. It was an accident that was mostly my fault. But every time I see that scar it takes me back to that episode in my life. The same is true of our psyches. When we have been deeply hurt, we get psychological "scars" (so to speak) that will stay with us all our lives. Years later when some random association brings that to memory, we can begin to feel the anger and animosity all over again. But that’s not a sign that we haven’t forgiven the other person; it just tells us what our psychological history has been.

The first reading we heard today from the prophet Ezekiel is an account of divine forgiveness. And in divine forgiveness everything is wiped clean. God holds nothing against us. Later in Jesus Christ that divine forgiveness is going to make things better than they were before. Human forgiveness is like divine forgiveness, but it doesn’t measure up to it fully. That’s why it’s always good to remember the life preserver story; it gives us a solid point of reference for measuring human forgiveness.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-27; Mt 20:1-16

There are some stories you hear or read about and remember all your life; they somehow always stay fresh. I have one of my own in mind right now. The story takes place in France in the 1890s and concerns a young man who was avidly studying to be a scientist at the University of Paris. He was lapping up every bit of knowledge he could get. One holiday season he boarded a train to go back to his family home for vacation. Looking for a compartment to sit in, he came upon one which was occupied only by an old man who was looking through some notes. The student went in and sat down; neither acknowledged the other. After some time the old man put his notes away and began to pray his rosary. This was too much for the student and he spoke up: "Surely you don’t believe in that superstition any more; science is showing that all such religious stuff is false." The old man looked at him quizzically and asked, "What is this science you are talking about?" And the student began to tell him about the rise of modern science, the experimental method, the use of mathematical calculations, and projections, and so on. The old man put his rosary away and listened intently. As the train began to slow down, the old man said, "This is my stop coming. If I give you my card, will you write to me more about this ‘science’ you speak of. " The student said he would gladly. He slipped the old man’s card into his pocket and jumped up to help the old man get his bag from the upper rack. He assisted him to the door and off the train. The old man thanked him and told him to remember to write him. The student went back very satisfied to his seat. After the train had left the station, he pulled out the old man’s card to see who he would be writing to. It said simply: Louis Pasteur, President of the French Academy of Science.

The young student was so sure he had everything in hand; he knew exactly where everything was going. The world was operating the way it should be. And then he met the old man. That ‘s a lot like the disgruntled workers in today’s gospel passage. They were pretty sure they had figured out that they would get a nice bonus. And then they were caught up short by the owner’s justice and generosity at the same time.

These are really stories about all of us and the common human temptation of thinking that we have got it all figured out. We like to do that so often with things religious. We want to think that we have a pretty good bead on God’s intentions. That’s why we surely don’t like to hear the first reading from Isaiah: "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This has to be pretty disconcerting for anyone who takes religion as a part of daily life. You have to wonder how you can ever move forward.

Maybe it’s not about moving forward. There is a strain of Jewish spirituality that begins and ends with those famous words from the book of Job: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." (1:21) In this spirituality you can’t know ever what God’s plans are, so there’s no use trying. All one can do is praise God’s name.

I think that was the attitude of Louis Pasteur. Certainly he was one of the greatest medical scientists of modern times—a pioneer in so many medical breakthroughs. No one was a stricter scientist than he was. He believed fully in science. And yet he left explicit instructions that he was to be buried with a rosary in his fingers. "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 27:30-28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

The themes of the first reading and the gospel are pretty clearly anger and forgiveness. And I don’t suppose we can ever reflect too much on those. The best book I ever read on anger and forgiveness is David Mace’s Love and Anger in Marriage (1982). It hooked me from the start: "The Blue Dolphin Restaurant in San Leandro, CA has been the scene of numerous memorable gatherings, but none perhaps so quite unforgettable as the wedding reception that took place in mid-June. As the 300 guests chatted happily among themselves they suddenly grew silent when the newly weds began arguing in loud voices. Dismay turned to disbelief when the groom grabbed the wedding cake and shoved it in his bride’s face. By the time a police squad had pulled up, guests were breaking chairs and smashing mirrors. It took half an hour for more than 30 police to get the crowd under control. By that time the newlyweds had left on their honeymoon." (P. 9) Mace, a family psychologist, then gives some of the basic themes he will develop in the book. The very first one stands out: "The state of marriage generates in normal people more anger than they are likely to experience in any other type of relationship in which they find themselves." (Chalk one up for celibacy.)

We need to do some reflection on anger because it has become a social problem on the national level. Perhaps it’s better to say anger, which has progressed to rage, is a national social problem. We read so often of incidents of road rage, parking lot rage, check-out line rage; it takes so little to set some people off, to send them into furious, unthinking behavior.

We, in religious communities, have our problems with anger as well. But we are usually down at the other end of the spectrum; our problem is with repressed anger. There was for so long a common teaching in the Catholic Church that all anger was sinful. So angry feelings, even legitimate angry feelings, got pushed under the skin and were never expressed. There they festered for years and years. I saw an example of that in my own community. About twenty years ago we had a workshop on community building. The workshop had the exact opposite result from what was originally intended. It didn’t build community; it showed what divided the community. The monks were to write in, anonymously, what bothered them about the monastic community. The results of this poll were made known to everyone. I was completely surprised to find out how many monks were still angry, some bitterly angry, over something that had happened thirty or forty years ago. That festering anger didn’t contribute anything positive to their monastic life.

We need to do a serious re-assessment of anger in Catholic spirituality. And we need to begin with a recognition that the feeling of anger is not bad or sinful in itself. Anger is one of our natural emotions, is part of our whole psychological make-up, is created by God and is therefore good in itself. Anger serves a very useful purpose in our lives. Anger alerts us to a danger that threatens us in some way. But that should be the lead-in to explore more carefully the nature of the danger. Is it real or mistaken? Is it a genuine threat of something else altogether? We don’t get much emotional education anywhere in our culture, and so we aren’t used to exploring our emotions and testing their truthfulness. We just let it race on toward guilt or rage.

We should appreciate anger. It serves a purpose in our lives. But we have to learn how to make a good and proper use of it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Ez 33:7-9; Rom 13:8-10; Mt 18:15-20

Years ago there was a phrase that was often used in the diagnosis of alcoholism, "an elephant on the sofa." It referred to the strange scene of a family living room, which had an elephant lying on the sofa. The children would play around it each day, and bounce balls off of it, and the mother would regularly dust off the elephant and keep it clean. But nobody ever asked the obvious question: why in the world is there an elephant on our sofa in the living room? The elephant, of course, stands for the father of the family who is an alcoholic and is frequently passed out on the sofa. This little story dramatizes how hard it is for people to speak up about something that is harmful and painful and obviously known, but which some people don’t want to hear about or face up to. And that extends to many, many things beyond the diagnosis of alcoholism.

We, as members of religious communities should know all about the difficulties of standing up and saying something that some people will not like to hear. One incident stands out especially in my memory. One time in our community at St. Meinrad there was some issue (I don’t remember what the issue was; I just remember the dynamics of how it was handled). But the community was going to have to make a decision about it and there were lots of differing viewpoints, many directly opposed to other viewpoints. The Abbot knew this and decided to have an open session of the community. He appointed one of the monks to lead the meeting and neither he nor the prior would be present, so people could speak freely. We all gathered in one of the large classrooms for the meeting. The appointed leader got up and laid out the situation and the decision which needed to be made. Then he opened the floor for comments. He stood looking around the room for several minutes. No one raised their hand. Finally he said, "Well, we might as well close the meeting. Let’s all go over to the coffee room, where we can sit in our own little groups and talk about the issue." Which is precisely what we did.

It is not easy to speak up and say something that some others don’t want to hear or face up to. And yet that’s one of the main messages in today’s readings from Scripture. The passage from the prophet Ezekiel says, "I appointed you to be my spokesman. If you don’t deliver my message, you will be as responsible as the wrongdoer." And in the gospel passage Jesus says, "If your brother or sister sins against you, you need to go and confront them." You need to speak up and let them know what they are doing wrong. Anyone who finds themselves in a position of leadership knows the weight and the difficulty of this task. When I was in administrative positions in the seminary, I felt the weight of this often, and it’s not easy. You have to tell people things they don’t want to hear and you are never sure how they are going to react—angrily, remorsefully or denying everything and calling you a liar or worse.

The real issue here is, of course, saying something to someone we care about that their behavior is unhealthy or even dangerous to themselves or others. "You are drinking too much." "Your actions are becoming abusive to your wife, to your husband, to your children." "You need to spend more time and effort looking for a job." These things are never easy to say. But Jesus tells us that it’s the Christian thing to do. And even though the other person may ignore or even blame you, it’s still the right thing to do. All of us face times like this. Let’s use the rest of this mass to pray that we may have the courage to say the right thing at the right time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Jesus' September Message

Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for September. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.

Dear apostles, it is with joy that I speak with you today. When I contemplate your fidelity to My plan for mercy, I feel joy. When I contemplate your fidelity to holiness, I feel joy. Do not pause in your commitment to becoming holier. This calm movement into the Spirit of gentleness and kindness should help you to view others with compassion, yes, but also yourself. Do you view yourself with compassion? Do you offer kindness and mercy toward yourself when you contemplate your condition? My friends, My dearest friends, be careful to view yourself as I view you. Be careful not to view yourself in harsh light that seeks to condemn. If you are tempted against mercy for yourself, then truly, you are tempted against truth. Because it is only with mercy and love that I greet your present condition and your attempts to advance in holiness. I am love. I could hardly ask you to love others and then withhold love from you. That would be a flawed plan, destined to fail. My plan is perfect. I give you a receptive heart, you receive My love in abundance, and then stand for Heaven to be a well on earth which both stores and distributes love. Beloved apostle, search your heart today. If you do not find mercy and compassion for yourself in your heart, come to Me at once and ask Me to give these things to you. My plan for you and for the world will not advance as quickly as necessary if you do not accept your present condition and understand My perfect love for you. Your potential for holiness has not yet been fully achieved, of course, and I want you to advance. And I ask that you do so in confidence, joy and hope. Rejoice. I am with you.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 20:7-9; Rom 12:1-2; Mt 16:21-27

The first reading we heard today from the prophet Jeremiah is quite remarkable. I want you to focus on some of these lines. "You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped." He is complaining, " You tricked me, God, and I let myself be deceived." "All day long I am an object of laughter." He’s saying, "I thought that as your prophet I would bring an important and serious message to the people, but all they do is laugh at me." "I said to myself, that I will speak in His name no more." Remarkably that means, "I’m done with you, God; I’ll have nothing more to do with you."

This passage occurs in a section of the prophet Jeremiah’s book that biblical scholars call "The Confessions of Jeremiah." There’s nothing else like it in any other section of the bible, except maybe some of St. Paul’s letters. It gives us a glimpse into the inner feelings of Jeremiah as a prophet. We discover that his inner life is pretty turbulent; it’s not all easy-going. Faith in God goes through some very rough times indeed. These include moments when Jeremiah decides to give up on God for good. In other words, he’s "had it" with religion.

I think these passages should give us a much broader view of what a life of faith includes. There are going to be those dark times when it seems like faith has deceived us, God has let us down. We have prayed and prayed, but the good we sought did not happen. The result is that we are ready to give up on religion. We should realize that there will likely be times like that for many of us. As a priest through the years I have listened to lots of stories of people who have prayed and prayed for a child to be healed, for an illness to be cured, for a personal hatred to be resolved. Oftentimes the people who have prayed so hard feel completely discouraged. They are a lot like Jeremiah. They too say, "You tricked me, Lord. I’m not going to have anything more to do with you. I’ve had it."

How does Jeremiah get out of this negative state of mind. Here’s the really remarkable part of this passage: "But then it (the Word of God) becomes like fire burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary of holding it in, I cannot endure it." So Jeremiah himself really doesn’t do anything to get himself out of it. He begins to be overcome with these feelings from within himself. He can’t let go of God in spite of himself. And so he goes on believing in God and serving as God’s prophet even at this terrible and empty low point in his life.

The real issue at the bottom of all this is anger at God, not an easy topic to bring up. People often have it in those low points in their life, but it also usually evokes some feelings of guilt and fear. It’s like you are angry at God, but you feel guilty for being that way. That’s why we should look carefully at Jeremiah’s experience and words. He is angry, but he doesn’t feel any guilt about it. In one of my favorite articles entitled, "God damn God: Expressing Anger in Prayer," Sr. Sheila Carney writes that the bible has an awful lot of anger being expressed, including anger at God. She gives lots of examples, especially from the Book of Psalms. Today’s Jeremiah reading fits right in with that. It’s an issue that, as I said before, all of us will probably have to face at some time. So it might be worth our while to spend a little time with Jeremiah this weekend.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 22:19-23; Rm 11:33-36; Mt 16:13-20

Barbara Reid, a Dominican sister and professor of the New Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, writes a weekly homily column for America magazine. She has a very interesting commentary on today’s gospel passage. She first notes the cultural differences between Jesus’ times and our times. In our day there are constant calls to "know yourself," find out "who you really are," and get in touch with the "real you." But the preferred method of our culture is to go deep within yourself away from any outside influences, and grab a hold of that core of who you are. That method is preferred by almost all of our self-help gurus, and there are a lot of them. Just check the "Self-Help" or "Self-Improvement" section of any bookstore. But Sr. Barbara notes that in Jesus’ time the method of discovering yourself differed significantly. In Jesus’ day people discovered who they were by asking members of the groups they were embedded in. They asked family members, and friends and people they worked with. Who they were came from how people saw them. We could say that from this perspective their actions showed who they were and what values they pursued.

Following Sr. Barbara’s analysis, we could say that Jesus in his human nature was honestly asking his disciples how people evaluated his ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom of God and how they themselves evaluated it and him. He was following the regular process that people in his day would have used.

We today could learn something from the process used in Jesus’ day. When I was working in the administration and faculty of the School of Theology at St. Meinrad, I never ceased to be amazed at how many students had absolutely no idea how other people saw them, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they had a very false impression of how other people saw them. They came to this false impression by going within themselves, asking who they were, and then automatically transferring those self-views to what they thought other people thought of them. And most of the time they were so wrong. And it didn’t make any different if they were introverts or extroverts. The introverts thought that people saw them as quiet, balanced, keep-to-themselves guys; but, in fact, oftentimes others saw them as mute, insecure loners. The extroverts thought that others saw them as talkative, friendly, life-of-the party types; but, in fact, oftentimes other people saw them as loud, intrusive, braggarts. In spiritual direction it was always a challenge to get students first to see, and then to accept how other people saw them and try to do something about it.

Jesus used both methods to "find himself." The gospels tell us that he spent time alone in personal prayer and reflection. In that personal depth he came to understand and accept that the God of Israel was his "abba," his Father. And he taught his disciples to understand and accept the very same thing. They were to pray to the God of Israel as "Our Father." Besides this introspective method Jesus also asked his trusted disciples questions about how they saw him. Peter answered directly: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Like Jesus we also need to use a combination of both methods to find our own personal religious selves. The discovery of a religious sense of self is a life-long process. We are going to be at this search our whole lives. Let’s hope and pray that we all attend to it very well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 56:1-7; Rm 11:13-32; Mt 15:21-28

The three readings today all bear upon one of the main religious issues that runs through the whole of the Old and the New Testaments: namely, the religious status of those peoples outside the People of Israel. All three of our readings take a favorable and positive attitude toward those peoples. Paul, being the strongest, says that God has extended mercy to all peoples, not just the Jews. God’s mercy knows no bounds. Yet we know from sources in and outside the scriptures that there were a lot of dissenting opinions, including those that rejected any possible salvation for gentiles. Paul’s views ultimately determined the main Christian viewpoint and the publication of the Talmud around the year 500AD became the major Jewish approach. The Talmud states that those people who followed the seven laws given to Noah (Genesis 9) would be favorable and acceptable to God.

Of course, we know that Christianity often strayed significantly from Paul’s perspective in later centuries, even at times becoming quite exclusivist about the possibility of salvation for anyone outside the Catholic Church. Many of us lived in a time like that before the Second Vatican Council. When I was growing up, it was the common Catholic opinion that it was exceedingly difficult for anyone outside the Catholic Church to be acceptable and favorable to God. Thank God, the Second Vatican Council brought us back to St. Paul’s viewpoint about the abundant mercy of God extended to all people. The Council changed the views of Catholics toward other Christians, toward people of other religions, and even toward those who are non-believers. The Council called Catholics to a tolerance and appreciation of all peoples and all faiths.

Alas, we are living now in times in this country of ours where the public mood may seriously erode those views. The public discussion in government often sets the tone for the mood and thinking in the country as a whole. Sadly, that mood in government is one of total partisanship. There is no thought of compromise or tolerance in the partisanship mood. To read the analyses of political writers about Washington’s recent failure to come to a workable resolution to the budget and debt crisis makes for depressing reading indeed. There is no mood of compromise; it’s "all us or all them." No wonder the whole world is losing confidence in the United States.

But I’m actually even more concerned about that "no compromise or tolerance" mood drifting into the Catholic Church. That’s the kind of mood that makes anyone who is different in belief into an automatic enemy. That’s very dangerous for the future of ecumenical and interfaith attitudes. Signs of that polarizing attitude are already present in the Church, especially in some of our younger priests. One detects that some of them have little aptitude for any ecumenical or interfaith relationships. From there it’s only a short step to an "all us or all them" attitude.

It’s part of our Catholic Christian responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen. What happened at and after Vatican II in the development of real tolerance and appreciation between faiths was a pure gift of God. Centuries had shown that we certainly couldn’t get there on our own. It’s a gift of God that needs to be accepted, nurtured and developed. That’s part of our Catholic Christian challenge in these partisan cultural times.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 19:9-13; Rom 9:1-5; Mt 14:22-33

Our opening reading this morning, from the first Book of Kings, presents us with one of the most famous and controversial theophanies (or appearances of God) in the entire Old Testament. Famous, because it has been commented upon by so many Jewish and Catholic theologians and spiritual writers through the centuries. Controversial because, while it’s fairly clear what God does not appear in (a heavy wind, an earthquake or fire), there is no consensus among scholars about what God does appear in. Let me explain.

The text says, "After the fire, there was a ...... what?" The three Hebrew words that appear next can be translated in any number of different ways. The translation we heard today says "After the fire, there was a tiny whispering sound," which is probably one of the least preferred translations by the majority of theologians and spiritual writers. It’s least preferred because it’s simply too definite. The reader can understand or imagine exactly what it is that God appears in----a tiny whispering sound." No element of paradox is contained in that phrase, and paradox is what needs to be there. The translation that most Jewish scholars and spiritual writers would prefer is: "After the fire, there was the sound of silence," which, by the way, gives a whole new dimension to that old Simon and Garfunkel song. The sound of silence is surely a paradox. The majority of commentators think the text was deliberately left ambiguous by the scriptural writer to accent the impossibility of ever having an accurate image of God. The Mysteriousness of God must always be remembered.

I think most of us would agree that we generally would prefer to have things clearcut, that something is what it says it is. We all know well the frustration of walking away from a conversation, realizing that we really aren’t sure what the other person said or meant. And yet, so many writers and artists through the ages have been trying to get people to see "that’s just the way it is sometimes." Many times things are not clear cut, and eventually one has to accept that and move on. And, in a way, it’s always that way with God. The Mysteriousness must always be remembered.

Similar to that is another phenomenon, the changing perspective of accepted meanings. Again, let me explain. We can become so accustomed to meanings having a specific quality to them; we just assume that it means one thing, although it may not. Recently, I have been reading Maria Boulding’s last book, Gateway to Resurrection; it was only published after her death in 2009. She was a nun of Stanbrooke Abbey in England. For many years she was one of the most well-known and respected writers on Benedictine subjects in the world. In her last two years she had to deal with a case of terminal cancer. She wrote this book during that period. In one place she comments on how her struggle with cancer has made her see so many things in a new way, particularly some of her favorite passages in the bible. One she particularly liked was Paul’s description in 2 Cor. 12:7-10 about being given a "thorn in the flesh," and how he prayed heartily to be delivered from it. The only response he received was, "My grace will be sufficient for you." She had always taken "sufficient" to mean "an abundance of." But in her illness it seemed instead to mean "there will be just enough for you to get through." that’s quite a different slant.

These two examples show us the different ways that passages in scripture might be understood. We should always be open to be surprised by the scriptures.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Jesus' August Message

Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for July. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.

Dear apostles, you are friends of My heart. As such, please be patient with Me as I bring you along in holiness. Would you like to be holier? Perhaps you identify My teachings as good but you feel frustrated because you see that you fall short on some days. This is when you must be truly patient and trust that I am bringing you along as quickly as is needed. Remember that you may see very little progress on some days, but your decision to remain with Me in the process of becoming holier creates a disposition for heaven that keeps the light where it should be, that is, on the need to examine yourself for failure instead of examining others. How easy it is to see the flaws of another. How much more difficult it is to identify which pain in you creates the disposition for repeating a mistake, perhaps again and again. Yes, patience is necessary, both with oneself and with others. I, Jesus, am patient with you. And so you must be patient with yourself. And then you must be patient with others. Do not be distracted by events around you. Do not be drawn into thinking that many events or big events mean that you can take your eyes off of the process of becoming holier. No, dear apostles. I speak gravely when I say to you that you must concentrate seriously on becoming holier because your holiness and your commitment to holiness is a crucial part of My plan to bring comfort to others. Allow Me to see to the world. If you see daily to the condition of your soul and if you love others then you will have fulfilled My plan for you. Rejoice. You are committed to Me and I am eternally committed to you.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 55:1-3; Rm 8:35-39; Mt 14:13-21

One of the most welcome transitions that I lived through in my lifetime (and many of you did too) was the change in the general tenor of the Catholic Church. It moved from a church centered on guilt and judgment to a church centered on love and service. That has been a very welcome transition flowing from the Second Vatican council. How did the Church ever get into that situation of emphasizing guilt and judgment? Especially when there are such powerful expressions of God’s love for us in so many scriptural passages. Today’s second reading, from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, serves as a marvelous example: "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, neither angels, nor principalities.....nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." That’s a powerful affirmation of the primacy of God’s love for us.

How did we ever get to that Counter-Reformation spirituality centered on guilt, judgment and punishment? There are historical reasons and in hindsight they appear quite clearly. It’s not so easy to see them when one is living forward through them. Some years ago I gave a workshop on the Counter-Reformation to an adult group at Our Lady of the Greenwood parish. To sum up that distinctive Counter-Reform spirituality I read to them a list of themes that one historian had discovered running through the sermons of parish priests, religious order priests and priests who gave parish missions. Here are some of those themes that were preached on again and again: even venial sins are a grave offence against God; Marriage is a dangerous situation; the body is to be feared; any sexual fault is mortal sin; the ‘ascetic model’ is the only way to salvation; all amusement and pleasure are to be rejected; the confessor is to be prosecutor and judge; one bad confession negated all preceding ones. Is it any wonder that scrupulosity and guilt became rife in the Catholic Church. In that parish workshop when we took a break, I was amazed at the number of people who came up to me and said that they had believed every one of those things when they were growing up. Without doubt the Second Vatican Council was a great gift of God to the Church.

There exists a powerful connection between love and service in the Vatican II vision of Christian faith as well as in the vision of the early Christian Church. This love of God for us not only endears us to God and God to us, but it also impels us toward the service of others, to assist people and help them in myriad ways. I don’t think that connection was always appreciated in those first heady years after Vatican II when people were breaking free from guilt and punishment. There certainly were some who turned the late 1960s and early 1970s into the "feel good about yourself" years. They never quite got the connection between love and service.

But we need to get it and pursue it: to hold deeply in our hearts that God loves us, that God strongly desires us to enter into the Divine Presence and that this obliges us to reach out in service to one another. Indeed, we are to seek out the neediest among us and do what we can to help them. That’s why the many people in your community who help each week in food pantries are doing some of the finest Christian work in the whole community. Their service needs to flow from their own conviction of God’s love for them and for all people and that love impels them to serve. That’s the whole message of the teaching and life of Jesus.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5-12; Rom 8:28-30; Mt 13:44-52

There appeared on a Bulletin Board in the Sisters’ monastery a very fascinating internet article about "Things that will disappear in our lifetime." Just listen to some of these and consider how much and for how long they have been fixtures in our daily lives. The Post Office. The check. The newspaper. The land line telephone. The book. Television. They are all losing money rapidly and have little chance of sustaining themselves in the long run. They are all being "done in" by the microchip revolution and the computer. There are many other things that will go along with these disappearances. As my sister, Nancy, who teaches sociology reminded me: with each one of them there will also disappear thousands of jobs. And as my mother, age 97 reminded me: the poor will get poorer. She said: people like me who can’t use a computer are just out of luck.

All of this reminds us—more than we would like to admit—how deep and broad are the cultural changes we are currently living through. Many of these changes can make us extremely uncomfortable. Because they mean the end of ways and habits that we had become familiar with and grown to like very much. I really like getting the newspaper each morning and reading it with my cup of coffee. Having my coffee with a hand-hold computer just isn’t the same thing. As I was reading this list to my sister over the phone, she was agreeing with them one by one and was showing where they were already beginning to happen. But when I got to the book and the television, she cried out: "Oh no! Not my book and my TV too." Such a time of deep cultural change can be a very hard time for some people.

Most modern Christians are probably not aware of it, but a very similar religious cultural transition was going on among the first two generations of Christians. All the early followers of Jesus were Jews and very deeply rooted in their Jewish religious culture. But in believing in the teachings of Jesus and especially in his death and resurrection, they had to confront a whole new set of convictions and practices. Some of these fit easily into their Jewish background and others did not. There were some very contentious debates among Christians in those first generations. There were certain Jewish practices that disappeared forever and others were significantly changed. In the year 100AD a Christian could easily have written an article entitled, "Things that will disappear in our lifetime."

The gospel passage we just heard speaks to that situation of cultural change, particularly the last line: "Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the old and the new." Jesus is telling his disciples that they are going to keep some things from their Jewish background and others are going to be replaced by new beliefs and practices. The wisdom, of course, is knowing exactly which to keep and which to replace. There are no exact guidelines for that. We need to pray for the help of God’s Spirit. And pray hard!

The story of Solomon in the first reading provides us a valuable insight about dealing with changing times. Solomon doesn’t look to himself, but to how he can help others. The danger, when we deal with times of transition, is to look too much to ourselves, to what we have to change and don’t want to. The more we look to helping others, the more we will be helping ourselves to cope with change. It’s a lesson we are all going to have to learn.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Is 55:10-11; Rm 8:18-23: Mt 13; 1-9

One of my past community members at St. Meinrad that I will always remember was Br. Rene Bouillon. Br. Rene was a large, hefty man with a sometimes jovial, sometimes gruff personality. He was for many years the manager of the Abbey laundry. He developed the habit of addressing his fellow monks by their laundry number. "Hello, Br. Rene; hello, 204." He was a quite intelligent man who had a keen interest in his Belgian heritage. I remember his intense joy on sifting through the possessions of one of his deceased relatives over in the little town of Leopold. He discovered a traditional wooden shoe, a sabot, that had been made in Belgium. He was joyous for weeks. But what I remember most are the last years of his life. He was scheduled to have surgery for a hernia and the doctor ordered an X-ray to make sure there were no complicating factors. But the X-ray showed a spot on one of his lungs. So soon after the hernia surgery, there was another surgery to remove the spot. It was cancerous. There followed two years of chemotherapy, radiation and intense pain before he finally succumbed to the disease. But one time during those last two years I came out of my monastery room and I met Br. Rene laboriously and painfully making his way down the hall. He just looked at me with a face filled with sadness and said, "What did I ever do to deserve this?" So I invited him into my room to talk about it. He came to me often until he died.

It seems to me that same feeling (what did I ever do to deserve this) is in the background of all three readings we heard this morning. And the blunt response is: "You simply have to trust in God’s plan, God’s will. There’s nothing you can do about it." The readings, of course, put it much more delicately than that. Isaiah says, "The word of God goes forth and accomplishes all it seeks." Paul writes: "all creation is groaning in labor pains." And Jesus’ parable in the gospel passage is: the seed falls where it will. The blunt message is the same in all of them: "You simply have to trust in God’s plan, God’s will. There’s nothing you can do about it and it’s NOT your fault."

That was what I had to explain to Br. Rene in his suffering and pain. I didn’t put it in such blunt terms. But at base it’s a hard message; there are no two ways about it. Especially when one begins to survey human history or even our present times and sees the many, many brutalities that people inflict on each other, particularly innocent victims. There isn’t any way you can avoid asking "why," why doesn’t God do something to intervene? Why doesn’t God answer my own heartfelt plea for help? Or Br. Rene’s question: "what did I ever do to deserve this?"

The Bible gives us two answers that clash. On the one hand, we are told to make our needs known to God. "Pray to your Heavenly Father." On the other hand we are told, "It’s all in God’s Will. God’s plan will surely work itself out. There’s nothing you can do about it." We are told to hold to both of them, even though we can’t see how they make sense together. That’s what faith is all about and it can be very, very hard.

It seems to me that the prayer that expresses all this best is the prayer for Anointing. "May the Lord in His love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." The prayer asks that we be strengthened in whatever difficulty we are facing. It then recognizes that God has already saved us and we ask for a future betterment, whether in this life or in the next. It’s a beautiful prayer. We will hear it often in just over a week.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Zech 9:9-10; Rom 8:9-13; Mt 11:25-30

Way back in 1964, when I was in my first year of theology studies at St. Meinrad, I read a book that had a huge impact on my way of thinking----it was A Study of Hebrew Thought by Claude Tresmontant, a very noted Scripture scholar. (I doubt anyone here is going to rush out and read this book.) What struck me so forcefully was the way the book severely challenged some presumptions I had held for a long time. In the chapter on "Hebrew Anthropology" the author explained how the Hebrew mentality looked at the human being in an integrated wholistic way. There was no division into body and soul as two separate principles as Greek thought did. Rather the reference was always to the total person acting in a particular way. To exemplify his point Tresmontant referred specifically to the exact passage we heard this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Romans concerning being "in the flesh" and "in the spirit." From the Hebrew perspective these do not refer to our usual understandings of body and soul, but rather to different orientations of the whole human person.

That just blew away the meanings I had always assumed. To me "in the flesh" had always meant body, sex and everything associated with them. I had never imagined it could have been anything different. But the writer said that "in the flesh" refers to considering yourself more than any other person or issue. In other words, to be "in the flesh" means to act selfishly. To be "in the spirit" means to act with the needs of others in mind. It is similar to a point that Sr. Karen made in one of her retreat conferences last week when she cited a reference to two different kinds of power: unilateral and relational. Unilateral power is forcing others to do what I want them to do. Relational power is to be in dialogue with others and working with them toward a common goal. That’s to be "in the spirit." It took me quite a while to digest all that.

Years later I discovered a variation on all this in the Episcopalian theologian Urban Holme’s distinction between the hot and cold sins of the clergy (Spirituality for Ministry, pp. 42-57). Let me read you a portion of this chapter: "American religion is obsessed with the warm sins of the clergy such as illicit sex and gluttony. .... The sins that should concern us far more deeply are those that prevent the clergy from exercising their spiritual vocation. These cold sins truly violate the mission of the pastor to be an instrument of spiritual growth." (P. 43) He then goes on to enumerate and exemplify some of these cold sins: the desire for power—always wanting to be the one who controls every situation, insulation and evasion—the refusal to truly listen to other’s problems, abstraction—always speaking in general terms only and never in personal, apathy—not caring at all about other people’s lives, ecclesiastical dilettantism—being totally concerned with the trappings of religion like vestments, incense and stained glass windows. To one who is primarily concerned about any of these things St. Paul would say, "You are ‘in the flesh,’ acting primarily in a selfish manner."

While Urban Holmes is writing about differences in clergy behavior, the same truly applies to community. It is so easy to gossip about the hot, flashy failings of community members. But it’s the cold failings that are far more damaging to community life: the snubbing of other people, the refusal to be compassionate about another’s difficulties, wanting to control every situation insisting that our word be the last in any discussion. It is to these people that St. Paul would say, "You are in the flesh." And "If you live according to the flesh, you will die." Let’s heed these words today.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Jesus' July Message

Each month, Anne, a lay apostle, receives a message from Jesus. This is the message for July. To read more about the locutions Anne receives from Jesus and His Blessed Mother click on this link: Direction For Our Times.

My dear apostles, do you see how I am working through you? Be alert to My presence in your day and, as a grace, I will give you a glimpse of what I am accomplishing. Look for little blessings going out to others. Look for flashes of consolation in suffering or calming of your heart when your heart feels anxious. You see, dear apostles, not only do I move through you to others, but I minister to you in a continuous way so that you are sustained. I want you to be peaceful. I want you to be calm. I want you to understand that if you say no to Me, there are others who will not be comforted and others who will not be blessed and instructed through you. You, My beloved apostles who remain firm in service, act as holy hands and hearts. Your holy hands and your holy hearts are used to gently tap others, into service, into healing and into love for Me and all of the Father’s children on earth. How earnestly I ask the Father for greater blessings for you. How earnestly I prompt you, through the Spirit, to continue on in service. I know that there are times when you need encouragement, so at this time, I will send you evidence of either your progress or of the effect of your willingness to serve on others. Look for this, dear apostles, and then you will know that I am with you and that I am using your presence on earth. When you see this, be at peace. Gird yourself in holiness and prepare for further service, not less service. You are important to Me and I count you as an asset in this time of change.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for Trinity Sunday

Readings: Ex 34:4-9; 2 C or. 13:11-13; Jn 3:16-18

When I was teaching systematic theology courses in the seminary, the course on the Trinity was, without doubt, the most difficult to teach. All the systematics professors were agreed on that. The problem was that no matter how thoroughly and accurately a professor explained the theology of Trinity, you were lucky if one student in an entire class really understood what you taught. Most of them looked confused when you started and they looked even more confused when you finished. Teaching Trinity was one of those frustrating experiences that just had to be done to meet curriculum requirements. (The same holds true for priests preaching on Trinity Sunday. Practically no one likes to do it. At least I’ve never met one who did.)

As time went on, I began to try and place the Trinity in a larger context that included the whole search for a belief in the Mystery of God. That seemed to work much better. The key that opened up that approach to me was a comment by a particular theologian (I can’t remember who it was) who wrote that the Trinity in the New Testament was really a spirituality in search of a theology. In other words, the early Christians had three distinct experiences of meeting the divine (Father, Son in Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit). And they were convinced that each was a genuine experience of the one God. St. Augustine wrote a great big volume On the Trinity. It took him twenty years to complete. At the end of the book he tried to summarize the whole book in these words: "The Father is God! The Son is God! The Spirit is God! There is only one God!" For a lot of people today the Trinity is still a spirituality in search of a theology.

All that was summed up nicely in the passage we heard from Second Corinthians: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!" That is, by the way, one of the earliest indications we have of this complex conviction of the early Christians about God. One of the most important things this teaches us is that God deals with us in a multitude of ways. If you recall last Sunday for the feast of Pentecost, I reflected that the Spirit’s bestowal of charisms on all the People of God shows us that God takes the initiative with us, giving us ideas and impulses to reach out and help each other. But that doesn’t exhaust the ways that God deals with us. The Son in Jesus Christ is connect with grace—the graciousness and mercy of God towards us. The Father is connected with love. Whatever in creation that connects us with love....shows us an aspect of the Father. The Spirit is connected with the formation of community. Any outreach that builds true community is the Spirit of God breathing among us. God deals with us in a multitude of ways.

There is one way that God deals with us that doesn’t come from the credal and theological traditions. But we learn it very clearly in the mystical tradition: namely, that God sometimes hides from us. God sometimes lurks just beyond the edge of our awareness. St. Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross understood this very well. This point was recently expressed very beautifully by Sr. Mara Faulkner, a Benedictine from St. Joseph, MN in a poem she wrote entitled: "Things I didn’t know I Loved." There’s a long list of such things, but towards the end she has this one: "And you, my God, so silent and cold, I didn’t know I loved you until you woke every morning in my little stove so lowly in your prison house of wood and flesh and fire so eager and so needful of my hands." That’s a wonderful thought to end with on Trinity Sunday: we may love God more than we really know. We all need to have faith in that.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Pentecost Homily

Readings: Acts 2:1-11; 1 Cor 12:3-13; John 20:19-23

The Holy Spirit is an elusive (almost sneaky) sort. In today’s first reading the Spirit comes upon Mary and the disciples and impels them to speak in different languages. In the second reading Paul announces the thoroughness of the Spirit in all the followers of Jesus Christ, from the very first moment that one confessed ‘Jesus is Lord.’ And in the passage from John’s gospel the Spirit becomes the medium through which sins are forgiven. In our own days the Holy Spirit remains just as elusive. Pope John XXIII often remarked that it was a sudden inspiration from the Spirit that urged him to call the Second Vatican Council. It was that same council which proclaimed that the Holy Spirit distributes diverse charisms on all the members of the Church. The Holy Spirit is not easy to categorize.

I’d like to spend a little time with that last thought, that the Holy Spirit distributes charisms on all the members of the Church. Let’s listen again to that relevant passage from the Constitution on the Church: "...the Holy Spirit sanctifies and leads the people of God....and distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake the various tasks and duties which contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church. .... These charisms, whether they be the more outstanding or the more simple and widely diffused, are to be received with thanksgiving and consolation for they are especially suited to and useful for the needs of the Church." (#12)

This is really a very important teaching for the Christian people. It tells them that God’s relationship with them involves much more than simply praying for favors and hoping that God answers them. That’s oftentimes what it has been for a lot of people. This Vatican II teaching emphasizes that God takes the initiative with us and bestows special graces that allow all the Christian people to assist and help one another. When we have the sudden idea to drop in and visit an elderly neighbor or take a surprise party basket to a single mother raising several children, we should see that as God’s Spirit taking the initiative and giving us a charism. These charisms are God taking the initiative in our personal relationship.

Besides emphasizing God’s initiative with us, this teaching on charisms also stresses that God wants us to help each other and is always giving us nudges to do so. Every act of outreach is building up the church, the People of God.

The notion of God’s "Spirit" (in Hebrew, Ruah) takes us into the very heart of God’s Mystery. The word, Ruah, also means breath, a breath of wind. Just as our own breath comes from within us, from our heart, so the Holy Spirit comes from the very heart of God. I was recently watching a medieval fantasy story in which there was a scene that reminded me of this closeness of the Holy Spirit and breath. An old woman was trying to teach a young woman some of the knowledge of living well and living faithfully. The old woman said: "You must always remember to keep your ears open and listen to God speaking. Just listen now." After a while the young woman says, "I only hear the wind." The old woman smiles and says, "How do you think God speaks to us?" Let’s be open to listen to the Spirit of God this Pentecost.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Ascension Homily

Readings: Acts 1:1-11; Eph 1:17-23; Mt 28:16-20

The feast of the Ascension is one that consistently gets shortchanged by many believers today. Part of the problem lies in the fact that we have such literal descriptions of the event, such as we heard today from the book of Acts and also the gospel of Luke about Jesus "rising" up to the heavens. Added to that we have such magnificent paintings of the event by many noted artists: Perugino, Rembrandt, Andrei Rublev, and the one on the cover of this missalette (Il Garofolo). The problem lies in the fact that people stop there, seeing the Ascension as merely the way of getting Jesus from earth into heaven after his Resurrection.....and nothing else. Thus, the full meaning of the Ascension is shortchanged.

In the second reading we heard this morning, from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, we are given the real meaning, the basic faith significance of the Ascension: "God has put all things beneath his feet and gave him as head over all things...." Through his death and resurrection God has made Jesus Christ the beginning, the measure and end of all things. He is the yardstick by which the value of everything, everyone and every human action is measured. The primary meaning of Ascension is not physical, but in a total spiritual sense. It was "through him" that everything was made; "with him" that every action finds its value; "in him" that everything and everyone will be judged. The Ascension stands as one of the pivotal beliefs of Christianity.

It also encompasses the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. How did those first followers of the simple Galilean preacher in the first century, those who recoiled in horror and fear at his eventual and sudden crucifixion and death, come to make such an extravagant claim about him? We simply don’t know the exact process by which it happened. That’s why we can only assert that it happened as a gift of faith from God. But the fact of that claim is clearly attested in the oldest Christian literature we possess, the letters of St. Paul. There it is clearly attested that the early Christian community most certainly worshiped Jesus Christ as the Son of God, risen from the dead and made Lord of all things.

That faith continues to this day. We reaffirm it every time we celebrate the Eucharist. At the end of every Eucharistic prayer, when the priest raises the consecrated bread and wine, he prays: "Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever." Your "Amen" is reaffirming the Mystery of the Ascension! It is also affirming the Mystery of the gift of Faith.

But let’s go back to that thought that Jesus has been made the yardstick by which the value of everything, every one and every human action is measured. We need to take this beyond an intellectual affirmation of who Jesus is and what he does. It needs to be fully integrated into our spirituality and prayer life. One of the great developments that happened as a result of Vatican II was the entrance of this kind of spirituality in our Eucharistic prayers. As we shall pray in just a few moments: "While he lived among us he cured the sick, he cared for the poor and he wept with those who were grieving. He forgave sinners and taught us to forgive each other." We need to hear that often and begin to integrate it into our personal spirituality. That’s living the Mystery of the Ascension. And may we pray that it may be so for all of us!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Jesus' June Message

Dear apostles, humanity suffers. If you have eyes to see, then you will see that all around you there are children of God who have become disconnected from their Father. When a child suffers, that child is consoled if his Father is nearby and engaged with him. The child feels understood, even in his great pain. The child feels that there is ultimate safety, even when he faces temporary risk. To know that one is destined for ultimate safety provides for a disposition that withstands any difficulty, even the prospect of death. Beloved apostles, so close to Me, do you see that you have something that most do not? Do you see that your anticipation of ultimate safety provides you with a solid wall at your back which will, someday, absorb you into Itself? At that time, you will never be at risk again. You will be one of those who rejoices completely, not only in your own safety, but in the safety of all those around you. You will be absorbed into the Communion of Saints who now so perfectly understand the struggle of humanity that they work tirelessly and joyfully for the salvation of their brothers and sisters remaining on earth. When you finish your time on earth, you, too, will understand the great things that I accomplished through the little yes answers you gave Me on your journey through time on earth. You will say, yes, it was worth everything. You will say this, dear friends, regardless of the amount of suffering or sacrifice you endured. But, even as I rejoice in your heavenly heading, I urge you to strain forward in My service. Others should possess this confidence and security. If I told you that there was one person who was lost and that he could be found, would you rejoice with Me? If I told you that this person, currently suffering, could be claimed for heaven through your allegiance to Me on this day, would you give Me that allegiance? For one more day? This is what I am asking of you. Answer yes to Me. Give Me this day today. Watch, dear apostle, what I can do with your yes answer today. Look back and see what I have done with your yes answers in the past. You will see, in looking back, the barest truth about what I accomplished through you. Only in heaven will you see the full extent of what the Father has gained through your presence in His heart. Trust Me, while I obtain peace for you and peace for others through you.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:5-17; 1 Peter 3:15-18; John 14:15-21

One of my favorite scriptural passages is in today’s second reading from the First Letter of Peter: "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence." I suppose it was because it seemed to me that defined the whole purpose of my career as a professor of theology. My task was ultimately to help others come to the ability to give an explanation for their faith. In teaching seminarians I was instructing those who would later pass it on to their parishioners. In talks to parishes and various diocesan groups I was assisting them directly with the deeper grasp of their faith, "a reason for their hope."

I can still remember vividly my very first teaching experience. I was returning from Rome with my Masters degree in Systematic Theology in the summer of 1969, the year the School of Theology was having its first summer session. The session was open to seminarians, diocesan and religious priests, religious sisters and laity. Since classes in Rome finish later than in the United States, I was barely going to make it for the beginning of classes. I would arrive late one Saturday evening, have Sunday to get my first class ready, and begin on Monday morning. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the classroom. When I finally did that Monday morning, I quickly looked over my class of around 25 participants and realized.....that I was the youngest person in the classroom. So I said: "Look at it this way. I have a lot of theoretical knowledge and you have a lot of pastoral experience. If we put those together, we can have a wonderful summer." And, indeed, we did.

It also didn’t take me very long to realize that learning the craft of teaching is a project in itself. My first years of theological education were blessed with a wonderful group of professors at St. Meinrad School of Theology. They gave stimulating lectures (most of them), encouraged class discussion and wanted students to think creatively. They were wonderful role models. But when I went to Rome to begin my Master’s degree studies, I encountered an entirely different system of education. There the professors read their lectures from prepared texts. There was no classroom discussion. Moreover, you could buy copies of the teacher’s lectures. Your final test questions were going to be taken directly from the material in the lectures. No creative thinking was encouraged. I was really puzzled by this educational system. It seemed so pedantic. Gradually I learned the reason for it. At various times in history when professors argued different points with each other, one of the tactics that was often employed was to get copies of the students’ notes that they had taken in class. In one case the professor’s opponents found evidence of over one hundred heresies in the students’ class notes. You begin to wonder just how much the students learn of what you actually intended to teach. Sometimes not a whole lot despite the best of your intentions.

When you go back to that scriptural passage I began with ("Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence)." you realize that the task of accomplishing that ultimately devolves on the individual believer himself or herself. The teacher is only a part-time guide. When I began teaching, I tried to set out to give the students an exact blueprint of directions to the desired goal. Somewhere along the way I realized that the most a teacher can do is point students in the general direction. And to encourage them to do their own hard work in being able to "give a reason for their hope." Let’s pray that all of us may work hard to be able to "give a reason for our hope."

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 6:1-7; 1 Pet 2:4-9; John 14:1-12

Over the years I have returned often to the first five chapters of the Book of Acts for inspiration; they provide an admittedly ideal glimpse into the life of the early Christian community—how they lived together in unity, harmony, sharing all things in common, praying and supporting one another. One passage says it all: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and simple hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people." (2:46-47) These same chapters, by the way, were very instrumental in the formation of early monasticism. The first monks felt they were trying to imitate that idyllic life together.

However, when we turn to chapter six in the Book of Acts, the tone changes considerably. The beginning of chapter six forms the first reading of today’s liturgy. In it the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of goods. The apostolic leaders respond by appointing seven individuals to take care of this task. But this episode only forms the beginning of a whole series of difficulties, internal and external, that the early Christian community had to deal with. A good part of the remaining chapters of Acts shows how they struggled with those difficulties, the biggest of them being the full acceptance of Gentiles into the Christian movement. That struggle takes a long, long time.

In these Sundays after Easter we have been exploring how we can manifest a "living hope" in the Resurrection of Jesus. On previous sundays we examined actions of mutual respect, reverent behavior, and being perceptive to the gates of God’s presence in our lives. This episode of the neglected widows shows another way: by a commitment to work patiently, patiently for something that you deeply believe is good. If you know that there’s a good end to your desires, you will try and try again to achieve it. You will put up with temporary failures, snags and your own inner discouragement to keep going and try again. In so doing we witness to a living hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.

A book that I’m currently reading provides an excellent example of that determination. It’s by a young man, Kyle Kramer, and is titled A Time to Plant. By the way, he’s the assistant academic dean at St. Meinrad. In the book he tells his life story. It begins to get interesting when he’s in graduate school, studying to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. Slowly a vision of life forms in him of becoming an organic farmer. He had no experience of this outside of growing a small vegetable garden. But he eventually gives up his academic and ministry career to buy a small farm plot near his parents in southern Indiana. He learns farming by trial and error (lots of errors). He marries a wife with a similar ecological mindset. Knowing little about construction he sets out to build a house for himself, his wife and the twins that surprised them both. At times in building this house his discouragement is overwhelming. Often frustrated, he sits and cries for long periods of time in the winter while he’s trying to put the wiring and plumbing into the shell of a house. Battling again and again against discouragement and depression and the strains it puts on his marriage and family, he eventually manages to succeed in the task. But it takes a lot longer than he expected. He kept at it because he believed it was a good end and worthy of enduring effort.

If you know the end you seek is good, you will work at it patiently over and over. And in so doing, we do witness to a living hope in the Resurrection of Jesus.