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!
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Readings: Ex 22:20-26; 1 Thess 1:5-10; Mt 22:34-40
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I had a request to continue posting Fr. Matthias' homilies...so 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 dance...you 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.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
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.