Thursday, November 06, 2008

finding it... again

But when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8)

Our Lord’s ominous question recorded in Luke’s Gospel would be emphatically misunderstood were it taken solely as rhetorical.

Faith as a life decision that redeems and informs all one’s plans and aspirations is in visibly short supply in a world that sets merely passing goals for us... money, fame, comfort and that scam of scams: ‘security’.

But there are places where faith is cultivated as an all-consuming lifestyle, where the noise, the distraction, the sham and the shamelessly destructive glitter is sealed out hermitically to the benefit of all those strong and wise enough to go beyond the false promises and permanent dissatisfactions.

I was fortunate enough to spend a week in such a place at the end of October.

Spencer Abbey of the Cistercian Order of Strict Observance (Trappist) is one of those singular oases where silence, prayer, work and study permit faith to flourish unsullied and the discovery of its very particular joy.

The history of the Spencer monks is adventurous and colorful. The nearly 2400 acres of solitary retreat in the rolling hills of central Massachusetts is the stage for sainthood, personal redemption, solace and healing for everyone who lives or visits there.

For me it meant no trains shaking the house, no sirens filling the night air, no phones, meetings, e-mails or complaints about the many tasks left unperformed by so many people left unsatisfied by my performance.

The retreat was loosely formatted: an open invitation to chant the liturgy of the hours seven times a day with the monks, concelebrated Mass at 6am and a guided meditation once a day by one of the priests of the abbey. (Only one in three of the monks go on to receive Holy Orders. The others live as choir monks and lay brothers their entire lives in the monastery.)

Fr. Matthew, our retreat guide – there were five other priests that week on retreat – reflected on the topic of universal salvation as found in the writings and teachings of Pope Benedict. The theological thought behind his comments, from Origen and Julian of Norwich to Von Balthasar and Ratzinger himself, was a refreshing variation from the irritating and often senseless blather that a temporary administrator of inner city parishes deals with 24/7.

It was also a change from what I had previously experienced as ‘spiritual exercises’ – very busy, regimented and maddeningly micro-managed.

It was like a cool, invigorating dip in a secluded lake in the middle of a dry, hot summer.

Now it’s back to the grind with the challenge of keeping the inner oasis fresh and vibrant until my circumstances permit me another escape to Spencer...


Saturday, October 25, 2008

"Wait Master, it might be dangerous... you go first."

I told my niece that I would visit her once a month. In that regard, at least, I have proven to be a very serious piece of uncle.

She does not look like a college student to me, still so diminutive and child-like in many ways. She’s into fashion and I don’t get it, as I readily admit, but apparently I’m in the minority. Manhattan is a loud, mind-numbing chaos to me and imagining her day after day traipsing obliviously from dorm to classes (I mean, I’m assuming there are actually ‘classes’ of some sort involved in this fashion nonsense, right? ...RIGHT?!?!) and wherever else she may wander kind of freaks me out.

Words like ‘frailty’, ‘vulnerability’, ‘susceptibility’ - oh yes, and ‘WHAT THE HELL WERE WE THINKING LETTING THIS DITZY LITTLE GIRL MOVE TO NEW YORK BY HERSELF????’ - gently insinuate themselves into my unspoken monologues whenever she pops into my mind.

She pops often into my mind because my knee-jerk reaction to the trauma of actually watching (helping... I actually helped her move... gasp) was to get her a cell phone. In retrospect, not a mistake, but certainly not the ticket to tranquility that I convinced myself it would be.

I don’t mind the text messages at 2am... but then I find myself wondering, “Why in God’s name is this child even awake at 2am? Manhattan a college dorm somewhere alone... I mean she MUST have classes tomorrow, right? ...does this fashion bs require classes? ...what could they possibly teach in these classes? ...’Buttons 101’? ‘From Camel Skin to Cashmere: The Evolution of the Sweater Shrug’? ‘The Logic of Layering’?”

For my October visit she says she wants to celebrate Halloween in some way. Before she could even suggest anything to do with Halloween in the Village or Chelsea or anywhere else I told her I’d plan the evening.

We ended up having a burger together at the Hard Rock Cafe, mine real, hers veggie (please don’t ask) and seeing Young Frankenstein at the Hilton. I loved it as a movie when I was in high school, thankfully she loved it now, 34 years later, in its Broadway musical version. I laughed anticipating the famous old gags of the movie: “That’s Fronkensteen/That’s Eye-gor”, “Walk this way!”. “What hump?”, “Werewolf/there wolf”, “Abby Normal”, Harold the Hermit, the tap dance, etc.

Anyway, we had a good time doing something we both enjoyed. If Young Frankenstein is the scariest thing she encounters during her stay in the city, it will have gone very well for both of us indeed.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

kindling passion

I consider reading to be one of the finer pleasures of life.

I put it right up there with smoky, small batch bourbon, earthy Cuban cigars and sunny fall afternoons on shimmering New England lakes.

As with all earthly pleasures, the risk of abuse and addiction is concomitant, but so are the endless excuses I find to justify it as the right thing to do at practically any given moment.

My tastes are eclectic and I often have two or three books on the menu at once. I rarely walk out of a movie I’ve paid for, I infrequently leave food on my plate and I almost never leave a book unfinished even when it turns out to be less than I expected. In recent memory (about eight years ago) I put down the one installment of the Harry Potter series that was given me by a nephew after only forty pages or so because it began to taste like Ovaltine. I swore off Ovaltine when I was eight.

I read a lot of theology – Von Balthasar, De Lubac, Ratzinger, De Chardin, Kasper and Congar are staple favorites. I can’t resist the controversial when it arises, recently, for example, Haight’s Jesus Symbol of God or Dupuis’ Christianity and the Religions. Among Protestant writers Barth and Bultmann are always worthwhile.

The somewhat loosely classified ‘existentialists’ are my normal philosophical fare: Kierkegaard, Neitzsche, Heidegger, Chekhov, Ionesco and their ilk.

I am quite fond of Greek tragedy (Sophocles and Euripides) and their classical English counterpart, Bill Shakespeare.

But a good read certainly does not have to imply heavy lifting. I gobble up Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip Roth, John Irving, Jose Saramago, Gunter Grass and others like a kid who’s allowed to skip the veggies and go right to dessert.

To the dismay of some of my brethren in the ministry, I also find dubious delight in horror, both classic and contemporary. I am the Exorcist, after all.

I will do late nighters in my lonely, creaky rectory overhanging the railroad tracks with anyone from Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson to Ray Bradbury, Jack Ketchum and Bentley Little. I even confess to the occasional Stephen King indulgence.

As if the connoisseur of fillet mignon couldn’t cave into the surreptitious craving for a Big Mac once in a while?

Anyway, all of this is but a preamble to what I was really going to mention on this post. Although I fully consider myself a child of our post-modern age, I am usually less than enthusiastic about the shiny electronic baubles and gewgaws that our technology enamored world shamelessly peddles as the latest have-to-have keys to hipness.

However, a few days ago my love of a good book got the better of me and overrode my distrust of flashy gadgetry. After prolonged inner debate I got myself a Kindle.

This little gizmo is the real deal.

Books, newspapers, magazines and blogs in a paperback sized contrivance that satiates even the most depraved biblophile’s inner nerd. Instant gratification. Isn’t that what life is all about?

I doubt that anything will ever replace the thrill of leisurely searching through used book stores. And no device will substitute the satisfying snap of a hardcover being bent back for the first time or the intoxicating smell of the printed page. But, believe me, the Kindle has already given new meaning to long lines, travel, solitary lunches, boring finance committee meetings, spaces between appointments and down time in general.

And so, I hereby boldly state to all the world that the Kindle will ultimately do for Chaucer what the IPod has done for Rachmaninov.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

the last resort

These first days of fall, with their crisp mornings, luminous and fleeting sunshine, cool afternoon breezes that rustle the crisping, colorful foliage take me back to harvest time in Chile. The grape harvest from late February to early April in fairytale places like the Colchagua Valley and Casablanca is an earthy, deeply human event that brings out the best in man and nature.

I would slip away from the everyday demands of ministry in the city to bless the fruits of the season, commend the workers to God’s providence and ask the Lord of the harvest to hold back the rains of winter until the grapes could be safely reaped and stored. Everything about those days is beautiful and subtly sacred and it became clear to me why the vineyard is one of the preferred images in both Old and New Testaments to teach us about the Creator and his relationship with all the created.

Even now, in Chile, most of the vineyards are family owned enterprises. I was always enthralled by the unique relationship between the owner, the workers, the winemakers and the vineyard itself – land, vines and climate – for its oneness of purpose and single-minded devotion.

Our last three Sundays of ordinary time have dealt us Gospel parables set against the backdrop of the vineyard. Timely and engrossing, they speak to us today even as they did in Jesus’ moment of the divine drama playing out in human history, as rich and complex as the wines that are the vineyards ultimate vindication.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus paraphrases Isaiah’s ‘song of the vineyard’ for the religious leaders of his audience with an added twist: the owner’s lament is now directed not at the miserable fruits of the harvest, but at those who have been charged with reaping and delivering the fruit in its due time.

All Jesus’ parables are ultimately self-revealing, but this one seems to intimate painfully more than we might wish to comprehend.

When all the emissaries have been dispatched to recover the fruits of the vineyard, when all have met the mean fate that the tenants have prepared for them, Jesus says, “Finally he sent his son to them.

Mark’s retelling of the tale drives the point home with starker, more desperate phrasing: “He had but one left to send, a beloved son. He sent him to them last of all thinking, ‘They will respect my son’.”

I am reminded of one of the unanswerable questions that theologians ponder and students of theology, like me, are required to work through and read about in theoretical terms at some point in their studies...

Does God suffer? Can the immutable, ever same, impassive Divinity experience what we call pain... loss... emptiness? Pain implies change, movement, imperfection: realities we can hardly attribute to the unchanging Foundation of all there is.

Yet Jesus insinuates just that. The owner of the vineyard relinquishes ‘the only one he has left’. He puts at risk and ultimately accepts the loss of ‘the last one’, all he had left, all that was truly his.

Paul’s reflections on kenosis, on God’s emptying of self – notably expressed in his letter to the Philippians which, coincidently, is the second reading during these weeks of ordinary time – are restricted to the Son... almost as if the incarnation, the Son’s full identification with human state and circumstance, were the necessary condition for emptiness and suffering.

But Jesus puts the origin of drastic self-surrender in the Father. It is the predisposition of the Father to lose the Son that enables the Son to be lost. The parable of the vineyard posits the pain and loss of the Father. Does that not also appear to be the dramatic core of ‘the prodigal son’?

The revelation – that only the Son can make – of a quality in the Father best expressed by an analogy with human pain and loss, better yet, with human capacity for radical self-sacrifice is the least ‘theoretical’ of all revealed truths.

It means that reckless abandonment of self, giving regardless of the cost, surrender that finds no kinship with defeat... are the very fiber of this world’s reality which reflects in all its mysterious nuances the heart of its Creator.

This alone sustains our hope in a world that never tires of beating it down and smothering it... in a futile attempt to wrest the inheritance from the Son.

These are my thoughts as I head down for the first of today’s three Eucharistic celebrations. I can only appeal to the benevolence of my parishioners...


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


This doesn’t feel right.

At any other point of my life I would be thoroughly enjoying the shameful collapse of New York baseball. That particularly visceral loathing reserved only for the Yankees and their close cousins, the common cockroach, by now would have turned into profound satisfaction. Joba - the messiah - burning out, Hank’s constant blathering, A-Dud getting booed at the Stadium, Jeter still pretending he cares about anything... even the pathetic, boring, typically overrated ceremony that shut down the Stadium... it all should make me giddy as we enter the post season Yankee-less for the first time in 14 years.

The implosion at Shea was like a fine digestivo – a silky grappa or a pungent fernet - after sticking a fork in the Evil Empire. For the second straight season the Mets barely managed to whisk defeat from the jaws of victory and go down in a graceless heap. Being even bigger doofuses than their Bronx rivals, they celebrated the closing of the stadium after losing their last game. Now, that was one exciting send-off.

And yet, all of this is barely a blip on my radar. I may watch a few innings of the Sox-Angels series. I will probably check to see if Pedroia won MVP, just out of curiosity. I might even stay up late if it goes to a fifth game in Anaheim.

But, I confess, my heart’s not in it. I’m as likely to doze off before they call in Papelbon as I am to forget to even turn on the game.

The loss of Fr. Dave still lingering? The perpetually unresolved issues of the parishes gaining weight? The uncertainty of what the immediate future may bring? The nostalgia and yearning of autumn playing in the background?

Chi lo sa...
Where are you in life when even the sure-fire distractions fail to distract?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

30 years already?


Pope John Paul I

17 October 1912 - 28 September 1978

Ordained July 7, 1935

gone too soon

You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Mt 16:18) are the weighty, great and solemn words that Jesus speaks to Simon, son of John, after his profession of faith. This profession of faith was not the product of the Bethsaida fisherman's human logic or the expression of any special insight of his or the effect of some psychological impulse; it was rather the mysterious and singular result of a real revelation of the Father in heaven. Jesus changes Simon's name to Peter, thus signifying the conferring of a special mission. He promises to build on him his Church, which will not be overthrown by the forces of evil or death. He grants him the keys of the kingdom of God, thus appointing him the highest official of his Church, and gives him the power to interpret authentically the law of God. In view of these privileges, or rather these superhuman tasks entrusted to Peter, Saint Augustine points out to us: "Peter was by nature simply a man, by grace a Christian, by still more abundant grace one of the Apostles and at the same time the first of the Apostles". (Pope John Paul I, September 3 1978)

Friday, September 26, 2008

dead, not forgotten

We buried Fr. Dave a week ago today. Just a few family members, two other priests, a deacon and his wife and I walked through the crisp sunshine in the cemetery. All in all, he got a very dignified and honorable send off to eternity. At the wake on Thursday many people who knew or knew of this admirable and friendly priest passed through the cathedral to say a quick prayer or sit in the welcome silence and meditate with pause. The parish Mass followed the wake, for Dave’s childhood parish was also the city cathedral of St. Joseph. I was asked to preach and tried to keep it simple, from the heart.

The Archbishop celebrated the funeral Mass on Friday morning. About 80 priests concelebrated, the gospel choir of St. Michael parish sang and there were easily 400 or more people in attendance. A childhood friend and classmate in the seminary preached, recalling highlights of Dave’s journey as a priest of 53 years and their friendship. It was all very family-like, very much the heartfelt tribute to a fine and holy man who had definitely run the good race.

I was distracted, however, at one point in the funeral Mass when a verse was cited from a psalm that Fr. Maciel was fond of quoting to us: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37)

The memory and sadness of Fr. Maciel’s death that went without the recognition, the thanks and the heartfelt farewells came back to me. He received no acknowledgement from the Church he served, there was no celebration of his work or achievements, his funeral was hastily and perfunctorily carried out in the backwater of Cotija, attended only by those fortunate enough to be called in by the higher powers. The entire affair was shrouded by a furtive and clandestine fog.

Other Founders of our time (J.M.Escribá!, Mother Theresa!, Chiara Lubic!) were celebrated by their Church and the obvious affection of the many people whose lives they touched. Fr. Maciel himself never imagined the final chapter of his life being written in such ignominious shorthand. There was to be a crypt in Rome, a pilgrimage of LC and RC members, unabashed signs of gratitude and admiration...

It has been a hard pill for us to swallow. It was an event we should have been allowed to experience as a congregation and a movement and it was callously taken off the agenda at the last minute. And the leadership of the LC has opted to leave each of us with our own doubts, questions and frustrations as it has all gone down.

When Fr. JME died – has it been three years already? – I could not attend the funeral, much to my deep regret. He was a friend and a mentor, a sage and a humble brother. He was kind to a fault, had a razor sharp wit and could be piercingly critical. I quote him frequently to this day. He was an LC that gave hope to many other LCs and RCs because he would go beyond the packaged advice and tired clichés that, unfortunately, often pass for spiritual direction in our system and he would speak from the heart, with real compassion for others, with depth and thoughtfulness...

Anyway, I missed the funeral because in Chile there is no practice of embalming, no routine of funeral homes that give family and friends a few days to arrive. Folks are normally buried within 24 hours of their passing. That’s no one’s fault. I simply couldn’t get there on time.

In retrospect, it was probably better for me that I be absent. There was no sincere tribute paid him at his funeral and again the LC was incapable of truly celebrating the life and legacy of one of its great men. The local superior at the time - a self-absorbed, politically astute homunculus who had little use or admiration for Fr. JME in his lifetime – was hopelessly off the mark when he delivered a generic homily that only served to reconfirm his blatant detachment from all that is real or important to the rank-and-file of the LC and RC. It was the same homily that he rattled off at two other funerals of deceased LCs.

And they think we don’t notice.
Good grief.

Fr. Dave’s passing has left that same void that Fr. Maciel and Fr. JME left with their departures. I walk around in a haze for a few weeks, go through the motions and wait for the internal elements to straighten themselves out again.

But this time at least, I felt that the good-byes were well said, heartfelt and worthy of the life they celebrated.


Tuesday, September 16, 2008


We lost a holy priest, a tireless advocate, a wise mentor and a dear friend this morning at 4am. Rest in peace, Dave, you will be sorely missed.

Fr. David McDonald
September 8, 1929 - September 16, 2008
Ordained: May 19, 1955

Thursday, September 11, 2008

in memoriam


For all the fallen and their families, remembrance and a prayer.

It happened seven years ago and I was 5125 miles away... but there's no forgetting.

Not today, not ever.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

hardly convincing

Recently, a Jesuit friend (yup, imagine that...) invited me to a screening of Jason Berry’s film Vows of Silence scheduled for screening at Fairfield University in a few weeks. I told him that I had seen it once already, on DVD. If the screening is part of a forum on the broader issues of the clergy abuse scandal and reform in the Church, I am definitely interested. If it’s solely centered on this specific bit of filmmaking... not so much. The Exorcist’s opinion, for whatever it’s worth, includes some of the following thoughts.

The DVD summarizes the basic content covered in more detail in Berry’s book by the same name. There are small historical imprecisions that neither help nor hurt the central thesis of the author. A generous portion of the footage is taken from the LC promotional videos of the ‘90s. There is no novelty, no surprise in the documentary-like program for anyone familiar with the controversy that ensued between Fr. Maciel and his ex-LC accusers some years ago after reporting by the Hartford Courant and lasted up to the Vatican’s statement on the case and the Founder’s death.

The program’s insistence that Fr. Maciel was somehow inspired by the likes of Adolph Hitler, Francisco Franco or Augusto Pinochet to found the LC is misguided at best. The images of goose-stepping foot soldiers and flat-handed, straight-armed salutes mixed with uniformed LCs from the 50s and 60s probably made for some excitement in the editing room, but have little to do with the reality of the LC. It is this type of overkill that raises credibility issues in the minds of even the more critically inclined among us.

But the fundamental and lasting complaint to be lodged with the fairness police about this film is also the oldest and the least politically correct.

Why should I believe Fr. Maciel’s accusers in the first place?

Why give instant and unquestioned credibility to persons whose stories might just merit a more critical look? Case in point, there’s a new face among the accusers that appears toward the end of the program. A young man, ex-LC priest, recounts that Fr. Maciel squeezed his arm and told him how strong he was while they were driving in a car with other passengers from Germany to Belgium back in the ‘90s.

That’s it. Fr. Maciel squeezed his arm.

This guy tearfully tells how later, as a midlevel Vatican official, he read the Courant articles on the web and – recalling the arm squeeze – suddenly realized that it was all horribly, scandalously true. The Founder he had once revered and respected was actually a monster in disguise.

Is it so coldly insensitive to those who have cloaked themselves in the mantle of victimhood to ask if that’s all there is to the story? Who is this guy that a squeeze on the arm, a pat on the back, a fist bump or a high-five reveals to him the hidden immorality of his religious superior? Are we to assume, as the program insinuates, that this accuser abandoned his job in the Vatican, his vocation to the LC and his priesthood because of what he read in the Hartford Courant? Is that really it? Might there not be some factor - other than an arm squeeze and a newspaper article - that induces this young man to reflect on his LC past with hindsight tinged by bitterness or disdain or shame or sadness or whatever?

I’ve said it before. When faced with the choice between my own experience of nearly thirty years in close contact with the Founder and the testimony of others, blurred by unanswered questions... I can only honestly be expected to hold on to what I know to be true. Jason Berry’s film has simply reinforced that conviction.


Friday, September 05, 2008

dead man standing

I wonder if the antics of the living mortify the dead.

The dead are commonly well behaved. They wait patiently for the wake to begin. They silently bear the excesses of their loved ones. They seldom disrupt the exequial Mass celebrated on their behalf. They proceed relaxed and composed (as opposed to decomposed) to the burial site. And they surrender themselves discreetly to the finality of it all as they are lowered into their ultimate resting place.

The living are another can of worms altogether.

I have seen first hand:

- friends and family snapping photos on their cell phones as the deceased lies in state
- other family members squeezing in cheek-to-cadaverous-cheek to be in the photo with the deceased
- the photo of the deceased emblazoned on T-shirts that are worn the following day at the funeral Mass
- one friend hold the hand of the deceased out of the casket to allow the other friends walk by and reverently fist bump their dead homey
- mothers, grandmothers, wives and girl friends (recognized and suddenly revealed) throw themselves on the open casket and attempt to wrest the defunct object of their affection from a prone position, as if forcing him back to the land of the living
- sons and nephews pour cans of Tecate on papi’s casket as it is being lowered into the ground
- a live pet schnauzer resting on his ex-master’s legs as the mourners file by
- abuela being covered in sea shells before her coffin is closed because she always loved the beach
- junior clothed in pinstripes, fitted with a cap, adorned with a first baseman’s glove and wrapped in a Yankees blanket as he lays motionless
- a squirrel running into a wake in progress and scampering up onto the open casket of the departed
- el tío laid to rest in a fiberglass coffin fashioned into a pink Dodge pick-up
- friends dancing cumbia around the gravesite as mami waits to be inhumed
- fainting, screaming, vomiting, thrashing, laughing, cursing, crying and clapping... all by the living

But this takes the cake:

What ever happened to "rest in peace"?

The indignity of death is only surpassed by the insanity of the living.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

smell the coffee

Raul is a pain in the ass.

I imply no moral judgment here. It is a fact, pure and simple.

Raul likes to ring the rectory doorbell at 5:45am on Saturdays. Saturday is the one day of the week that I do not have to be up early for Mass at any of the three parishes I celebrate at on Sundays and during the week.

I doubt that Raul knows this. If he did I would have begun this post with, “Raul is a malicious pain in the ass.” That would most definitely have been a moral judgment.

Raul rings the bell adamantly and shouts, “Padrecito!! Padrecito!!”. I can only assume, even in my sleep smeared semi-consciousness, that Raul is trying to get my attention.

Groggy and alarmed, I stumbled downstairs and opened the door the first five or six times that Raul roused me, half expecting to find someone bleeding profusely from gang inflicted shotgun wounds on the doorstep. I would not have minded getting up at 5:45 for that. Not as much, anyway.

But no, no comatose victim gasping for breath, no hugely pregnant woman on the verge of childbirth, no family of transient workers seeking refuge from immigration raids... just Raul.

Raul wants coffee.

It is amazing that I actually ran this drill five or six times before realizing that my Saturday wake-up call was summoning me, not to some life or death situation, but to Raul’s mistaking the parish for Starbucks. I must not be too intelligent.

I will not speculate on Raul’s intelligence.

The first time I responded to his beckoning, I could hardly believe my ears. I said something like, “Raul, I can hardly believe my ears!”. I told him that there would be no coffee at the rectory until 7am at the earliest. In fact, to be on the safe side, try back sometime after 10.

Raul looked at me as if he couldn’t believe his ears, and shuffled away.

In the meantime, a lot went down between 5:45 and 10am that particular Saturday and, sorry to say, I kind of forgot about Raul. Returning from hospital visits at around 10:50am, I stopped by the local Dunkin Donuts and ordered a double shot Turbo with three Splendas. This was to be my breakfast.

I got out of the car and, lost in thought, turned the corner to the rectory where I nearly stepped on Raul, who was patiently sitting on the steps.

Raul’s eyes welled up and he drew his tattered sleeve across his grimy, moist nose. “I knew it, Padrecito! I knew you did not abandon me!

Ever the hero, I surrendered my steaming cup to this Jesus-in-disguise. Raul removed the cover and stared at its contents. “Padrecito, next time I like a little bit milk in my café.”

Weeks have passed and Raul and I have grown in our relationship. I have convinced him that Thursdays – food pantry days – are the best days for prompt and friendly service at the parish. Raul, on his part, has confided to me that he never really knows what day it is anyway so any further counseling I may wish to offer him on the issue is probably moot.

I was sorely tempted to disconnect the rectory doorbell on Saturdays, but, with my luck, the day I do one of this miserable city’s victims will actually show up at my door. I don’t even want to think about that.

So, I had the parish spring for a Braun with an automatic timer. Coffee is served from 5:45 on. There is milk in the refrigerator. All are welcome. Raul loves company.


Friday, August 29, 2008

a prayer for the brokenhearted


I was celebrating a funeral Mass at 5pm this afternoon at St. Michael when my cell phone began buzzing wildly in my pocket. When Mass was over I learned that 9 young girls of our flagship school in Santiago had perished in a horrific bus accident in Putre, northern Chile.

I know some of the families of the deceased and injured and can barely imagine the pain and heart sickness of their families and the entire community that I was so deeply involved with for 10 years of my priestly ministry.

My thoughts and prayers for you all.

Friday, July 25, 2008


From this:

and this:

to this:

and this:

I pine.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

baba ganoush

Raisa is the archetypal mulier fortis of the vulgate septuagint.

She is a force of nature. She is Gaia. Mother Earth with an apron and an Oster Salon Pro.

I stumbled onto her unisex salon... no, no, I was led there by fate and destiny and the Oracle, one cold February Wednesday.

As she beckoned me with the curl of her sibyllic finger, I was captivated by an aroma uncommon to barber shops. Not oil, not sprays or gels or dyes. Something spicy and Mediterranean. Something the matriarchs of yesterfar would simmer and stir in terracotta pottery while dreaming of seeing their menfolk return from battle. An odor that took sole possession of the olfactory epithelium, the medulla oblongata and the loins.

A sculptor peers at a block of marble and sees Laocoon. Raisa appraises even the least promising of scalps and envisions art. She hovers over me, impatiently taps my temples to one side or the other, snorts and hyperventilates, changes clipper heads with a vengeance and in an apocalyptic flurry whips out her flat blade and slashes my neck hairs into submission.

The last time I saw Raisa she said, “Next time we try all hair, one length. Look good on head like you.”

A Greek goddess? An Armenian wonder wench? A Transylvanian she-revenant? I could only guess. But that smell...

Last Friday I went to the festival at St. George Cathedral. An ecumenical gesture and a much needed break from the rectory. As I wandered the grounds, it slowly subverted my senses... the unmistakable perfume wafting up from the depths of the fairgrounds.

Raisa! Or her progeny? I followed my nose to the food booths off to the left of the parking lot.

This is the cradle of life!”, I told the ruddy faced woman behind the hot plate. “This is the primal puddle from which Gaia herself has sprung!”, I cried.

“No. This baba ganoush. Good for you. Eat.”

As I dipped my pita flatbread in the steaming melitzano salata and pondered the oneness of all aromas, a light breeze stirred the branches of the poplar trees behind me.

All is one”, the zephyr whispered, “search no more.”


Friday, June 13, 2008

know thyself

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully as I am fully known.” (1Cor 13: 11-12)

Only the final Light will reveal us for all that we truly are. If an adult achieves only shadowy, blurry knowledge of self – as Paul admits – what introspection, what self-criticism could a child have?

In these many months since the whole LC ball of yarn began unraveling, I have engaged in a peculiar form of self torture: I try to imagine what i capi talk about behind closed doors. Especially now, without Fr. Maciel’s all defining presence setting the agenda...

Is it all just damage control? Is it business as usual, keep the rank-and-file marching to the same beat and act like nothing has happened? Is it calling in favors to stop the bleeding? Is it putting the spin machine on overdrive to keep the bubble from bursting from within? Is it denial and hope that the storm blows over?

Or is it an openness to grace, a sincere reckoning, a fearless self-questioning, an honest and transparent desire to seek and embrace the truth of who we are and what the Church needs us to be?

Archbishop O’Brien’s demanding letter and his painfully candid interview will either be dealt with begrudgingly, as another splinter of persecution from our already heavy cross, or it will be embraced and reflected upon as a call to conscience for the LC, like the others that have been issued over the past three years.

Baltimore’s Archbishop sounds ticked-off and skeptical. He fears that the LC’s institutional lack of transparency may be beyond cure. He makes it clear that only a few timely phone calls from the Curia staved off a much harsher reaction, à la Columbus, OH or St.Paul-Minneapolis.

Still, the Exorcist remains hopeful.

When I was a child, I reacted like a child... as a man I leave childish things behind.

Maybe these are the LC’s growing pains. Maybe upon denial comes acceptance and self-analysis. Maybe the LC can yet learn to trust its own and not fear transparency and change. Maybe the best is yet to come...


Saturday, April 26, 2008

charism V*

Two thoughts recurred to me over and over as I watched and listened to Pope Benedict’s US visit.

1. Jonathan Morris has become the perfect bobble-head accoutrement for the Stepford blondes of Fox News Channel.

2. Pope Benedict is clearly the right man at the right time.

In response to the first thought, I simply changed over to EWTN when the muddled Morris morass became too irritating.

In response to the second, I reread his words, hone my preaching to include his message, reflect on the powerful presence of this rather diminutive man in our scared and belligerent world...

At the gathering with seminarians and young people at Dunwoody Seminary in Yonkers on April 19, Pope Benedict had this to say about one of my preferred topics:

Today, I wish to draw your attention to the positive spiritual renewal which congregations are undertaking in relation to their charism. The word charism means a gift freely and graciously given. Charisms are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, who inspires founders and foundresses, and shapes congregations with a subsequent spiritual heritage. The wondrous array of charisms proper to each religious institute is an extraordinary spiritual treasury... Through the discovery of charisms, which yield such a breadth of spiritual wisdom, I am sure that some of you young people will be drawn to a life of apostolic or contemplative service. Do not be shy to speak with religious brothers, sisters or priests about the charism and spirituality of their congregation. No perfect community exists, but it is fidelity to a founding charism, not to particular individuals, that the Lord calls you to discern. Have courage!

The renewal of religious congregations is undertaken, that is, consciously and willingly brought about, in relation to their charism.

Hmmm. Funny how this specific topic should come up on the Pope’s visit. That deja vu thing all over again.

It is remarkable to see the varied perspectives that religious institutes have on their own charism. For some it’s a single, black-and-white virtue that can be succinctly stated. For others it’s like the night sky that contains the same stars, but can be looked at again and again from different angles, with a view to plumbing its depths ever more diligently.

I consider the most outstanding element of the LC’s charism to be the radical Christ-centeredness of its spirituality. Everything begins and ends for the LC priest, during the long years of his formation and forever after during the exercise of his ministry, with the person of Jesus Christ. Our studies, our preaching, our apostolates, our interaction with the world at large have Him at the center of it all.

To be totally, obsessively centered on the person of Christ in these times when doubt concerning His historical reality, theological confusion often disguised as tolerance and interreligious dialogue, vague neo-gnostic spiritualities that distort His singular and mysterious identity, fundamentalist and apocalyptic ranting that enslave and diminish His truth, indifference and skepticism that portray Him as a cartoon or worse...

This is the renovating quality – charism – given the Church and the priesthood through the Legion. The right gift at precisely the right moment...

A second undeniable element of LC charism follows immediately from the first: a bold and unfettered rediscovery of priestly identity.

In the LC, the priest is not a manager or an administrator, a psychologist or an ecologist, a political wonk or a social engineer. He is, as Fr. Maciel relentlessly insisted to all of us, Alter Christus. The world has the right and the reason to expect it of us. HE is all we need to be.

A third, unmistakable element of our charism is our steadfast and enthusiastic allegiance to the Chair of Peter. This aspect of our spirit needs to be freed from the embarrassing hubris we’ve been known to indulge in at times... the vacuous cheerleading, the self-marketing that draws dangerously close to a manipulation of the hierarchy, the lobbying and the influence peddling, the peculiarly myopic ecclesiology that seems to ignore or disdain the many forms of fidelity and service that do not reflect our penchant for double-breasted suits, shiny black shoes and pressed French cuffs...

Our adhesion to Peter is best expressed in our ability to help the faithful in far away places appreciate the universality of the Church, feel the closeness of Rome, make accessible the teaching of the Popes and the Councils, know the pride of being part of the living Tradition that stems from Christ and His apostles. Our commitment to being ever and always at the Holy Father’s disposal is a staple of our Founder’s inspiration.

Another facet of our charism is harder for me to express. For now, I’ll call it “apostolic versatility”. The name may not catch on, but I consider it one of the LC’s most surprising qualities. It is experienced as a conviction and a drive. A conviction that no place, no situation, no realm of human experience is to be excluded a priori from our evangelizing mission. It is a drive to plunge headlong into all sorts of initiatives, attempt all types of projects, get involved – opportune et importune – in every field of activity imaginable in order to spread the Word.

We really believe we can bring the presence of Christ to education, politics, science, economics, entertainment, art and literature, city and country anywhere in the world. This inevitably means that we fail and succeed, we change course and move on without much notice, we make fools of ourselves just to get a foot in the door (i.e. J.Morris!) and we try things that even the most believing of LCs may have their doubts about.

It is a gift of the Spirit no to be afraid, not to be stuck to one form of apostolate, one type of ministry... to feel the urgency – collectively, as a congregation – to be involved and active in all the ventures and circumstances of our times. We have to resist the temptation to measure our results purely in numbers, we have to avoid strangling ourselves with our own methodology and we must teach ourselves to avoid the spotlight. If we can learn to sincerely prefer anonymity and collaboration to domination and control, there is no telling to what distant reaches our “apostolic versatility” may take us.

When I ask myself about our charism, these elements are the most deeply etched on my soul in thirty years as an LC. I have spoken and continue to converse at length with many brothers about these things and am heartened by our strong consensus. And I think we barely scratch the surface, which bodes well for us...


* Haters might do well to skip this post. All that is true and right about the LC is for them either propaganda or duplicity. This modest commentary on some of the finer aspects of LC charism will not be to their liking.
Bitterness and spite, alas, are demons the Exorcist cannot drive out.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


At the 12 noon Mass on Sundays, the youth choir sings a rousing version of the Sanctus.
Güiro. Bongos. Cowbell. Conga line. Ritmo, muchachos, ritmo.

Nothing you’d find in the Liber Usualis.

The Hosanna chorus is the apex of the song’s enthusiasm. The stained-glass windows rattle. Folks clap and sway. Even Doña Clorinda in the front row by the sagrario gets momentarily distracted from her end-of-days rosary marathon.

One little guy, maybe four years old, wears eyeglasses, who’s always there with his mom actually anticipates the moment with a dance-like motion in his pew. He knows it’s coming. He stays with me through the Preface, arms extended like mine, his head trying to stay focused but his body slowly getting the better of him. He virtually explodes with holy power as the guitars and keyboard lead into the first “Santo, Santo, Santo!”

It is a weekly display of unfettered delight and religious innocence that I do not tire of watching. I muse nostalgically that the Almighty must revel in this shorty’s ecstasy as He did when David danced before the Ark of the Covenant.

Today, however, I discovered that our tiny dancer’s fervor is slightly misplaced.

He gets stuck on Hosanna, so it’s not unusual to hear him during communion or as we exit at the end of Mass, waving and smiling... and shouting the favorite word of his favorite song.

His mom says to me in the door of the church as they leave, “You know, Padre, Nico gets up early every Sunday and wakes me up with the same question.”

“Really, what’s that?”

“Mami, are we going to see Hosanna today?”

“To sing Hosanna?”, I ventured hopefully.

“No, No. To SEE Hosanna. You’re Hosanna and every Sunday we go to a fiesta at your house...”


A note to the mothers of our parish:

Speak to your children. Tell them who Jesus is. Convince them that God exists.
Explain to them the Holy Mass. Set them on the road of orthodoxy and warn them to look neither to their right nor their left lest they stray.

And in the meantime, just call me Hosanna...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

sight unseen

I have four Masses tomorrow. One in English. So that’s two homilies to prepare. It’s got little to do with the words, really. The same Gospel on the same Sunday is simply not preached the same way to the different communities.

I imagine that it would seem obvious, but I also know how long it took me to figure it out.

I’m an exorcist, not a Rhodes Scholar.

The liturgy of Easter season opens a photo album of the early Christian community. The snapshots reveal restlessness, eagerness, anticipation. Who among them suspected that the time of creation’s travail would go on for at least another two millennia? Acts, Peter and Paul all exude and aire of expectancy, of imminence. The dumbfounding truth about our destiny and the transformation of all reality that exploded from the tomb on the third day made waiting for His return nearly an insufferable task...

Peter was there when Christ said it to Thomas. Peter repeats it in his letter to the early community: “...your faith (is) more precious than gold... although you have not seen him, you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him.”

To think that it was always His intention that the incalculable majority of believers would become so having not seen... that the unending chorus of martyrs would surrender their lives for a love unconfirmed by their senses... is finally to understand the importance of testimony. Our faith is born from the testimony of those who go before us for we, too, believe without having seen.

Thomas doubted, but he knew what sign to ask for.

The nail marks, the wounds, the scars. “When you have lifted up the Son of man then you will know that I am He.”

Would that in our hour of doubt we ask for so unequivocal a sign...

charism (IV)

If you ask an LC, especially a fresh, out-of-the-can LC, what the charism of the Legion is he will say, “Charity!”

This is a conditioned response. Not necessarily a bad one, but one that requires a harder look. My response to the question would be different. I might easily be wrong, but I have certainly had plenty of time to think about it.

The first problem with the programmed answer is that no religious order can describe its charism in a one word sound byte. All religious are committed to charity... heroic charity, of the type Christ taught us. Charity, understood as selfless love of neighbor, will be present wherever the Spirit has truly bestowed any of His gifts upon us.

The more specific problem with the typical LC buzzword in my mind is that the practice of charity as a virtue within the LC has been legislated to pieces... pieces that often leave it unrecognizable and confused. The practice of charity outside the walls of the LC house, in our apostolic work, is heavily conditioned by our methodology and its quantifiable goals. That, too, at times sullies and coerces the virtue and the gift.

The vast majority of LCs are extremely decent, charitable and compassionate. I have often been put to shame by the unthinking goodness of my brothers in the Legion and the guilelessness with which they live this most basic of Christian traits. And as far as our spiritual formation is concerned there is no lack of discourse on the ‘queen of virtues’.

But what I’m saying is different: as charism, as the living, breathing heart and soul of the Congregation, charity loses its freedom, its force and its unbridled creativity – whether we’re aware of it or not – because of some of the institutional baggage we carry... elements of a system perhaps not at all essential to our true charism.

On the inside, human relationships – the scenario in which all charity is exercised – can become so minutely regulated by rules and norms that deference to the superiors, topics of conversation, the way we think and express ourselves, the way we work together, the way we enjoy ourselves and relax together make one wonder if it is all really charity or just self-preservation in an setting where uniformity is by far the safest option. By the same token, true friendship, open dialogue, candor and caring for the guy in the cassock next to you are suspect. At times, no matter how many smiling faces surround you, a Legionary community can be an extremely lonely place, indeed.

On the outside, the LCs are primed to cultivate leaders, recruit people for specific works or needs of the Congregation, implement a methodology regardless of the reality they confront, put efficiency above all else and pile up numbers.

There is inarguable merit to our intensity, our focus, our organizational prowess, our method, our work ethic and our insistence on fruitful results. I do not advocate a less demanding apostolate. But, again, charity is often the unnoticed casualty of the campaign.

Who among us has never overlooked souls placed in our path because we were too intent upon catching the ‘bigger fish’? Are the works we ostensibly dedicate to helping the poor ends in themselves or means to other goals? Have none of us ever observed the stampede of LCs that want to be present at the ‘important’ wedding, funeral, baptism or whatever... while finding time for confessions or spiritual direction or hospital visits to the ‘less notable’ is a real chore? Do we worry as much about the people (the people!) we serve through our apostolates as we do about the work itself or the image we project? Do we stick our necks out for our people, take the necessary risks for them... or drop them like hot tamales as soon as we perceive some inconvenience or shadow of disfavor? Is charity always the unadulterated finality of our pastoral efforts or are we out there trying to impress the superiors, hold on to our place or our job, make a name for ourselves because that is what the system expects of us...?

OK. Enough. But I insist that I be correctly understood: the LCs do and have done incalculable good to thousands upon thousands of people. The spirit of outreach, enthusiasm and sacrifice that characterizes our Congregation has been an injection of life and hope for the Church wherever the LC is present.

What I’m saying specifically regards the definition of our charism. I would not glibly and bluntly respond “Charity!” to the question I began this post with. There is pressure exerted by institutional aspects of LC life on the virtue of charity that merits reflection and analysis. We should not fear this task. The Holy See has already given us a push in this direction. In the end, charity will and must be the most vivid and lasting expression of all we are as priests and not simply a shiny veneer held in place by rules and norms.

(to be continued...)

Thursday, March 27, 2008

charism (III)

I wrote to Pope Benedict last September in an attempt to get some answers to the many vital questions that have haunted LC consciences since Fr. Maciel’s obliged retirement. I asked the Holy Father about the changes that have been made (private vow, etc.) and the ones that are still to be revealed.

With gratitude I can say that the letter I received in reply, from the desk of the Prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life was thoughtful, clear and helpful toward sorting things out a bit better in my own head. Other LCs have written Pope Benedict and also received responses. I can only encourage the rest of my brothers who have grappled long and hard with these issues that touch the very heart of who we are to do the same. Light and truth are always good things for the soul, even when you have to go the extra mile to get them.

Regarding the suspension of the first private vow and the other changes that are generally known about, Cardinal Rode said something that – obvious as it may seem to an outsider – truly struck me:

“... For peace of soul, both for you and your confreres united in the disturbance caused by the events of this particular moment in the Institute’s (LC) history, it is necessary to point out that the charism of the Legionaries of Christ has not been touched by the suppression of certain articles by the Holy See...”

I had an epiphany, of sorts.

To think that a vital part of our lives as LCs, obsessed over and insisted upon with singular emphasis by the Founder, matter for confession and litmus test for true ‘integration’... something that our Founder considered one of the outstanding graces given by God to the Legion... something that no LC superior or General Chapter would ever consider tampering with, even when the Founder was no longer among us... would eventually prove to be something other than an intrinsically necessary part of our charism... something non-essential for an LC... something that would disappear with less of a roar than a whimper...

Nothing less than an LC mind-blower, folks.
I confess that I had to break out the Knob Creek and read that over quite a few times.

Certainly, I refer here to one specific aspect of LC life. But the broader point could hardly be missed by any of us: that something held so dear to the Founder’s heart and so explicitly mandated in his writings and even the Constitution of the Congregation need to be distinguished from the true charism of the Legion.

In what, then, does our charism truly consist?

The Legion, like other orders and movements in the Church, is the living incarnation of a particular charism inspired by God through its Founder as a gift and a promise at a specific point in salvation history.

Like all gifts of the Spirit, charism is complex, multi-faceted, made up of intangibles, ultimately inscrutable, perhaps... and yet it can be grasped, lived, made manifest in us, purified and passed on from one generation to the next.

This, then, is the urgent task. To allow the Spirit to illuminate His gift through the Legion in this new stage of our history. To honestly, transparently and confidently seek an ever clearer knowledge of who we are and what we have received... because that – and nothing else - is what we are expected to give. To undertake without fear the potentially painful task of purifying the Legion’s charism from that which obscures it... to not be afraid to distinguish, with the help of the Spirit, between that which is essential and that which is purely accidental or ornamental.

I think the Holy See, whether we like it or not, has given us the first invaluable nudge toward the lengthy task of purifying our charism. Think about all that has happened: the person of the Founder forced to the background, the toning down of the shriller aspects of our self-promotion, the intervention that quietly removed structural elements that seemed (unthinkably, to us!) to threaten freedom of conscience and true charity within the Congregation...

We just may look back some day and discover that these trying times were indeed providential for the Legion.

(to be continued...)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


Holy Week has come and gone, unleashing its drama and intensity on the communities I minister to and, hopefully, making their lives a little less fearful, a bit more intense, slightly more capable of experiencing the routine shattering brilliance of it all...

It is the turning, the transition, the Pasch... The crucified One, as this turning, is the Word which the Father addresses to the world. At this moment, the Word cannot hear itself. It collapses into its scream for the lost God. And it will really be an interpretation of his heavenly meaning, as it were, of the voice of the Father and the Spirit in the Son when the evangelists write the words, ‘Forgive them...’, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise...’ ‘It is finished.’ We should receive such words as spoken to us by the Father through the Spirit in the suffering of the Son...”

Hans. Who else?

To accentuate our meditation during the Triduum, I put a full color print of Grunewald’s Crucifixion on the parish bulletin.

Sometimes subtlety is not an option.

I am kind of on my own pastorally with the three parishes right now. The priest assigned to the Haitian community is a good man, but he’s pretty limited in what he can do to help with the Hispanic, Afro-American and Caribbean communities that constitute the greater part of the church in the North End. The deacons are excellent, but work their own jobs and look after their families during the week.

One VERY positive development of late has been the hiring of a lay financial manager for the churches. He has taken on the cluster’s challenges with uncommon zeal and I have gone back to being a priest. My new mantra: Talk to Jim ... instead of having to deal directly with the banks, the insurance guys, the vendors, technicians, exterminators, creditors, pay-roll people, snowplow dude, etc...

Easter season has begun with listening, basically. Listening in spiritual direction, listening while they scream, while they cry, while they stutter, listening at the hospital, listening at the jail, listening on the phone and in the confessional. Listening, mostly. Speaking, some.

Praying... well, it’s never enough now, is it.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008

charism (II)

I really hate those blogs that simply run endless quotations from books and poems and song lyrics. But the following quote from my idol in the world of theology, Hans Urs von Balthasar, is key to my reflections following Fr. Maciel’s death. Please bear with me.

The most important thing about great saints is their mission, a new charism bestowed on the Church by the Holy Spirit. The person who possesses it and bears it, is only the servant of the Spirit, a servant who is weak and unprofitable even to the point of the most sublime achievements in whom the luminous quality is not the person, but the testimony, the task, the office: ‘He himself was not the Light, but he came into the world only to bear witness to the Light.’

All saints, especially they, realize the deficiency in their service to the mission, and one should believe them in what they say so urgently. The chief thing about them is not the heroic personal achievement, but the resolute obedience with which they have given themselves over to being slaves to a mission and understand their entire existence only as a function of and protective covering for this mission.

One should place in the limelight what they themselves want and have to put in the limelight: their mission, their interpretation of Christ and of the Holy Scripture. One should leave in the dark what they themselves want to and must leave in the dark: their paltry personalties. One should attempt, therefore, through their saintly existence, to read and to understand the mission of God to the church. One should try, just as far as one can, to distinguish the salutary and wholesome mission from its deficient realizations. Not in the sense of a separation, since this mission is indeed incarnated precisely in the life, in the deeds and sufferings of the saints, as well as in their persons, history and psychology, and in all the little anecdotes and circumstances which accompany and surround the life of a saint.

Hence, we must distinguish the mission not in an abstraction from what is living, in a conceptualization of what is concrete, in a depersonalization of the uniquely personal, but rather, after the pattern of the phenomenological method which studies the essence, the gestalt, the intelligibile in sensibili, as far as this is humanly attainable. Only here the intelligibile is something supernatural, and its envisioning presupposes a faith, yes, a sharing in the life of holiness.
(from Sisters in Spirit: Theresa de Lisieux and Elizabeth von Dijon, 1970, pp. 20-23)

The Legion of Christ must now, in the opinion of one humble exorcist, thoughtfully and intentionally deepen its own understanding of the charism it has received. The Founder has passed on, but what we were given through him remains. This is not a rejection of the figure of the Founder. It is the ultimate realization of what he himself would have wanted... even when it would have been largely impossible while he lived and breathed among us.

(To be continued...)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

charism (1)

At a time when I am as busy as I have been since coming to this city to work, the death of Fr. Maciel has quietly burdened my soul.

We are seriously understaffed in this archdiocese and nowhere is it more acutely felt than in the three impoverished inner-city parishes that now lay siege to my every waking hour. These ethnically dense and financially crippled communities have gotten the short end of what was never a very long stick to begin with.

And while the challenges of an administrative role I have temporarily assumed and am ill-prepared for should be more than enough to keep me occupied fulltime, my mind constantly slips away and goes to that familiar place...

In hindsight, I am honestly astounded by the degree to which the man – priest, founder and unquestionably charismatic leader of souls – absorbed and dominated my mind and my will for so many years of my life. I was totally, and still am to an extent – although more consciously, more critically – under the spell of his story, his writings, his personality and his spirit like the collector who loses himself in the search and justifies all his quirks and eccentricities by the one rare object of his fascination.

The true visionaries of the Church – prophets, theological luminaries, founders of movements and religious orders, etc. – hardly ever scale the rungs of ecclesiastic hierarchy. Their role at any given moment of the Church’s history is ordained by their charism. And charism, as St. Paul adverts us, is a very tricky thing.

Charism is untamed obsession, indefinable grace, spiritual overflow. It is other-worldliness that provokes the ire and suspicion of this world and its finely tuned reasonableness. It is inconformity of the least politically correct kind. It is the grating irritant that produces – often after a very long time – the unexpected pearl.

Often charism comes laced with the contradiction inherent in the human mold. It can be hard to detect and even harder to accept. If charism clashes with authority or rattles institution usually only time and the Spirit will lend discernment...

The one word descriptions of Fr. Maciel, from either side of the aisle (‘saint’ or ‘fiend’) do him no justice.

The NCR’s story on the Founder’s death talks about ‘legacy’ and reverts predictably to the debate surrounding the accusations that mounted against him in the later years of his life. The gist of it is roughly that the moral turpitude of the man (apparently unquestionable in Berry’s mind) leaves a permanent blemish on his life’s work... the ‘flawed legacy’.

But for so many of us who lived in close proximity with Fr. Maciel and never saw, heard or caught the vaguest whiff of immorality the true issue that now confronts us is quite different. The serious and vexing topic of the accusations and the ambiguous response of the Vatican to them cannot be ignored or shrugged off. Yet at the end of the day, after nearly thirty years of direct personal contact with Fr. Maciel, I must trust the evidence of my senses and the conclusions of my own reflections and memories.

For those of us who believe that it is entirely possible, if not certain, that God called this unusual and enigmatic man to serve the Church and to found a new religious order peculiarly adapted to the reality of our times the question that arises with his passing is not about ‘legacy’. It is about charism.

(To be continued...

Thursday, January 31, 2008


Fr. Marcial Maciel, LC
March 10,1920 - January 30, 2008

"There is no denying that the cross is surrounded by glory. It is, at the same time a sign of utter defeat and indomitable hope. The defeat and the hope must be ever held together, the hope is not finally hopeful unless it has taken into account everything that contradicts hope."

- from Death on a Friday Afternoon, by Richard John Neuhaus

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Speak well of the dead

Baptisms in the parish still outpace funerals by a spacious margin on a year-to-year basis, but we certainly get our share of requiem Masses. On a long enough timeline, everyone’s chances of survival are zero.

Often enough, I have little direct knowledge of the deceased. I try to read an obituary, quiz the funeral home boys, find out if he was young or old, sick or healthy, had family or not... if he was a he or a she...

The preaching on these occasions tends to be a smidge generic. I can’t offer personal anecdotes so I hold fast to two inviolable rules: stick to the Gospel and speak well of the dead.

That’s what I did today. Actually, that’s what I overdid today.

Lots of people at the wake last night. Memorial T-shirts were passed out, four women collapsed on emotional overload, everyone agreed he had died much too soon... 36 years old.

At the Mass I practically canonized the guy, about whom I had been told simply that his family loved him and he had a great sense of humor. So I commented on the Gospel (“Now my soul is troubled, but what shall I say: ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But it is for this hour that I have come into the world...”).

I pointed out that Jesus transformed His death into the ultimate and defining act of free will. And finally, invigorated,I went on a roll about how much everyone was going to miss fulano, what a great guy he was, how much good he did for others, how his life was not in vain, etc...

I knew I nailed it when friends and family of the defunct told me at the cemetery that I spoke as if I had known him in life, that my description of him was uncanny.

However after reading today’s paper I have come to the conclusion that, notwithstanding the fortuitous accolades, my research should probably be more thorough in the future.

Live and learn.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

60 Minutes

Did you see 60 Minutes Sunday night?

Three engrossing interviews.

Pervez Musharraf made the flabbergasting statement that Benazir Bhutto’s assassination was nobody’s fault but her own. Certainly, many circumstances contributed to the ex-Prime Minister’s untimely death, not least among them her own ‘recklessness’ ignoring more stringent security measures. But to suggest that the blame for her murder fall on anyone other than the murderers is morally repugnant. Musharraf made it sound almost as if Bhutto were deserving of her fate... there are strange places in this world.

John Martorano, a gangland hitman turned state’s witness, left me gaping incredulous at the TV screen. On my mother’s side I have family named Martorano... mostly low level mafia types that we would see at funerals and baptisms when I was a kid. Dark fedoras, long overcoats, four day’s worth of stubble and a lingering aura of cheap cigars. You know the type.

But the bad hombre Steve Kroft interviewed on 60 Minutes appeared to be the real deal. With chilling matter-of-factness he answered the questions that were to originally have been posed by Ed Bradley, to whom Martorano had promised the exclusive interview before he passed. They were friends and teammates on their high school football team.

The Exorcist found two moments of the conversation particularly revealing.

Martorano insists that there is nothing more despicable in this world than a snitch, a rat, an informant. Kroft raises an eyebrow and suggests that a rat is precisely what Martorano has become. “I ain’t no rat. I’m State’s witness.” The distinction, apparently, lies in the forthrightness of the witness – showing his face, baring his identity – as opposed to the furtiveness and secrecy of the rat. There may be no honor among thieves, but hitmen, it would seem, have a different code of ethics.

Later in the interview, Kroft asks him, “Are you a Catholic?” “Sure”, he answers.

Evidently versed in the finer subtleties of Catholic moral teaching, Kroft observes that murder is generally not condoned in Catholicism. He insinuates that the hitman’s eternity might be at risk: “I mean, you can burn in hell for killing one person, you know.”

Martorano replies with a hitman’s version of the Baltimore catechism:

"I don't believe that," Martorano says. "At one point, maybe a couple years ago, I sent for a priest and gave him a confession. It was maybe 30 years since my last confession. But I went through the whole scenario with him, and went through my whole life with him, and confessed. And at the end of it, he says, 'Well, what do you think I should give you for penance?' I says, 'Father, you can justifiably crucify me.' He laughed and says, 'Nope. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and don't do it again.' So I listened to him."

You gotta love it.

Finally, Mike Wallace throws a few softball pitches to the
Rocket. This whole steroid thang is a media fueled story. I am a lifelong baseball fan who has asked other lifelong baseball fans and the verdict is in: no one cares.

Baseball is entertainment, not theology. If a baseball player sticks a needle in his butt to hit the ball farther or pitch the ball faster, why is that any concern of mine? It may not be fair – although the performance enhancing drugs they use seem to be universally available – it may not be good for the players’ health long-term... but pro sports is grossly unethical and overpaid entertainment.

I’m going to lose sleep over that?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

all the earth shall see

There are few Bible stories, in the New Testament, especially, that warm the heart and incite the imagination of the faithful like the story of the wise men from the east who venture out in search of the new-born King of the Jews.

We had great fun at the parish this weekend with the celebration of ‘The Three Kings’. We filled the parish hall twice, Saturday and Sunday, with kids of all ages. There were gifts, lots of good food, music and general carrying-on till the wee hours.

It doesn’t take much to get a party started on the Hispanic side of town, granted, but Matthew did a great service to the Church in general by including his dramatic and mysterious account of the Epiphany of our Lord in his infancy narrative.

From a purely historical standpoint, I suppose there’s not a whole lot to say. We know Herod was ‘king’ of Judah and that his temper and antics would have landed him on the Jerry Springer Show for sure in our day. We know that ‘magi’ of all sorts roamed the Middle East. We know that celestial events were frequently interpreted as harbingers of earthly happenings. We know that Israel and, in a more diffused way, the entire world awaited the Peace Maker...

But our focus is on the meaning of the Gospel passage. Our curiosity may never be satisfied, but what does it all mean?

First, what our liturgy most evidently offers for our reflection today: the Messiah – born a son of Israel, kin of David – came not only to fulfill the hopes and dreams of the Chosen People. The ‘good news’ is precisely that (as the reading from Ephesians proclaims today): even the gentiles, even the lost and indifferent, even those who have made sin an art form in our times... are included in the promise of salvation.

That is good news, indeed.

Second, Matthew gives us a stirring summary of what the Christian vocation is in a nutshell. The sign given by a God who wants to be known and loved by man, yet inexplicably hides himself from our science and our logic. The awakening of that latent hope that resides in everyone’s heart. The search: essence of human existence. The loss of direction, the confusion, the nearly fatal brush with evil and then, again, the reappearance of the star. And finally, the encounter. Not with empty hands, but with gifts... the best we have to offer.

The very fact that we long for and seek a God that does not see our gifts as ridiculous is, somehow, truly consoling.

I have a few paltry, poorly wrapped gifts that I would like to present to the One who comes to save. Hopefully this year will be a year of adventurous encounter with Him.


Friday, January 04, 2008

"the wise man brings from his treasure both the new and the old"

La transformación es la ley de la vida espiritual.”

That’s one of our Founder’s sayings that most LCs know by heart after a few years in the congregation. It rings true especially when life’s mischief or one’s own failings bring the soul down a notch or two.

Greater perspective, deeper knowledge of self, more realistic goals, truer freedom of spirit....

Change is risky. We prevaricate, procrastinate, hesitate... But often much is to be gained.

A friend who collaborates with LC projects in the US told me that at recent meetings the idea that the Legion should respond to the needs of the dioceses and parishes where it is present and not attempt, overtly or surreptitiously, to impose its own agenda has been expressed and embraced by clergy and laity alike.

This is a good thing. Everyone agrees that it is a good thing. It also represents a new and improved way for the Legion to focus its apostolic zeal and share its particular gifts with the Church.

What perplexes my friend is that the local LC priest cringes and objects quite strenuously whenever anyone suggests that this apparent change in attitude is new.

Padre applauds and embraces it, but he adamantly reprimands anyone who insinuates that it constitutes a change, even a subtle change, in the LC’s modus operandi. As if change, novelty, would cause the LC to come crashing down... as if the LC were a finished product, deposited in the world with no human intervention and no historical perspective... as if we had nothing to learn, nothing to improve and, therefore, nothing to hope for...

But, Father,” my friend insists, “we weren’t thinking, we weren’t talking and we certainly weren’t operating with this clear and defined purpose before. It is new and we should be happy to say so.”

My friend’s inclusion at future meetings may be in jeopardy if he persists in making his unpalatable point...

The blogosphere is ripe with speculation about the internal changes – yes, changes – that are slowly surfacing in the LC. Michael Humphrey wrote about it for the NCR, La Jornada ran a typically imprecise piece on it and bloggers like Damian Thompson of the UK Telegraph, Rorate Caeli, American Papist and others have added their speculation on the topic.

I receive mail almost daily from LC, RC and the merely curious asking me about our secret vows, covert promises, clandestine oaths and whatnot.

The derogation of one of our two private vows, the redefining of certain aspects of the superiors’ role and the modification of other internal practices by the Holy See was communicated to the LC shortly after Mons. Scicluna’s investigation was closed in the early summer of 2005. Scicluna’s probe began with the accusations made against Fr. Maciel, but ultimately branched out to examine other complaints regarding structural and disciplinary issues inside the Legion.

Predictably, what most concerns someone like your friendly neighborhood exorcist is how these portentous changes have been interpreted and received behind the walls of Via Aurelia.

Make no mistake, although they hardly raise a ripple on the serene facade of the LC, these few changes that have been made known – only after the prudential grace period for enacting them had come and gone – are nothing short of monumental. In and of themselves they mark a before and an after in the history of our congregation. And none of us know yet what else may be revealed as things progress.

However, the perfunctory announcement made to our communities and the brief commentary that deflected the true import and meaning of what has happened - before silence concerning it became protocol - have only served to dishearten and dampen the spirit of many of us who expect better of the congregation we love and serve.

To portray these changes as something almost ‘external’ to the LC, to offer only partial and fleeting references instead of trusting and courageous disclosure to the men who have surrendered their very lives to the LC (with trust and courage!), to pretend that nothing has happened of any significance and exhort us to adopt a mindless ‘business as usual’ attitude... is unworthy of the LC leadership and profoundly disrespectful of her rank-and-file.

We should be happy to acknowledge and embrace the changes, the newness that enriches the spirit and life of our congregation. This, too, should be seen as a ‘great blessing’ and ‘the will of God’. We who pride ourselves on advancing “al paso de la Iglesia” will continue to grow and serve the Church as long as we strive to accept our designated role within it. We have to trust the Church, not fear the truth or the inner freedom that comes with it... and confidently believe that the best years of the LC are still to come if we remain faithful to her.

And that’s all I have to say about that.