Saint Botolph


Saint Botolph

This year June 17 is the intersection of three different days that twine together in Boston, MA: Father’s Day, Bunker Hill Day, and the Feast of St. Botolph. Botolph, in a sense is the father, and patron saint of Boston, the name deriving from a contraction of “Botolph’s Town.” The original Boston is in Lincolnshire in England (like Boston, MA a place known for its fens) and is home to a church dedicated to the saint nicknamed Botolph’s Stump. Botolph’s name is remembered in the Hub of Universe in the name of a street in Back Bay, the name of a club, and in the name of the president’s house at Boston College. Pieces of the the Gothic window tracery of Lincolnshire’s Church of St. Botolph are incorporated into the structure of Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square. The Puritans who named their “City on a Hill” Boston of course had no intention of naming the city after a canonized saint, merely naming it after where many of them came from. And while June 17th is a holiday in Suffolk County, MA, it is not for the saint but for the battle fought on Bunker Hill on that day in 1775. Coincidentally, the feast day of Saint Patrick, Boston’s other patron saint, is also a public holiday but that is due to Evacuation Day.

So what about Botolph the man himself?

  • born ca. 610 of noble Saxon blood in East Anglia.
  • studied under monks and became a Benedictine himself in northern Gaul.
  • founded a monastery around 654 a AD at Ikenhoe (ox-island) which once was believed to be at Boston, but recent scholarship points to it being at Iken in Sussex.
  • died in 680 following a lengthy illness while being carried to chapel for compline.
  • little detail known about his life but Botolph is a very popular saint in England and Scotland (where his feast day is June 25) and has many churches dedicated to him.
  • some evidence points to Botolph being of Irish birth, hence his ability to communicate easily with the Scots.
  • patron saint of travelers. In medieval London, the churches at four gates are named for him and are places travelers would go to pray for protection before setting off on a journey and to offer thanksgiving upon arriving safely in London.
  • his relics have been scattered to several locations through the ages including the four St. Botolph churches around London and Westminster Abbey.

So there you have it. A worthy saint and namesake of a great city.

For more on St. Botolph, visit:

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Somerville Madonnas


One of the charms (“chahhms?”) of Somerville are the displays of devotional art in many residents’ yards, gardens, and sometimes even incorporated into the architecture of a house.  The statues are usually a Madonna in a tub-like niche (a “Virgin on the half shell” as my old roommate called them), but there are plenty of Josephs, Francises of Assisi, and even Jesus Christs to go around.

A public defender named Josh Michtom is working on a project to photography religious statues in yards and houses throughout Somerville. He’s documenting his work online at Somerville Madonnas. The Somerville News and the Bostonist have each written about the project recently. Currently, Michtom is displaying 28 of his photographs at the Paradise Lounge gallery in Boston. “Somerville Madonnas: Photographs of Religious Iconography” runs through July 20.

Saint Columba


For my third consecutive post about favorite saints I’m writing about a saint I associate with a place I visited on my travels in Ireland and Britain in 1998 (see Bede and Kevin).  This time the saint is Columba (also known as Colmcille and numerous other variations) and the place is Derry (also known as Londonderry) in Northern Ireland.  Saint Columba (521-597) is attributed with founding Derry by placing a monastery there in the 6th century.  Doire as it is spelled in Irish means “oak grove” and Columba wrote fondly “Derry mine! my small oak grove/Little cell, my home, my love!”  Colm Cille means “dove of the Church” and this imagery of doves and oak groves gives a sense of a pastoral history to a city ravaged by sectarian violence the past four centuries.

Columba was born in County Donegal in Ireland of royal descent and was ordained as a priest by the age of 25.  Possibly as the result of a conflict with Saint Finnian over a psalter (which led to a family feud and many deaths), Columba exiled himself to Scotland as a missionary. In 563, Columba and his followers established a missionary center at Iona to help bring Christianity to the Picts.  The Iona Abbey helped revitalize monasticism in Europe and became a place of pilgrimage.  Columba himself was a man of prayer, study and letters writing hymns and transcribing 300 books.
Much of what is known about Columba comes from Vita Columbae, a detailed life of the saint by Adamnan of Iona.  The work contains many legendary details such as the  first written appearances of King Arthur and the Loch Ness Monster. Columba’s legacy is long lasting and today he is one of three patron saints of Ireland along with Bridgid and Patrick.

Learn more about Saint Columba at:

Saint Kevin of Glendalough


On holiday in Ireland in 1998 (a few weeks before I would visit Durham), I made a day trip from Dublin to Glenalough — the valley of two lakes — amid the mountains of County Wicklow. In the beautiful setting rests the remains of a monastery started in the 6th century by Saint Kevin (498-618). Glendalough is a fantastic place both for the extensive ruins and the natural beauty. In fact on a second visit to Ireland in 2002, it was one of the few places I visited a second time and even spent the night.

For a saint of the early medieval period who lived a 120 years, little is known of St. Kevin. Here’s a mix of fact and fancy in Kevin lore:

  • He was the first person named Kevin which means “fair begotten.”
  • Kevin studied in monasteries at an early age.
  • He founded the monastery at Glendalough as well as other Irish monasteries and was instrumental at Clonmacnoise.
  • Despite founding monastic communities, he spent much of his time as a hermit. Even at Glendalough he spent much of his time praying in a tiny cell on a rocky precipice overlooking the Upper Lake.
  • Once while praying with arms outstretched a blackbird built a nest in his hand and laid eggs in the nest. Kevin kept himself still in that position until the birds hatched.
  • Glendalough grew to be a bustling village and pilgrimage site, worth half the indulgences of a pilgrimage to Rome.
  • The monastery at Glendalough was destroyed by the English in 1398.
  • St. Kevin’s feast day was commemorated with riotous celebration in Ireland until banned by the British in 1890.
  • Long acknowledged and venerated as a holy person, Kevin’s saint was confirmed by canonization in 1903.

glendalough1.jpg

The structure nicknamed “St. Kevin’s Kitchen” is actual a church. The tower is a steeple rather than a chimney. The stone structure dates to the 12th century.

glendalough3.jpg

The view of the Upper Lake is close to what St. Kevin would see each day from his cell high upon the rocky wall. I was not brave enough to climb out to the actual location. Visiting this place certainly made the live of a monastic hermit appealing to me, although I doubt I’d ever be still enough to hold a bird’s nest until the eggs hatched.

More resources on Saint Kevin of Glendalough:

Saint Bede the Venerable


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I can’t say I’ve ever made a pilgrimage to place where a saint’s mortal remains rest, at least not on purpose. On a whirlwind trip through England, I made a train stop in Durham so that I could visit the Durham Cathedral and attend the Evensong service. The baggage check at the train station was closed for security reasons so I had to carry my honking big backpack with me as I trudged through the cathedral. My spirits were lifted though when I discovered that the cathedral is the burial place of Saint Bede the Venerable.

Apart from having one of the coolest names of all saints, Bede was also the patron of the church where I worshiped at that time in Williamsburg, VA (an appropriate saint for a city with an English heritage). I’m assuming that photography was not permitted in the cathedral, otherwise I’d have a photo to post.

Bede was first and foremost a scholar. From an early age he studied science, language, arts, ecclesiastical history and scripture. His Ecclesiastical History of the English People is one of the great primary sources for 8th Century Anglo-Saxon research. I guess I’m drawn to Bede because he was a scholar, a writer, and most specifically a patron saint of historians. A lot of medieval saints are known for their miracles and it is hard not to be skeptical about them. Bede’s scholarly approach uses the great gift of education to transmit learning and inspiration to us down through the ages, which I guess is a miracle in of itself.

More on Bede the Venerable at:

Saint of the Day
Catholic Encyclopedia

Saint Godehard


This isn’t my typical saint entry. I really enjoyed this article by Greg Ruehlmann on Busted Halo to promote a German saint whose feast day would be widely celebrated by Catholic German-Americans (similar to Irish-American celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day). I’m not certain why he chose Saint Godehard of Hildesheim (sometimes spelled Gotthard, Gothard, or Godard) for whom there seems to be very little information about in the English language. St. Boniface, apostle of the Germans, would seem to be a more appropriate analog to St. Patrick.

But today is Saint Godehard’s feast day, so let us learn about this somewhat obscure holy man:

  • born in Bavaria in 960.
  • joined the canons at Niederaltaich where he would become provost and help reintroduce the Rule of Benedict
  • was known for keeping good order and was trusted to oversee reforms in monasteries
  • served as Bishop of Hildesheim from 1022 until his death in 1038
  • particularly drawn to those in poverty and founded a large home for the poor near Hidesheim
  • canonized by Innocent II in 1131
  • a major tunnel beneath the Alps between Switzerland and Italy is named for him
  • according to Ruehlmann he is the patron saint against gout (I’ll pray for that!) and for help with difficult births

So on this lovely Friday, hoist a stein of German beer and celebrate St. Godehard.

More information at:

Catholic Forum
St. Patrick’s Church
Wikipedia

St. Catherine of Siena


Catherine of Siena

My personal acquaintance with Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) begins with the church I attended as a child, St. Catherine of Siena parish in Riverside, CT. It was here that I first learned to love the Mass, following along with the readings in the missal and singing out joyfully with the folk group. It was here too that I received Eucharist for the first time, my first Communion going ahead as scheduled despite the fact there was a fire in my house the night before or that my father injured himself in a fall that morning. I’m grateful that St. Catherine’s was the first of three Catholic faith communities I’ve been blessed to be a part of in my life. Presumably the parish name originated from the large Italian-American community in Connecticut, but about the woman herself I knew little until recently.

Catherine Benincasa was a remarkable woman for any age. In her youth she developed a strong devotion through prayer and visions and defiantly resisted her parents plans for her life. She refused to be married and instead joined a Dominican lay order and devoted herself to helping the poor and the sick. She was known for her many letters which while dictated were very strong and opinionated giving orders to bishops and royalty alike. She even attempted to resolve the crisis of the Avignon papacy. Late in her life she composed her great spiritual work The Dialogue of St. Catherine. She died young but accomplished much and was canonized 81 years after her death. In 1970, Paul VI named her as one of the first women and lay persons to be a Doctor of the Church.

When I went on retreat to Glastonbury Abbey during Lent I was perusing the bookstore shelves and found a number of small books in a series called “30 Days with a Great Spiritual Teacher”. Basically each day there’s a small passage from the writings of a great Christian writer to reflect on each day for a 30 day period. I decided to pick up Set Aside Every Fear: Love and Trust in the spirituality of Catherine of Siena. Afterwards I learned that by coincidence or divine providence the thirtieth and final day after the day I purchased the book was April 29, the feast day of Catherine of Siena. So I’ve spent the last 30 days praying and reflecting through the words of Catherine.

Other resources on Catherine of Siena:

April Faith, Spirituality & Religion News


A new book by Pope Benedict XVI accuses rich nations of robbery according to the Guardian.

It includes Benedict’s thoughts on the parable of the Good Samaritan, who went to the aid of a traveller shunned by other passers-by after he had been stripped and beaten by robbers. While many commentators accuse the rich nations of not acting like the Samaritan, the Pope goes a big step further and compares them to the thieves.

John Allen writes on the fast-track to canonize Pope John Paul II as saint. Some are questioning the seeming lack of prayerful deliberation and whether popes need be canonized at all.

Instead, the logic of formally canonizing someone, beyond doing justice to their memory, has usually been to offer them to the world as a role model of holiness, as an exemplar of the Christian life. But in the case of popes, their election has already accomplished that. A pope is easily the most visible Catholic figure in the world, and as the Vicar of Christ, is already looked to as a moral and spiritual exemplar.

For these reasons, skeptics say that making popes saints is, at best, superfluous, and at worst risks tarnishing the sainthood process with suspicions of hidden agenda. Their solution is generally an informal moratorium on declaring popes as saints.

John Garvey writes in Commonweal on Why People Leave the Church:

We excuse the institution and its representatives too easily. One of my teachers, the late historian and theologian John Meyendorff, pointed out that Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees, the representatives of organized religion at the time, can-and should-be understood as a criticism of a similarly complacent and self-satisfied Christianity.

Whispers in the Loggia covers the bicentennial of the Archdiocese of New York.

Along these same lines, the See it embodies may no longer be the largest, was never the firstborn, and others could more aptly be highlighted for their consistency of innovation or creativity. But the qualifiers of age, artistry and size all vanish before New York’s singular, quasi-mythic status as America’s diocese, the Catholic bellwether of the public square even as the church in the United States has seen its center of gravity shift to the south and west at a dramatic clip

In Today’s News considers St. Paul’s views on homosexuality:

We cannot prove that Paul approved of homosexuality in some instances. We cannot know if would have approved of it in certain instances he and his audience never imagined. Yet, we also cannot prove he would have condemned it in certain instances he and his audience never imagined.

The simple fact is that the passage has no bearing on those “born gay” to anyone who accepts the possibility that a human person can be “born gay”.

John Allen writes about a possible motu proprio from Benedict XVI regarding authorization of a pre-Vatican II Latin Mass in Hold your breath for the next media frenzy (because apparently there are some Catholics who still prefer to worship in the language of pagan imperialists, a language never spoken by Christ and His apostles nor used to write sacred scripture, and a language few people understand today). Allen expects that it will cause a media frenzy but in the end have little effect on the majority of Catholics:

Be that as it may, there’s no doubt the motu proprio will be a media sensation, because the older Mass has become the most potent symbol of tensions over the basic direction of the Catholic Church in the period since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). In the court of broad public opinion, expanded access to the pre-Vatican II rite will be interpreted as a victory for the church’s traditionalist wing, however the Vatican explains it.

John Allen also writes a review of Pope Benedict XVI’s new book Jesus of Nazareth which begins with this analysis of how the media covers religious news:

When people pick up a newspaper or turn on the TV news, they generally aren’t looking for a Sunday school lesson. This creates a challenge for journalists covering religious leaders, since most of their public utterances are devoted either to expounding their faith, or urging people to behave. The way reporters solve the problem is by combing through those utterances to find statements presumed to have broad, non-sectarian significance, normally because they apply to matters of politics or culture.

The result is that the real concerns of religious leaders, and the priority they assign to those concerns, often don’t come across terribly clearly — not because reporters aren’t doing their jobs, but because of how the news business works in a secular world.

Fr. Robert Barron’s article in US Catholic “Not Just Lip Service” explicates the Creed, the basics of our faith, and finds a lot of good in it.

A culturally perceptive friend of mine commented recently, “The church has for some time been seen as irrelevant; now it’s seen as irrelevant and corrupt.”

To respond to these objections, we have to point out that the church in which we place our faith is not primarily an institution. It is instead a body. In accord with Paul’s great metaphor, the church is a living organism composed of interdependent cells, molecules, and organs, whose head is Christ himself and whose lifeblood is the divine life flowing from the sacraments. This “Mystical Body” is Christ’s manner of being present to the world; it is his eyes, his ears, his hands, and his feet.

Just as you can’t possibly know me apart from my body—my physical presence, my voice, my gestures—so you can’t know Christ apart from his church. This is why when Catholics evangelize they don’t simply invite people to come into a personal relationship with Jesus; they invite people into the life of the church.

Holy Week in Review


When I worked for Colonial Williamsburg the powers that be introduced a curriculum in which the events of four important days leading up to the Revolution were recreated in the streets and buildings of the Historic Area. On Wednesday the royal governor’s wife arrived in with much fanfare to show that Virginians were still loyal subjects in 1774. On Thursday, it is April 1775 as Peyton Randolph prepares to attend Continental Congress in Philadelphia and news arrives of bloodshed in Massachusetts. It’s November 1775 on Friday and Governor Dunmore is offering to liberate slaves who will fight with him against their rebel masters. Finally on Saturday, it’s May 1776 and Virginia votes to declare independence. Then we started all over again.

Instituting the new program was tough and repetition made it even harder to keep things fresh. That the program debuted during Holy Week that year meant I was extra busy both at work and church. It also made me realize that Colonial Williamsburg’s new idea wasn’t that new. The Church had been doing the same thing every Holy Week for nearly 2,000 years. On Palm Sunday, Christ is received in glory in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday he dines with his friends, washes their feet, and is betrayed. On Good Friday, Jesus is put to death. And finally, with great huzzahs, Christ rises from the dead on Easter Sunday. Each year we recreate the stories the bear repeating (although I’m glad we don’t have to reenact them twice a week from March to October).

Here’s the story of my Holy Week for 2007.

Palm Sunday

I’d not been on a retreat for a long time, so around Christmas I began looking for somewhere to take a prayerful weekend. I discovered Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham would be holding a weekend of quiet prayer the last weekend of Lent and immediately signed up. I find that I’m all too often a human do-er rather than a human being and while I serve several ministries in my church community, volunteer regularly, and try to read scriptures and reflections daily, I fail at the simple act of praying and loving God, so this retreat seemed ideal.

I did have the problem that Glastonbury Abbey is not currently on any public transit lines. So I sailed on the harbor ferry from Rowe’s Wharf and then walked about 3.5 miles to the Abbey. This added a fun cruise and a bit of a pilgrimage to my retreat. I regularly walk three miles to work so that wasn’t such a big deal to do the walk although I was unpleasantly surprised that some roads in Hingham have no sidewalks. It’s evidence of the preponderance of car culture that the other retreats were aghast that I walked and insisted on giving me a ride back to Hingham Center on Sunday.

Glastonbury Abbey’s grounds are beautiful and the monks are friendly and easygoing. I imagined them filing into the church in rows while chanting, but it turns out there are only eight Benedictines in residence with one guest monk. The retreat itself was lead by Fr. John Kelleher, OSB. He taught a type of contemplative prayer called centering prayer which dates back at least to medieval times and is taught by people like Thomas Keating and William Menninger. This type of prayer is simply loving God with no strings attached, and the best part is that one cannot do it wrong. Fr. John emphasizes that it’s not for everyone but I found it very satisfying to what I had come to the retreat looking for.

I also enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow retreatants, a group of kind people with interesting stories. I also enjoyed participating in the various prayer services of the liturgy of the hours. The monastery is very much part of the neighborhood and many local people are involved in praying and working with the monks. On Palm Sunday we had a beautiful liturgy beginning with a procession up the hill to the church. In a personally beneficial example of “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” I was one of the last people to enter the Church from the procession. The hospitality ministers asked me to join several people standing in the corner. They searched for seats for several of the more elderly people and by the time the first reading was about to begin, only another retreatant and myself were left standing. Then one of the hospitality ministers told us he had two seats, and they were in the stalls, where the monks sit!!! They may call them miserichords but I found my seat comfy and a unique place to be during Mass.

All in all a most blessed weekend.

Here are my photos from the weekend.

Holy Thursday

Monday through Wednesday are kind of a calm before the storm in Holy Week, three days of quiet anticipation. Then Thursday comes, Lent ends, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper kicks of the Triduum. Martha, Martha has a good explanation of what the Triduum means.

The Mass on Holy Thursday is bittersweet. On the good side it is a commemoration of a simple meal that Jesus shared with his friends, one that is recreated each time we celebrate and share the Eucharist. Equally powerful, Christ demonstrates what it means to serve by getting down on his knees and washing his disciples stinky feet. Peter, of course, doesn’t get it. Peter usually stands in for most of us, because speaking for myself I can assure you that I don’t understand the magnitude of what Christ teaches us.

At my church we have a tradition that everyone has their feet washed. The person who has just been washed washes the next person in line. Everyone is a servant and everyone is served. I attended one of the foot washing stations and so I got to see men and women wash the feet of their spouse, parents wash the feet of their children, and most touching people washing the feet of complete strangers. That was the case for me as a man I’ve never met before and whose name I still don’t know washed my feet. It was a busy Mass for me as I also processed with the Cross and proclaimed the scripture from Exodus, but that moment sticks out most for me.

The sad side of course is that Christ is betrayed, arrested, and abandoned. In the Mass, the Eucharist is carried out of the chapel and the door of the tabernacle left wide open. In solemn procession Jesus is taken away from us.

I was moved by Dawn Eden’s reflection on The Last Kiss on Busted Halo. It’s long been a mystery to me why Judas had to betray Jesus. I don’t mean the historical or symbolic reasons that Christ was betrayed by a friend, but why the Jewish authorities even needed Judas to find Christ. I know there are several instances in the Gospels of Jesus being protected by the presence of the crowds, but on the other hand he never hid either, so I wonder why the authorities needed Judas to find him.

Good Friday

The most solemn day of the liturgical calendar remembering when Christ was tried, mocked, abused, and put to death on a Cross. A sad and harrowing tale. Since it is believed that Christ died around 3 in the afternoon, that is the time the Lord’s Passion begins at all the area churches. If they wanted to go for real synchronousness the Passion would start at 8 am which is 3 pm in Jerusalem time, and then I would have been able to attend. As it was I was stuck at work and with desk shifts to cover I could not even sneak out for a long lunch. Instead I made do listening to the New American Bible and Pray-as-you-go podcasts while I worked.

In the evening, Susan and I attended Tenebrae, the service of darkness. In a mostly darkened chapel, prayers are read, scriptures proclaimed, and lamentations sung. After each reading one of seven candles is extinguished. Finally the last candle is removed from the chapel and everyone makes a terrible noise of slapping the pews, stamping feet, and banging drums and sheet metal in the balcony to represent the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a beautiful and moving service.

For Good Friday, Dirty Catholic reflects beautifully on bearing a tiny cross for Christ and Fr. Ben Hawley writes about mourning a friend.

Easter Vigil

The mood swings 180 degrees for the marathon Mass on the eve of Easter. Fr. Kelly, the chaplain of Catholic campus ministry when I was at William & Mary, always mentioned that the early Christians would stay up all night before Easter reading scripture and sharing stories of Christ. A woman at Glastonbury Abbey told me that the monks and the community have started the Easter Vigil at 4 am on Easter morning so that the natural sunlight floods into the church at the appropriate time. By comparison, our 3 1/2 hour Mass is pretty lightweight.

I was not as involved in Easter Vigil as I was with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, but Susan lead the Sacristans for the Vigil so I had a front-row pew on all the behind-the- scenes action. This includes the inevitable gaffes which were many but inconsequential. All the important things happened:

  • The three elect were baptized.
  • These same three women received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Eucharist.
  • And most importantly, Jesus rose from the dead.

The Easter Vigil is so amazing in so many ways. It starts in darkness with the Service of Fire. The Paschal Candle is blessed and lit and the flame is passed from candle to candle among the congregation (try to resist singing “Pass it On” in your head as this happens). Then it’s story time. Nine, count ’em, nine readings from scripture going through our entire faith history culminating in the resurrection of Christ. You don’t realize how much you miss those Alleluias until your belting them out as the lights come up.

The big moment for me during Easter Vigil each year is when the elect come forward to be baptized. They lay prostrate on the marble, and every year I end up weeping. It’s such a powerful thing to see, especially since I cannot remember my own baptism. Their actual immersion is something great to see as well. I asked one of our neophytes after the Vigil what it was liked to be baptized. She said that she couldn’t tell me right now other than it was wet and short. “The marble was really long, but the baptism was short.”

John Dear, S.J. wrote this great reflection on Easter and the resurrection.

Paschal Vespers

To complete the weekend(but only begin the Easter Octave) we attended the Paschal Vespers service on Sunday night. This service is the antithesis of Tenebrae. Candles are lit by each person and placed in a bowl of sand. They are not snuffed but instead allowed to burn brilliantly merging together into one consuming flame. The service alternates between prayer, scripture, and song, all of it joyous celebration of Christ’s ressurection. It’s really one of the most beautiful events that happens in the Church year.

And so, on Tuesday of the Easter Octave I finally complete writing this post. Happy Easter, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Lectio Divina: Reflections on Lenten Reading


For Lent I took up reading books on faith, religion, and spirituality, and here is the result. The very first book I picked up for Lent contained and introduction by John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne that defined exactly what I set out to do. They revealed to me the term lectio divina, Latin for “divine” or “spiritual reading” which they define as:

“… a meditative approach, by which the reader seeks to taste and savor the beauty and truth of every phrase and passage. This process of contemplative reading has the effect of enkindling in the reader compunction for past behavior that has been less than beautiful and true. At the same time, it increseases the desire to seek a realm where all that is lovely and unspoiled may be found. There are four steps in lection divina: first, to read, next to meditate, then to rest in the sense of God’s nearness, and, ultimately, to resolve to govern one’s actions in the light of new understanding. This kind of reading is itself an act of prayer. And, indeed, it is in prayer that God manifests His Presence to us (xii-xiii).”

1. The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi

I don’t want to say that I like the movie better, but I’m glad I saw Roberto Rossellini’s dramatization of some of these stories first before I read the book. Since Little Flowers was written in the 13th century it definitely is written for its time, that is full of miracles and an almost competitive piety. That being said there’s a lot to learn from Francis and his friars as they take on a life of poverty, serve the poor and worship God with ecstatic joy. The stories often read as parables with Francis teaching the friars with his words and actions in a Zen-like manner. A good little book to read and ponder during Lent.

The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi is also available for online reading in its entirety.

2. The Seven Story Mountain by Thomas Merton (Fiftieth Anniversary Edition)

I’m happy to say that after looking forward to reading this book for a long time it did not disappoint my expectations. This book is the unlikely story of a man of the world deciding to convert to Catholicism and then become a Trappist monk. Further defying logic the book became a best-seller and it’s author perhaps the first celebrity-monk of the modern age. I like the book because Merton’s thoughts and struggles parallel my own thoughts and struggle on my faith journey. I also enjoy reading about Merton in the places I’m familiar with such as New York City and Cambridge, England. I will have to disagree with Merton based on personal experience that Catholic schools do not prevent bullying among children.

Favorite Passages

Many times it was like that. And in a sense, this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply don’t want it. We will seperate ourselves from that love. We reject it entirely and absolutely, and will not acknowledge it, simply because it does not please us to be loved. Perhaps the inner motive is that the fact of being loved disinterestedly reminds us that we all need love from others, and depend upon the charity of others to carry on our own lives. And we refuse love, and reject society, in so far as it seems, in our own perverse imagination, to imply some obscure kind of humiliation (p. 26).

People seem to think that it is in some way a proof that no God exists, if we have so many wars. On the contrary, consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice, spawned and bred by the free wills of men, the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity. How could all this be possible without the merciful love of God, pouring out His grace upon us (p. 142)?

When it comes to accepting God’s own authority about things that cannot possibly be known in any other way except as revealed by His authority, people consider it insanity to incline their ears and listen. Things that cannot be known in any other way, they will not accept from this source. And yet they will meekly and passively accept the most appalling lies from newspapers when they scarcely need to crane their necks to see the truth in front of them, over the top of the sheet they are holding in their hands (p. 187).

I did a fair amount of reading that might be called “spiritual” although I did not read spiritually. I devoured books making notes here and there and remembering whatever I thought would be useful in my argument — that is, for my own aggrandizement, in order that I myself might take these things and shine by their light, as if their truth belonged to me (p. 253-4).

Experience has taught me one big moral principle, which is this: it is totally impractical to plan your actions on the basis of a vast two-columned list of possibilities, with mortal sins on one side and things that are “not a mortal sin” on the other–the one to be avoided, the other to be accepted without discussion. Yet this hopelessly misleading division of possibilities is what serves large numbers of Catholics as a whole more theology (p. 265).

Catholics are worried about Communism…but few Catholics stop to think that Communism would make very little progress in the world, or none at all, if Catholics really lived up to their obligations, and really did the things Christ came on earth to teach them to do: that is, if they really loved one another, and saw Christ in one another, and lived as saints, and did something to win justice for the poor (paraphrase of a talk by Catherine de Hueck Doherty, p. 373).

3. Living Vatican II by Gerald O’Collins, SJ

I am a Vatican II baby. The Church as it is following that revolutionary call for reform and revival is the only way I know the Church. And I think Vatican II is a good thing. That is as far as I know what it actually is and what the council achieved. I’d hoped to find a book that would act as a summary introduction to the many documents of the Second Vatican Council. Sadly I don’t think this book is it as it seems to assume prior familiarity with the output of the council and deals in theological language just out of my grasp. Despite that I find it satisfying that O’Collins is generally positive about Vatican II and it’s continuing implementation for all people in the faith. It seems all that I read these days are criticisms and reactionary views regarding Vatican II.

Favorite Passages

I beg to differ from some cardinals and other critics, who think the sheer numbers [canonized by John Paul II] have cheapened the “honors” of canonization and beatification. The Holy Spirit operates powerfully everywhere, and one can rightly suppose that many of the faithful have responded courageously to the call to universal holiness, which Vatican II recognized and proclaimed. To say otherwise would be to demean the work of the Spirit and Christ’s call to heroic discipleship, and even to picture real sanctity as something that happens only far away and long ago. The truth was state on May 4, 2003, by a huge banner in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón when John Paul II came to canonize five twentieth-century Spaniards: “You too can be a saint.” (p. 26)

Changing situations call for fresh emphases and developments. The long history of Catholic Christianity shows repeatedly that it takes creative fidelity to effect a rejuvenating reception and promote true development. Both fidelity and creativity have been regularly involved: a fidelity that does not decline into rigidity and a creativity that does not lose its roots in the mainstream tradition (p. 47).

Will the health of the English-speaking areas of the church be promoted or even maintained by a special sacral language that sounds remote, archaic, and awkward? Such language hardly agrees with the kind of language for prayer used and reccomended by Jesus himself. He spoke to God and about God in a simple, direct, and familiar way: “Abba (Father dear),” “your kingdom come,” “deliver us from the evil one,” and so forth. It is very difficult to imagine Jesus encouraging us to start using words like beseech and deign (p. 74-5).

4. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

Another autobiography by an American Catholic convert who is remembered as one of the great leaders of social justice of the Twentieth Century. Unlike Merton, Day did not head to the cloister but to the streets and the farms meeting poverty and injustice head on. I’m impressed by her devotion and the way in which she incorporates her faith into a lifestyle. And she writes with both humility and humor. It’s hard not to want to change my life after reading this book. I also think now that I may be an anarcho-syndicalists and never knew it.

Favorite Passages

Going to confession is hard. Writing a book is hard, because you are “giving yourself away.” But if you love, you want to give yourself. You write as you are impelled to write, about man and his problems, his relation to God and his fellows. You write about yourself because in the long run all man’s problems are the same, his sustenance and love.

People have so great a need to reverence, to worship, to adore; it is a psychological necessity of human nature that must be taken into account. We do not like to admit how people fail us. Even those most loved show their frailty and their weaknesses and no matter how we may will to see only the best in others, their strength rather than their weakness, we are all too conscious of our own failings and recognize them in others.

The Catholic Worker, as the name implied, was directed to the worker, but we used the word in its broadest sense, meaning those who worked with hand or brain, those who did physical, mental or spiritual work. But we thought primarily of the poor, the dispossed, the exploited.

Every one of us who was attracted to the poor had a sense of guilt, of responsibility, a feeling that in some way we were living on the labor of others. The fact that we were born in a certain environment, were enabled to go to school, were endowed with the ability to compete with others and hold our own, that we had few physical disabilities — all these things marked us as privileged in a way. We felt a respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God, as those chosen by Christ for His compassion (p. 204).

What a delightful thing it is to be boldly profligate, to ignore the price of coffee and go on serving the long line of destitute men who come to us, good coffee and the finest of bread.

“Nothing is too good for the pour,” our editor Tom Sullivan says, and he likes that aphorism especially when he is helping himself to something extra good (p. 235).

Once a priest said to us that no gets up in the pulpit without promulgating a heresy. He was joking, of course, but what I suppose he meant was that truth was so pure, so holy, that it was hard to emphasize one aspect of truth without underestimating another, that we did not see things as a whole, but in part, through a glass darkly, as St. Paul said.

5. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Macmillan 1959)

Bonhoeffer is the German Luther minister who defied antisemitism and fascism in Nazi Germany, building resistance on Christian principle. He paid the ultimate cost by sacrificing his life when he was executed in April 1945 just weeks before VE day.

The book sets out in simple and stark terms what cost one pays to follow Christ. The language can be complex and I believe Bonhoeffer deals with issues such as the debate of faith versus works, and the concept of grace, things I confess I don’t quite understand. Theologically I’m a kindergartener. The heart of the book is an exegesis of the Sermon of the Mount. At each point Bonhoeffer empasizes that without Christ, without discipline there is no forgiveness and there’s danger of self-justification. While the book was hard going, I think it was a good experience for me to work through it.

Favorite passages

To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, the we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life (p. 78).

My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share.

Prayer is the supreme instance of the hidden character of the Christian life. It is the antithesis of self-display. When men pray, they have ceased to know themselves, and know only God whom they call upon. Prayer does not aim at any direct effect on the world; it is addressed to God alone, and is therefore the perfect example of undemonstrative action (p. 146).

Judgement is the forbidden objectivization of the other person which destroys single-minded love. I am not forbidden to have my own thoughts about the other person, to realize his shortcomings, but only to the extent that it offers to me an occasion for forgiveness and unconditional love, as Jesus proves to me. If I withhold my judgment I am not indulging in tout comprende c’est tout pardonner and confirm the other person in his bad ways. Neither I am right nor the other person, but God is always right and shall proclaim his grace and his judgment.

Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace whcih others are just as entitled to as we are. But in the love of Christ we know all about every conceivable sin and guilt; for we know how Jesus suffered. Christian love sees the fellow-man under the cross and therefore see with clarity. If when we judged others, our real motive was to destroy evil, we should look for evil where it is certain to be found, and that is in our own hearts (p. 164-5).

6. Bound to Forgive by Lawrence Martin Jenco, O.S.M. (Ave Maria Press)

Father Marty Jenco was a newcomer to Beruit working with the local chapter of Catholic Relief Services when he was kidnapped by Shiite Muslim guerrillas and held as a hostage for nearly two years. The slim book details Fr. Jenco’s simple Christ-like faith which allows him to retain hope during times of abuse and deprivation, and more shocking to forgive his captors. While in captivity he manages to pray, to celebrate Eucharist, and to join in faith with his fellow hostages. He also is able to overcome his anger and see his guards as individuals, recognizing their humanity, and even offering forgiveness to one guard who asks for it. Through it all he keeps his heart on God and is able to see God’s love in the small details such as one night when the guards bring him to the roof to look at the moon. A very inspiring and touching book.

Favorite Passages

At this roof-edge of my prison life, in the white luminance of moon and stars, with the smell and taste of the salt sea-breeze, I knew love reigned invisibly. In the stark electric glare and grinding murmur of this tortured, fratricidal city, I knew this wasn’t the world God created. I heard God’s love singing to me and in me, modulating all the world’s fantastic dissonances (p. 49-50).

Some people advise me to forgive and forget. They do not realize that this is almost impossible. Jesus, the wounded healer, asks us to forgive, but he does not ask us to forget. That would be amnesia. He does demand we heal our memories.

I don’t believe that forgetting is one of the signs of forgiveness. I forgive, but I remember. I do not forget the pain, the loneliness, the ache, the terrible injustice. But I do not remember it to inflict guilt or some future retribution. Having forgiven, I am liberated. I need no longer be determined by the past. I move into the future free to imagine new possibilities (p. 135).

7. Confessions by Saint Augustine

If I thought some of the other books I’ve read for Lent were difficult to follow then I was not ready for the writing of a 4th century Doctor of the Church from North Africa. It’s interesting that I read this book last after Seven Storey Mountain and The Long Loneliness. Confessions is in a sense a progenitor to the Christian confessional memoir. They all share in common the authors’ rebellious youth, turning away from God, before a conversion experience brings them Home. What I find interesting is that Augustine, Merton, and Day all look back and see where God was in their lives, where they rejected Him, and where He was there all along despite themselves. Conversion is also an ongoing process of relationship, still occurring as the authors write, as opposed to a single ka-pow moment of “finding God.”

Favorite Passages

O God, hope of youth, where were you all this time? Where were you hiding from me? Were not my Creator and was it not you who made me different from the beasts that walk on the earth and wiser than birds that fly in the air? Yet I was walking on a treacherous path, in darkness. I was looking for you outside myself and I did not find the God of my own heart. I had reached the depths of the ocean. I had lost all faith and was in despair of finding the truth (p. 111).

From now on I began to prefer the Catholic teaching. The Church demanded that certain things should be believed even though they could not be proved, for if they could be proved, not all men could understand the proof, and some could not be proved at all.

Note: I’ve not yet finished Confessions, and I think I’m going to put it down for a while, but when I pick it up again I will update this thread with more reflections.

March for Faith


Once again it’s time for me to post all the interesting articles, news, and opinion I’ve read in the past month regarding faith, religion, and spirituality for the month of March.

Leading off is Becky Garrison’s piece on the God’s Politics blog regarding the flaw of accepting extremist views as representative as Christianity on the whole:

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and other New Atheists cite Fred Phelps, Jerry Falwell, and Ann Coulter as ontological proof that all Christians are hypocrites. Using this logic, I could turn the tables around and pick out, say, the Marquis de Sade, Mao Tse-tung, and Marilyn Manson. I can use their stories to prove that all atheists are sadists, dictators, and really bad rock musicians. In the words of Dana Carvey (a.k.a. former President George H.W. Bush), “Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.”

Sr. Joan Chittister writes Christian, Secular or Something Else Entirely regarding the upcoming release of Angela Merkel’s Berlin Declaration and the its response the Brussels Declaration which she predicts will be topics of debate that may change Western society.

The Brussels Declaration makes two points: First, that the ideal environment for all religions is not the theocratic state — the state that defines itself as identified by some single religion — but the secular state. Secondly, the Brussels Declaration points out that secularism and atheism are not synonyms. The secular state, the document argues, is not anti-religion. It is not atheistic. It is, instead, anti-establishmentarianism. It identifies itself with no particular religion and so it privileges no single religion. As a result, the document declares, it protects the right of all religions to practice without recrimination.

We may never have needed the distinctions more. Western society is becoming highly multicultural and polyglot in its religions. The most rapidly expanding population in the United States, for example, is not Christian but Muslim. The Christian nature of Western society that could once be taken for granted is becoming increasingly blurred. So what are we now — really?

Clearly, the issue, however understated in the public mind, has the incendiary capacity to divide a nation. The question may be a quiet one, but it is not an unimportant one. On its answer may well rest the character of nation states in times to come. Are we Christian countries that admit non-Christians to citizenship? Or are we secular states that protect the practice of all religions but identify the state with no single one of them?

By way of the BustedHalo Blog is an interesting article in First Things about Evangelical Christians and their changing attitudes toward the role of the Virgin Mary. The article includes historical details on the veneration of the Blessed Mother in the Catholic Church and the reaction of Protestant reformers against those views.

So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a “herald” of God’s good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.

In mid-March, Pope Benedict VXI released his latest commentary and reflection on Eucharist and Liturgy in Sacramentum Caritatis. The news sources are in a disorganized tizzy about what it’s really about but there’s a good summary of the document at National Catholic Reporter. The full text of the document is available at the Vatican website but I confess that I don’t expect I’ll be intellectual enough to read the whole thing due to its length and legalese language.

John Dear, SJ writes about the lessons of nonviolence learned from the life of Sophie Scholl, member of the White Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany and a martyr. My favorite part is a quote from Howard Zinn about hope:

A few months ago, my friend Howard Zinn, the great historian and author of A People’s History of the United States, visited Santa Fe, and a luncheon was put on in his honor. He had been studying social change for more than 35 years, he said, and he had come to a conclusion. Every U.S. movement for social change — the abolitionists, suffragists, labor, civil rights, and anti-war movements — from their beginning, throughout their years, and right up to the very end was … hopeless. I found this oddly consoling.

LAMLand writes about “Our Priestly Sacrifices at Mass”:

What do you bring to Mass with you? Do you realize, as per Vatican II, you are an active participant in the Mass along with the celebrant?

Certainly some things here I never thought about/realized before.

Not a very in depth article from the Boston Globe, but an interesting story all the same about the Boston Catholic Women’s Conference. Cardinal Sean had flattering things to say about the women in attendence and Catholic women in general. Rwandan genocide survivor and author of the book Left to Tell, Immaculee Ilibagiza spoke at the conference.

Amy Belger , 39, of South Weymouth, came with her 6-week-old daughter.

“I think listening to speakers like Immaculee helps put your problems in perspective,” she said. “I think the cardinal’s message to women was that we’re in a unique position to speak about life, and that’s an important message to take away.

The Lesser of Two Weevils tells even more about the changing role of women in the church in this post that gives a history of Catholic Feminism in Canada.

Over the past 30 years the Canadian bishops have become staunch supporters of the rightful place of women in the Church. Even when Pope John Paul ended discussion on the ordination of women in 1994, the bishops said they would not allow the papal ban to become an obstacle to involve women more and more in the structure of the Church.

Women getting their voices heard is very good stuff indeed. Lesser of Two Weevils also directed me to this article in the Western Catholic Reporter with highlights of a talk by Father Ronald Rolheiser on Christianity in the contemporary world.

“One of the reasons there is so much anti-Christianity in some circles is precisely because we have trumpeted and we have been triumphant in the wrong way some times. We’ve made God into a power figure and God is always thoroughly underwhelming. God never overwhelms us, never, ever.”

Zack Exley writes “What Lessons Can Progressives Learn from Evangelicals?” about how evangelical Christians are leading the way in serving and engaging the poor and the outcast.

[Heather] Zydek characterizes the movement this way: “We want to get back to the roots of Christianity, to the essence of Christianity, which is about service to those in need, sacrifice, denial of self for others — it’s about [Jesus saying] ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ But for too long we’ve spread a gospel of suburbanism, of self-centeredness, of capitalism, of political conservatism — but not the gospel: the gospel that came from Christ.”

Whispers in the Loggia asks “Did Jesus Laugh?” Mentions James Martin who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers and his Crusade for Cheer.

Catholicism, holiness, and spirituality comments on the mixed messages in the case for canonization of Oscar Romero.

When leaders speak out in public, they become part of the political debate. And that’s a good thing – they have a right and a duty to do so. It doesn’t seem right, though, to encourage our bishops to speak out and as a result become part of the public political debate, only to hold it against them when they are gone.

That’s it for March. Now it’s April which begins with Holy Week!

St. Patrick’s Day


I’m making two posts today. I’ve already posted my reflections on Saint Patrick the man. In this post I’m writing about the holiday in which St. Patrick’s feast day is celebrated. St. Patrick’s day is a festive day that is a break from Lent and a harbinger of Spring. It’s a way that Irishness is celebrated worldwide, albeit the festive nature was a creation of the diaspora. Until recently, St. Patrick’s day in Ireland was a solemn day of prayer in tribute to the man who helped bring Christianity to Ireland to stay.

If you asked me when I was a child what my favorite days of the year are, I would have told you Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day. For me, St. Patrick’s Day was all about celebrating my family’s Irish heritage, usually attending the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on 5th Avenue in New York. The weather was often miserable (and sometimes oddly localized) but it was fun to see the marching police, nurses, firefighters, and pipe bands. Even on days when I had to go school it felt special. No one else’s ethnicity had a special day where everyone dressed up regardless of heritage. I often donned an Irish sweater for the day, deliberately shunning green. Green was for all my Italian-American classmates, I had nothing to prove.

Growing up and moving to Virginia, the bloom started to fall of my St. Patrick’s Day shamrock. The Irish-American stereotypes and superficiality of the day started to get under my skin. Not to mention that someone started that whole pinching people who don’t wear green thing (ouch!). My joyous day had become just an excuse to get drunk. I thought it would be better when I moved to Boston, the most Irish city in America, but it was more of the same. 364 days a year you can find an Irish pub with traditional music and enjoy a nice pint with your friends. On St. Patrick’s Day the cover is $25, the beer is green (sacrilege) and the traditional Irish music is replaced with a crappy band and pub packed full of drunks. No thanks.

But there is a parade in Boston, the site of the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in America. I attended the parade in South Boston the first two years I’ve lived here. I was impressed by the intimate, neighborhood feel of the parade. As a opposed to the grandiose, almost martial statement of New York’s parade to the world, the South Boston parade has more of a homespun feel. Folks sit on their steps of their homes and seem to know each parade participant personally. On the downside attending this parade makes me feel like a total outsider, as if I was crashing someone else’s family. The parades in both Boston and New York have also been embroiled on controversy by excluding Irish-American gays & lesbians and anti-war veterans which leaves me on the opposite side politically as well. I guess I can glean a little bit of hope of the barriers of prejudice breaking down by the fact that the New York parade has selected a Bostonian for Grand Marshall.

So in recent years I’ve been trying different ways of regaining my youthful exuberance for St. Patrick’s Day whether it be seeing an Irish band live or spending a quiet night with friends. In 2002 I spent St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin. Late to the parade party, the Irish capital have made up for lost time with a creative, artistic parade and a week-long festival throughout the city. This year I hope to attend the parade in Holyoke, MA which claims to be the second largest in the world after New York. Whatever I do, St. Patrick’s Day is still a very special day. And I probably won’t wear green.

Get your St. Patrick’s Day resources here:

That’ll keep me from being a sourpuss this St. Patrick’s Day.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all! Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig! Sláinte agus Saol Agaibh!

Saint Patrick


Saint Patrick

Except for the Virgin Mary, no other saint is as well known or inspires more devotion than Saint Patrick. At least in the parts of the world where emigrants from Ireland have settled, and the Irish diaspora is spread far and wide. Despite this, no biographical description of Patrick contains many certain details, and in fact legend and contradiction tend to overshadow the historical Patrick. Scholar Thomas F. O’Rahilly even contends that there were two Patricks whose life stories were intertwined.

What we know about Patrick that may be true:

  • He was born in Britain of mixed Briton/Roman ancestry sometime around 415 (or maybe 387).
  • Irish raiders captured him and forced him into slavery as a shepherd when he was a teenager.
  • In his early 20’s, Patrick escaped from slavery and returned to Britain and reunited with his family.
  • Having drawn closer to God during his enslavement, Patrick entered the priesthood and would eventually be ordained bishop and sent on a mission to Ireland.
  • Patrick returned to Ireland around 433. While not the first person to teach Christianity to the Irish, his mission would have lasting impact and he converted many Irish.
  • He wrote two texts that survive to this day, the Confessio and Epistola.
  • He died on March 17, probably in 493 (or maybe 461).

Things that probably are not true about Patrick:

  • Snakes were never indigenous to Ireland, so St. Patrick did not need to remove them. The story works on a symbolic level if you see the snake as the devil, as in the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
  • Patrick probably never used a three-leaf clover as a model of the three-in-one nature of the Holy Trinity, although it is a wonderful simile and the shamrock is a lasting and powerful symbol.

What’s important about Patrick, whether man or myth, is the lessons of humility and courage that have incredible durability. My own relationship with Patrick begins with celebrating St. Patrick’s Day by attending the parade and all the great qualities of being Irish-American. Later in life I experience a more spiritual aspect of Patrick whether it be by praying in the Cathedral of St. Patrick or visiting places in Ireland where he walked. Last year I read the Confessio during Lent. I expect St. Patrick will continue to guide me throughout my life.

There is more on St. Patrick at Saint of the Day, Catholic Online, and Catholic Encyclopedia.  Busted Halo offers Six Things You Should Know About St. Patrick. There is also a lovely reflection on St. Patrick at Flos Carmelli. It’s worthwhile to read and learn more about St. Patrick.

Faith in February


I’m much delinquent in publishing this post. Here is my now monthly collection of news, articles, and opinions about faith, religion, and spirituality for the month of February.

First and foremost, In Today’s News weighs in with an impressive post about the most important moral issue of the day.

I once stated that women’s ordination was the most important issue in the Church today.

It is an important theological issue – but I’m beginning to think it’s not the most important issue, afterall.

Married priests and gay marriage are not the most important issues.

Abortion is a critically important issue that goes right to the fundamental right to life.

But by itself, it’s not the most important moral issue.

The most important moral issue in the world in the world today, IMHO, is that someone is starving to death as I write.

John Allen’s column on religious opposition to homosexuality has this great quote from Pope Benedcit XVI

Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions. It’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again, because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say, ‘We have a positive idea to offer.'”

Catholicism, holiness and spirituality writes about “Things I Like About the Catholic Church”:

I could make a list of things I don’t like about Catholicism, but not about ‘being’ Catholic. I hope that makes sense. You can look at your family – siblings, parents, aunts, uncles – and point out things you don’t like about them, but that doesn’t mean you’d forsake your family or that you aren’t proud being a part of that family. The same holds true, I think, for my sense of being Catholic.

Three pieces offer important wisdom regarding the seperation of church and state:

1) Sr. Joan Chittister:

The fact is that religion in the modern world is to be a challenge to the conscience of the country, not a tool of the state. The democratic political process, on the other hand, is to seek the common good, not to impose one religious institution’s morality on another. To keep the balance between the two positions, it must, at the same time, protect the right of every religious community to call the government to consider in its legislative process what is morally right for the country rather than simply what is expedient for it.

To question the morality, the justice, of any social position, to advocate for social reform of any issue is a religious imperative. To trap politicians into committing themselves to one church agenda rather than another, however, will, in the end, be damaging to the faith itself.

Religion is neither a servant nor an enemy of the state. The separation of church and state is not about the suppression of religious interests. It is about the protection of religious differences.

2) Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:

It is subterfuge to even claim that a given phrase is not in the Constitution. No history teacher should be engaged in such deception.

Separation of church and state is a philosophy and policy of government outlined throughout the Constitution. The phrase itself is not there; the principle is part of the warp and woof of the Constitution, from the Preamble to the 27th Amendment

3) Brittanica Blog:

There is much public evidence that the top Founders saw religion as considerably more than a “private” matter, even though all agreed that religion, at least the religion in which they were formed, requires that each conscience consult only the evidence available to each. Their practice was often public–we mean, in the official acts and discourse of the state–and at the same time respectful of the diversity of consciences.

Both Whispers in the Loggia and The Lesser of Two Weevils discuss Pope Benedict XVI’s opinions on women (with differing conclusions).

That’s it for all I collected in February. I’ll post more at the end of March, hopefully in a more coherent and timely manner.

Katharine Drexel


drexel.jpg

As I’ve mentioned before, I seem to have a patriotic fondness for American saints. I learned of Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) last year from Saint of the Day and not only was she born in the USA (in Pennsylvania, one of my favorite states), but lived a life that leaves me in awe and inspiration.

Born into prosperity in a family of a railroad baron, Drexel learned charity in her childhood when her family opened their home to the poor several days per week. On the suggestion of Pope Leo XIII, Drexel became a missionary to the Indians in the Dakota territory, dedicating much of her family fortune to the cause, while taking up voluntary poverty for herself. After taking her vows, Drexel founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored.

Drexel and her order dedicated themselves to education for the underprivileged founding more than sixty schools and missions for Indians and African-Americans across the United States. This includes Xavier University in New Orleans in 1925, the first institution of higher education for a predominately black student body. Founded by a woman, and a Catholic sister, and a saint. That just wows me. The fact that she did this during the time of segregation facing strong opposition including having one her schools burned makes it all the more impressive.

For her last two decades, Drexel was crippled by illness, but used that time well for prayer, contemplation, and writing. She died in 1955 at the age of 97. Katharine Drexel’s canonization in 2000 was celebrated in her native Philadelphia suburbs.

PS: Sorry to backdate this but I wanted the post to coincide with Katharine Drexel’s actual feast day.

Rite of Election


The first Sunday of Lent is one of those occasions that reminds me of the catholic (small “c”) nature of the Catholic (big “C”) Church.  The Rite of Election is the beginning of the home stretch for people who are becoming Catholic: the Catechumens (individuals who will receive the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist at the Easter Vigil) and the Candidates (individuals baptized in another Christian faith who will join in Full Communion of the Catholic Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist).  As a sponsor for a candidate I participated in this ceremony today.

We began with the Rite of Sending, a simple ceremony during the Mass at the chapel that allowed the community to get to know the Catechumens and Candidates in a more intimate setting.  Then we piled onto the Silver Line and rode to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross where we joined Catechumens, Candidates, sponsors, godparents, family and other well-wishers from all the parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston.  Thousands of people filled the cathedral, which is quite a beautiful building with carved wooden buttresses and stained-glass windows.  The Catechumens were called forward and presented before Cardinal Sean at which point they became the Elect (hence Rite of Election) and the Candidates followed for a similar celebration.

I tend to like ceremony and ritual, apparently more than your typical progressive Catholic.  So I enjoyed the processions, the presentations, the intercessions, the contrast between Cardinal Sean’s basso profondo and cantor Phillis Baker’s ceiling-scraping soprano.  The thing that got me most though is that this same ceremony occurred in each and every cathedral throughout the world.  According to the cardinal there are about 3,000 total.  It’s pretty awe-inspiring to be part of something that big.

Ash Wednesday


And so Lent begins. It doesn’t feel like it’s started for me yet, because I’ve not yet been to church. I meant to get up early and go to Mass before work, but it didn’t happen. To paraphrase Neil Sedaka, “Waking Up Is Hard To Do.”

I’m a bit peeved about it. Going to church and receiving ashes in the evening seems somehow un-penitential. I kind of miss out on the aspects of Ash Wednesday that are both a reflection on one’s sinfulness and well, just plain funny. Such as the fact that the ashes inevitably resemble a thumb print more than a cross. The strange looks you get from people who don’t know what Ash Wednesday is and having to explain it to them. The knowing nods and glances from fellow Christians marked with ash. And while I imagine it being nowhere near as uncomfortable as wearing a hairshirt, there is that ticklish feeling on the forehead intensified by the knowledge that you just can’t wipe it off.


People wiser than I have written extensively about Ash Wednesday and Lent so here is a compendium of Ash Wednesday thought:

Last year Busted Halo put together a helpful list of 25 Things You Can Do For Lent. This year they offer the Practical Guide to Lent.

Whispers in the Loggia writes about Jesuit Father James Martin, author of My Life With the Saints, who has an annual tradition of receiving a Lenten penance from his Jewish friends.

Theologiene collects a mosaic of photographs of people marked with ash.

Fr. John Duffy of the Paulist Fathers sees Lent as the Season of Reconciliation.

Diana Butler Bass writes about Giving Up Lent For Lent.

If that’s not outside the box enough for you, Dirty Catholic offers commonly over-looked possibilities of what to give up for Lent.

Finally, there is T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, Ash Wednesday.


For my own Lenten practice I’ve long ago decided that giving something up (for example, chocolate) is too superficial for me. I remember a friend in college who gave up raisins for Lent which is funny because raisins are actually good for you. Then again she had a strong fondness for raisins so there was a personal sacrifice involved. Instead of (or in addition to giving things up) I like to take things on for Lent. I also consider things that I may try to do permanently beyond Lent. Sometimes I’m successful, like 13 years ago when I gave up eating meat for Lent, decided I didn’t miss it, and have been vegetarian since. Sometimes not, like the time I tried to attend Mass daily and failed miserably early on in Lent.

So this year for Lent I will:

  • Volunteer — There may be 40 days in Lent, but I counted up 48 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Monday and I hope to volunteer 1 hour for each of these days, that is two full days of volunteerism in total.
  • Read spiritual books – I have a list of books on faith, spirituality, and theology that I will read throughout Lent.
  • Give up my favorite Mets forum — I spend a lot of time reading and writing online at my favorite Mets forum, but not during Lent.

There we have it.  A good Ash Wednesday and Lent to all who observe them.

Happy Mardi Gras


“”I think there should be a national carnival, much the same as Mardi Gras in Rio. There should be a week of national hilarity . . . a cessation of all work, all business, all discrimination, all authority. A week of total freedom. That’d be a start. Of course, the power structure wouldn’t really alter. It would just last for a week and then go back to the way it was. I think we need it.” – Jim Morrison.

Mardi Gras, or Carnival, is one of my favorite events of the year, a celebrartion that is uniquely both wickedness and debauchery and a joyous celebration of Catholic faith. Obviously it is not commemorated much in New England. Instead it is celebrated in places where the Catholic church is strong such as places throughout Europe, Latin America, and most famously in New Orleans. That hurricane-ravaged city is celebrating its second Mardi Gras since Katrina an occasion today that is both an escape from reality and hope for the future.

I was lucky enough to attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans 11 years ago, with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the city and the (usually) friendly comradery that arose among strangers. I especially liked walking along the parade route and seeing how the same parade took on a different feel in each neighborhood. Downtown is dominated by tourists and college kids, the African-American areas featured poorer children lining the streets to watch and participate, and in the wealthier part of the city small children were propped up on top of ladders to catch the best loot.

On the downside, the whole experience was a bit overwhelming for someone like me with crowd anxiety and I got a bit cranky from overstimulation. The scene on Bourbon Street was unpleasant as the requests for mammary display were done in a manner akin to the crass capitalism of the stock exchange accompanied by nasty, insulting language. Overall I think Jim Morrison is on to something though, and the whole Mardi Gras thing is beneficial for the community. Even the strict Christians who came to demonstrate against Mardi Gras and make people repent seemed to be enjoying their role in the whole event.

I should probably scan and add some photos from that trip, but in the meantime one can never cease to be amused by this photo of Mr. Met and Bordeaux D. Nutria tossing beads in the French Quarter.

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Update:

First, a funny reflection on Fat Tuesday from Dirty Catholic.

Second, as promised, photographs from my 1996 trip to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

That’s me swinging from a lamp post on my very first day in New Orleans. I love this photo especially because I actually know everyone in the picture even though half the people look like passersby.

I acquired a bit of loot including beads and a spear at the Mandeville parade.

A couple of blues men played in the middle of the street to an appreciative crowd.

A baby on a ladder scored lots of loot due to advantages in vertically and cuteness.

Christian protesters/evangelizers came in great numbers to help the revelers repent.

Hmm…Lent is but an hour away!

Faith-based News


I like to keep up on news of faith, spirituality and religion in the mainstream and alternative reality. Here’s a selection of articles I’ve saved from the month of January.

First, two religious leaders passed this month. I had never of either of these men prior to their deaths, but reading about them now I wish I had.

Abbé Pierre, French priest and advocate for the homeless died at the age of 94. John Allen, Jr. writes in memory of Abbé Pierre.

zAbbé Pierre represents one of the towering examples in the 20th century of faith in action, an icon of what Pope Paul VI meant when he said that in this age, the church will be an effective teacher only to the extent that it is first a witness to the love of Christ.

The fact that Catholicism is still capable of generating such witnesses, despite all its struggles and internal fractures, is a heartening bit of context, one which ought to be factored more routinely into reflections about what’s happening in “the church.”

The other loss was Jesuit Father Bob Drinan, famed for serving a decade in the US Congress in the 1970’s. It’s a big gap in my education that I never knew a Catholic priest had served in the House of Representatives nor did I know that it’s now prohibited.

Anti-death penalty advocate Sr. Helen Prejean spoke out on two current events in January. First in a commentary on the God’s Politics blog she takes on the indignity of Sadaam Hussein’s execution.

Here’s the cake: rendering Hussein or any human being defenseless and killing him. Imposing a violent death on a person is the greatest indignity of all; it makes name-calling or taunts pale in significance.

Can a state killing ever be done with dignity?

Prejean also spoke out against Federal housing plans in post-Katrina New Orleans that are harmful tot he poor.

“In my mind, to know those homes are sitting there in decent shape when so many need housing is a sin,” Prejean said in papers filed on behalf of residents seeking to stop the demolitions.
“I have been particularly concerned about how many of the less-advantaged residents have yet to be able to return,” she said in the court papers.

Here in Massachusetts, there is the story of Robin McCarthy who is entering an order of religious sisters in Lowell after five other communities rejected her due to her disabilities. My own church community is discussing accesibility and attitudes toward people with disabilities right now so this strikes close to home.

As for bias, she considers the church more enlightened than its surrounding environment. “In general, I don’t think society looks at disability and sees something beautiful, where in the church, they do see that. . . . The soul of that person is every bit as beautiful in the eyes of God as the soul of the greatest genius.

I haven’t read scientist Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion but I found this interesting rebutal from Alister McGrath on AlterNet. The discussion below the article is also interesting, although I haven’t read all of that yet either.

Finally, two longer articles worth reading:

Speaking in Many Tongues: Why the Church Must Be More Catholic by Peter C. Phan in Commonweal stresses the importance of a plurality of cultural expressions of Christian faith.

Through a Glass, Darkly: How the Christian right is reimagining U.S. history by Jeff Sharlet in Harper’s Magazine tells of an eerie effort among some Christian evangelicals to creae a Christian past that never existed.

Saint Brigid


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Brigid of Kildare is the secondary patron saint of Ireland and the most prominent female saint of my ancestral land. Thus it was natural for my older sister to take Brigid as her confirmation name. The one thing I know about Brigid is that a unique cross is named for her. My sister had one of these hanging on her bedroom wall when we were growing up.

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There is an informative article about the history and signifigance of St. Brigid’s Cross at the Cross & Crucifix.

But what of Brigid herself?

Few verifiable facts are known about Brigid who was born around 452 in Ireland. She is the only one of the three patrons of Ireland (along with Patrick and Columba) actually born in the country. She came from a royal family although many accounts state that her mother was a slave and some that Brigid herself was a slave of her father. At a young age she heard Patrick preach — perhaps was even converted by Patrick — and gained a great devotion to the poor. This manifested itself in her giving away her father Dubtach’s valuables, much to his disappointment.

Dubtach tried to marry Brigid off, but she was resistant, and according to one legend praying to lose her beauty until she could take her vows as a nun. She was seen as a saint in her own lifetime and founded convents across Ireland including the Abbey of Kildare, a center of education and spirituality for both women and men. Brigid’s feast day is considered the traditional first day of spring in Ireland. Tis confused me when a priest mentioned it at a Mass I attended in Galway in 1998, because Feb. 1 is far too early for spring. Perhaps Bridgid shares a spiritual kinship with the groundhog?

Appropriate to the patroness of the Island of Saints and Scholars, Brigid is also the patron saint of scholars.

More on Saint Brigid at Catholic Encyclopedia, Saint of the Day, and Ireland’s Eye.