Palm Sunday Homily: Parish Renewal Inspired by Pope Francis

J.C. Superstar

Holy Week begins today with Palm Sunday.  Fittingly, last evening my wife and I listened again (as we do every year) to Webber and Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  (You can listen to the 1970 version here; last year we attended the actual play.) The familiar score and story always have me tearing from the overture on.

Of course, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a brilliant musical that captures the final events in Jesus’ life.  As in today’s liturgical readings, the play takes us from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his cleansing of the city’s Temple, his betrayal by Judas, his trials before the Sanhedrin, Pilate and Herod. It finishes with his death on the cross and a reprise of Judas’ questions about Jesus’ place in history and among the world’s other spiritual geniuses.

Through it all we agonize with Judas about accepting blood money and with Mary Magdalene about her unrequited love. We shake our heads at Jesus’ uncomprehending, self-interested and cowardly disciples. We’re amazed at the fickleness of the crowd and by Jesus’ compassion, indecision, fear of death, and forgiveness of his executioners.

The rock musical score is haunting. The lyrics are hip and inspiring. I find it amazing that the story though repeated so often retains the power to move its audiences. I feel grateful to Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice for their audacity in making the tale so accessible and meaningful to contemporaries.

Similar feelings have been evoked last year by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That too was on my mind as I listened to “Jesus Christ Superstar” this year. That’s because during this year’s Lent, members of my parish community have been studying (for the second year in a row) the pope’s publication.

Through it, I think Pope Francis is calling us to do something like what Webber and Rice have done – make Jesus and the church once again relevant to a world that has long since dismissed them as quaint and detached from daily life.

As we’ve studied “The Joy of the Gospel,” all of us have marveled at Francis’ own courage, boldness and audacity. Almost from the beginning, our group has asked each other, “But what should we do in this parish in response to the pope’s general directions?” That same question surfaced last Lent, when I put forth a proposal published here.

Then it was well-received, but there was virtually no follow-through. Virtually nothing has changed in our church as a result of the pope’s exhortation. For us it’s still a question of “business as usual.” And our numbers of aging parishioners are dwindling as a result.

This year, things are different. Pope Francis’ planned visit to the United States next September has inspired our parish Peace and Social Justice Committee to reformulate the proposal in a way that honors his visit. And this time the formulation has legs. We’re actually might implement it.

Here’s a shortened summary of our revised plan (all parenthetical references are to sections in Francis’ exhortation) :

 “The Joy of the Gospel:” St. Clare Moving Forward

A Proposal for Parish Renewal Guided by the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation

Rationale: The visit of Pope Francis to the United States provides St. Clare Parish with a unique opportunity to highlight and appropriate the pope’s directions for church renewal offered in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG). Those directions called on the church to embark on a new chapter in its history and a new path, where things cannot be left as they presently are (25). Pope Francis urged Catholics to adopt new ways of relating to God, new narratives and new paradigms (74), along with new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules, and language (27). Parishes were instructed to act boldly, and without inhibition or fear (33), in implementing processes of reform (30) adapted to particular churches (82).

With the above empowering directives and guidelines in mind, the Parish Peace and Social Justice Committee suggests adoption of the following plan towards beginning implementation of the renewal processes suggested by JG:

  • In preparation for the pope’s visit to the United States (September 22-27, 2015), the parish will be invited to read his forthcoming encyclical which is expected to be published this June. (Reading the encyclical is intended as a vehicle for revisiting and applying the pope’s vision found in “The Joy of the Gospel.”)
  • Copies of the encyclical will be purchased for each member of the parish over the age of 16 who wishes to receive a copy.
  • CCD teachers will be encouraged to develop study guides for younger children.
  • The encyclical will be discussed on the two Sundays preceding the pope’s visit, viz., September 13th and 20th.
  • To maximize participation and to experiment with on-going adult education (or “Sunday School”) discussions will be held from 9:00 to 10:00 on those Sundays and also on October 4th (see below).
  • Sunday School sessions will be followed by a half hour for coffee and snacks in the Friendship Hall and then by Mass in the church at 10:30.
  • On those days, (to highlight the unity of our parish) the 10:30 Mass will be the only Mass at St. Clare’s (“inconveniencing” everyone.) The 10:30 celebration will be bi-lingual incorporating both the Anglo and Hispanic communities and concelebrated by Fr. Michael and Padre Eulices (the clerical leader of our parish’s Hispanic community).
  • On Sunday, September 27th, there will be a viewing of the pope’s addresses to the U.S. Congress (9/24), and to the United Nations (9/25), as well as his homily delivered at the papal Mass concluding his U.S. visit.
  • The viewing of the pope’s addresses will take place in the parish Friendship Hall at 6:00 p.m. and will be preceded or accompanied by a special spaghetti dinner..
  • On their return from attendance at the papal visit, members of the St. Clare delegation will give formal reports during the “Sunday School” session of October 4th.

Follow Up

Following these events, an ad hoc committee (including the pastor) will review the entire experience outlined above.  It will formulate a strategic plan for the parish for later discussion. The plan will address issues such as:

  • Improved community outreach.
  • Closer relations between the Anglo and Hispanic communities.
  • Specifically how to better integrate the Saturday night and Sunday morning communities.
  • Prospects for institutionalizing adult education “Sunday School.”
  • Ways of improving Sunday liturgies taking advantage of the unique resources in our parish.
  • Revising the St. Clare Mission Statement to make its expression more inclusive.
  • Expanding roles for women (103, 104).
  • Specific plans for drawing young people back into the worshipping community.

So what do you think? Are we in tune with Jesus, Pope Francis, and Webber & Rice? Is this pointing the way to Easter Resurrection? What else might we do?

Discussion follows.

Wapo Errs in Retracting ‘Hands-up Don’t Shoot’ Support

hands upto

On Sunday the Lexington Herald Leader here in Kentucky published an apology by Washington Post blogger and MSNBC commentator, Jonathan CapehartThe article was entitled “Ferguson policing concerns valid, but ‘Hands-Up’ not based on truth.”

Capehart’s retraction of initial support for the “Hands-Up” movement was based on his reading of the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation that “filled in the blanks, corrected the record and brought sunlight to dark places.” The report forced Capehart (an African-American) “to deal with uncomfortable truths: Brown never surrendered with his hands up, and Wilson was justified in shooting.”

According to the Wapo journalist, his conclusion was based on the DOJ’s “exhaustive interviews with witnesses, cross-checking their statements . . . ballistics, DNA evidence and results from three autopsies.” All of these showed that officer Wilson “knew about the theft of cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects . . . Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun.”

Capehart’s general conclusion: “. . . we must never allow ourselves to march under the banner of a false narrative on behalf of someone who would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.”

Capehart’s conclusion is disturbing on at least three counts. It first of all ingenuously accepts the Department of Justice as a disinterested arbitrator.  Secondly, it simply accepts the false conclusion that Officer Wilson had no alternative but to kill Michael Brown, shooting him six times.  And thirdly, both Capehart’s article and the DOJ report reinforce the erroneous impression that police officers are under constant threat and so can be excused for their over-reactions.

Is the DOJ disinterested? Hardly – at least not if we keep the big picture in mind. Remember, there is an encroaching police state in our country defending the interests of the 1% against the rest of us. Under the aegis of the DOJ, increasingly militarized police forces have gradually assumed the role of occupying armies, especially in communities of color.

Moreover, in representing the elite, government agencies routinely lie to us. At what point do we conclude that they have lost credibility as disinterested investigators, and discard out of hand any claims that support the forces of DOJ-sponsored occupation?

However, even if we accept the Department’s report as endorsed by Jonathan Capehart, the question remains, did Officer Wilson have no alternative but to use deadly force on Michael Brown? Clearly the answer is no.

Wilson’s alternatives were at least three. He could have (1) stayed in his car and called for backup, (2) allowed Brown to “escape” and later arrest him (with suitable reinforcement) at Brown’s home which was known to the police, or (3) in the worst of circumstances, shot the unarmed Brown in the legs to wound rather than kill.

The fact that such alternatives did not occur to Wilson underscores the poor training of police in our country. Clearly all of them are instructed on how to use their deadly force weapons. Evidently however, they are not sufficiently trained on how and when not to use them.

As for the hazards of policing, it doesn’t even rank among our country’s ten most dangerous jobs. Those belong to loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, steel workers, garbage collectors, electricians, truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers.

That list puts into perspective the “I feared for my life” defense inevitably invoked by police allegedly mistaking wallets, pens, candy bars, and sandwiches for lethal weapons.

As retired NYPD detective, Graham Witherspoon puts it: if policemen are that afraid to put their lives in danger, they’ve chosen the wrong profession.  It would be better, he said, to “go home to mommy,” and find some other line of work.

Ironically, Darren Wilson and his defenders are correct in their claim that he was “just doing his job.”

That’s exactly the problem: the job of the law enforcement in our emerging police state is now to intimidate, control, and kill with impunity rather than to “serve and protect.”

In uncritically endorsing the DOJ’s “occupying army” model of policing, Capehart leads us to support (in the blogger’s words) a force that “would otherwise offend our sense of right and wrong.”

“Joy of the Gospel” Sparks Lively Discussion (and Resistance)


Last night, a small group of us meeting Sunday evenings during Lent to discuss Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” found the discussion more lively than usual. That’s because as Lent draws to a close, our group had decided to actually entertain minor changes in parish life as a result of the pope’s injunction to do so.

Resistance from our pastor and pastoral associate was evident. Nonetheless, while neither (perhaps understandably) was willing to exert leadership in this case, both showed faint signs of willingness to be led.

The mild suggestion sparking discussion was the following:

  • To celebrate the upcoming beatification of Oscar Romero (Saturday, May 23rd) with a special evening Mass and fiesta (featuring a mariachi band, salsa dancing, and food catered by our local Mexican restaurant).
  • To precede the Mass with an hour-long “adult education” session featuring a 15 minute talk on Oscar Romero and liberation theology along with a half-hour documentary on the Salvadoran martyr, and a 15 minute discussion.
  • To have the Mass concelebrated with the main celebrant and homilist being Padre Eulices, the clerical leader of our local Hispanic community.

According to the pastor and his associate, the suggestion was highly problematic. After all:

  • Didn’t we know that May 23rd is the Vigil of Pentecost? “And I, for one,” the pastor said, “am not willing to substitute something like this for the celebration of Pentecost, one of the greatest feasts of the liturgical year.”
  • On top of that, “I have Mass in Mt. Vernon (a congregation of fewer than 30 people btw) at 5:00, and I could never get back to Berea by the 6:00 starting time you have here on your schedule.”
  • And what about McKee (a congregation of perhaps 15-20 people)? “They surely wouldn’t show up for something like this. They’re very stuck in their ways.”
  • “And then there’s the Saturday night crowd! They expect Mass at 7:00. Changes like this would upset them.” (It turned out that the suggested event had taken this into account and had Mass beginning @ the usual 7:00 time).
  • “And what about the Hispanic group? They always celebrate Mass at 11:00 on Sunday morning. I’m sure they would resist coming to Mass Saturday evening as this change suggests.”
  • “And do you mean to say that there’d be no Sunday Mass at 9:00 – the way we’ve done it all these years?”
  • “And why would we spend all that money on a mariachi band? Our Sunday choir along with that of the Hispanic community would be better and would cost no money.”
  • “And wouldn’t it be better to have someone from the chancery come to speak to us about Oscar Romero rather than someone from the parish?”
  • “So let’s: (1) move the program to Sunday at the usual time, (2) shorten up the presentation about Romero, (3) forget the mariachi band, (4) emphasize Pentecost, and (5) see if we can get some speaker from Lexington to speak about Romero.”

Naturally, the lay group had responses to those clerical objections:

  • The themes of Pentecost and Romero’s beatification can quite easily be integrated. They actually complement one another.
  • If the pastor could not get back from Mt. Vernon at 6:00, we could move the event’s starting time to 6:30. Or maybe we could (this one time!) just have a single Mass instead of 5 (!) inviting the Mt. Vernon folks to come to this fun party. If they choose not to come, well, it’s a free country.
  • Same goes for the McKee community.
  • As previously noted, nothing would be changed for the Saturday night crowd in terms of the starting time for their evening Mass.
  • The Hispanic community is the most flexible of all. Its members are anxious to integrate with the Anglo community. And Romero is one of them! Surely it wouldn’t be hard to persuade them to come to a party a mariachi band, salsa dancing, and Mexican food.
  • If we must have a Sunday morning Mass at 9:00, no problem. On this particular Sunday, the congregation will, no doubt, be smaller (with most having satisfied their “Sunday obligation” the previous night). But is that a problem? In fact, nothing would be hurt by cancelling that Mass as well. (But, of course, cancelling the 9:00 Sunday Mass is not part of the plan.)
  • As for the mariachi band . . . We’re talking about a fiesta and illustrating “the joy of the Gospel!” For something worthwhile like that, people are willing to pony up. We could easily raise $1000 to cover an event like this. At least we could float the idea to see.
  • In this college community with so many professors and theologians, do we really need someone from the chancery to speak about Romero and liberation theology?
  • And why Saturday night instead of Sunday? Because Saturday night is a party night! And (again) we’re talking about the joy of the Gospel.

As you can see, it’s not easy for some to make even minor changes in “what we’ve always done.” For others, change is easy. For instance, Padre Eulices was unfazed when asked to consider altering his schedule for the Romero celebration. “Well,” he said, “I normally have Mass in Richmond at 6:00. But I’ll try to get a substitute. I’ll get back to you. Thanks for asking.”

However, the changes implied in this whole event go much deeper than resistance to a one-off Mass-and-fiesta. It all raises serious questions about parish organizations and the way priests in the new pope’s church spend their time. Among the questions to be addressed in our own community, the following seem most obvious:

  • Given the fact that we now have only one pastor (and not the 3 or 4 priests we had when our 3 parishes were founded about 50 years ago), does it really make sense to have 5 Masses (!) each weekend?
  • If we must maintain the dubious practice of “servicing” three parishes, why doesn’t our church sponsor the training and ordination of one or more deacons to provide more meaningful communion services (and preaching) at the churches in question? Our community could easily identify and invite good candidates (male & female) with a gift for preaching and pastoral work.
  • In fact, for some (the 3 or 4 ex-priests among us) additional training would not be necessary. They could start preaching and presiding over a communion service next Sunday!
  • In view of such considerations, shouldn’t we sit down with our pastor and help him brainstorm about less stressful use of his time?
  • Hasn’t the moment arrived for constructing a serious strategic plan for the parish involving input from all its members and taking advantage of their much-needed gifts?

As you can see, it’s been a productive Lenten discussion.

(Sunday Homily) “Citizenfour”: Keeping God’s Law through Civil Disobedience


Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: JER 31: 31-34; PS 51: 3-4, 12-15; JN 12: 20-33

I saw “Citizenfour” today. You can see it too. For your own good, please do. The film is live-streamed free here:

“Citizenfour” won this year’s Academy Award for best documentary. Its director is Laura Poitras. The film is about whistleblower, Edward Snowden – the 31 year old CIA employee who two years ago leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA).

The information revealed “America’s” massive world-wide spy system that Snowden saw as absolutely eviscerating U.S. constitutional protections against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

In case you’ve forgotten, the 4th Amendment of the Constitution reads as follows:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

In contradiction to those words, Snowden’s revelations show that indeed “Big Brother” is watching us at all times. We are under constant surveillance. None of our e-mails or phone calls is secure.  Telephones normally found in hotel rooms are routinely used as listening devices. All of our e-mail searches are monitored and recorded.

This means that citizens expressing disapproval of government policies are easily identified. So are our constitutionally protected efforts to organize against such policies. All of us are subject to blackmail and prosecution based on stories manufactured from “metadata” and texts gathered by our watchers.

Knowing full well that he would be hunted down and prosecuted (and possibly executed) for his leaks, Edward Snowden shared his information with Laura Poitras and with Guardian reporter, Glen Greenwald. Snowden fled to Russia where he was given temporary political asylum. “Citizenfour” is the upshot.

Of course, Snowden’s opponents say his revelations have endangered national security and that he is guilty of treasonous acts of espionage. In response, the former CIA contractor says the whole matter of government secrecy and surveillance needs full debate. So do extra-judicial killings in the world-wide drone assassination program. Security, Snowden implies, is less important than freedom, privacy, and the lives of innocents arbitrarily killed on mere suspicion of possibly one day harming U.S. citizens. Then there are those disturbing words in the Fourth Amendment. . . .

All of that made me think about today’s liturgy of the word. It’s all about obeying conscience rather than the written law. It’s all about another 30 something law-breaker who rejected absolute security in favor of opposing the authorities of his time.  Think about the readings one-by-one.

The first (from the prophet Jeremiah) reminds us that God’s law is not primarily found on tablets of stone. It is inscribed on our hearts. Without invoking “God,” that’s the law Edward Snowden claims to follow – a law much higher than the 1917 Espionage Act invoked against him.

According to today’s responsorial psalm, a heart shaped by God’s law is good and merciful; it is compassionate, forgiving, and guilt-free. Laura Poitras’ film shows Snowden exhibiting all of those qualities. There is not a trace of self-seeking in any of his actions or statements – only concern for others victimized by the state.

It is that heart sensitive to God’s internal law that Jesus manifested. But, like Ed Snowden, it took him great pain to get to that place. Today’s second reading specifically mentions Jesus’ “loud cries and tears,” his anguished prayers and supplications.

Finally, today’s selection from the Gospel of John reiterates the call to follow Jesus, even as Snowden has without any specific reference to Jesus.  Our reading has the Master say that “serving” him means walking the way of the cross. In other words, we must learn his same lessons about rejection that always follows hard upon adoption of Jesus’ counter-cultural “Way.”

A seed has to die before it can bear fruit, Jesus explains. That’s our Teacher’s metaphor about exchanging what the world calls “life,” for what John’s gospel calls “eternal life.”

As in contemporary “America,” the world’s utopian ideal enshrines perfect security – saving our lives at all costs, even if it means wholesale killing of others, even if it means surrendering the God-given freedom that makes us specifically human.

By contrast, Jesus’ Way enshrines compassion, service and forgiveness, even if it costs us our lives.

Ironically, Jesus explains, if we expend our resources on saving our lives, we will lose them. But if we reject security as our guiding principle, we’ll gain access to “eternal life” – access to God’s Kingdom, where God is King, not Caesar.

Mysteriously, today’s final reading instructs us against loving our lives. It actually says we should hate our life in this world. Edward Snowden shows what that injunction means. His courageous example calls us to oppose Big Brother, and to support Snowden’s own return to the United States – as a hero.

Be sure to see “Citizenfour.” It exemplifies today’s readings. It’s about opposing the values of “the world,” and about losing one’s life in favor of life’s fullness. It provides an example of a young man following the Law of God inscribed deep in our hearts. That’s our vocation.

Lexington’s New Bishop Channels Pope Francis


“A Jesuit pope by the name of Francis sends you a Franciscan bishop trained by the Jesuits.”

Those were the words of Lexington, Kentucky’s new bishop, John Stowe, as he introduced himself at his first press conference last week.

The words came as a breath of fresh air to progressive Catholics in the Lexington Diocese. As a resident of that diocese, they came as a refreshing breeze to me.

In his opening statement, there was not a word about abortion, contraception, or gay marriage – the dreary, unvarying drum beat of doctrinal rigidity that has (in the pope’s words) turned the lives of Catholics into an endless “Lent without Easter.”

Instead, bishop-elect Stowe follows the lead of his boss who emphasizes the “Good News” of the Christian faith, and not right-wing doom and gloom. While not ignoring those other matters, Pope Francis (and, it seems, bishop-elect Stowe) would have Catholics engage the big issues such as the failure of corporate capitalism and its resulting wealth inequalities, wars, climate chaos, and particularly exclusion of those conservatives consider “outsiders.”

In his progressive stances, however, Lexington’s new appointee is not merely a disciple of Pope Francis. He also has a long personal history social activism, community organization, and inter-faith cooperation.

In his earlier posts in Ohio and Texas, the bishop-elect has been a consistent peace and social justice leader, and a critic of reactionary politics – especially as they affect immigrants.

Father Stowe recognizes, for instance, the parallels between the experience of today’s undocumented workers and that of his Italian grandmother who along with her compatriots were routinely called “WOPS,” or immigrants without papers.

More specifically, in 2006, when Fr. Stowe addressed the Mayor’s Congress on Immigration Reform in El Paso, Texas, he rejected the “Minuteman” and vigilante approach to border security. He criticized the U.S. Congress saying, “We shudder to imagine what the inscription on the Statue of Liberty might read if it had been erected by the current U.S. Congress.”

The bishop-elect is fluent in Spanish. His introductory conference featured a long paragraph in perfectly delivered in that language. I’m sure that gladdened the hearts of the growing Hispanic community in the Lexington diocese. Hispanics, Stowe says, (along with his Franciscan emphasis on service to the poor) have formed him as a priest and pastor.

In summarizing his priorities and agenda, Rev. Stowe said he will focus on worship and the service that inevitably flows, he said, out of meaningful liturgy. But like his papal mentor, he would do lots of listening before acting.

In all things, he would take Pope Francis as his inspiration and guide, and would follow his example. “I love Pope Francis,” he said, and will do whatever he asks.“

That augurs well for progressive Catholics, for the Lexington diocese, and for the Commonwealth in general.

(Sunday Homily) A Wife-Husband Lenten Discipline: A Course in Miracles


Readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent: 2 CHR 36: 14-16, 19-28; PS 137: 1-6; EPH 2: 4-10; JN 3: 14-21;

This year for Valentine’s Day, my bride of nearly 40 years, Peggy, gave me a wonderful gift. Or I should say, she gave us a wonderful gift. She enrolled us in a live-streaming seminar led by Marianne Williamson, the great spiritual teacher, peace activist, and author of many books, including Return to Love, which both Peggy and I had read with great profit several years ago.

What Williamson presented turns out to be intimately connected with today’s liturgy of the word.  It presents us with a rich catechism of some of the most-powerful images and metaphors belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition. They include a whole list of choices humans (and married couples) must make between:  (1) exile and liberation, (2) Babylon and Jerusalem, (3) death and life, (4) worldly values and Christ’s values, and (5) works without faith or works with faith. In their esoteric senses, keeping those choices in mind proves helpful in pursuing our Lenten disciplines, especially as they affect our most intimate relationships.

You see, Marianne Williamson is a student and teacher of religious metaphor like the ones I just referenced. As a Jewish counselor and teacher, she honors all those biblical memes. And yet, her main spiritual reference point isn’t the Tanakh, but A Course in Miracles (ACIM). That’s an esoteric spiritual classic based on a series of “revelations” received by Helen Schucman, a research psychologist and one-time aggressive atheist.  Over a period of seven years she took dictation from the Spirit of Jesus about how to experience all of life as a Miracle – as an unending series of joyful wonders.

That whole idea might be off-putting to some. As a matter of fact, that’s what I experienced when I first picked up ACIM, maybe thirty years ago. Some have described it as New Age psychobabble. I’m afraid I jumped to that conclusion.  I also found its entire premise somehow disconcerting – I mean: actual dictation from Jesus?  It just wasn’t my cup of tea. And I still have some reservations.

Yet, the book’s basic claim resonated with me. That claim is that at their summits, all the world’s great spiritual traditions converge in the basic mystical realization that ALL LIFE IS ONE. In our depths, our real Self is divine. There is very little difference between us humans. In a real sense, both you and I are one.

More than that, we share unity with the trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, animals, and insects.  Only the misplaced importance we give to our individual egoic selves prevents us from recognizing that mystical insight. That’s a truth I’ve encountered not only in the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, but also in my study of Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s also something that accords with my own experience over the last 18 years of committed meditation twice a day. The meditation teacher I follow, Eknath Easwaran, would find very little strange in A Course in Miracles.

In any case, Williamson’s teachings from ACIM, as well as her interactions with her audience of about 50 couples were astounding. She was incredibly fluent, funny, self-disclosing, and honest in her presentations. She was also unbelievably wise and helpful in dealing with the problems audience-participants presented during question and answer periods that often turned into full-blown counseling sessions. These had couples generously divulging problems of achieving intimacy, of heartbreaking infidelity, inability to communicate, and basic misunderstandings between women and men – yin and yang.

And then there was Williamson’s unflinching insistence on prayer and meditation. To begin with, she held that there can be no spiritual growth for anyone without putting God first and without the daily practice of meditation.  From a leftist peace activist, I found that refreshing and challenging.

According to Williamson, anyone interested in personal or couple transformation needs to meditate every day. Ideally, couples should do it together every morning. But even more impressive to me was Williamson’s ability to pray herself. She concluded most interactions with couples by inviting them to pray with her. And it all seemed perfectly natural and invariably quite beautiful.

In fact, Peggy and I were so impressed, and our conversations following Williamson’s sessions were so helpful that we resolved to work through A Course on Miracles as our Lenten discipline. And that’s what we’ve been doing since the Ash Wednesday which followed so closely this year’s Valentine’s Day.

In connection with this morning’s liturgy of the word, here’s what we discovered:

  • Most of us married people are living in exile – in Babylon like the Jews in the 6th century BCE described in today’s first reading.
  • Perhaps without even realizing it, we long for “Jerusalem,” – for return to our true home, the “container” of love, safety, trust and intimacy we embraced on our wedding day.
  • But like the exiles in today’s responsorial psalm, many of us have stopped singing the love songs that came so naturally then. We’ve hung up our harps and refuse to sing to our intimate partner.
  • Too often we’ve become like the walking dead – rejecting the precious fullness of life together that’s available for the asking.
  • As Paul puts it in today’s second reading, our lives together have become “works without faith.” Work in our lives has replaced faith – in God and in each other.
  • With our loss of faith, the superficial values of the world (rejected by Jesus in today’s gospel selection) have replaced his Kingdom values of unconditional acceptance, service and forgiveness.

Forgive me if all of that sounds bromidic and hackneyed.  This Lent Peggy and I are finding that Marianne Williamson’s advice about praying and studying together brings them to life.  We’ve come to realize she’s right.

For us, there’s just no other way.

Poll: Why Have You (and/or your children) Left the Church?


Our parish (St. Clare’s in Berea, Kentucky) continues to be inspired by Pope Francis’ “Joy of the Gospel” (JG).  Our pastor has embraced its letter and spirit.  So has the growing number of parishioners attending Sunday evening discussions of the document during Lent.

All of that is significant, because (as in the church as a whole) there is a lot of discontent among us. It’s like the pope says at the beginning of apostolic exhortation: there believers are described as often “resentful, angry and listless” (JG 2).

Those are the sentiments that surfaced during discussion of “The Joy of the Gospel” last Sunday evening.

The spark that caused them to rise came from an unexpected source, our pastor himself. At one point in the meeting, he said, “I have a question: Why is our church losing people?”

Our jaws dropped. A door had finally swung open to meaningful discussion.

Our pastor identified three causes for parish attrition: (1) parishioners have not felt invited to truly participate in parish life; (2) many have moved away from our town, and (3) we’re just not a welcoming enough community.

Parishioners around the table offered alternative analyses that probed a bit deeper. They said: (1) our community lacks effective leadership; (2) liturgies are boring, lifeless, and lacking the “joy” centralized in the pope’s exhortation; (3) homilies are disconnected from the world, our lives, and from the day’s burning issues. In general the church is out-of-touch.

In the midst of the conversation, someone said, “If we want to know why we’re losing people, we should ask our children. Most of us brought them up in the church the way we were supposed to. We took them to Mass every Sunday, sent them to catechism classes (and even taught some of them ourselves); we introduced them to the sacraments. And now virtually none of them go to church. We must be doing something wrong. We should ask them why they’ve left.”

So that’s what I’m doing here. I’m asking any young people who read this blog, why have you left the church. Just a sentence or two will do, though longer responses are welcome. I’m asking parents why they think their children no longer “practice” the faith.

In the meantime, here are a few of my own thoughts:

A Church in Crisis!

Our church has fallen into deep depression.

Even our pastor asks

“Where have all the children gone?

Why are the pews empty?”


His question admits that

We no longer appeal to young people.

We have lost touch with the world

And its problems

Of poverty, systemic dysfunction,

War, Michael Browns, misogyny, and abysmal income gaps.


A fearful church – the Ratzingers among us –

Defensively retreats to an imagined past

Where young people were “moral”

And still came to Mass

And confession!!

Where “reforms” meant rehabilitating words like

“Consubstantial,” “chalice,” and “under my roof.”

And where everyone cowered

In fear of the Lord

And of the Reverend “Father.”


Those days are gone

For good,

Francis says.

Thank God!


He’d have us address

The real problems of the world.

Globalism does not work.

It’s destroying the planet.

“War never again,” he repeats

And “Who am I to say?”


This father

Does not pretend

To know best.


He looks to the wise

Young carpenter from Nazareth

Who loved the “lazy” poor

(And was one of them!)

Who loved the whores and drunkards,

The lepers, fags and pimps.

Who cursed the rich

And blessed the ragged.

“The Kingdom is yours!”

He promised them all.


Our globe needs that Spirit today

More than ever!

But few find it

In our churches

Where we should.

That’s why the pews

Are empty!

Terrorism’s Causes? Ask Jihadi John!

jihadi john

Last month The Atlantic headlined Graeme Wood’s article, “What Isis Really Wants and How to Stop It.” That article apparently set the tone for President Obama’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Terrorism (Feb. 18th).

Together the article and the Obama’s meeting gave rise to endless talk show discussions about radicalism and its causes. All reformulated the old 9/11 question, “Why do they hate us?”

Most expert answers missed the obvious historical response. They overlooked the basic law of cause and effect.

Instead, they focused on terrorist psychology.

According to the experts, many ISIS radicals are directionless youths without gainful employment. Others are adventure-seekers, or mentally ill psychopaths. Some radicals are medievalists with an unexplainable bias against the modern world. Most are products of bad religion and corrupt imams.

Ostensibly, the majority are easily influenced by Facebook advertising which ISIS rebels have mastered to an art form that somehow escapes the medium’s inventors.

What to do about such problems? The talk show whizzes weren’t sure. Most highlighted better advertising. We’ve got to improve our Facebook skills, they intoned.

Missed or downplayed in all the ruminations is the obvious. Why not ask Jihadi John?

Here’s what he said on YouTube as he pointed his knife at President Obama before beheading yet another victim dressed tellingly in an orange jumpsuit: “As your missiles continue to strike our people, our knives will continue to behead your people.”

Hmm. . . . Wouldn’t you say that’s pretty straight-forward? In a word, the man is talking about blowback. It’s as simple as that.

What causes radicalism? Let me count the ways: everything signified by Guantanamo orange jumpsuits, extra-judicial assassinations, drones hovering over towns terrorizing children, wedding parties whose revelers are suddenly turned into “bug splats,” U.S. soldiers urinating on the lifeless corpses of one’s parents, the work of reassembling body parts for purposes of identification after a U.S. bombing attack, the smell of human flesh incinerated by our napalm and white phosphorous.

The list goes on and on: Abu Grahib, Fallujah, Haditha, the Torture Report, support of dictators throughout the Arabian Peninsula, continued arming of Israel even after Netanyahu incinerated and dismembered more than 495 Muslim children in his latest “turkey shoot” in Gaza, Christian fundamentalists ignorantly crusading against Islam, racist cartoonists lampooning “the Prophet” when they can hardly spell his name, western industrialism destroying the planet by climate change.

Why do they hate us? It’s not rocket science, friends. It’s blowback. It’s what none of our leaders will say because curing the radicalism means drastically reforming U.S. policy.

It means ceasing to be the radical terrorist state “America” itself has become.

For God’s sake, listen to Jihadi John!

Sunday Homily: God’s Commandments as the Road to World Peace

Ten Commandments 2

Readings for 3rd Sunday of Lent: EX 20: 1-17; PS 19: 8-11; ICOR 1:22-25;JN 2: 13-25

The emphasis in today’s liturgy of the world is on the wonders of God’s law. Today’s first reading reviews the expanded version of the familiar “Ten Commandments” which many of us were made to memorize as children. Then the responsorial psalm praises God’s Law as perfect, refreshing, wise, right, joyful, clear, enlightening, true, just, precious, and sweet.

On hearing that string of adjectives, many might raise their eyebrows in disbelief. “Joyful, “refreshing,” “precious,” “sweet?” “That’s not been my experience of the Ten Commandments,” we might say. “My experience of what’s called “God’s law” is entirely negative. When I hear references to the Ten Commandments I think of repressed fundamentalists wanting the Commandments posted on school walls and enshrined on lawns before every courthouse.”

And it’s true: negative reaction to talk of “Commandments” is completely understandable. From childhood, authority figures intent on controlling the most intimate details of our lives have threatened us with “The 10 Commandments,” “sin” and “punishment.”  From the time we were children, and especially as adolescents and young adults “God’s Law” seemed to militate against everything we really wanted to do – especially in the area of sexuality.

However, a bit of reflection shows how misplaced such reactions are. It reveals that “God’s Law” is not something posted on a classroom wall or on a plaque in front of a government building. It’s not written in stone either. Instead, it’s enshrined deep in the human heart. And human happiness – world peace – is impossible without observing that law which in its essence is no different from nature’s law.

That recognition in turn suggests how important it is for us to come to agreement about moral and ethical behavior if we truly want peace in the world. The U.N. has realized that and has sponsored research into the content of what it terms “a universal ethic.” According to the U.N., there are just four basic “commandments”: (1) Don’t kill; (2) Don’t rape; (3) Don’t lie, and (4) Don’t steal.

People as diverse as Roman Catholic theologian, Hans Kung and professional atheist Richard Dawkins agree but go further in what seem to me very helpful ways.

In fact, at the age of 85, Kung has dedicated the last part of his career to peacemaking by building bridges between religions whose differences are so often the cause or pretext for violent conflict. Kung works on the four principles that (1) International peace is impossible without peace between religions; (2) there can be no inter-religious peace without inter-religious dialog; (3) there can be no inter-religious dialog without agreement about a global ethic, and (4) our world cannot survive without such an ethic that is universally accepted.

So in terms of “God’s law,” what do all major religions agree about? The Golden rule is the point of convergence.

Christianity puts it this way:  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets “ (Mt. 7:12). In Confucianism the same statute is expressed in these terms, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself. Then there will be no resentment against you, either in the family or in the state” (Analects 12:2). Buddhism’s version runs, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Udana-Varga 5,1).  Hinduism agrees in these words, “This is the sum of duty; do naught unto others what you would not have them do unto you” (Mahabharata . 5, 1517). Islam’s expression is, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself (Sunnah). In Taoism the same law finds this formulation: “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss” (Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien). Zoroastrianism says, “That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself” (Dadisten-I-dinik, 94,5). Judaism says, “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellowman; this is the entire law; all the rest is commentary” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Even Richard Dawkins, perhaps the world’s most famous atheist endorses the Golden Rule. In formulating his own Ten Commandments, he leads off with his own version of that principle. Here are Dawkins’ Ten Commandments:”

  1. Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you
  2. In all things, strive to cause no harm
  3. Treat your fellow human beings, your fellow living things, and the world in general with love, honesty, faithfulness and respect.
  4. Do not overlook evil or shrink from administering justice, but always be ready to forgive wrongdoing freely admitted and honestly regretted.
  5. Live life with a sense of joy and wonder
  6. Always seek to be learning something new
  7. Test all things; always check your ideas against the facts, and be ready to discard even a cherished belief if it does not conform to them.
  8. Never seek to censor or cut yourself off from dissent; always respect the right of others to disagree with you.
  9. Form independent opinions on the basis of your own reason and experience; do not allow yourself to be led blindly by others.
  10. Question everything

Dawkins also has something to say about that fraught area of sexuality I mentioned earlier. He adds four additional statutes:

  1. Enjoy your own sexual life (as long as it does not harm to others), and let others enjoy their sexual lives in private according to their own inclinations which in any case are none of your business.
  2. Don’t discriminate against or oppress anyone because of their sex, race or (insofar as possible) species.
  3. Don’t indoctrinate your children. Teach them to think for themselves, how to weigh evidence, and how to disagree with you.
  4. Respect the future beyond the temporal limits of your own life.

Now those laws are “delightful,” many would agree. They make sense because they reflect human nature and nature’s laws. They also can be perfectly aligned with God’s Law presented in today’s initial reading.

Imagine the world we’d create if we joined our brothers and sisters in all those religions I referenced and promoted Dawkins commandments with the same vigor the fundamentalists promote their repressed interpretations of the Ten Commandments.

Kung is right: we might witness an out-breaking of world peace.

Cops Fearing for Their Lives: “Go Home to Mommy or Get another Job”


Recent YouTube videos have treated us to the sickening spectacle of police again shooting unarmed black and brown men – one with hands raised, the other lying on the ground. The one with raised hands was shot 17 times by police in Pasco, Washington. The one on the ground was shot 5 times by 3 Los Angeles police officers with several others standing nearby.

Couple that with what we know of Ferguson and our government’s donation of military equipment to local (even rural) police forces in the name of fighting terrorism, and there’s ample cause for concern about U.S. policing. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, reveal the swift and easy transition from “protect and serve” to “harass and dominate.”

Why are trigger-happy police officers so easily excused by simple invocation of their favorite mantra, “I feared for my life”?

Is it that the officers caught on tape are essentially cowards? Dangerous situations emerge when fear-filled men are given license to kill unarmed people with raised hands, or those lying on the ground, even when the latter are surrounded by five or six men in blue with guns drawn.  If the surrounding men were not uniformed, most of us would find their actions contemptible.

Of course, no one denies that policemen are on the whole good people and have very dangerous jobs. African-American and Hispanic communities themselves need and want good police in their neighborhoods, regardless of the officers’ skin color. And besides there are plenty of non-white officers on the Los Angeles and New York City police forces (though not on their Ferguson counterpart).

In any case, it is clear that there is something dreadfully wrong with police training. Obviously, their weapons instruction teaches them how to fire guns. It is evident however that officers need even more training about how to avoid firing those weapons. Backing off is not cowardly; neither is shooting to wound rather than kill.

As for the hazards of policing, it doesn’t even rank among our country’s ten most dangerous jobs. Those belong to loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, steel workers, garbage collectors, electricians, truck drivers, farmers, and construction workers.

That list puts into perspective the “I feared for my life” defense inevitably invoked by police allegedly mistaking wallets, pens, candy bars, and sandwiches for lethal weapons.

As retired NYPD detective, Graham Witherspoon puts it: if policemen are that afraid to put their lives in danger, they’ve chosen the wrong profession.  It would be better, he said, to “go home to mommy,” and find some other line of work.