Sunday, August 31, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

Opening Day

These days we're in Retreat with Bishop Michael Barber, now Bishop of Oakland and formerly Director of Spiritual Formation here at SJS.  In between conferences, however, I wanted to post some photos taken by the great George Martell at our opening Mass and cookout.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Saint John's Seminary, August 2014

Here we are, completely filled with wonderful men seeking only to give their lives to the Lord and to his Church!  May God be praised!

I am little...and God is Big - A Rector's Conference


  The following Rector's Conference was presented this evening on the theme: I am little...and God is Big.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was privileged to preach the summer retreat to the Bishops of New England.  I presented fourteen talks on twelve words from the Roman Canon.

As most of you know, I have spent a good deal of the past twenty years of my life working in one way or another with the translation of the Roman Missal, so twelve words from the Roman Canon seemed a good starting point for a reflection on those spiritual realities which we need to pay attention to in seeking to live a life of holiness, of fidelity to God and to his Church.

Per ipsum

Of all those words, though, the toughest, by a long shot was supplices, as in:

Súpplices te rogámus, omnípotens Deus

In the end, the Bishops rendered supplices with the words “in humble prayer.”

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God

Supplices is the word of a supplicant, one kneeling, begging, entreating in humble submission…beseeching God.  That’s why its used where it is in the Roman Canon.  There’s a wonderful poetic ballet played out as we bow low saying supplices and ask that Christ bear the gifts we have placed upon this earthly altar to his altar in heaven!  

The supplices of the Roman Canon thus signifies the joining of our sacrifice to his, a union of heaven and earth, and even a glimpse into what we shall know, God willing, in the eternity of heaven.

And it all starts with supplices.  But I’m afraid, we're not very good at it. 

We’re not very good at facing the fact that I am little and God is big: that God is greater and more beautiful, omniscient, omnipotent, all loving…Bigger than I could ever imagine.

The hardest thing for our culture and time (let’s face it, the hardest thing for us!)  is to recognize our littleness and God’s greatness, our utter dependence on his grace.

This was made evident by the omission of so many deprecatory words from the 1970 translation of the Roman Missal, deprecamur, mereamur and supplices, exoramus, suplicitor, just don’t make sense in a universe where we are the center of all things and the arbiter of all power and meaning.

Take, for example, the Prayer after Communion for the upcoming Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

Refectióne tua sancta enutríti,
Dómine Iesu Christe, súpplices deprecámur, 

Having been nourished by your holy banquet, 
we beseech you, Lord Jesus Christ,
to bring those you have redeemed by the wood of your life-giving Cross
to the glory of the resurrection.

We beseech you, O Lord!  A bit archaic, perhaps, but so, sadly, is the very concept of utter dependence upon God.

Supplices implies that I have looked on my own littleness and declared that there is only one God and he ain’t me.  As Mary said in her Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
because he has looked on his servant in her littleness.

Which is precisely why Mary can say fiat: Be it done to me according to your word, because she has professed her littleness and God’s greatness.  God knows best.

You may recall how it took Bruce a bit longer to come to that realization.  First he wanted to be God, then he was made God, and then, in the end, he changed his mind:


Supplices means I have to obey, and obedience is not exactly one of my favorite things. I'm not too thrilled by littleness and obedience, and it comes out in the strangest ways sometimes. Ask my best friend, who turned to me one day after a long period of my spouting all knowingly and said, you know James, you're the only one I know who can make me cry with frustration.

We are made for obedient love, and from the moment we went down into those waters of Baptism with Christ were joined to his death, it's all we've been about. A constant conversion to life from death, and to purity from sin, and to light from darkness.

Such a continuing conversion is rooted in a sense of self that emerges from a radical humility, an assuredness that I am not God....the Shema Israel, which heralds and caps every act of Jewish worship, says it all: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one." It's a takeoff on the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God and you shall have no false Gods before me.”

But we fight against it all the time.  Whenever we don’t get our way, we stomp our feet and threaten God, sometimes even contemplating ending it all.  That’ll show him!  In a painfully ironic scene from Patch Adams, Robin Williams (God rest his soul) contemplates jumping off a cliff because someone he has loved has died.  But then God, at least in the movies, gives him second thoughts:


Would that more movie clips were real life.

Such a conversion to humility, to the constant conviction that I am little and God is big, that I am child and he is Father, results in a radical obedience, not to my self- actualization, but to the plan God has for me and for my life.

Yet is there anything which I fight against more instinctively than the sense that I am not God. I once heard a certain Roman cardinal utter the ultimate sharp rebuke to a staffer who was heatedly trying to convince him of something: Suppose, Father, just for a moment, that you were not God.

That’s the lesson the priest counseling Rudy passed on, when Rudy just wasn’t getting into Notre Dame:


Yet we fight against those incontrovertible truths with our every waking breath.  Just like our first parents, whose sin, ultimately, was not the fruit stolen from the tree, but the disordered conviction that they could be God if they just ate the right kind of fruit.

You see it in every three year old, possessed by the absolute conviction that he is the center of the universe, the ultimate arbiter of meaning, justice, and truth, in other words that he, stamping his feet, screaming and crying is God.

It happens to us all.  We scream and threaten and hold our breath until we turn blue.  But then we reach the point where we stop stamping our feet and find ourselves knocked off of our high horse and on our knees.  It happens so much in life that its a constant theme in the movies, like when it happened to George in Its a wonderful life:


He started to pray!  That’s why those moments in life are such a blessing, because they knock you off your feet and onto your knees.

The follower of Christ is thus repeatedly called to an obedience that does not deem equality with God something to be grasped at...but rather empties itself, taking the form of a slave, and becoming a little child, opening its arms upon a cross in perfect obedience to the Father's will.

We are made for obedient love. It is our dignity. It is our destiny. It is our purpose for being.

Let me close with Saint Benedict's description of the three ways of loving God. You remember it.  At first, Saint Benedict tells us, we love God because we love ourselves. I don't want to go to hell, so I do what he wants.

At the second stage, I love God because he is lovable. I have no choice. I have so deeply fallen in love within him that I want only to do his will.

And then there's the third stage of loving God, the one which few reach but the only state in which true holiness and purity reside, wherein I love me only because God loves me. Only then does my every waking moment seek the will of God. My next breath has value only if it is part of God's plan. My fondest hopes and my deepest desires are but cinder and ash unless they are a part of his plan. In other words, it is not my will but his, not me, but Christ Jesus in me, it is I, like John the Baptist, who must decrease and he who must increase.

That’s the prayer of the man who knows how to say supplices.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday in the Seminary

Today the new seminarians celebrate Mass with several faculty and me and then head off for a Trolly Tour of Boston.  Everyone was able to find the Chapel, which is a good sign!  Here's the homily I preached this morning.

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 24th

“In the celebration of the Liturgy,” the introduction to the Lectionary for Mass tells us,  “the word of God is not announced in only one way
 nor does it always stir the hearts of the hearers with the same efficacy. Always, however, Christ is present in his word, as he carries out the mystery of salvation, sanctifies humanity and offers the Father perfect worship.

How evident that is this morning, as you gather for the first time to celebrate these sacred mysteries as a seminarian at Saint John’s Seminary.  Through his word God speaks to you, directly and succinctly, as he will every time you come to this place to worship him in spirit and in truth.

Today Isaiah speaks of clothing a new disciple with the prophet’s robe and girding with his sash.  This new prophet, he tells us, will receive the authority of a prophet and take Isaiah’s place.  He will be called a father by all the inhabitants of Jerusalem and what he opens, no one will ever be able to shut and what he shuts, no one will ever open.

Isaiah is speaking in shadows of the same Priesthood which you suspect that God might be calling you to and which you come to this place to seek.  Let him clothe you in this place with his peace, let him open your mind and your heart to everything that would lead others to him that you might learn to be called father by all the inhabitants of whatever Jerusalem he might choose to send you to.

Now a word of caution, not heard in the Gospel today, but I’m sure you caught it.  In the next verse in Matthew’s beautiful account of Peter’s profound profession of faith, Jesus speaks of the cross, of suffering and of his Passion.  And Peter, Prince of the Apostles and perfect professor of profound faith turns to the Lord and says, “God forbid that you should suffer and die!” AS you will recall, Jesus then looks the best of his Apostles squarely in the eye and says, “Get thee behind me Satan!”

God did not choose the best or the brightest to be his Apostles, and the same is true of the way chooses his priests.  He chooses the weak, as the Preface to the Martyrs says…he chooses the weak and makes them strong in Christ.  

It’s OK to be weak here…in fact its good to recognize the weak spots and let God make them strong.  Trust.  Suffering.  Patient Endurance.  Three of the best tools in the priest’s toolbox.

So here we are.  We who have received or aspire to receive the power of the keys are as in need of repentance and mercy and being saved as anyone whom God has ever chosen

And the discernment and formation to which you today begin to commit yourself is as difficult a task as it is noble.  But nothing, nothing can fill your heart with greater joy.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Home for the First Time!

Twenty five new men arrived this afternoon, hailing from Rochester, NY, Weymouth, MA, Paris, France, Hanoi, Vietnam and all points in between!  Please keep our brothers and their families in your prayers as they prepare for the greatest adventure of their lives!  

Please pray for 

Matthew of the Diocese of Springfield
Gregory of the Diocese of Fall River
Linh of the Archdiocese of Hanoi
Michael of the Diocese of Springfield
Anh of the Diocese of Dalat
Thomas  of the Diocese of Springfield
Francisco of the Archdiocese of Hartford
David of the Diocese of Rochester
Camilo of the Diocese of Rochester
Joseph of the Archdiocese of Boston
Gregory of the Archdiocese of Boston
Joseph of the Archdiocese of Boston
Daniel  of the Diocese of Burlington
David of the Archdiocese of Hartford
John of the Archdiocese of Hartford
Denis of the Archdiocese of Boston
Hiep of the Diocese of Providence
Duc  of the Diocese of Dalat
Philip of the Diocese of Springfield
Nicholas of the Diocese of Providence
Andrew of the Diocese of Manchester
Sinh of the Diocese of Springfield
Philippe of the Archdiocese of Paris
Nathaniel of the Archdiocese of Boston

Here are some words of greeting I offered in the Chapel a few minutes ago:

Welcome!  God called.  You answered.  

How many different feelings must be running through your hearts right now.  Those of you who are about to become philosophers and theologians, discerning God’s call to a share in the Priesthood of Jesus, his Son must be scared half to death.  Wondering what he has in store for you, will you be up to the task? Will you be happy?

Be at peace, my brother.  For the same God who gave you birth, the same God who taught you to laugh, who is the way, the truth and the life...that God is all this place is about.  He is in the air we breathe and work we do.  He is the reason we rise and we rest.  He loves you more than you will ever know, and he has great things in store for you here!  Things more amazing than you have even dreamed. Like the little kid who has climbed the ladder to the great big slide, just take a deep breath and let go!  He’ll do the rest.

And be at peace, dear parents and friends.  My 86 year old mother has some advice for you.  Trust in God and he will do great things for your son.  He knows how much you love him and God will take good care of him here.  For God has called him and he has answered.  And that is very good.

I welcome you on behalf of an incredible faculty of wonderful priests, who once sat where you sit and once felt exactly as you feel today.  I welcome you on behalf of Cardinal O’Malley and our Board of Trustees.  I welcome you on behalf of our superb staff and our spiritual directors and pastoral supervisors.  I welcome you home.

So relax and enjoy.  You only have one first day of Major Seminary.  Mine was 38 years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  That day was, for me, the beginning of a life so filled with joy and beauty and truth that I cannot describe it without tears in my eyes.  And that is just what God has in store for you.

I’m the Rector, which means I’m your pastor.  I live on the second floor in an apartment a little smaller than the city of Providence and my office is at the end of that hallway.  My cell phone is in the student directory and you are my first priority in life.  I want nothing more than for God to do with you what he has in mind, and that, my brothers, is perfect joy.


Tanglewood the Night Before...

Before the new seminarians arrive tomorrow, a number of Faculty members headed out to Tanglewood to commemorate the end of summer.  Shown here are Father O'Connor, Father Conn, Monsignor McRae, Monsignor McLaughlin and Father Briody in the Koussevitzky Music Shed.  The evening included the Pops playing the complete musical accompaniment to a showing of "The Wizard of Oz!"

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Closing - Pius X and the Reform of the Clergy

On the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination, Pope Pius X sat down and wrote a letter to all the priests of the world.  The original is in his own hand and it was published as the Apostolic Exhortation Haerent Animo on August 4, 1908.  For the rest of his pontificate, this saintly Pope was wont to give copies of it to Bishops, urging them to make it the pastoral plan for their dioceses.

He begins, in his own words by opening his heart to all priests: “it is a father's loving heart which beats anxiously as he looks upon an ailing child.”

The child is ailing, he suggests, because he no longer seeks after holiness.  He doesn’t pray much.  He doesn’t sit down, shut up and meditate much.  And he rarely goes to confession.

Sound familiar?  To be honest, if the priest you are thinking about is about my age or a little older, he is very probably subject to this disease, a disease more deadly than Ebola, for it eats something more than flesh…it eats the marrow of the very soul of the Priest.

But wait a minute Jim, my brother priest might well say at this point.  Stop all this pious mumbo-jumbo:

My prayer is my work.  I’m out there running three parishes, keeping the food pantry stocked, visiting people in three hospitals and going to a ton of meetings.  And who do you think would do that if I sat fingering my beads all day?  I’m a parish priest, and a parish priest gets it in gear and goes out there and gets it done, unlike Seminary rectors or USCCB bureaucrats!

And another thing, this obsession with sin  is just not good for a resurrected people.  If you liturgists would just bring back General Absolution, so many more people would come.  Plus, we wouldn’t have to sit in that that little box all day listening to the neuroses of… And as far as me going to confession…I don’t have the time.  And I’m too busy to commit mortal sin!

My dear brother, I might respond.  Some things never change.  A hundred years ago, when a parish priest was elected Pope, Joseph Sarto established three big priorities: fostering the teaching of the Catechism, promoting First Communion for children and getting the clergy to pray and go to confession. 

Why? Because a lot of priests had stopped praying and going to confession.

“There are some who think,” the saintly Pope wrote in his own hand, “and even declare openly, that the true measure of the merits of a priest is his dedication to the service of others; consequently, with an almost complete disregard for the cultivation of the virtues which lead to the personal sanctification of the priest, they assert that all his energies and fervor should be directed to the development and practice of what they call the active virtues. One can only be astonished by this gravely erroneous and pernicious teaching…

There is, indeed, only one thing that unites man to God, one thing that makes him pleasing to God and a not unworthy dispenser of his mercy; and that one thing is holiness of life and conduct. If this holiness, which is the true supereminent knowledge of Jesus Christ, is wanting in the priest, then everything is wanting. Without this, even the resources of profound learning, or exceptional competence in practical affairs, though they may bring some benefit to the Church or to individuals, are not infrequently the cause of deplorable damage to them.

Pope Pius X then goes on to discuss the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney, as the outstanding exemplar of Priestly life.  Was Vianney the brightest in his class?  Hardly.  He flunked the Latin exam four times!  Was he the finest writer of sermons.  No.  Most of his sermons were read from a collection of sermons he received in seminary.  Was he the best administrator or organizer of new initiatives?  Very little there.

But he was holy.  He was known to be a man of prayer, unswerving charity and sacrifice.  He knew he was little and God was big, that we are sinners in need of God’s mercy.  And that is what is really important in the life of the parish priest.

Pope John Paul II, in an ad limina visit with the Bishops of the Northwestern part of the United States perfectly expressed this messed up sense of priorities among parish priests when he said:

...Prayer for the needs of the Church and the individual faithful is so important that serious thought should be given to reorganizing priestly and parish life to ensure that priests have time to devote to this essential task, individually and in common. Liturgical and personal prayer, not the tasks of management, must define the rhythms of a priests life, even in the busiest of parishes.

Now when we believe that, we will have begun to experience the reform of the priesthood and the rebirth of the Church in our day which we all so desperately need.


And then there’s confession.  “Some,” Pope Pius write, “Some of those who find recollection of the heart a burden, or entirely neglect it, do not seek to disguise the impoverishment of soul which results from their attitude, but they try to excuse themselves on the pretext that they are completely occupied by the activity of their ministry, to the manifold benefit of others.”  Which is why he warns that we should observe the counsel of Saint Bernard, who wrote:

“As a searching investigator of the integrity of your own conduct, submit your life to a daily examination. Consider carefully what progress you have made or what ground you have lost . . . Strive to know yourself. . . Place all your faults before your eyes. Come face to face with yourself, as though you were another person, and then weep for your faults.”

The Pope goes on:

It cannot be denied, and it is bitterly to be deplored, that not infrequently one finds priests who use the thunders of their eloquence to frighten others from sin, but seem to have no such fear for themselves and become hardened in their faults; a priest who exhorts and arouses others to wash away without delay the stains from their souls by due religious acts, is himself so sluggish in doing this that he delays even for months; he who knows how to pour the health-giving oil and wine into the wounds of others is himself content to lie wounded by the wayside, and lacks the prudence to call for the saving hand of a brother which is almost within his grasp. In the past and even today, in different places, what great evils have resulted from this, bringing dishonor to God and the Church, injuring the Christian flock and disgracing the priesthood!

Corruptio optimi pessima. "Sublime is the dignity of the priest, but great is his fall, if he is guilty of sin; let us rejoice for the high honor, but let us fear for them lest they fall; great is the joy that they have scaled the heights, but it is insignificant compared with the sorrow of their fall from on high."

Woe then to the priest who so far forgets himself that he abandons the practice of prayer, rejects the nourishment of spiritual reading and never turns his attention inwards upon himself to hear the accusing voice of conscience.

There’s not a lot which people expect from their priests.  But prayer and penance are at the top of the list.  And if I abandon those, I become a hypocrite, the opposite of the good pastor of the Canterbury tales:

To lead folk into Heaven by means of gentleness
By good example was his business.

I think there never was a better priest.
He had no thirst for pomp or ceremony,
Nor spiced his conscience and morality,
But Christ's own law, and His apostles' twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.


I began this retreat with a reflection on orientation, because facing Christ is the only true way to heaven.  This last talk, like the closing doxology of the Roman Canon itself, intensifies that reflection.  

For when we face Christ and abandon ourselves to him, we are caught up in the divine life, drawn into the mysteries of the Most Blessed Trinity and, as a consequence, utterly transformed.

Per ipsum, for he is the only way to the Heaven

Cum ipso, for we have been ordained to offer sacrifice and sacrament in union with him

In ipso, for a lifetime of priestly ministry so conforms us to the Lord, that we are able to reflect him to others, we in him, he in us, until the lines are not only indistinguishable but not even very important any more.

Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri Omnipotente, omnis honor et gloria, per saecula saeculorum.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Day Four and a Precious Chalice

Today's talks at the retreat of the New England Bishops include meditations on accipesupplicesfamulis and praeclarum.  Here's my short mediation on "this precious chalice..."

accípiens et hunc præclárum cálicem in sanctas ac venerábiles manus suas

he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands,

One of the most frequently raised objections to the newest translation of the Roman Missal has been the more precise translation of the phrase praeclarum calicem in the Roman Canon.  It conjures, they suggest, images of a bejeweled golden vessel of the high Baroque, when the vessel which the Lord first took into his hands in the upper room was probably a clay cup.  

One internet commentator goes back to the synoptic and Lukan accounts and rightly observes that there is no suggestion [in the scriptural text] that there was anything praeclarus about” the poterion which Jerome would later translate as calix. 

So why, then, did Pope Gelasius I add the adjective praeclarus to the scriptural calix and why, in our own day, was it retained in the Novus Ordo of Pope Paul VI?

The answer lies in our failure to understand what makes this vessel praeclarus.  It is not the gold or the gems or its artistic form.  It is praeclarus because its destiny is to bear the Blood of the Lord to a people he has come to save.

Let me explain.  The word praeclara also occurs in the fifteenth verse of the Stabat Mater:

Virgo, virginum praeclara
Mihi iam non sis amara
Fac me tecum plangere.

Here the Virgin of virgins is described as precious or resplendent, and presumably not because of that really cool dress she’s wearing.  No.  what makes her praeclara is that she, like the chalice, is a vessel of singular devotion: made to bear the Body of the Lord as Theotokos.

Or, again, we have the twelfth century sequence which we still use for the Octave of the Nativity of the Virgin:

Ave, præclara maris stella, in lucem gentium…
The precious or shining star of the sea and light to the Gentiles!

Or this seventeenth century Hymn for Morning Prayer on the Immaculate Conception which we still sing in the Liturgy of the Hours:

Præclara custos virginum,
Intacta Mater Numinis,
Cœlestis aulæ ianua,
Spes nostra, cœli gaudium.

Precious custodian of virgin souls….

What makes her precious is not her physical beauty or her garments or even her virginity.  What makes her praeclara is that the fruit of her womb is blessed and thusly she is the most blessed among women.

Likewise, the Chalice is Precious not because of gems or metals or even the craftsmanship of accomplished hands.  The Calicis is Praeclara because it, like the Blessed Virgin, bears the Body and Blood to the Lord which is the salvation of his holy people.

It is not unlike the Sacred Liturgy itself, which is praeclara, because it too bears the Body and Blood to the Lord which is the salvation of his holy people.  

There were severe problems existing in the Church in France during the lifetime of John Eudes. The Church had been torn by schism and heresy and many abuses had crept in. The physical condition of the church buildings and the lack of respect - even evidence of contempt by the people, grieved St. John very much.  He wrote:

"No longer is there a sanctuary or special place reserved for the sacred ministers in the Holy of Holies. All places are thrown open, not only to lay-men, to worldly women, to evil-living vagrants who enter the holy places only to profane them, but even to dogs that are allowed to roam around and do what they please; the Church is a den of thieves, a lair of wild beasts, a place of profanation. . .. You see lay-folk, men and women, entering the choirs and sanctuary, taking the priests' places, and sometimes seating themselves above them, standing beside the altar and even leaning upon it. . . .”

"That is not all: do you wish to see in what little consideration the majority of Christians hold the house of their God? Go to the houses of the rich and noble: you will see nothing there that is not clean and decent; you will see them adorned with rich tapestries, choice furniture, exquisite linen, vessels of silver often inlaid with gold and enamel. Go to the Churches; you will see many of them in dirty and filthy surroundings; tapestried inside with cobwebs, paved with dust and mud; the roof and windows open to wind, rain, hail, and snow; altars devoid of ornaments and covered with dust, priests offering the dread sacrifice in torn albs and chasubles, corporals and purificators sometimes so dirty that they make one's heart sick; chalices made of tin and begrimed at that; the Most Holy Sacrament in a ciborium of the same material and within a wretched tabernacle covered and filled with dust and dirt, without a lamp, without a light, and without any mark of religion.”

I think Saint John Eudes would have made a good patron Saint of the Church Goods Association.  In any case, he has a point.  Maybe the chalice should be made to look praeclarum because it is praeclarum.  Maybe the Church and the Sacred Liturgy should be adorned with the best we have to give so that it is clear that from there we receive the very best which God has to give.

So let us who take up the precious chalice, become what we offer up, as Saint Paul wrote to the young Bishop Timothy:

“In a large household there are vessels not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for lofty and others for humble use. If anyone cleanses himself…he will become a vessel for lofty use, dedicated, beneficial to the master of the house, [and] ready for every good work.”

May you be a praeclarum calicis!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Day Three and a Reflection on Hell

Day Three of the Retreat for the Bishops of New England, whom I am humbled to preach to.  Thus far, we have reflected on five words from the Roman Canon.  This afternoon the Conference is on culto (as in cultoribus…the Bishop’s role as the cultivator of the faith) and tonight at Night Prayer we reflect on hell (ab ætérna damnatióne nos éripi).  Here’s an excerpt from tonight’s conference:

There is a hell.  And there is damnation which we beg God to be delivered from.  Just three short points on Hell: The Ticket, the Destination, and the Alternative.

First, notice that Christ does not buy the ticket for people to go to hell.  People choose to go to hell and pay the fare with the way they live their lives.  Angels with flaming swords do not drive sinners from the gates of heaven, rather it is the selfishness and sin of peoples’ lives that exile them from paradise.  People place themselves on the outside of that locked door by the choices they make.  They know about Jesus teaching in their streets, but they choose not to listen to his words.  

Second, the destination: hell is the other side of a locked door--eternal separation from God, eternal alienation from love, the eternal torment of being alone forever.  Images of brim-stony fire and devils with horns, red suits and pointy tails, along with graphic depictions of grim torments and tortures have long occupied the imagination of artists and preachers.  But the real torture, the real hell of hell, is that we can’t see God from there.  And where there is no God there is no love.  And where there is no love there is but selfishness, sin, death, and the never-ending dark frigidity of our alienation.

And how can we deny it?  We sons and daughters of Adam and Eve...we children of a century in which more than a hundred million people were slaughtered in cruel wars and genocides, in which we first invented a weapon which could destroy the entire human race, and in which we legalized the abortion of babies and the euthanizing of old people.  How can we deny there is a hell, chosen freely and justly deserved?

And finally, the alternative.  Each of us have the ability at every moment of our lives to turn away from selfishness and sin, to reject Satan and all his works and all his empty promises, to pick up our cross and follow Christ through the narrow gate.  The mercy of God is ever patient and like the father of the prodigal Son, Christ the merciful judge waits for us in that confessional to turn away from sin and give our lives back to him.  

Such a little meditation on hell is not a bad tonic for the soul, and one which we modern men and women should perhaps partake of more often than we do.  

Saint Alphonsus Liguori used to recommend a daily meditation on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It is a meditation which is so easy for me each time I look down from the sanctuary at a coffin lying before the Paschal Candle as mourners weep and the smell of incense fills the Church.  For as I beg God’s mercy on the soul of the deceased, I cannot help but think of my own soul, and those last and most important things.

Do I really love or am I selfish?  Do I believe the truth or do I spend my life foolishly on myself?  Do I forgive those who hurt me or do I seek vengeance?  Do I grab for all the stuff I can get or do I spend myself and my goods on those who need them more than me?  Do I seek to keep pure the precious gifts God has given me, or do I cast his pearls before swine?  Do I strive to be holy, or do I seek after my interests, my pleasures, and me?

Do I want to go to heaven or do I choose to go to hell?  Ab ætérna damnatióne nos éripi!

Monday, August 18, 2014


Day Two of the retreat of the Bishops of New England.  Today we spoke about three more words from the Roman Canon: Vere (reflecting on preaching the truth to a skeptical world), Sanctus (on how to help people to be holier by making priests more holy) and Clementissime.

The last word comes from the opening line of the Roman Canon: To you, most merciful Father... What is this great mercy which comes from God and which we are called to show to one another? Here's an excerpt from this afternoon's conference:

It is a merciful love, patient enough to delay its wrath for the sake of a handful of just men.  A love which is kind and true, which makes the beloved stronger for the loving and which raises the dead from the grave, and showers mercy on the one who forgives others.

It is a mercy which is total, complete, abundant and beyond all measure.  It gives every time I ask, opens the door every time I knock, and provides for everything I need.

And its infectious.  

It rouses us from our beds in the middle of the night when we know someone needs a loaf of bread.  

It causes women and men to leave the world behind and seek only God’s will in a life of poverty, prayer, and the kind of joyful obedience that smiles when God calls you to pack it all up and move from Baltimore to Springfield, or Newark to Fall River!

It causes young seminarians to renounce fame and fortune and freedom to answer God’s call to serve his Church in the person of her Savior.  To pursue a life whose goal is to decrease that Christ might increase, and to so die to self that he might become like the Good Pastor, who lays down his very life for his sheep.

It causes Husbands and Wives to work second shifts to feed their kids, addicted hearts to abstain for one more day, Catholic Workers to cook a meal for fifty strangers on a hot summer night, Knights of Columbus to work their fingers to the bone to fix up the Church,  Food Pantry volunteers to unload heavy cases from the van, Outreach workers to listen patiently to the old lady who’s confused, CCD teachers to sit up late writing lesson plans, choristers to practice over and over, and penitents to cry in that box as they entrust their sins to God.

It makes us who we strive to be, and most miraculously of all, it even teaches us to remember the name of the lady who washes our floors just outside the door.