Evil was visited upon me and almost everyone I loved fifteen years ago today, Saturday noon on Dec. 7, 2002. A much-beloved friend, mentor, pastor, housemate and brother was murdered with a handgun wielded by an angry young student friar whose life was unraveling. The arson of the rectory could conceal the crime for barely more than a day before (former) Friar Dan confessed to shooting Friar Willy in the chest and setting the fire.
My own life is measured by that moment like B.C. and A.D. splits the calendar. “In an instant, in the blink of an eye.” (1 Cor. 15:52) Everything, truly everything looks different before that and after that.
Each year at this time of year, the events of 2002 unfold in current time. It starts at the Feast of Christ the King when Dan, a student friar in formation, first learned of his upcoming transfer from our amazing and challenging ministry in urban Cleveland at St. Stanislaus Church. The faithful at St. Stanislaus were deeply committed to their Church and in love with the Franciscans who had served there more than a century. Although the need for the transfer had begun months before, when it was clear that Dan’s awkwardness and temper had been disturbing to school families and others he had encountered, the end of November and early December were really hard on everyone — uniquely hard on Dan, to be sure, and soon for all of us.
It is still hard on lots of us. Perhaps in prison, Dan thinks about these days and weeks in the same way. Perhaps not. But what happened, happened.
Just before lunch on the last day of a friar meeting in Wisconsin, the news burst forth frantically with a breathless phone call from Cleveland. That urgent and tear-filled phone call brought me right back to Ohio: “The rectory is on fire. We can’t find Friar Willy. Please get back home as soon as you can!” There was a fire at the rectory — the massive 1913 friary adjacent an even more massive historic Gothic church in the heart of a working-class community. Announcements about the fire interrupted CYO basketball in the neighborhood, news crews were on the spot, and Bishop Pilla canceled his appointments to be with the community. Friar Willy wasn’t answering his cell phone, and there were rumors of a body being found.
While in the airport in Milwaukee ready to board the next flight to Cleveland, a phone call from the bishop confirmed it: “The fire is out, I am in the rectory, and this place you had called home is destroyed. Be ready for that. And there is more – there is a body, and it is Friar Willy. I am standing right here. I am so sorry.”
Each detail of each moment of those days is etched in my memory in a way no other event before or since. Fifteen years is like yesterday. “There are also many other things…” (Jn 21:25)
One clarifying moment turned the whole thing around. The next morning, Sunday, I opened the church in the very early hours after not sleeping at all. The walk through the dark, cold, wet, and scorched rectory on a frigid December morning was a walk through a dead place. The dim lights in the tranquil space revealed an early visitor who came to pray and who asked a simple loving question. “How are you? We are so worried about you.”
That night I hadn’t slept at all, tossing around my bed in my room on the guest floor of the convent as I remained stuck in the awareness: I have nothing. Everything I own has been burned in the fire, I even had to ask parishioners to buy me new clean underclothes to wear for the weekend Masses. Willy is gone. My ministry as it had been, is gone. Everyone I love is hurt and changed. So I told her this, and said, “I have nothing.”
And from the compassionate and tender heart of this angel came these transformative three words: “You have us.”
Yes. I had the People of God with me. I had my family, the Friars, my friends, the Church. And I had Jesus. So I had everything.
That’s when I became a Franciscan.
Oh, I had made my vows years before and been faithful to my promises. But at that moment I was suddenly aware of what St. Francis meant when he called his brothers to live sine proprio, without anything of one’s own. From that time on I became deeply aware of the cloud of grace and prayer surrounding all of us from all over the world. It didn’t change the situation at all, but it assured me that I was not alone. Christ was with us in our suffering – he cried with us, he held us, he walked with us, and over time he revealed the strength of his cross and resurrection: strength that is revealed in brokenness, strength given to those who suffer, the strength of hope to those tempted to despair. And that presence spoke with the Great Lakes accent of the people of a hard-working city that still won’t give up.
Later I learned that Dan was mostly angry with me, and likely the bullet that took Willy’s life had been meant for me had I been home to take it. So I live without fear, having dodged a probable bullet, though I sometimes wonder what that final moment was like for my good friend Friar Willy. As he breathed his last, knowing he was close to the end, was he mad? Confused? Sad? When my own time comes to cross that threshold, this is the first thing I want to ask God. Until then I have to believe that Willy forgave Dan and that somehow in the divine communication he sees everything clearly. Dan’s heart, my heart, our hearts.
That second Sunday in Advent fifteen years ago we were given an unexpected Lent. The cross was imposed upon the wreath. We were challenged to light the brightest light from within our darkest darkness. Fifteen years and two assignments later I am a pastor again, closer to family and old friends. St. Stanislaus in Cleveland has lost the Franciscans (another, different pain) but is still a beacon of hope in a community that hasn’t lost its fight. They know tough.
And I know hope. It is the conviction that somehow the future is already held by God, even though we cannot see its contours or beyond its horizon. Because on the weekend of evil, I was also visited by immeasurable grace. Because I have experienced Easter after Good Friday. Because I have seen the “Light of the world.” (Mt. 5:14) I pray for Dan, whom I have forgiven though I doubt I can advocate his parole. I pray for an end to violence. I struggle to understand the allure of handguns, knowing first hand what easy access can do to a man and to a community. And I pray that the Prince of Peace will reign over the hearts of all – starting with mine.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mt 13:32-33)
The summer of 1967 was hard on a kid in Chicago. At nine years old, I was aware of world events in a way that was unusual for a kid that age. The civil disruptions associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements were not lost on me; our neighborhood was red-lined and I had cousins who were Chicago cops. Air was literally unbreathable, and swimming in Lake Michigan was, well, treacherous. The 1967 war in Israel (in the midst of the Cold war) was couched in apocalyptic terms that even a kid could intuit. And there was immense personal, family tragedy. So when the tornado sirens sounded for real within the city boundaries that summer and Mom hunkered us kids down in the southwest corner of the basement (where we were told it was safest) under the table that held my Lionel train, provisioned with a transistor radio, a loaf of Wonder Bread, candles, and rosaries – well, it seemed like the end could indeed be near. I mean, as in “The End.”
It didn’t help that Mom was muttering, “Well, that Old Man upstairs must be really mad about something!” I knew He (capital H, back in the day…) couldn’t be mad at me, or at my family. I mean, we were pretty good people. God must be mad at, like, everybody… as in, the whole world. Otherwise, why would everything seem to be collapsing around us? Why else would we feel so powerless over these genuinely scary things? Praying the rosary in the basement on Wabash Avenue was something, at least something, we could do. And even if those prayers couldn’t change God’s mind, maybe He’d look kindly upon our little-huddled family amid the mess and, well, watch out for us.
Fifty years later, and we still live in scary times. But the world did not end then, and it will probably not end now. In the interim plenty of scary (9-11) and also amazing (Chicago Cubs) things have happened. Certain Christian groups like to read the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, as a literal foretelling of what will happen in the secular day-to-day world -– and (spoiler alert), according to them things don’t look so good. They see in the headlines certain proofs of an impending end, “The End.” And they have plenty of material to work with: war, terror, famine, drought, storms, earthquakes, floods, fires, riots. Now, that is scary stuff indeed! But not scarier than the summer of 1967. Or September of 2011. Or June 1944, August 1945. Or…
In the month of November, the church turns its gaze toward what is sometimes called “The Final Things.” Death, heaven, hell, purgatory (yes, we still believe in that), and The End. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls lead the month off with a reminder that on the other side of the veil awaits the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts. We have all loved people who have crossed that river. Many of them are assured of eternal blessedness; many more we are unsure about.
Saint Francis said, “You are who you are before God, and no one else.” So we pray for them now as much as we did while they lived. Maybe we pray even more, that whatever might still be holding them back from surrendering to the mystery of God’s mercy might melt in the gaze of God’s infinite unfathomable love.
As Christians, we face the end – our personal end, and The End – not as a threat but as a fulfillment. When I die, my life project is complete. When creation ends, God’s project is complete. Completion, not destruction. Eternity, not end. The term paper is handed in, the job foreman signs off, done. And then, celebration! The dorm party, the beer at the corner bar. And for those who are in for the long haul, a banquet that never ends, a permanent party!
When Jesus talks about these things in the Gospels, we notice this: he seldom talks about what it is like on the other side; when he does, he describes it like a feast; and he redirects our attention to the here-and-now. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus says that he himself doesn’t even know when it will all happen. (So, how can the TV preachers know? Subject for another reflection…) So what should we do in the meantime? The Gospel instructions are simple: Be watchful and alert. Don’t be caught off guard, inattentive, asleep. In other words, LIVE!
The ancient traditions associated with Halloween have less to do with celebrating ghouls than with defying them and mocking them. Many cultures take a holiday on November 2, heading to family cemeteries to spend time with those who are beyond time. Lit candles on the graves of loved ones, or even of strangers, is a defiance of light against darkness. Flowers at graves are signs of brightness against darkness, life against death. A glass of tequila on Abuelo’s grave, or maybe vodka for Dziadek or schnapps for Opa, is an ironic toss of spirit toward spirit that says to the Netherworld, “You do not have the last word here!”
So as we all lurch through another tumultuous moment in our personal and collective histories, uncertain of our future and unclear about the present moment, let’s open ourselves to those moments, however fleeting, that breathe life and light into the darkness that tempts us with despair and capitulation to that which is unworthy of our surrender. Because fifty years after that tornado tore through Chicago and the Holy Land erupted along with our own city streets, I am still here. Writing to you, praying to God, and remembering my Mom who now knows that the Old Man upstairs is not really very angry after all.
The Summer Solstice is past, school is out and graduation parties are subsiding. Summer is officially here! Time for vacations, cookouts, travel, and some kind of break in the normal routine. Even if our personal lives have long been disconnected from the pattern of the school year, there is something about summer that evokes the feeling of being free. Perhaps at some level, we remember what is was like to be kids eagerly counting down the days until school lets out, our calendar having one box excitedly proclaiming, “Last Day of School” followed by multiple exclamation points. Alice Cooper’s classic, “School’s Out” is a timeless anthem to those days.
As we get older it gets harder to plan a summer that keeps that feeling of freedom and leisure alive. In our climate controlled workplaces and cars, we are insulated from the heat that reminds us we are in a different kind time. Our indoor lives disconnect us from the sky staying bright so late into the evening. Many families have been unable to enjoy regular meals altogether, so the extra work of firing up the grill and setting up the outdoor table seems too, well, extra, to do on a regular day, just for the heck of it.
In the US we have turned into one of the most driven and productive work forces in the world. At the same time, we have the least generous vacation allowances in the developed world. Even at that rate, Americans tend to take only about half of the vacation time due to them, essentially giving their employers thousands of dollars of free labor. According to a recent survey, the biggest reason is fear — fear of getting behind in their work, fear that nobody else can do their work while away, fear of being disconnected, fear of not meeting their performance goals, even fear of being fired as more and more workers are “at-will” employees.
What a shame that so many of us are unable simply to kick back and relax! And we clergy and religious are not immune to this, in spite of all our encouragement to others that they make space for leisure, holy or otherwise. We, too, can become susceptible to the vain notion that everything depends on us — which, if it were true, would be a sign that we are not doing our ministry well! It is easy to forget that God also rested. Leisure is part of the created order!
Years ago I had a chance to take a ten-day vacation on the beach across the street from the chapel of a Franciscan mission overseas. Promising to be a “low maintenance” guest among the local friars, I committed to spending each day, all day, on the sandy beach doing beach-things. Each day I planned some kind of beach activity — a couple books to read, a walk to one end of the beach four miles in one direction, another walk three miles in the other direction, snorkeling, napping. On the last full day, as I approached the beach and wondered what to do on my last day, it dawned on me that I really didn’t want to do anything at all. Anything. At. All.
What a strange feeling, spending a whole day not doing anything except sitting and watching the day just pass by. It hit me then — THIS is what it must feel like to be relaxed! It had been so long since I felt that way, I truly didn’t even recognize the feeling for a while. What a gift simply to watch the sun arc across the sky toward its setting, locals strolling by whole hawking fresh fruit, souvenirs, and less licit adventures, the only decision being the right time to switch from ice water to rum drinks.
Years ago I used to take the parish youth group for summer retreat on a river where the swimming and canoeing were great, the fishing less so. Still, we fished. During my own childhood fishing was not part of our summers, so I came upon the sport later in life. I’m still not really good at it, though I very much enjoy being on the river. An older friar once observed, “He who can fish, can pray.” Only later did I discover what he meant. When you fish, you have to trust that there really are fish down there, even if you can’t see them. When you pray, you have to believe there truly is a God to hear you, even if you do not see him. When you fish, you think you are tricking the fish into taking your bait, even though the fish will do what it wants and when it wants. In prayer, we think we are persuading God to change his mind about something, even though God will do what he wants to do when he wants to do it. While fishing, sometimes the point is not so much about catching anything but just to be out fishing. In prayer, sometimes the point of praying is just to be praying.
Maybe that’s why Jesus’ first disciples were fishermen.
So this summer, whatever it takes, give God a chance to break through the stress and busyness of your routine. Take your vacation, get away, relax, spend time doing nothing, even if just for a couple of days. Try to recall the simple childlike freedom of summer. Don’t let the cares of your workplace intrude — don’t EVEN check your email! Go someplace where there is no cell phone service. And if possible, fish.
“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” Jn 14:26
Lawyer jokes are a staple of comedy. People love to poke fun at the perception of lawyers as sneaky, underhanded, power-hungry, greedy, or just plain shifty. But when you need a lawyer for yourself, you definitely want one who will pull out all the stops on your behalf! You want a lawyer who understands all the fine points of the process, how to “play the game,” so to speak. You want a lawyer who has connections with the right people. You want a lawyer who will fight, fight, and fight harder for you. Even if you are in the wrong, you still want to win.
This weekend the church celebrates Pentecost, remembering the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gathered in the upper room in Jerusalem. This Spirit had been promised by Jesus, described in the Gospel as an “advocate,” from the Greek word “paraclete.” This is taken from common Greek usage describing a defense attorney. In other words, the Holy Spirit is our lawyer.
If the metaphor here is that of a legal tribunal in which we stand in need of a good defense lawyer, it is because we have been accused. Who, then, is the accuser? The biblical tradition of both Testaments points to one figure who stands in that role: Satan. “Accuser” is one of the many names associated with the evil one. So is there any basis for his accusations? Of course not, because he is also known by another name, the “father of lies.” In this cosmic drama, we stand accused by a liar, whose untruths are powerful and persuasive.
Finally, of course, this metaphor requires one more figure — the judge. This is Christ, the Just Judge, who came into the world not to condemn us but to save us. This is the one before whose bench we stand, our excellent lawyer pleading our case in the face of the lies spoken against us by our accuser. This excellent lawyer, the Spirit of Truth, knows what is real and what is false. The Spirit, our lawyer, knows we can even be persuaded to believe these untruths about ourselves, so convincing our accuser can be.
Good thing for us the trial is rigged. Yes! The judge and our lawyer are on the same side — “in cahoots” as my mother used to say. We will prevail. Indeed, we already have. The “fix” is in.
Many things in our lives are simply unfair, leaving us hurt and broken. We have been dealt a bad hand, and sometimes we even become victims of our own undoing. Addictive behaviors can lead us to believe wrong things about ourselves, inner voices whispering shame and fear. Our place in our community, indeed the very social fabric itself, leaves us feeling torn away from its living core. We believe the lies of our accuser, who spreads untruths about ourselves and our community, and we fear the judge. We feel disgraced. Dis-graced, removed from grace.
On the first Pentecost, the disciples were huddled in fear. So very many times in scripture we find the believers in this state of fear! Two thousand years later, we still know what fear feels like — as an individual, and as a community. We fear our inner demons. We fear our neighbors. We fear the future. We fear the stranger. We fear for our jobs, our families, the streets of our neighborhoods, our environment. And in this fear, we feel alone, cast adrift with a sense of powerlessness that leads to anger and violence.
Oh, we sure need a good lawyer!
And we have one in the Advocate, the One whose Spirit stands with us, speaks through us, strengthens us to know and proclaim the truth before the world that also stands with us before the same Judge. The truth — that the Judge is merciful, that life and love prevail over death and hate, that we are not alone but radically united, and that peace with God, with others, within ourselves, and with all of creation is a gift already freely given to all who simply open themselves to its eternal possibilities.
As we draw this Easter Season to a close at Pentecost, let us ask again that the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, our lawyer, plead our case so that we can move from whatever makes us afraid and angry — and toward the merciful Judge who is life and love itself.
The parish May Crowning was just around the corner, and a group of parishioners came with a strange request. At the very top of the vaulted ceiling in the massive Gothic church, there was a hook lowered and raised by a cable. Onto it, they wanted to bundle thousands of rose petals and rig them to cascade down the moment the floral crown touched the top of the statue of the Blessed Virgin.
Well, the liberation theologians I’d read a few years before had often said that we need to respect and encourage the religious devotional life expressed in different cultures. But this just seemed way too “schmaltzy,” even for our old, urban, ethnic parish!
Still, there seemed no reason to turn them down as long as they were willing to set the whole thing up. All through the weekend Masses people were staring at the large, light blue bundles gathered 65 feet above the floor. Hundreds of people showed up for the Sunday afternoon May Crowning — the largest crowd we’d seen in years — unsure if it was out of love for Our Lady or curiosity about whether the strange innovation would work!
We started by praying the rosary in different languages, each decade punctuated by a Marian hymn in the language we just prayed. Then each person brought flowers from their gardens (or just purchased from the youth group) and processed up the main aisle, lightly touching the floral crown that would soon be placed upon the head of the statue of Mary. As the faithful placed their flowers into the vases around the statue, they could be seen gently touching the hands, the cheek, the shoulders of the image of our Blessed Mother — bearing not only flowers but certainly also prayers entrusted to the loving and gentle heart of Jesus’ mother.
The line ended with two parishioners — an elderly woman and a new mother with her child — who bore the floral crown forward as we all sang, “Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today.” We all knew what was supposed to happen next. And when that crown touched her head…
It worked! Thousands of rose petals gently fluttered below. The sweet aroma was instant throughout the massive church. People gasped. People wept. I did both.
“Queen of the Angels, Queen of the May!”
When the devotion was over, without any prompting the small children gathered petals from the floor to bring to family and friends who couldn’t be there. Elderly women took petals to sprinkle on the graves of loved ones they would visit soon. They just made up a new tradition right in front of us, without any discussion or planning, as if everyone just knew what to do.
With two graduate degrees in theology and ministry from a liberal-ish school, there is a part of me that should be really critical of this kind of piety. But there we were, hundreds of us unwilling to leave the church on a sunny Sunday afternoon in May because we all just told our Mother how much we love her. Sometimes it comes down to this: Catholic devotion in all its free flowing sensuality and emotion. Smell the flowers. Hear the music. Touch the hands. Feel the salty heat rising behind your eyes as they well up, unbidden, with loving tears.
One year, a man in the RCIA was asked what brought him to the Church. He said he had many Catholic coworkers who “had something,” and now he wanted that “something” too. When asked what that “something” is, he paused, then barely whispered — “sweetness.”
We have inherited a philosophical and theological system that is comprehensive, integral, logical, and consequential. We are entrusted with a social ethic that is both welcoming and challenging; a personal morality that is compassionate and also demanding; a liturgy that is ever ancient, ever new; a reverence for the arts, a vigorous defense of human dignity, and a reverence for a culture that is both particular and universal.
But the month of May reminds us that we are also sweet.
St. Francis got this. Perhaps that is one reason why he is beloved so widely and deeply. Sometimes we Franciscans get a little testy when people don’t go beyond the “schmaltzy” or saccharine St. Francis of the garden statue. Fair enough. Yet this is the man who wrote this prayer to the Blessed Virgin, his loving words tripping out of his soul —
Hail, holy Lady, most holy Queen, Mary, Mother of God, ever Virgin! You were chosen by the Most High Father in heaven, consecrated by Him, with His most Holy Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.
On you descended and still remains all the fullness of graceand every good. Hail, His Palace! Hail His Tabernacle! Hail His Robe! Hail His Handmaid!
Hail, His Mother! And Hail, all holy Virtues, who, by graceand inspirationof the Holy Spirit, are poured into the hearts of the faithful so that from their faithless state, they may be made faithful servants of Godthrough you.