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.
This past Tuesday, along with my Franciscan brother, Friar Benjamin Owusu, I have been accompanying a group of pilgrims in the Holy Land. As I have written in this feature recently, pilgrimage is a special experience—for some, it is life-changing. No one makes a pilgrimage without being affected in some way.
If you want one word to describe pilgrimage, it easily can be encounter:
with the land, the stones of memory related to our ancestors in the faith, and mostly importantly, Jesus himself;
with the Word of God as it is proclaimed there;
with the “living stones,” the people of the land;
and, finally, with each other—fellow pilgrims.
Through all these, we encounter God.
I think the Holy Land itself speaks most loudly—if not always the most clearly. Mountains, desert, water, vegetation, cities, ancient ruins, confront the pilgrim. The land forces the pilgrim to adjust.
Today, I walked with one of our group who was breathing heavily as we climbed “Tell es Sultan” in Jericho, the site of ancient Jericho. As we took deep breaths, he commented that he thought the desert would be flat—not hilly! Deserts, he told me later, were not his thing—“not even close!”
“The stones are emblematic of this land—part of the culture,” another pilgrim said. Of course, pilgrims are drawn to the “stones of memory,” the rock of Calvary, the Tomb of Jesus, and so many more. “Who am I,” a pilgrim marveled, “to touch these stones?” He felt humbled.
“It’s the common stuff that touches us,” another said—marveling on the simple fact that Jesus may have walked on the stones beneath us.
“They keep reminding us of Jesus,” one woman noted, much as things in our homes recall our loved ones.
At each holy place, we have read from the Scripture, most often the Gospel story. We try to evoke the memory of what Jesus said or did, on or near that spot. Our liturgies in each place mark the key events of salvation. “It brings you into the moment,” a pilgrim said.
Our pilgrims have met and interacted with the people of the Land. For some, it is their first encounter with Palestinian Christians, like the quiet, friendly man who drives our bus. They marvel at the various forms of dress among Orthodox Jews. On the first morning, the calls of the muezzin, from Jerusalem’s mosques at five a.m., awakened one of our pilgrims! Faith in God is expressed here in different ways among the three “Peoples of the Book.”
A member of our group bent down and kissed a woman in a wheelchair seated near the Anointing Stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. “How did you get here?” my pilgrim marveled to the woman, and a moment of encounter followed. “It’s Christ in us,” she recalled later. Another said, “It’s finding Christ in our fellow human beings.”
Finally, in getting to know each other, our pilgrims are also discovering the Lord. People who were previously strangers share their common experiences of discovery, of helping one another, of shared prayer. “They’re not strangers, one of my group said, “because they love Christ. It’s a deep connection.”
The discoveries of pilgrimage will continue, as we journey into Jordan and later next week, the Galilee. I am praying to allow God to reveal new surprises as we continue.
“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.
From Italy, I’m writing this Frate Venerdì—Friar Friday. Since Sept. 24, I’ve been a “nomad,” wandering a bit around Italy, taking some days of vacation before beginning a weeklong pilgrimage with students from Ohio and Indiana. Today they arrived, and with them, I am now a pilgrim.
It’s a good time to begin a pilgrimage. Franciscans all over the world celebrated the Feast of St. Francis this past week, remembering his death (The “Transitus”) on Oct. 3, and his birth into heaven the next day.
I was fortunate enough to join the friars of St. Isidore’s College in Rome. Founded centuries ago by a famous Franciscan scholar, it has served as a center for learning for Franciscans from around the world. The community there celebrated a beautiful service commemorating Francis’ death—by candlelight in their ancient chapel. The next day, we marked the Feast of St. Francis with a morning Mass, and two celebratory meals (two, because we are friars, after all!)
The reflection for the feast day was given by Friar Bill Short OFM, a Franciscan scholar from California, now residing in Rome. Bill called our attention to two images—mosaics—which grace a courtyard at St. Isidore’s, just off the chapel. One is of the San Damiano Cross, the other is of Francis receiving the Stigmata.
I’d like to share with you my understanding of what Bill said, although he spoke in Italian, and I was translating for myself, and may have missed a lot of his nuances! Basically, though, he invited us to imagine ourselves standing between these two images.
One, the San Damiano Cross, recalls Christ’s instruction the young Francis of Assisi: “Rebuild my house, which as you see is falling into ruins.” Francis sprang into action after hearing this message. He sold cloth and a horse belonging to his father and used the money to begin rebuilding the little church of San Damiano, which was crumbling around him. Later, Francis would see a different understanding of “rebuild,” applying it to the Church—at least as he interpreted a mission to preach the Gospel.
The other image, the Stigmata, is how we picture Francis at the center of a deep interior life, so open to God that Francis receives, bodily, the wounds of Jesus crucified in his hands, feet, and side. Bill spoke of “suffering” as a way of seeing this image—but for me, it also depicts how Francis was enabled by God to let go of nearly everything, and allow God to fill him with love. Such a love encompasses suffering, as it did in the great gift of Jesus on the cross.
Bill suggested that we friars live in between two poles—a life of activity, of mission, and an interior life, which embraces suffering, and love. (I’m paraphrasing and interpreting here, for sure—I know he said a lot more!) These two poles are for me part of my lifelong journey as a friar. Sometimes, I’m more focused on action, my ministry, the mission of the Order, or of a parish, or my local friar-community. At other times, I am drawn to the interior life. It is frequently a tension, occasionally a conflict (usually from my point of view, not God’s!) and at its best, a balance.
Could you also experience these two poles in your life as a Franciscan, a Christian, a believer? Action and contemplation, mission and mysticism, doing and being—people of all beliefs seem to move between one and the other. And I think that’s a healthy rhythm. The holy people whom I admire—of various religions, belief systems and simply life-choices—seem to get it right. The rest of us struggle from time to time.
As we Franciscans conclude this week of feasting, and as I begin my pilgrim’s walk to Assisi, I wish you peace in your mission in life, and patience on the interior journey of suffering and of love!
It is almost unthinkable that we as a nation find ourselves in this same place again. As I saw the images of scores of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and others spewing hateful slogans and carrying torches in the streets of Charlottesville, it was an image that I had hoped was lost to history. It recalled the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938 when German Nazi’s ferociously removed Jewish people from their homes into concentration camps. It was reminiscent of pictures from at least 100 years ago of the KKK marching similarly throughout the South, including marching on our nation’s capital.
This is also a moment when it is crystal clear what people of faith are called to do. Some have called for dialogue saying that both sides should come together and discuss their differences in a civil manner. But, with all due respect to dialogue, this is not a time for dialogue. There are not two equally valid sides to this debate that dialogue will shed light on. Racism is a clear evil and we do not dialogue with evil. We don’t find a compromise with evil. To dialogue with evil is to validate its argument as worthy of consideration.
Instead, this is a moment that is calling forth the fullness and strength of our faith in Jesus Christ. We are all being called upon to stand up, to publicly renounce, to reject this resurgent sin once again. We are called to speak up and speak out in peaceful, prayerful, and non-violent ways. Martin Luther King Jr., famously and correctly said, “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the one who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
Our faith is based on a simple yet powerful notion – that all people are created by God and because of that possess an inherent dignity that cannot be taken away. Because of this we are all brothers and sisters in God’s great family and that is true if we are black or white, if we are rich or poor, if we are gay or straight, American or not, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or atheist. Nothing can change this or take it away. This is our faith. And we must stand up and be heard especially when anyone wants to offer an ideology that counters or denies this truth.
We know that this evil is not limited to our own shores as we have watched yet another terror attack, this time in Barcelona. Our prayers are with all of those who have been killed or injured through these acts of evil. And we pray for all of those who have the courage to stand up in the face of evil to denounce it, to reject it to call it out and to work so that our world may be a better, more loving, kind, and united place.
Love’s voice must be louder than hate’s. Kindness must overwhelm prejudice. Concern for all must silence racism. Let us be the people who join the great chorus and speak love into our world, the love that wipes out the darkness of evil and sin.
In two weeks, I’ll be leaving the U.S. for seven weeks of travel to Italy, Israel, and Jordan, with airport stopovers in Frankfurt and Munich, Germany. This long trip will conclude the busiest year of my life in international travel (I was in Pakistan and Italy early this year, and spent long hours in airport terminals in Dubai, Abu Dabi, Frankfurt, and London.) With air travel as it is today—whether you’re flying overseas or domestically—things can be unpredictable. On a recent round of travel, I was delayed in terminals by two airplanes with mechanical problems—on the ground, fortunately! Maybe that’s why none of the other friars want to fly with me!
As I prepare to depart for this trip, I recall a comparison the late Franciscan pilgrim guide Friar Roch Niemier OFM made between a pilgrim and a nomad. He used the two terms as metaphors for living as a Christian, at the of a pilgrimage in Italy 15 years ago,
A pilgrim, Friar Roch said, is someone who “goes to places that are holy [where] sacred characters [like Jesus or Saint Francis] stopped there in the past.” A pilgrim usually has a guide, who cares for the needs of the pilgrims, gets them safely to and from the holy places, and helps them get in touch with the stories of the holy men and women who were there.
In the next seven weeks, I will be such a guide for two groups—high school students from the US, and adults journeying to the Holy Land. Together, we will visit holy places in Rome, Assisi, and the Holy Land. These pilgrims will be in my care. I will try my best to tell the stories and lead them in prayer. As always, I trust that God will be at work in all of us as we travel together.
But being an actual pilgrim in the Holy Land or to other shrines may be a privilege something one has the chance to do once or twice in life. The rest of the time, Roch suggested, we are nomads. He described a nomad as one “who goes to unknown places for holiness, places that yet need to be made holy in the present or the future. The nomad has no guide, other than God.”
Roch concluded his reflection to us (who were pilgrims at that moment) with the injunction: “Be nomads! There’s so much work to be done to have the Kingdom of God come about….So much to be done!”
I am conscious that over the next seven weeks I will be a pilgrim guide, and I’ll also be something of a nomad before and after my pilgrimages. I have a couple of weeks off to visit in Italy, seeing friars, and my family there, as well as working in Jerusalem, researching stories for our magazine, The Holy Land Review. As a “nomad,” I’m certain that I will meet people along the way who will reveal the Kingdom to me, if I am attentive. Perhaps I will do the same for them.
I said above that being a pilgrim to those special sacred places is a rare privilege. But truly, our lives are made up of many small “pilgrimages” to the places sacred to us in our lives—our homes, our parishes, the circle of our families; there, we tell our own “sacred stories” and God speaks to us through them.
The rest of the time, we are “nomads” in the sense that Roch described. We’re “on our own” in the world, traveling to places which are not yet holy, where we can help the Kingdom of God to take root and flourish. It might be your college campus, work place—or even an airport terminal!