Embracing the Suffering Christ!

Embracing the Suffering Christ!

Imagine a parish in crisis!

Everyone suffering in some way or another!

Welcome to Hospital Ministry!

My parish in Gallup, New Mexico is composed of two hospitals (County & Indian), three nursing homes and hospice patients living at home.  These are my “parishioners” as a hospital chaplain.

The first thing I notice when someone comes into the hospital is one of two reactions:  Either, “I’m in trouble and I need God’s help,” or, “Why is God punishing me?”  It is the Chaplain’s ministry to find out where each person is at in their life right now, to acknowledge how they feel, and to gently lead them to see where God is in this situation.  That is not always an easy task, but with the Lord’s help, it can be done.

Bishop Fulton Sheen once said, “There is a lot of wasted suffering in hospitals.”  By this, he was referring to redemptive suffering.  We try to alleviate all suffering in the hospital, nursing homes and with hospice patients.  But sometimes we can’t.  Here the chaplain needs to encourage the suffering person to unite their suffering with Christ’s suffering on the Cross.  When they do that, their suffering becomes a powerful blessing for themselves, their family and the entire world.

I started out in hospital ministry at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Hospital in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2003.  This was no small-town institution, and it included a trauma unit where I was regularly called on at all hours of the day and night.  Comforting and ministering to patients with extreme injuries – and often their deaths – can take a heavy toll on a priest.  But fortunately, I have a personality that can come into a crisis situation and just try to sense what’s going on and not panic myself.

All chaplains are affected in one way or another.  There was a young mother with two little children.  She had a virus that went to her brain.  I went into the hospital room and administered her the Anointing of the Sick.  I was asked to pray the Rosary for her.  While praying I said to the Lord, “Let me suffer and let her get better.”  She ended up dying.  I remember going home and just started crying.  So, you get affected by it no matter who you are.

To accompany someone in their suffering means to be empathetic to their suffering, like St. Paul says in Romans 12:15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” What a privilege it is as a hospital chaplain to bring Christ presence to those who are suffering and vulnerable!

#FriarFriday – Borders

#FriarFriday – Borders

The Rule of St. Francis, and the Declaration of Independence

Twenty-five years ago I was blessed by an unrepeatable adventure in Franciscan life: to help grow the new Franciscan presence at the United Nations by developing interest among Franciscan Friars around the world. What was at that time a budding dream, Franciscans International, has since become a well-respected presence among non-governmental organizations at the United Nations. But in those early years, there was concern that the initiative, which had a decidedly North American and Western European beginning, needed to embrace the worldwide Franciscan movement more deliberately. I had been ordained only two years prior; but my previous work in the planning phase, plus a Master’s degree and thesis on the topic, led to my being asked to take on this next phase.

The next three years were the most thrilling of my vocation! Almost everywhere I went, friars were intrigued and excited about the idea of advocating for the poor, for peace, and for the care of our creation within the halls of the one place where literally the whole world was somehow present. Of course, for me that meant a lot of travel – sometimes months at a time living out of a simple suitcase (which I still use!) crossing two or three continents at a time. Over the three-year assignment, I worked in 28 countries, always staying with friars who frequently lived among some truly poor people. The courageous example of the friars, especially those living close to people who struggled with the immediate effects of war and extreme poverty, is among the most deeply impressive things I have ever witnessed.

And with all that travel came the frequent experience of borders. National borders. The world was much different then – the Soviet Union had just left Central Europe, there was no Euro, Britain still possessed Hong Kong, and the US had no embassy in Vietnam. So I’ve crossed many different kinds of borders. Some crossings were as easy as barely waking up in the train crossing from Italy into Switzerland, groggily flashing a passport to a bored agent. Some were frightening, like the barbed wire and landmines still crossing the farm fields separating Austria and Slovakia, the swaying golden wheat completely uninterested in passports and visas. Stepping into Vietnam — only twenty years after the US left Saigon, nineteen years after I graduated high school, and still without US diplomatic relations – was singularly other-worldly. Crossing briefly into North Korea (yes, that North Korea) involved a trip to and through the DMZ, which is the most heavily fortified territory in the world; stepping into the “Truce Village of Panmunjom” where a small rectangular building straddled both sides of the border; walking around a simple wooden conference table where, on the “other side” a phalanx of uniformed soldiers beyond the windows snapped photos of our every move.

There were other borders as well, not defined by treaty or marked by war, but nonetheless just as real. There was a train track that separated the apartments of Mumbai (then, Bombay) from one of its largest slums, a slum where thousands lived in huts among pathways defined by open sewers. Airport customs lines entering countries of brown-skinned people had two kinds of lines: one for fellow brown-skinned people, whose baggage was searched beyond humiliation; and one for white businessmen (like me) who were whisked through with barely a glance. Basilicas have sacristies open to friar-priests but not to the laity. Old Jerusalem has streets set aside for Jews, Muslims, Armenians, Orthodox, and Catholics – and neighborhoods in cities like Chicago or Cleveland (or Mostar during the Balkan war) have streets that, if crossed, get you marked for gunfire.

So, I know borders.

Yet there is something about a border that is simultaneously forbidding and inviting. You know you are not from the other side, but you just wonder what might be there. Saint Francis of Assisi had this fluid relationship with borders. Unwilling to be confined to monastic walls, he sent his brothers in small groups wherever the Spirit would lead them – often with mixed results. Crossing the Alps from Italian to German-speaking lands got some friars in trouble with locals who thought they were heretics. Though their first foray into Islam led to martyrdom, yet later for Francis, it was an introduction to a most unusual friendship with a sultan during the Crusades. Indeed, the entire “world was his cloister” where the Order had extended from Italy and France to the British Isles, Slavic countries, Germania, the north African coast, and Palestine by the time Francis died.

Saint Francis also knew the other borders that were unofficial but ever so real. He was a rich kid who chose poverty; he came from an established family and chose to be a wanderer. He fed lepers and welcomed women into his new movement. He built a bridge between the mayor and the bishop, and he wouldn’t let his disabilities impede composing the first lyrical poem in the Italian Renaissance.

So, Saint Francis knew borders.

Maybe that is why he included for his friars this description in his Rule of Life from 1223: “As pilgrims and strangers in this world, let (the brothers) go seeking alms with confidence, and they should not be ashamed because, for our sakes, the Lord made Himself poor in this world.” The call to be pilgrims and strangers in this world led to Franciscan Friars accompanying Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to what he thought to be a new world. My first mentor in the Order, a long-time missionary in the Philippines, said to me while I was a much younger friar student, “Where is home for a friar? Everywhere, and nowhere.” Indeed.

For the next week in the United States, we will be celebrating Independence Day. As we prepare for the cookouts, the travel and the parades for the Fourth this year, borders (namely, our own national ones) are very much on the minds of just about anyone who has a TV or a smartphone. In addition to the official territorial borders, let’s also remember the many unofficial but deeply real personal, economic, cultural, racial, religious, and sexual borders as well. On this day when we celebrate one of our foundational documents as a nation, it is worth reading the whole Declaration of Independence.

Perhaps the lines we learned in eighth-grade civics class are still deep inside our heads: “When in the course of human events…” “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Etc. But the better part of the document lists the various explicit grievances that gave rise to the founding fathers taking this extraordinary step to which they would “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Would you be surprised to know that two of the references were to their status as immigrants?  One of the grievances against the king was his “Obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners.” And in another place, “We have reminded them (our British brethren) of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” Yep, there it is. In the Declaration of Independence.

Until I take my last breath I will be grateful for the brotherhood that entrusted me with a unique mission to the world while I was still young and untested. Likewise, I am grateful to have been born in a country whose passport was, and so far still is, respected in every corner of the known world. International travel opens new horizons, challenges one’s view of one’s own country, and leads to a renewed and wiser love of one’s home. My country assured my safe passage literally around the world; my brotherhood let me embrace my wanderlust so that I could cross the unofficial human borders as well. The passport let me see the world, the brotherhood helped me to love it. Reasonable people exercising their best prudential judgment can disagree about particularities of immigration law. But no one who goes by the name Christian, let alone Franciscan, can allow themselves to be led to find an enemy in every face that looks at borders and longs for what is on the other side – especially when our side is life and peace, and their side is death and despair.

On this, our Christian tradition and true patriotism are not opposed at all.

#FriarFriday – The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

#FriarFriday – The Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Few feasts supersede the celebration of the Sunday in ordinary time.  Sunday is always a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection and his overcoming of the power of darkness and the evil one.  The Nativity of St. John the Baptist points to prophetic service and witness.  When we were baptized, we were marked to be priest, prophet, and servant leader.  As I mentioned in any number of homilies I’ve shared with our community, the vocation of the priesthood of the laity is to offer prayer on behalf of our brothers and sisters in need by uniting ourselves with the sacrificial offering of Jesus Christ.  Our servant leadership comes with humbly following Jesus’s example of serving the poor, the destitute, the widow, the stranger and the powerless in society.

Taking care of children who have been orphaned by whatever process that orphaning took place, be it by natural death of parents, by abandonment of parents [which is what some families do when they can no longer afford to care for their children which they bore] occurs in such countries as Bolivia where a mother will take her four or five-year-old child on a bus trip, excuses herself to her child to use the facilities leaving the child on the bus, but never returns to claim her child.  Likewise, the unnatural orphaning of children through their separation from their parents at our borders and ports of entry in order to satisfy a yet to be announced purpose such as keeping gangs out of this country is both sinful and evil.  The intentions of our elected political leaders who imagine ways to keep such refugees through separation of families from their children, in my opinion, is heartless.

Such ways of treating those who seek refuge from oppression in their country of origin and then separating them from their children because they are judged to be criminals charged with a misdemeanor for crossing a border for refuge seems to me to be a callous act.  It is a sadistic policy wrapped with a patina of biblical references, taken out of context, to represent justifications for political purposes. These are the practices today that a John the Baptist might speak against when we call him a prophet.

Biblical prophets do not read Tarot Cards, crystal balls, tea leaves or the entrails of animals to predict future events; their role is to speak up against injustice both in season and out of season.  Through their reading of the signs of the times, they are willing to stand up against tyranny pointing to an impending destruction that portends to point to an impending fascism.  Such a place would maintain a posture where the rule of law and service of the people gets replaced by leaders who deflect and attribute to their political challengers the very policies that they have put in place to oppress the orphan and alien.

Our political leaders would not have to deal with building a wall to exclude the massive migrations of families from Central America if the resources of the United States were used to help these countries create safe environments for their citizens who are being forced out of fear to make the treacherous journey north.  A border wall south of our country would not be necessary if there were fairness and a willingness to step away from partisan politics to help refugees including children.

John the Baptist pointed to Jesus Christ. He said he must diminish and allow Jesus to grow.  We need to use our baptismal call to speak up against injustice as John the Baptist did. Rest assured that taking a position to defend the newly orphaned children by our governmental policies will put some of us at odds with friends, colleagues, neighbors, and within households, fathers, mothers, and children. Again, in my opinion, I believe this is what it means to be prophetic today and enter true dialogue.  If my reflection on this feast and it’s implication for today’s circumstances causes you to see things differently or disagree perhaps we might find common ground where dialogue occurs and we work through our differences rather than skirt around them.

May the Lord’s peace always abide in you,

#FriarFriday – Why I’m Voting Yes

#FriarFriday – Why I’m Voting Yes

Most of the Franciscan friars in the US will be coming together on May 30 to cast a single vote. They will be voting on whether to recommend to the minister general whether he should consider restructuring the provinces in the US to form one province from the currently existing six provinces.

(One province, the Immaculate Conception province, and various custodies, foundations, and commissariats, and — of course — the Mexican friars working in the US — are not part of this vote.)

It is no secret that vocations to the religious life in the US have been falling since the 1960s. Provinces which once had over a thousand men are now down to only a few hundred; provinces which started smaller are now similarly much reduced in number. There are savings which can be gained by combining vocation offices, accounting offices, communication offices, etc. More of the money generously donated to us by the people of God will be able to be dedicated to our works.

The US provinces began this journey in 1993 when some of the provinces began a joint novitiate in Cedar Lake, Indiana. In 1999, four provinces met with the minister general to begin discussions about restructuring. Eventually, the other two provinces joined them, so that now six of the seven US provinces are discussing forming one large province, which would encompass the entire US.

Interestingly, the provinces are not calling this process a merger. but rather “Revitalization and Restructuring” (“R+R” for short). The stress is not merely on reducing overhead or saving money, but rather on revitalizing Franciscan life in the US.

I will be voting yes on May 30. I will be coming down solidly on the side of revitalization. Yes, there will be savings and, yes, this will benefit our work. But that is not the main reason that I will be voting in the affirmative.

The ministry opportunities, if we form one province, particularly for the younger friars, will increase dramatically. A young friar may work for a time in an urban ministry such as shrine church; he may choose to work for a while in parish ministry or in one of our ministries for the poor; he may elect to work on the border with migrants; he might choose to serve for a time in a historic California mission; he may decide to work in retreat ministry.

While I have good relations with many friars from other provinces in the US (and throughout the world, for that matter), there’s always the thought in the back of my head that we are of different provinces. When I visit their houses, I am very conscious of the fact that I am a visitor and representative of my province.

With one province, there will be a new excitement in Franciscan life in the US. St. Bonaventure, in his biography of St. Francis, tells us that towards the end of his life St. Francis would tell the other friars: “Let us begin again, brothers, for up until now, we have done little or nothing.”

One of Francis’s other biographers, Friar Thomas of Celano, tells us that Francis “did not consider that he had already attained his goal, but tireless in pursuit of holy newness, he constantly hoped to begin again.”

From this, I think that Francis of knew the excitement that comes with beginning a new project and also of the need to reform structures which no longer meet our needs.

So, on May 30 in our provincial chapter, I will vote yes on the recommendation that we move ahead.

#FriarFriday – Welcoming the Stranger

#FriarFriday – Welcoming the Stranger

Migration has emerged as one of the most divisive political issues today, causing intense polarization in our public discourse and conflicts in communities all over the world. The tensions and anxieties surrounding migration have been fueled by the criminalization of migration, which seems to be the de facto response of many governments. This criminalization results in social exclusion and forces migrants and refugees into the shadows, depriving them of access to basic human rights and preventing them from fully participating in and contributing to their host community.

As Franciscan men and women, we are called to adopt a spirit of welcome, having recognized that our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters have “done nothing criminal” (Luke 23: 41). Pope Francis encourages us “to overcome indifference and to counter fears with a generous approach of welcoming those who knock at our doors.”

As followers of Saint Francis and Saint Clare of Assisi, Franciscans have a special mandate to embrace those who are less fortunate among us. We can live out this spiritual and historical call to be among the minores of our time in a variety of ways – “by increasing opportunities for intercultural exchange, documenting and disseminating best practices of integration, and developing programmes to prepare local communities for integration processes.”

However, a more fundamental change must also occur: the conversion of hearts. Equipped with a belief in our shared dignity and common humanity, Franciscans can change the misconceptions about migration and the negative narratives currently circulating. We can work to promote the welcome and inclusion of our migrant and refugee brothers within our faith and local communities, as well as within society at large. As people of faith, we can infuse our preaching, theological reflections, and our prayer lives with thanksgiving for the many gifts of our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters. In doing so, we not only bring their joys before God but also before God’s people.

Most high and glorious God, the poor, crucified body of Christ inspired Saint Francis and Saint Clare to a genuine, loving concern for the poor and the oppressed. We follow in their example, as we reflect on you this Lent.

Like Francis and Clare, we pray That in gazing on Your poor, crucified body, we may know the Body of Christ who still suffers with those who experience injustice and violence; That in meditating on Your words on the cross, we may hear Your cries echoed in the cries of our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters; That in contemplating Your suffering, we may empathize and show mercy to those who are displaced and excluded; And that in desiring to imitate You, who welcomed all, we may also welcome all, especially the stranger and the outcast.

Just as Francis’ embrace of the leper turned what seemed bitter “into sweetness of soul and body,” the embrace of our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters will turn the bitterness of xenophobia and fear into the sweetness of justice and peace. For in welcoming and embracing those whom we consider the stranger and the least among us, we will be welcoming and embracing You. Amen.

The above reflection is an excerpt of a reflection of the last words of Jesus on the cross. The complete reflection can be found at the Franciscans International website

#FriarFriday – Facing Racism

#FriarFriday – Facing Racism

Well, somebody got the timing right: January 15 was designated by the OFM Franciscans of the English-speaking world as the annual Day of Prayer to End Racism. Landing on a Monday morning, I can only say, “Good timing!”

After the recent reporting of the president’s remarks about immigration, and the reaction from a variety of viewpoints, including political and religious leaders. The most honest of them branded our president as “racist” for remarks attributed to him and confirmed by those present.

It’s good to call out such remarks, no matter who voices them. But after the shock and repudiation of the president’s remarks wear off, there remains a deeper issue—systemic racism. And on the remembrance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we have an opportunity to address that issue.

Some 25 years ago when I was helping to produce a video on Thomas Jefferson, race and slavery, one Southern historian we interviewed called slavery “the original sin” of America. That remark has stayed with me.

The historian was, of course, using the metaphor of “original sin” not in a theological sense, but to underscore how our country was born with racism as part of its fabric. I don’t know why white leaders–politicians or bishops or news commentators—shy away from this fact. If you were born into our culture, you are prone to that original sin. I speak here as someone from white society, of course, which is the only way I can. A black preacher would address this issue from a different point of view, perhaps.

The “original sin” of slavery means that racism touches each of us—black and white—who have grown up in this culture. It is possible that, on a given day, I might act in a racist manner myself. I have done so. I was taught to be racist by my grandmother, who warned me not to drink from a Coke bottle because “black people drank from it before you.” What else is a little boy to think?

“You’ve got to be carefully taught,” went the song in the musical South Pacific. And the society—white society—I was born into taught me to be a racist. But that doesn’t make me unredeemable. That was part of the message of hope brought to us by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He learned it in the Gospels. He declared:

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

And with Dr. King, we can profess: Thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, I have a way out! Thanks to the Lord’s grace, working with many great teachers, black and white, who confronted me and mentored me over the years, I can choose not to act in a racist way.

That gives me hope for our present-day situation. What people were careful taught, can be “unlearned.”. That is the good news of our Scriptures. Hear again what St. Paul tells the Romans and us:

Therefore, sin must not reign over your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires. …. For sin is not to have any power over you, since you are not under the law but under grace.

If I can share the life of Jesus, which draws me out of death, out of deadly choices, I can choose life. This is what we pray for today. This is what we must preach, and this is how we must act.

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