“She loved the poor.”

It’s a peculiar epitaph – “She loved the poor.”

These are the words on the cross that marks the grave of Catherine Doherty, a Catholic woman who founded the Madonna House apostolate, was a noted spiritual writer, and who died on this date in 1985.

Of all the things to have on a person’s grave, why does hers say this?

A quick search reveals that connection between her love for the poor borne out of her reflection on “The Reality of Christ’s Poverty” about which she said:

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“And fear not them which kill the body”

This evening I have been reflecting on the life and legacy of Fulton J. Sheen, one of the most influential Catholics of the twentieth century who died on this day at age 84 in 1979.

In 2011, I read his autobiography Treasure in Clay, which is really splendid. Tonight I was reminded that he dictated parts of it shortly before his death “from his sickbed as he clutched a crucifix.”

I want to share with you an excerpt from a brief piece by Fulton Sheen titled “Dying to Live“:

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Who will answer your emails when you’re dead?

The first time I heard this question was during a homily about a decade ago.

When the bishop raised the question, the congregation responded with some subtle laughter.

Now, there are actually ways to “arrange your digital legacy” that involve transferring ownership of your accounts to others.

But, if we are being honest with ourselves, that won’t really be that important.

Here’s what the bishop had said to provoke our reflection:

When you die, you are going to have emails in your inbox, and then what are you going to do? We live in a society obsessed with accomplishment and completion. Are your daily activities lifting your spirit and bringing you rest? Ask yourself not only what you are going to do, but who you will be once you’ve done it.

What a good meditation on mortality.

No one will answer our emails when we’re dead. Have we become comfortable with the realization?

The Complexity of a Soul

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, Rabbi YY Jacobson released this video telling the dramatic story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic priest, and sought to receive a Jewish burial alongside his parents’ graves in Poland.

I have shared this story many times today and gotten a wide range of reactions from friends about it.

The wisest comment, in my view, came from a friend who said, “One has to be somehow ‘living in the hyphen’ to appreciate such a story.”

Instead, the story of “the complexity of a soul” (as Rabbi YY Jacobson puts it) demands a certain openness and receptivity in order to be touched by it. Such complexity may unsettle many of us but we can take comfort in knowing that none of our souls are too complex for God.

Fraternity on the Periphery

A dear friend of mine who has spent the past two years living in Nazareth introduced me to the story of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Somehow I had never heard his story before or, at least, it hadn’t caught my attention.

The Vatican’s very short summary of him is this:

Blessed Charles de Foucauld, born in 1858, was a French aristocrat and religious, whose work and writings led to the founding of the Congregation of the Little Brothers of Jesus. During his adventurous life, he was a Cavalry Officer in the French Army, and then an explorer and geographer before becoming a Catholic priest and hermit who lived among the Tuareg in Algeria’s Sahara Desert. He lived a life of prayer, meditation and adoration, in the incessant desire to be, for each person, a “universal brother”, a living image of the love of Jesus. On the evening of December 1, 1916, he was killed by bandits.

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Remember when you suffered most

Pope Francis has a lot of countercultural recommendations and one upon which I came the other day is to remember the times that we have suffered most.

Usually, we want to forget the times we’ve suffered. Maybe we consoled ourselves in the midst of some trial saying, “This too shall pass.” And, once it has passed, we’re happy to move on from it.

But Pope Francis says, “I believe that in this time of the pandemic it is good for us to remember even of the times we have suffered the most: not to make us sad, but so as not to forget, and to guide us in our choices in the light of a very recent past.”

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The world will not collapse without me

In Judaism, there is the idea: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

This is very good. And yet, it is but half the equation. As much as each person is a whole world, there is also a sense in which the world really can and does go on without us. But far from diminishing us, this perspective can give us tremendous peace.

On the Feast of Christ the King, I was at Emmaus with the Community of the Beatitudes for mass. During his homily, the priest traced history of nationalism and totalitarianism throughout the twentieth century. Then, he said, “Today the conflict is more with my individual kingdom, my personal sovereignty. Today we don’t have much sense of the common good because we think it’s against our personal good.”

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Curious about Costumes

Once, when I was 7-years-old and my brother Evan was 4, my mom brought us to the cemetery on Halloween.

We had been driving by anyway, and so she considered it a good occasion to introduce us to the upcoming feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days even as our attention was fixated on costume-wearing and trick-or-treating later that evening.

My mom began, “This is the place where people are buried.”

“What?” my little brother asked incredulously. “You bury the person in the ground?”

My mom clarified, “The body is buried in the cemetery because you don’t need your body when you die because your soul goes to heaven to be with God. The body is like a costume.”

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“The Saint Makes the Difference”

The other day I asked a visiting priest responsible for Catholic higher education to speak to us about the most influential teachers in his life.

To this, he immediately responded that he has had many teachers throughout the course of his life who were alright but rather unremarkable. He noted that he thinks this is the case for most people. But, he insisted, there are, of course, those one or two teachers who stand out and whose influence upon you is something you will remember and cherish for your entire life.

As he said this, it was clear that he was conjuring up his own recollections of these special and extraordinary teachers. Gradually, he told us a few anecdotes about them.

Then, he encouraged us not to expect every teacher to be extraordinary but insisted that we do establish the hope of encountering at least some of them who are truly excellent.

“Given the choice between 5,000 decent but mediocre and lukewarm people or 4,999 heretics and one shining saint, I would definitely choose the heretics and the saint,” this priest said. “The saint makes the difference.”

“Once a flower, I have become a root.”

I have got to share with you this remarkable excerpt from Pope Francis’s recent address to members of the Jewish community in Hungary:

I am moved by the thought of all those friends of God who shone his light on the darkness of this world. I think in particular of Miklós Radnóti, a great poet of this country. His brilliant career was cut short by the blind hatred of those who, for no other reason than his Jewish origins, first prevented him from teaching and then separated him from his family.

Imprisoned in a concentration camp, in the darkest and most depraved chapter of human history, Radnóti continued until his death to write poetry. His Bor Notebook was his only collection of poems to survive the Shoah. It testifies to the power of his belief in the warmth of love amid the icy coldness of the camps, illumining the darkness of hatred with the light of faith. The author, crushed by the chains that constrained his soul, discovered a higher freedom and the courage to write that, “as a prisoner… I have taken the measure of all that I had hoped for” (Bor Notebook, Letter to his Wife). He also posed a question that resonates with us today: “And you, how do you live? Does your voice find an echo in this time?” (Bor Notebook, First Eclogue). Our voices, dear brothers and sisters, must not fail to echo that Word given us from Heaven, echoes of hope and peace. Even if no one listens or we are misunderstood, may our actions never deny the Revelation to which we are witnesses.

Finally, in the solitude and desolation of the concentration camp, as he realized his life was fading away, Radnóti wrote: “I am now myself a root… Once a flower, I have become a root” (Bor Notebook, Root). We too are called to become roots. For our part, we usually look for fruits, results or affirmation. Yet God makes his word fruitful on the earth with a soft rain that makes the fields flower (cf. Is 55:10). He reminds us that our faith journeys are but seeds, seeds that then become deep roots nourishing the memory and enabling the future to blossom. This is what the God of our fathers asks of us, because – as another poet wrote – “God waits in other places; he waits beneath everything. Where the roots are. Down below” (Rainer Maria Rilke, Vladimir, the Cloud Painter). We can only reach the heights if we have deep roots. If we are rooted in listening to the Most High and to others, we will help our contemporaries to accept and love one another. Only if we become roots of peace and shoots of unity, will we prove credible in the eyes of the world, which look to us with a yearning that can bring hope to blossom. I thank you and I encourage you to persevere in your journey together, thank you! Please forgive me for speaking while seated, but I am no longer fifteen years old! Thank you.

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