Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Friendship and Justice

(Pictured: Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal, by Br. Michael O'Neill-McGrath, OSFS)

Francis de Sales had a great love of friendship. He recognized the need for healthy friendships for people to grow in their spiritual lives. Francis relied on friendship for his own growth; we see this reflected in the numerous letters he wrote to his spiritual directees and other friends. In the end of his discussion on friendship in the Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis quotes one of the most famous Biblical statements on friendship, “He who fears God shall likewise have a good friendship” (Sir 6:17).

The late Fr. Anthony Ceresko, OSFS, explored Sirach’s understanding of friendship in an attempt to expand our notion of what friendship can mean for people who try to live Salesian spirituality and Catholic social teaching today. One of the most difficult things about work for justice in today’s world is that it is often a thankless task. These efforts can only be sustained if we have healthy friendships with people who share a common vision for humanity and all of creation, because there will inevitably be resistance from some people to our work.

As I have noted at other times on this blog, some people criticize Salesian spirituality for being too “soft” on social justice or for being too individual centered. By his reflections on the meaning of friendship in Sirach, Ceresko also wants to expand our understanding of friendship in the writings of Francis de Sales, seeing that friendship is not something that affects only two people who are friends, but can expand to affect more and more people for the better. Ceresko writes:

“With our modern, over-psychologized notion of “person” today, we too often misunderstand Francis and overlook this social commitment implied in his writings. This modern, over-psychologized understanding of “person” stresses the individual, unique and isolated, focused on the self and interior life, unrelated to the world and the persons around us. This isolated “self”-centered definition of person is in contrast to the relational notion of person as understood by the world of Francis. The challenge for us today, then, is to develop and make more explicit the “social commitment” implied in Francis’ discussion of friendship.”[i]

Ceresko attempts to make this social commitment more explicit through the examination of the Scriptural text Francis uses in his reflection on friendship. The Hebrew word for friend is ’oheb, which comes from the root ’hb, which means “to love.” Ceresko notes that instead of referring to the range of meanings we associate with love in English, the root in Hebrew “includes connotations of political loyalty and covenantal obligations.”[ii] Thus, in order to understand what it means to love or to be a friend for Sirach, we also have to understand the covenantal obligations for the Jewish people at the time Sirach was writing (ca. 180 BCE).

Ceresko explores the historical context of Sirach’s writing in light of the people’s covenantal obligations, noting, “A key element in Israel’s covenant with God was the social and especially economic arrangements within their community. Their commitment to God included the commitment to help and support one another, especially in times of economic distress.”[iii] Thus, love for God was something that demanded a concern for one’s neighbors, especially for neighbors who were in financial straits. In the time Sirach wrote, the Jewish people were under the power of Greek kings who levied heavy taxes on the people. These taxes put many people in precarious financial situations. With this understanding of the situation at the time Sirach wrote his book, Ceresko makes this observation on Sirach’s purpose in his discussion of friendship:

“It is against this background that we can understand the stress on “relationships,” including friendship, in the book of Sirach. The author has a keen interest in fostering and strengthening relationships. It represents part of his strategy to counter the damage done to relationships and family support networks caused by the exploitative economic measures imposed by the Hellenistic kings.”[iv]

Ceresko does not suggest that Francis de Sales had this background in mind when he wrote the Introduction to the Devout Life or anything else on the topic of friendship. However, the background does give us an alternative way to approach the texts of Francis de Sales from the perspective of one Biblical author in a way that can open up new possibilities for us to spread Salesian spirituality today. We too live in a time when the damage done to relationships and families throughout the world as a result of exploitative economic measures makes authentic friendships more difficult. Nevertheless, the challenge to people who follow Christ today is to be united in friendship in a way that allows the love of friends to overflow into love of all people, especially those who are most vulnerable and are most affected by exploitative economic and social policies. Ceresko concludes his article with a sound test for true friendship today, “An important dimension of our personal friendships should include a common commitment, along with our friends, to solidarity with our neighbor in need. Such would be the touchstone and test of true friendship for the follower of Christ today.”[v]

In the picture above, Br. Mickey portrays the friends Francis and Jane as having one heart, with the Eucharist at the center of the heart. This painting is a beautiful image of what friendship can be like for Christians today: two people sharing one heart, aflame for justice, with their lives always centered on the Eucharist.

[i] Anthony Ceresko, “Sirach and St. Francis de Sales on Friendship: Solidarity and the Struggle for Liberation,” in idem., St. Francis de Sales de Sales and the Bible (Bangalore, India: SFS Publications, 2005) 107.
[ii] Ibid., 98.
[iii] Ibid., 101.
[iv] Ibid., 103.
[v] Ibid., 108.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Words to Take with Us into Life

(Pictured: Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, and De Sales Service Works volunteer Tim Gallagher)

Editor's Note: In a blog entry on Monday, DSW volunteer Meg Weber offered her reflection on her experience of spending her Fall break in Camden. Today, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, offers his reflection on the experience of these volunteers and reflects on one of the projects the volunteers worked on during their stay. Francis de Sales was a great lover of words, and Fr. Mike's reflection is a good reminder to us all of the power of words in our lives.

This Columbus Day long-weekend four members of DeSales University took an alternative fall break with DSW. Three students, Tim, Helen and Meg, and a member of the University Service Learning team, Latoya, served in a variety of ways over the four days. They helped in the rehab of the parish hall, made and served lunches, participated at New Visions Day shelter, visited Oblate Mickey McGrath’s studio in South Camden, and toured Hopeworks back on our block. All this work encourages the people of Camden and gives volunteers insight into big urban issues. It also gives volunteers the opportunity to get beyond “issues” to the level of people meeting people in Christian service.

This group from DSU initiated a project that will be continued the last week in October. Campbell’s Soup has had a long association with this city. The soup factories that used to employ wave after wave of new Americans and whose aromas filled the downtown air are now gone, but Campbell’s headquarters remains in Camden. They are sponsoring a service week this October for employees and neighborhoods. Our State Street area will benefit from this involvement.

One of the projects involves painting the boarded up windows of abandoned buildings in our neighborhood. The DeSales University Salesian Service team contributed to this by working on a prototype, painting a house’s broken-down porch and adding color to the boards over the windows. We painted Salesian good thoughts to offer the positive, good-sense vision of St. Francis de Sales to this environment. This project does not fix the problem of these buildings---but the bright, clean color and uplifting words make a difference.

St. Francis de Sales is well known for his sayings---expressed in short, memorable phrases:
“Be who you are and be that well.”
“Nothing is as strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as true strength.”
“Be patient with everyone, first of all with yourself.”
“We must do all by love, nothing by force.”
“It is a great part of our perfection to support one another in our imperfections.”
“We must be displeased with our faults in a firm yet tranquil manner.”
“Accept peacefully all the duties that come your way, taking them in order, one by one.”
“There is no soil so barren that diligent tenderness doesn’t bring some fruit.”

I could go on because there are hundreds of these wise sayings. They have some similarity to the Lord’s parables in that they are memorable and often express values that are the reverse of what is expected. They look good painted in the neighborhood. Next week, DSW volunteers and school children from Holy Name School will continue this effort along with volunteers from Campbell’s Soup.

Volunteers also distribute cards with Salesian quotes printed on them out with lunches to the individuals and families who come for food. People seem to enjoy the good sense, positive out-look, and the reminder that God is to be found in every circumstance---guiding, challenging offering blessing. Perhaps the reason De Sales came up with so many, and the reason they have been popular, is that they are memorable and thus can be carried into all aspects of life to put the faith we love into practice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

De Sales University Meets De Sales Service Works

(Pictured: Helen, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, Tim, Meg, and Latoya, in front of a Salesian sign they painted.)

Editor's Note: Meg Weber is a senior at De Sales University studying nursing. Over the Fall break at De Sales University, Meg traveled to Camden to work with De Sales Service Works (DSW). Meg had a powerful experience while in Camden and now hopes to serve as a year long volunteer with DSW after graduation this May. She reflects on her experience in the entry below. Meg's entry highlights yet again how we can be transformed through service. Even though we frequently begin to serve others in order to help them, we soon learn that we are gaining just as much, if not more, from the experience. For more information on DSW, please visit

On a cold Saturday morning in October, we departed for what was to become one of the most significantly reflective and life-changing weekends for me. Two other DeSales students, Tim, a senior studying theology, and Helen, a freshman studying to become a physician assistant, Latoya, our group leader, and I packed up a DSU van and started our drive to Camden, New Jersey. Though I was unfamiliar with the city, I soon enough learned of the immense and widespread poverty that Camden suffered. My first thoughts were positive, wanting to be fully open to the experience and therefore to make the best of the weekend. While I have a short history of working with the poor, I knew better than to expect a similar experience.

Our weekend events ranged from making bagged lunches for Sandwich Ministry to utilizing both white and colorful paint to decorate the boarded up windows and doors of a near by abandoned house. We also spent time on the streets, inviting local community members to a street cleanup that was to be hosted by Campbell’s and speaking with families of the parish who wished to be on the Christmas gift donation list. These opportunities were awesome, but just doing those above-mentioned things don’t make my weekend worthy of repeating.

I was definitely touched by the experiences of conversing with others and at the end of the day reflection. In the community, during our walk with Sr. Claire to find out details for the Christmas gift list, the members of the community opened their homes not only to her, but to me too. I had the chance to be in people’s homes, simply talking and praying with them. Now, to me, home is a special place of love and comfort, so to be invited into the homes of families exemplifies the generosity and love that people share in this community. I believe that, while it isn’t always the first thing that one notices on the streets of Camden, there is a huge amount of love: love for the community and love for one another. During one of our days, we visited a place called Hope Works. This place, while humble in appearance, is filled with hearts of young men and women who are immensely compassionate for achieving their dreams. How cool is that! This is a local program, dwelling within the rundown, poor streets of Camden that provides hope and opportunity for local young men and women who need guidance, who want to change their lives for the better.

Love. Such a powerful word, and yet one that is used much too frequently, in ways that deprive it of its true strength. I saw love in Camden… I really did. And I felt it too. I saw love in each person with whom I made eye contact or spoke to, because for me to try to imagine the struggles of their lives would do anything but comfort me. They are strong people. I felt love in the warm way that I was welcomed into people’s homes, and especially in the way that men and women would ask God to bless me, despite the fact that I was overwhelmed with the feeling that they are the ones who need the prayers.

Thus, reflecting at the end of the day would stir emotions of sadness, fear, and extreme joy; I felt an interesting mixture of them all over the weekend. And while my emotions were tossed from one end of the spectrum to the complete opposite, my faith and trust in the Lord matured.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Oblate Founder's Day

Editor's Note: On Monday, October 12, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales celebrated Founder's Day, a day in which we remember the first Oblates beginning their novitiate. On this day in 1873, Bishop Ravinet of Troyes, France, presented the Oblate religious habit to Fathers Brisson, Gilbert, Rollin, Lambert, Lambey, and Perrot as they began their novitiate. In this blog entry, Fr. Jim Greenfield, OSFS, provincial of the Wilmington-Philadeplhia Province, offers his reflections on Founder's Day. Last week, we learned that one of of our oldest ministries, Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia, will be closing at the end of the school year. Fr. Greenfield reflects on this development and some of our other ministries in light of our founders' vision, Salesian spirituality, and Catholic social teaching.

Founders’ Day is an opportunity to celebrate who the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales are, where we’ve been and where we are going as a community founded by Fr. Louis Brisson and Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis.

Due to the announcement of the closing of Northeast Catholic High School in Philadelphia last Thursday, I want to reflect on what this decision by Cardinal Rigali—and others like it— could mean for us Oblates as we begin to accept this type of situation, in our Salesian manner, in the providence of God. It really does invite us to celebrate who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going.

In January of 2008, Stan Dombrowski, pastor of St. Cecilia in Ft. Myers, FL asked me to present the Parish Mission on the topic of Stewardship. I had never done a Mission on this topic so I needed to pull a lot of information together and get to the task of devising three one-hour talks. I have continued to reflect on stewardship, and since the Mission I led was just after my election as provincial, the preparation has been most helpful to me in my ministry.

We know that to be a steward is to care for and manage that which has been entrusted to us – originally understood as a steward for guests on a ship! We hear about being good stewards of our time, talent, and treasure. We are blessed and we are invited to share the blessings we have been given with others in concrete ways.

In this entry, I offer three considerations for our Founders’ Day:
· A reflection on stewardship and the principle of solidarity from Catholic Social Teaching
· An vignette of solidarity at North Catholic shared by Nick Waseline
· An example of solidarity from DSW prepared by Mike McCue

Reflection from Catholic Social Teaching
Our primary responsibility as stewards is to one another. I see this most boldly and clearly in the care of our youngest and oldest members. For our future to be strong, we help—through our prayers, example, and support—to educate and form our young men so that they can serve the Church through our mission. Perhaps more powerfully, I see our stewardship in the care of our retired, sick, and dying members. Again, our prayers for them are abundant, and our allocation of resources for their patient healing and dignified dying is vast. Yes, we are responsible for them. And, for those of us not yet in need of such care, other Oblates will, in time, be caring for us. In large measure, the preparation, cultivation, and investment of the necessary resources for the future are occurring now.

The contemporary moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that there are really two qualities of human beings that are indisputable: We are vulnerable and dependent --- vulnerable to disease, hurt, and finally death, and dependent on one another.

It's surely true to say that we all have been vulnerable and dependent. Perhaps we are now, and certainly we will be in the future. MacIntyre notes the importance of our remembering who we are as vulnerable and dependent and that it not be a source of fear.
On this Founders’ Day, I invite us to celebrate our stewardship of one another as we continue to face the challenges of aging, diminishment, and dwindling resources with a new resolve to choose trust and hope in whatever direction the hand of God is guiding us.

The closing of North Catholic raises these similar concerns: The fear that creeps into our province conversations about diminution and death, the questions about our longest ministry now coming to a close, the castles of our youth symbolized by the fortress on Torresdale Avenue poised for closure alongside the faculty house there perhaps on the verge of being razed.

Catholic social teaching underscores the virtue is solidarity. Pope John Paul II defines solidarity as "a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all" (On Social Concern, 1987, 38). He says further that solidarity is at work when members of society "recognize one another as persons" (On Social Concern, 39) and that "everyone should look upon his or her neighbor (without any exception) as another self'' (Gaudium et spes, 26).

The closure of Northeast Catholic and the way we respond to it will ultimately be a matter of figuring out what it means for us to remain one with the students at North and the alumni. We will be called to recognize that we will always be committed to this inner-city ministry and to discern what the commitment will require of us. Furthermore, at this moment of a deepening of solidarity with those we will not let go of in the North Community, we are called to a greater solidarity with one another, especially as we navigate our way through these issues with the spirit of our Founders.

An example of solidarity from one of our oldest ministries
Nick Waseline (principal of Northeast Catholic) recounts the mood of last Friday, the morning after the closure announcement:
“By 7:00 a.m. the media were conspicuously present on Torresdale Ave. As the students arrived, a spontaneous ‘pep rally’ took place for about 20 minutes. It unfolded as an event of true ‘red and white’ Falcon pride. The students knew from the news of the night before that Northeast Catholic was slated to close its doors in June. Their response in the morning was none other than that of love for their school, solidarity in their identity as Falcons and their loyalty to its tradition and spirit. As this impromptu rally was taking place on the front steps of the school, the faculty was gathered in the Resource Center to plan a strategy for a day of unusual emotion and reaction to the news of closure. They were sad, the pain was evident. After a short period of planning and sharing they joined the students who were, by 8:00, gathered in the auditorium for an assembly. The atmosphere was a combination of so much emotion: sadness, pride, unity, love for North and the Salesian tradition, gratitude for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales and the dedication of the faculty over the years – it was a celebration of ‘North’ at a very significant moment in its time-honored history.

Those who were present will never forget the experience it afforded - the ‘graced’ power of the presence of the Holy Spirit in lifting a community of faith to a level of hope and confidence in the Providence of God.

The students and faculty left the assembly for a day of classes with a somewhat consoled spirit. However, throughout the day many concerns and emotions continued to emerge and be expressed: Why us? What will happen to us? Where will we go? What will the rest of the year be like? And much more.

We are challenged by this turn of events, but with the help of God, the spirit of DeSales and the two standards by which we follow life at North: ‘Tenui nec Dimmitam’, and ‘Be who you are and be that well.’ We will work, pray through and celebrate the best Salesian year North as ever had.”

An example of solidarity from one of our newest ministries
There is another point from Catholic social teaching that has deep roots in Scripture. That is, in our stewardship for one another, we ought to have a preferential option for the poor. Our attention should be first directed to those most in need, those lacking the basic necessities of life.

Mike McCue (director of De Sales Service Works) writes about Salesian compassion and solidarity
“One of the most striking aspects of Jane de Chantal’s life was the tremendous pain which she encountered. She dealt with the loss of her young husband, three children, her friend and spiritual director Francis at 53, as well as undergoing a lengthy period of feeling God’s absence in her spiritual life. Despite all of this pain, St. Jane was able to open herself to the sufferings of others and recognize that all human beings depend on God’s grace. Her own suffering allowed her to relate to other people in pain and to minister to their particular situations. All of us have experiences of pain in our own lives, but we are not called to isolation as a result of these experiences. We are called to enter into the pain of others and to ease each other’s burdens, regardless of the differences between us that might lead to separation.

Cardboard boxes are common and useful, and usually end up in the trash or recycling bin. Here in Camden used cardboard is a valued item. Flattened out cardboard boxes become the mattress of choice for our homeless neighbors. Homelessness is a problem across our country. Living here, we have encountered it not so much as a national problem, but simply as our neighbors’ situation. Maybe because we are a church---or because the property is well lighted, or maybe because people end up anyplace where they are not chased away—about a dozen men and women with no other place to go, camp out around us. We exchange pleasantries coming and going; we channel food, blankets and clothing; and we intend to communicate respect, patience, and kindness.

A couple who goes by the names Ken and Barbie spend most evenings and nights on our front porch. The front door has a large stained glass panel; so we cannot forget they are there outside, while we are inside. The thin line of that door separates our very different worlds. The two of them sleep on cardboard spread over the cold cement of our front porch, and we sleep on comfortable mattress, in our own space, safe and warm inside.
Because the warmth and security we enjoy is—in a sense—normal, and something everyone should have, I can say that I do not feel guilty. However, this situation raises many feelings and thoughts. It feels uncomfortable and really painful that these neighbors whom we have connected with and whom we like—despite differences of background, education, experience, and expectations—have such pain and burden.

Solidarity is more than a feeling—or is not enough to let it stay on the feeling level. All of the feelings and the awareness bring us to action. We ask what can we do for homelessness or, specifically, for our neighbors—for Ken and Barbie? St. Francis de Sales challenges us to bring respect, gentleness, humility, and gratitude, and to treat our neighbors as adults and equals. Catholic social teaching calls us to work for shelters, aid, housing, and health care—for structures that can lead to better situations for our neighbors. And, all the while, we continue to feel the discomfort and pain that things are not as they should be when people have to sleep on cardboard.

For us in Camden and in so many other places in our world, homeless people are literal neighbors. But few neighborhoods are without homelessness and poverty, and no neighborhood, no community is without people struggling—whether the people be in Camden, or your home or in distant Haiti, Darfur, or Afghanistan. All—near or far— are our gospel neighbors.

We do what we can, we do not forget, we are incomplete and uncomfortable. The kingdom of God is here. It is also not yet fully here.”

We really do need one another and we need to take seriously our commitment to be neighbor to one another. We cannot let go of those who need us to care from them. Solidarity calls us to this. So, do our Founders!

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Catholic Climate Covenant

Every October 4, the Church celebrates the memory of one of the most famous saints in history, St. Francis of Assisi. Since the feast fell on a Sunday this year, the Church celebrates the liturgy for Sunday instead of the saint. Nevertheless, his feast is an opportunity for us all to reflect on the timeliness of his message for our situation today. One of the principal tenets of Catholic social teaching is respect for God’s creation, and this was a concern for Francis of Assisi as well. In a recent statement Pope Benedict highlighted the Christian’s response to this issue:

“Today the great gift of God’s Creation is exposed to serious dangers and lifestyles which can degrade it. Environmental pollution is making particularly unsustainable the lives of the poor of the world … we must pledge ourselves to take care of creation and to share its resources in solidarity.”

In April of this year, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and other members of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change launched a new initiative that stressed the need for all Christians to show a greater respect for creation and for the way in which we consume resources. The coalition invited all Catholics to participate in their new effort, the Catholic Climate Covenant. As a part of this initiative, the coalition invited individuals to take the St. Francis Pledge and has renewed this invitation on Francis’ feast day.

While this is not the Francis who is referred to most frequently on this blog, respect for God’s creation is something that was close to the heart of Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal as well. Francis and Jane lived long portions of their lives in the beautiful city of Annecy, France, which helped form Francis’ famous statement, “We pray best before beauty.” When all of creation becomes an invitation to prayer, the way in which we interact with creation is transformed and all humanity can experience the wonder of God’s creation.

The Catholic Climate Covenant covers a number of justice issues. As the title makes clear, the issue of climate change is central. However, the effects of climate change are felt most acutely by the poor, who are least responsible for the causes of climate change. Experts give numbers of poor people affected that are staggering. To give but one example, access to clean water is a hot issue today. According to the World Development Movement, one-sixth of the world’s population will face water shortages in the near future because of retreating glaciers as a result of increased temperatures. Thus, the covenant challenges us with a provocative question, “Who’s under your carbon footprint?”

This question can be helpful for those of us who use the practice of examination of conscience as one of our daily rituals, a practice Francis de Sales suggested to his spiritual directees. Questions such as this one posed by the climate covenant can help us expand our perspectives and see that there are different ways to approach our spiritual disciplines. These questions help us to realize how narrow our approach can be at times as well.

Information on the Catholic Climate Covenant, as well as the St. Francis pledge, can be found at

I close this entry with a poem called “Earth, Sister Earth” from Dom Helder Camara, the late archbishop of Recife, Brazil. Camara has been called by some people a modern day Francis of Assisi because of his dedication to the poor and all of creation. This poem is a strong challenge for all of us to rethink the way in which we relate to all of creation and how our actions or inactions impact all of creation.

Earth, Sister Earth

Teach us
to continue the creation
to help the seeds
to multiply,
giving food
for the people
and for the beasts.

Teach us
to further the joy
you never tire of offering
when weary travelers find you,
a signpost to their home.

Teach us
to make the horizon
become a beautiful image
of creation’s grandeur.

Teach us
to accept
the mediation of those
who wish to unite us
to our fellows,
as you accept the gift
of the water that binds
land to land,
no matter how great
the distances!

What do you suffer
in the dust of deserts?
How do you look upon
those of us who,
though capable of transforming
the waste to lushness,
prefer to be creators
of barrenness?

And how do you rejoice
in the rain
that brings forth your fruits?
And what pain do you feel
at the storms
that drown you with floods,
destroying plantations,
crushing houses and the lives
of animals, of plants, of people?
How great is the lesson
you give us,

O Earth,
more than sister:
our mother Earth!
All our lives
we walk carelessly across you,
and when life leaves us,
with no shadow of resentment,
you open up to us
your maternal bosom
to keep
our flesh,
our ashes,
for the joy
of the resurrection.