Monday, September 27, 2010
Editor's Note: Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a good friend of St. Francis de Sales, spiritual director for St. Jane de Chantal, and tireless servant of the poor and marginalized. Vincent and Francis shared many of the same passions for God and God's people. In today's entry, Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden, NJ, reflects on the importance of the witness of Vincent's life for people today. Like Francis, Vincent has a number of powerful quotes that offer much food for thought for people today.
Quotes from St. Vincent de Paul
Let us love God, my sisters and brothers, let us love God. But let it be with the strength of our arms and the sweat of our brow.
Go to the poor: you will find God.
It is from your hands that Our Lord, in the person of the sick, seeks relief.
Lord, help me to make time today to serve you in those who are most in need of encouragement or assistance.
When you are called from your prayers or the Eucharistic celebration to serve the poor, you lose nothing, since to serve the poor is to go to God. You must see God in the faces of the poor.
The poor have much to teach you. You have much to learn from them.
The net result of my experience on the matter is the judgment I have formed, that true religion - true religion, sisters and brothers, true religion is to be found amongst the poor.
The poor are your masters. You are the servant.
Let us, my sisters and brothers, cherish the poor as our masters, since Our Lord is in them, and they are in Our Lord.
Make it a practice to judge persons and things in the most favorable light at all times and under all circumstances.
St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal articulated a classic spirituality in the Church. While Salesian Spirituality offers a distinct gift to the people of God, it does not stand in isolation. Francis and Vincent were friends, and De Sales had a significant influence on the younger man at a key point in his life. Later Vincent was associated with the Visitation community in Paris and was spiritual director to St. Jane. So it is not surprising that the maxims quoted above communicate the same good sense and awareness of God’s presence and action that can be found in the sayings of the Salesian saints.
Three Points from St. Vincent’s Life for Us.
1. Vincent came from a disadvantaged background in rural France. He left the farm at the age of 14 to train for the priesthood. It seems that Vincent was a sincerely religious young man, but it is also clear that his family saw this vocation as a way to advance beyond their economically precarious standing. A patron quickly recognized his outstanding potential, and he advanced to ordination and a comfortable position as chaplain and tutor to a wealthy family. It seems that Vincent also wanted to move beyond his humble background; there is a story that he refused to visit with his father who came to school in his shabby working clothes. There were even some accusations of financial mishandlings on his part during this period.
However, for a variety of reasons, but essentially because relationship with God was a deep part of his identity, he heard the voice of the Lord challenging him. He stepped out of the comfort of his secure upper class position to risk all for Christ. Vincent found ways to reach the poor and had a great way of getting the wealthy involved in helping.
2. Education and formation of the clergy is another area of Vincent’s efforts. He was very aware that so much hands-on work needed to be done, but he believed that ministers need to have thoughtful preparation and grounding in prayer in order to really help anyone, especially the poor.
The attitude anyone brings to charity work is hugely important. This famous quote of his expresses this well: You will find out that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and full basket. But you will keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup. This the rich can do. You are the servant of the poor. They are your masters, and the more difficult they will be, the more unjust and insulting, the more love you must give them. It is for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.
3. He stood as an ally with the Salesian family in opposing the influence of Jansenism in the Church of their time. Jansenists saw God as a harsh judge who had predestined all humanity either to heaven or to hell. This way of approaching Christianity promoted an austere spirituality. It was admirable in the energy of its devotion and commitment, but tragic in its distorted understanding of God. It encouraged an immature attitude toward the love of God that assumed that humans need to earn God’s love, rather than receive it as grace. Fear and guilt were often its motivators, rather than trust in the goodness, beauty, truth and love of God.
Unfortunately, the error that Fr. Jansen articulated still shows up to burden Christians in our time. Salesian Spirituality and the thought of St Vincent continue to guide believers to a true and healthy vision of the living God.
“Forgive the Bread You Give Them”
Almost every day and in every encounter with the poor, I think of this quote of St. Vincent. I can’t say I know exactly what Vincent meant when he said it, but it has several meanings for me encountering needy individuals.
It reminds me that meeting material needs of the poor is important, but it is not the only thing. It reminds me that I have “bread-”things to give and things to meet my needs-but it could be otherwise. I need to be grateful and to take nothing for granted. The quote articulates the incompletion of all service and charity. We may help feed someone or give them kindness and respect, money or clothes, but likely there are other needs. They may still be homeless or illiterate, without job skills, burdened with mental illness or addiction, without good parenting skills, and that is not OK.
St.Vincent de Paul teaches us, despite all the incompleteness, to get out there and do something.
Outpourings of affection for God, of resting in his presence, of good feelings toward everyone and sentiments and prayers like these ... are suspect if they do not express themselves in practical love which has real effects.
Friday, September 24, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Personally, my most frequent interaction with Islam comes just observing women clad head to toe in long black robes, sometimes even wearing dark glasses and black gloves. I do wonder how the anonymity provided by these uniforms could be a good thing. Perhaps women choose this way of dressing chose to stand at an extreme from a way of dressing that often seems better suited for the beach or gym than for business or daily wear. That is a good thing, I think. However, I still do not understand.
I was not one of those who bought and read the Koran in 2001. It remains on the list of classics that I really should read. I did read a good book by Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East that explores some significant interactions between Western European powers and the states that developed from the Ottoman Empire.
I still know very little about Islam, but I do understand that the Catholic faith encourages respect and trust that God’s grace extends out to everyone. Threatening to burn a stack of Korans, or any sort of disrespect directed at a religion, suggests a lack of awareness that the Almighty will not be limited by creed or tradition. The Church has a role to be a sacrament pointing to the fullness of kingdom of God, but God and the kingdom are not any one tradition’s private possession.
This is not to say that all faiths are the same. And clearly not all criticism has to be disrespectful and mal-intended (some of the most devoted Catholics I know are also the Church’s most articulate critics). It is also not to deny that some religions foster some unhealthy attitudes. But God’s desire for good will not be thwarted by the limits of human understanding and articulation of truth.
The Name of God
It is not an accident that the first of the Ten Commandments tells us there is only one God and warns us about false gods. It is not that there are any divine beings other than the one God; but we humans sometimes set up finite things, thinking they have power and truth that they really do not have. The living God is always beyond the grasp of our understanding. But one thing is sure, as St. Augustine observed, because we call God “our Father,” we must look at all God’s children as our sisters and brothers.
Light to the Peoples
Thursday, September 9, 2010
The Gospel for today comes from Luke's "Sermon on the Plain," and reminds us that as followers of Christ we are challenged to love our enemies (Luke 6:27-38). While clearly people who follow another religion are not enemies of Christianity, this Gospel teaches us that love must be the motivating force behind all of our actions.
One of Francis de Sales' most famous quotes is that we must do everything out of love, and not out of fear. While a very small minority of people may claim burning the Koran is a Christian act, it clearly is done out of fear and a lack of love. As followers of Christ in the Salesian tradition, we pray for an end to all violence and a deeper respect for all people who authentically seek God in their particular religious tradition. We remember this week all who lost their lives and family and friends in the attacks of September 11. Following Jesus' command in the Gospel today, we also pray for the attackers, and all who choose violence under the guise of religious fervor. As we continue our efforts for peace in the world today, we look forward in hope to the day when the Prince of Peace will return.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Editor's Note: Today's entry is from Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of De Sales Service Works in Camden. This is the first of two entries on the current debate about the building of an Islamic center near the site of Ground Zero in New York.
The proposal to establish an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan, a “mosque at Ground Zero” has generated a great deal of heated debate late this summer. Clearly some are trying to rouse voter attention as the nation approaches this fall’s election season. So we have witnessed political posturing and exaggerations, as well as some thoughtful discussion of important topics for our time.
Level heads point out that the proposed center is neither literally a mosque, nor is it located at Ground Zero. People point out that the neighborhood around 45 Park Place, the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory store, features the typical mix of enterprises found in this densely occupied island. Others highlight that workday Moslems worship in the Pentagon, sharing space with Catholics, Jews, and Protestants in the military chapel just yards away from where so many gave their lives on 9/11. Others shift the debate in the direction of issues of religious freedom in Moslem countries or of concerns about security. Naturally, concern for the sensitivities of families of World Trade Center victims enters into considerations.
The branch of morality called Catholic social teaching is not a place to go for easy answers to complex questions, but it does offer principles that can be helpful in shaping thinking and consciences that contribute to public discussion and development of public policy. I offer two blog entries that bring Catholic social teaching to the issue of the proposed Islamic center. The first will look to the experience of Trappist monks in a community in Algeria. The second will look at religious freedom and relationships among religious traditions.
Monastic life can offer a striking picture of Christian values, because this lifestyle is stripped of distractions, brought down to basics. These lives can be like a parable put in motion. I like scripture scholar C. H. Dodd’s definition of a parable:
A parable is a metaphor or simile
drawn from nature or common life
arresting the ear of the hearer
by its vividness or strangeness
that leaves the mind
in sufficient doubt about it precise application
to tease it into active thought.
The lives of the monks of Our Lady of the Atlas Monastery fit that description; they are, like many of Jesus’ actions (such as eating with sinners and tax collectors), a living parable. Their community of seven Trappists was found in the village of Tibhirine in the dry, remote Atlas Mountains of Algeria. All originally from France, they lived in Algeria as brothers to each other and to the poor neighbors with whom they lived. The goal was not to proselytize but to live a typical monastic life of prayer and labor, and by love and religion to bridge two worlds that so often have been hostile. Their “common life” consisted of work, friendship, prayer, care for the sick, living among the poor, living far from home. This life gives an image of the Kingdom of God, “strange and vivid.” They set aside one of the buildings in their enclosure for use as a mosque for the neighbors so that “the sound of the bells mixed with the Muslim call to prayer.”
These monks knew Jesus very deeply and loved their Trappist and Roman Catholic identity, but they also knew, as Vatican II articulated so clearly, that religious things point beyond themselves to the infinite, all-embracing God. God will never be the tidy possession of one faith or one group. Genuine encounter with the living God expands our hearts so that we love all, even the one who sees things differently, even the one we do not understand, even the one who does us harm, even the one who is enemy to us.
In the 1990s Algeria was plagued by violent unrest from armed groups who opposed the secular government and influence from the West. Things got to the point that these groups demanded that all foreigners leave or be killed. Very aware of the danger, the Trappist community decided leaving would amount to abandoning their people, so they chose to stay.
Distinctions are very important. These monks were able to discriminate between the intentions of terrorists or fundamentalists and those of the great majority of Algerians who lived honest lives in tolerance and respect. But even with those who embrace violence, distinctions can be made between the sin and the sinner.
The leader of the monastery, Fr. Christian de Cherge, wrote a sealed letter that he gave to his family in France to open in case of his violent death. His family had lived in Algeria, and he was born and grew up there, but they left during the bloody conflict that led to independence from France. He wanted people to know why the monks stayed in Tibhirine and wanted to be sure people understood the distinctions and the “strange and vivid” love of Jesus Christ.
I invite you to read his Testament and let the moral insights he shares “arrest” us and inform our “active thought” to contribute to this public policy debate.
When we face an A-DIEU…
If it should happen one day—and it could be today---that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country.
I ask them to accept the fact that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I would ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to associate this death with so many equally violent ones which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil that seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in the evil that might blindly strike me down.
I would like, when the time comes, to have a moment of spiritual clarity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time forgive with all my heart the one who will strike me down. I do not desire such a death.
It seems to me important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were indiscriminately accused of my murder.
It would be too high a price to pay for what will perhaps be called the “grace of martyrdom” to owe this to an Algerian, whoever he may be,
especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.
I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on the Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which certain Islamism fosters. It is too easy to sooth one’s conscience by identifying this religious way
with the fundamentalist ideology of its extremists.
For me Algeria and Islam are not that, but rather a body and a soul.
I have proclaimed this often enough, in the light of what I have received from it.
I so often find there the true strand of the Gospel which I learned at my mother’s knee, my very first Church, precisely in Algeria, and already inspired with respect for Muslim believers.
Obviously, my death will appear to confirm those who hastily judged me naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us now what he think of it!”
But these persons should know that finally my most avid curiosity will be set free.
This is what I shall be able to do, please God:
immerse my gaze in that of the Father
to contemplate with him His children of Islam
just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ,
the fruit of His Passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit
whose secret joy will always to establish communion
and restore the likeness, playing with the differences.
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely for the sake of that JOY in everything and in spite of everything. In this THANK YOU, which is said for everything in my life from now on, I certainly include you, friends of yesterday and today, and you my friends of this place, along with my mother and father, my sisters and brothers and their families. You are the hundredfold granted as was promised!
And also you, my last-minute friend,
who will not know what you are doing;
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this “A-DIEU”
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
AMEN! IN H’ALLAH!
Friday, September 3, 2010
Labor is an important part of our lives, and this holiday weekend offers us an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of work for us as Christians. The dignity of work and the rights of workers is one of the fundamental principles of Catholic social teaching. Modern Catholic social teaching begins with Leo XIII’s encyclical on human work (Rerum Novarum, 1891) and the rights of laborers, which he called “the question of the hour.” Today, we see that this question remains, as many people seek meaningful work and seek just wages for their labor. Our economy still faces many challenges today, and unemployment was at 9.5% in July.
In honor of this Labor Day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a document entitled “A New Social Contract for Today’s New Things.” The news release with the link for the entire document can be found here: http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2010/10-151.shtml. In the document, the bishops write,
Workers need to have a real voice and effective protections in economic life. The market, the state, and civil society, unions and employers all have roles to play and they must be exercised in creative and fruitful interrelationships. Private action and public policies that strengthen families and reduce poverty are needed. New jobs with just wages and benefits must be created so that all workers can express their dignity through the dignity of work and are able to fulfill God’s call to us all to be co-creators. A new social contract, which begins by honoring work and workers, must be forged that ultimately focuses on the common good of the entire human family.
The Church takes seriously the dignity of work as participating in the creative work of God. There are various forms of work, but all forms that respect human dignity participate in God’s creative and redemptive work. In our society that values certain jobs much more than others, as seen by the fact that many people do not receive just wages while some CEOs and other high-ranking officials receive exorbitant wages, this is an important point to remember. Francis de Sales highlights the importance that each of us has in offering this world something unique through our work, “We all have a vocation. We must believe that God has called us to fulfill a special mission in this life that no one else can accomplish.” Even if what our job is does not seem to be important to many people in the world, the way we approach our job and interact with others can have a profound impact on others and can witness to the presence of Jesus in our lives.
The ancient principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief) teaches us that the way we pray shapes what we believe. In this vein, it can be instructive for us to hear one of the opening prayers for Mass on Labor Day:
God our Father,
By the labor of men and women you govern and guide to perfection the work of creation. Hear the prayers of your people and give all people work that enhances their human dignity and draws them closer to each other in the service of their brothers and sisters. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.
I pray that everyone has a safe, relaxing Labor Day, and is able to reflect on the dignity of work and seek ways to promote justice in the workplace and in the world.
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Editor's Note: Today's blog entry completes the reflections of Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of DSW, on the influences on DSW. This week marks the begininng of the year-long volunteers' ministry in Camden. For anyone interested in participating in a service retreat, alternative break or weekend, or a year of service, please visit www.oblates.org/dsw.
So often interactions with the needy seem to be all about, “what are you going to do for me.” Can I have 50 cents? I need a sandwich; I’m starving. I just need to get to Deptford tonight; I don’t want to spend the night here. Do you have any bus passes? I need shoes, deodorant, soap, a pillow, a blanket, pants, socks, another sandwich for my child, wife, friend, or disabled neighbor. This is understandable because so many people here are at a spot where they are simply trying to keep their heads above water. Mental illness, poverty, and/or drug use leads them to extremes just trying to survive.
But it is so dysfunctional: adults acting like kids. The community of St. Francis Inn offers a model with this experience, how to accept the reality of desperate need and to try to move deeper.
St. Francis Inn
St. Francis Inn http://www.stfrancisinn.org/ is a ministry of the Franciscans. The ministry centers around the daily meal at the soup kitchen located at the corner of Kensington Ave and Hagert Street, under the “El” in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. They also sponsor a women’s center, a thrift store, a food pantry, and a clinic. But most of all, the Inn is a community made up of Franciscan friars, sisters, year-long fresh college grad volunteers and years-long, in some cases, decades-long volunteers and then a whole network of supporters who have found a spiritual and service home there. Most importantly, the community includes the needy: “guests,” as they call everyone who comes for food, help, and company.
I first encountered this community in 1992 as campus minister at Bishop Ireton High School. For my next 8 years at Ireton, students and I would go regularly to Philadelphia to work and pray, to be a part of this amazing community, and to bring back insight and commitment to the poor to our own community. This blog entry shares three things we learned that help us now with DSW in Camden.
1. There For You
The experience of community at the Inn teaches the value of enduring, dependable presence. The needs guests have are real, but they do not usually have a quick solution that the person could walk away with. Most often the needs go beyond the emergency of the moment. We experience this very often in Camden: a couple times a week someone will come to the door toward the end of the work day expressing need to get out of the city before darkness falls. I want to ask each time what they did earlier in the day: what was their plan for return home earlier in the day? It can feel good to satisfy someone’s need, especially when it is framed as basically “saving their lives.” But most often, that just leaves more needs for the next day or the next crisis.
St. Francis is a community that is there for people, dependably, day after day, year after year. There is much banter and playing and conversation, all bonding things that move the focus out of the framework of getting things.
Very often here in Camden, I can hear Fr. Michael Duffy, one of the friars on the leadership team, reflecting that he did not come to Kensington to say “no” to poor people. However, like all the community members, he learned that structure is important, and really necessary. Everyone needs to know what to expect. When Matt Hillyard and I first arrived here in Camden, we gave away food, clothing, and blankets anytime anyone came to the door to ask. It did not take long until that got out of control. We learned the need to set limits, to say “no” to poor people in order to focus on the individual, on deeper needs rather than on simply acting as an ATM or fast food drive-in window.
2. Peace of Christ
Another big thing St. Francis Inn gave us is the image of Jesus absorbing the negative, taking upon himself the weight of others’ sin. So many people we encounter here are nice, kind, grateful. But many are not; some can seem ungrateful or self-centered, can be manipulative, or appear antisocial. That can be upsetting for volunteers, and for us who are here all the time. We might offer peanut butter sandwiches to some people, and they say they want baloney and cheese. We offer baloney to someone who wants peanut butter and jelly. We get so much gratitude and positive feedback about our water, but there will be people who ask where the ice is, or who get upset if we run out of cups or if they find the tank low when they happen to arrive.
The Inn community, learning from the Poor Man of Assisi, takes the anger but does not give it back. They focus on understanding, aware that so many of the guests have no other place where they can ask for something and get it, have some kind of power, or get their own will, or even be angry or demanding. For many poor or homeless women and men, much of the day may be spent in situations where things are not under their control: waiting in line, being put off or avoided, or dealing with officious bureaucrats. So, the Inn community tries to be understanding, or to at least shape responses so that they are respectful.
The peacemaking you can observe at St. Francis Inn is not passive, however. An honesty and willingness to say “no” and to set limits keeps it from merely smoothing over conflict. The key effort is making the choice not to return anger with anger or power with power. Following Francis of Assisi, they commit to the power of Christ’s peace.
Each day The Inn strives to welcome and nourish the hungry. They deal with the disorder, the smells, and the privations of life in the inner city. They also enjoy people, the humor, stories, and the humanity. They endure the various letdowns and tragedies. All of this-especially the effort to understand and not to return anger for anger, violence with violence-gets support from the fact that no individual has to do it alone. St. Francis Inn is a community first and foremost. They work together. They also pray together. The community members describe themselves as a “Eucharistic community” because the sharing of communion in word and sacrament is very important for the group identity.
At Mass typically the priest preaches a homily, and then others are invited to offer reflection on the readings and experiences in the service. This practice seems to keep everyone connected to what is going on with everyone and the Lord. It also seems to connect the work and experiences of each day to values and goals everyone shares.
Welcoming Visiting Coworkers
The reason Bishop Ireton student groups were able to visit is because a good portion of the ministry of the Inn involves welcoming groups who come to share the life and work. This is exactly what we are doing with DSW. I hope we also teach respect and give the opportunity to encounter our wonderful and troubled needy neighbors. Inspired by our Francis-de Sales- we bring what we have to offer for the service of God.