San Francesco

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Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone had a unique approach to discipleship. In his day the church wielded much power and influence and many in its leadership roles fell prey to the sins of power. Giovanni Francesco in fact was not much different from these priests. Though he was a member of the laity he came from a family of wealth and in his youth he too was victim of the sins of wealth. He had the reputation of a party loving and carefree soul. In his youth Giovanni dreamed of joining the elite of his day, he dreamed of becoming a knight. Way back then battles were fought almost at the drop of a hat, many times between two neighboring cities.

The slight Giovanni Francesco did indeed succeed in getting his wish; he became one of the proud knights in defense of his city. Sadly though the aspiring warrior fell from his high horse, and  and his wounds were serious enough to put an end to his military career. As so often happens with Saints in training, serious setbacks lead to grand changes. In a gospel sense out of death comes a new life and so this happened to Frank. Frank discovered a little church that was as broken as he was, and he set out to repair it. And so he did. He used his money to replace its stones, refurbish its beams, to polish its furnishings. The repairs he made to that little building seemed at the same time to repair him and he began to see that Church rebuilt in a new light.

Stories rarely go from bad directly to good, there are nearly always little twists that lead to challenges, and this one is no different. The little twist is Francesco’s father; it seems the wealthy business man was worried about his sons path. Francis’s new hobby both consumed funds and led Frank away from following in the family business and away from a livelihood. A tug of war ensued and the battle concluded with builder Frank ripping off his clothing and tossing them at his Father-merchant as a way dramatic declination of his inheritance and family lifestyle. Surprisingly Francis did not end up in a mental institution, though had they existed he likely would have.

In one event Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone renounces family wealth and in another he embraces poverty. That second encounter was the result of an encounter of a leper. With these series of events Frank goes from playboy to beggar /church-troubadour . Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone’s changes were undeniably a dramatic series of events yet the biggest shock is the events of this crushed knight reformed a mighty , powerful, though somewhat corrupt Church. Saint Francis used his experience (aka transformation) of rebuilding a church and his personal embrace of poverty to rebuild a Church by restoring it to its original gospel message. He saw in rebuilding that small structure his calling to rebuild that large organization. He rebuilt a church both with a small and capital “C”. In rebuilding the church by replacing its stones he saw the path to rebuild the larger Church by stripping away all that masked its beauty.

Francis wasn’t a priest, he lacked that training. He was a preacher and a Deacon with the role of aiding the church. A helper, a healer. He didn’t learn his theology in a classroom; he learned it through life and through nature. He did not live segregated from people; he and his friars lived among people. He did not display material wealth; he refused it and relied on only God to provide him and his group with what they needed. Through poverty he found a way to live the gospel and deliver that gospel message to others. His way or order eventually became the one of the largest in the Church. Through a dramatic poverty he fed the flock. His reformation of the church was a counter-reformation to the Protestants as his rebuilt the Church rather than divide it. As his spiritual Journey began with an infirmary, one aspect his order was known for was the building of hospitals for those who were poor. Francis is also the patron saint of ecology as so much of his vision of God came through nature. Isn’t it odd how falling off a horse could lead to such a grand victory?

Lazarus under a table

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Well, what did I think of this Sundays’ reading, the story of Lazarus and the rich man? Lk 16:19-31 First, this person noticed that concern for the poor and infirm, notably absent in this story, is a cornerstone of Christianity. It is the religions defining trait, which is  Christian charity. It is an outward display of Christian love that is so often the theme of the gospel. It is the alms giving of Lent. It is the Christ centered foundation of the homeless shelter, the reason for  Christian education initiative, and the inspiration for the  development of Catholic hospitals. Can I suggest the root word hospital is in hospitality or good will towards men? Charity towards the likes of Lazarus, the man begging from beneath a table, is absolutely fundamental to Christianity. It is nothing new today, but it was radical at the time of this story.

My other thoughts towards that story revolve around the details and how they are used. The story takes place at a table, so suggestive of the heavenly banquet mentioned frequently in Old Testament. The story does hint at that heavenly banquet; yet in heaven roles reverse; it is the rich man that begs beneath the table. In heaven Lazarus is granted that cherished seat at the table. As a side note, can anyone ponder the Lords table. That theme of table is common in many of the stories of Jesus. The dinner of the Last Supper , was it set in motion to  offer Lazarus a seat at the table? “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Lazarus would have gladly eaten crumbs that fell off that rich mans table, yet he was so far removed even they were a dream. How far can an outcast be cast, how great can a barrier be?

Next I marvel at those purple robes, the color of royalty. It is so much the color of royalty that it was worn exclusively by royalty, for anyone else to wear that color was a crime. Jesus clearly wanted those Pharisees to see how they identified with royalty. They were (in their minds) religious royalty. There also was the royal court, and one should not leave out the King of all creation. Those Pharisees did behave like they were royalty, so obvious as  they avoided all who were ritually unclean. At their table Lazarus would not even be granted a seat under the table, he would be pushed out the door. That was the reality of the day, there were clear boundaries between the privileged and the suffering. The gospel story clearly mirrors the society of that era. Lazarus was an outcast, ritually unclean and the definition of a sinner. The illustrated facts of life. Does this paint a picture?

“And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.”

The next detail comes from the beggar himself, Lazarus and his name translates “God is my help.”  With him is the call for society to change. In the “next” world he is the one  rewarded, and the rich that behaved as royalty is sent to hell. That, to put it bluntly, is in direct opposition to the common belief. To those Pharisees, those who were suffering or cursed on earth were cursed for eternity. To make matters worse, that condemnation was as contagious as influenza is today. A vision of heaven and hell should be interpreted as the Ancient’s would have envisioned it. Heaven resided beyond the firmament ( a tangible physical barrier) and the place of the stars. Hell that frightening tortious place beneath the earth. Jesus, in His story, clearly argued for a call to change. That change is the good news of Jesus Christ, it is the essence of Christianity. To Christ the fear could be replaced with compassion, and compassion meets its reward in heaven. Christian compassion, and Christian charity, they begin with Jesus Christ.

Much of the world in my opinion has taken the lesson of this story to heart. That does not mean there isn’t room for improvement. I think of those hospitals Christian religious orders set up throughout Europe in the middle ages. I think of the charitable work with youth carried out by the likes of John Bosco’s Salesian order, I think of the outreach efforts off the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities. I think of the parishes St. Vincent De Paul Societies, and of the generosity of a country, and a churches citizens. Christianity in action, a table turned over and a world upside down.

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 138

Eldad and Medad take a vacation on the 26 Sunday of Ordinary Time.

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In looking at today’s readings, I thought I would begin by researching the two people that are mentioned by name in the first reading  NM11:25-29.They are the two prophets not officially sanctified as prophets by Moses, but who stayed at the camp and prophesized anyway. I wondered what the significance of these two was since their account mirrors those that prophesize in Christs name (properly, they cast out demons) but who are not members of that community. Mk 9:38-43, 45, 47-48The link between the two groups is obvious. To understand Old Testament Eldad and Medad I thought I would step outside my own camp and consult the Rabbi’s. Certainly they can offer some insight.

The Rabbi Rashi describes the naming of the prophets as being drawn by lots, the names were first written down and then the required number drawn. Seventy names were drawn for twelve tribes and this gives six per tribe for ten tribes, and five for two tribes. There then is a problem, no tribe is going to willingly be shortchanged. Note, the reading is from the Book of Numbers. Rashi provides the solution that could have taken place. In that solution 72 entries were created; seventy of which read elder (aka prophet) and two which read “G-d does not want you.” Eldad and Medad’s non participation is then deduced from that scenario. Rabbi’s always offer several solutions. The first is they simply feared rejection and failure. The second is they felt they were not worthy of the honor or “greatness.” In other words, they were humble. Note also that the seventy chosen held a formal position.

While the two reasons are simple enough, fear and humility; the Rabbi’s explanation relates the event to Moshe and the burning bush. “Moshe hid his face because he was afraid to look at G-d. ” There then is the fear of the prophets. Rabbi’s though argue a lot. I do mean a lot! One Rabbi argues that Moshe was wrong in shielding his face, and when Moses later asks G-d to show His face, G-d refuses. That is the argument of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korsha.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani presents a counter argument. He argues Moses acted properly and was rewarded with a radiant face as he descends mount Saini. Fear and humility then are both important, as is the response of Moses. “Would that all the people are prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all. Perhaps all should listen to the Word of G-d, and put their egos aside? As a side note, Jesus often argued with the Pharisees and the Pharisee’s are the precursors to modern Judaism . The Pharisees argued with Jesus, and the Pharisee’s argued amongst themselves much the way these two Rabbi’s presented their arguments. Its cultural. They are arguments to reach a truth.

The argument then can change to who reveals the Word of G-d to us? Eldad and  Medad emphasize a contrast, official prophets versus the unofficial.Do we get to pick who they are, or is that Word revealed to us through them? Might it be a little of both, life is never simple! So many climb to the top so that they can tell us G-ds message. Is Prophet a position that is campaigned for? They declare themselves G-d’s prophets, truthful or not. G-d reveals that message to us through the people He chooses. That is different from us choosing people to deliver a message we want to hear. Prophets reveal G-d’s message to us, they do not place our demands on G-D. A kingdom is not a democracy. It’s the message that gains importance, not the messenger. I sincerely hope I did not mangle the Rabbi’s arguments too much.

Back to the prophets, who was the last Christian prophet? The last prophet mentioned in the Christian bible is John the Baptist. When Jesus asks His disciples who do you think I am, they respond others think him the prophet. When pressed for their own opinion, He is the messiah, the anointed, the Son of God. (This is my camp.) In Christianity one does not turn to a prophet for the Word of God, they turn to the Word made man. They turn to the Body of Christ. The mystical body of Christ is His Church.

This week there has been a lot of air time devoted to that message of G-d. The pope has visited the USA! There is the message of the pope, and then there is the message of the press. Democrats, Republicans, Liberal, Conservative, Traditional. There have been a lot of messages delivered this week. The pope declared his message of Christ, and the news media offered their opinion, analysis, and their spin. Somehow thinking about the prophets was especially important this week. The populist prophets have been talking twenty four seven, and it is a good time to abandon camp for a little peace and quiet.

Saint Francis

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For this feast day of Saint Francis, which is commemorated by his orders with the Transitus, that devotion which commemorates the Saints passing from this life to the next; one must start with the passing of Franciscan Friar Father Benedict Groeschel CFR who completed his earthly journey on the eve this feast day. Before hearing of his passing, on this Saint Francis day I wanted to think of all of the people that have been influenced by Saint Francis who did not wear a Habit. First though perhaps it would be wiser to pause and think of those like Father Groeschel that did wear the habit of Francis, and did bring Francis to many who were not familiar the saint. Father Groeschel did bring Saint Francis through his talks to many, and through writings, and his religious order the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. Most notably Benedict and his friars brought Francis to people through their outreach programs, particularly their service to the poor and the disadvantaged. His service was truly the best celebration of the feast of Saint Francis.

I am sure though that even Father Groeschel did not only see Saint Francis in people who wore robes. Francis himself emphasized that it was service to God and faithfulness to the Gospel that was the most important rule, and all others were secondary. To Francis it was not important who performed the service, what was important was the service itself. Christians need not wear a robe to commemorate Francis. Francis can be seen in countless Christians that do offer service to the disadvantaged, and frequently people that do that type of work frequently have a quiet devotion to that saint. Perhaps that devotion to the poor was nourished by people such as Francis’s Friars of the Renewal.

Francis, that keen observer of nature, often saw God working through nature and through the creatures of nature. He is the patron saint of ecology and though environmentalists can commonly be political opponents of the Church, frequently many of those who immerse themselves in nature are indeed spiritually Franciscan. Their habit though not a robe typically are the rough cloth of workmen specified in Francis’s rule. How far removed are jeans, a hoodie, and a rosary from the Franciscans robe and cord? One too can think of all of those dedicated to animal shelters. Those that train therapy dogs, and dogs for the blind can frequently be Franciscans working in disguise. Much of Francis’s message was spread by those third order secular Franciscans. Doctors, nurses, lawyers, social workers, shopkeepers, teachers, farmers, gardeners, stone masons, and carpenters all had the ability to carry out Francis’s message. Each had the ability to carry that message their own way, with a robe or without. Francis wasn’t all about the clothing, but about a life faithful to the gospel message, and he stressed that message was everyone in every state of life.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus

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It took a while to write on the little flower, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus, this time around on her feast day. Her story is well known, as is her writing. To write a simple biography did not seem to do her justice. After a bit of thought about her, and along with a little reading, I slowly began to think of her feast day not as an isolated day of the week, but rather I thought of it by what it was surrounded by. It was surrounded by the feast of the three angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael; and it also was at the time of the feast of the Guardian Angels. Therese is surrounded by angels on her feast day as she was certainly surrounded by Angels during her life. Though her life was short, she died at 24, but it was a life guided by devotion. Hers was a life of profound innocence, even though in her life she did know suffering. Her mother died when she was 4 years old, and Therese herself was stricken with tuberculosis. Her story though was marked by her simple innocent acts of holiness that often went unnoticed by those around her. One was her use of sacrifice beads, a small string of inconspicuous beads she used to count off presents she offered to Jesus. Those presents usually were simple acts of kindness to someone around her, so subtle yet so meaningful, they likely went unnoticed. Her devotion truly was one of love.

In reading a little on this saint I also noticed that her sister Celine was a photographer, as was her cousin Marier Guerin. The interesting point about these photographers is that they frequently recorded the life both of the little flower and her fellow Carmelite nuns. It also is interesting the time of Therese’s life was also the time photography was born. She likely is one of the first Saints to have their picture taken. The little Kodak Brownie dates from around 1888, when Therese would have been 15 years old.