Off The Wall

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Fall 2011
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A wooden crucifix hangs on the back wall of our simple sanctuary at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon. It hangs off-center above the light wood altar. The year when the Solemnity of the Triumph of the Holy Cross was celebrated on Sunday, I decided to emphasize the only cross in our worship space. In the early morning on Saturday, I retrieved our longest ladder from a storage space. I set up the ladder to hang a piece of red fabric behind the crucifix. In our very simple chapel a strip of long colored fabric behind the dark cross easily highlights the liturgical seasons.

I stepped up a few rungs on the ladder and took the cross off the wall and placed it on a side table. I then stepped up on the highest rung of the ladder to hook the fabric on a couple of hidden nails on the wall. Retrieving the cross, I climbed back on the ladder and hung the cross back into its regular position, now over the red material. The fabric seemed to catch the light shining on the cross; it was the perfect way to give a focus to the solemnity.

I started my descent down the ladder and all of a sudden the wooden cross fell to the floor. In a split second the carved wooden Crucifix was now in several pieces on the hardwood floor of the sanctuary.

After enduring a few minutes of panic, I considered blaming the accident on the heavy music vibrations from the nightclub located on the other side of the sanctuary wall. Instead, I had an idea about how to replace the broken crucifix for the time needed for its repair by putting something else in its place. We hang a large painting of the face of Christ, normally found in our rectory, in the sanctuary on Good Friday. It is an explosively dynamic portrayal of the Crucified Christ in red, orange, yellow and blue paint.

When our parish gathered for Eucharist that weekend, the bright, bold painting certainly caught their attention for the solemnity. I never told members of the parish of the accident. Seeing again the face of Christ, many members began to connect the pattern of Christ’s death and resurrection to the faces of people living in poverty. As I listen now to the sacred texts now for the closing weeks of another liturgical year, I see the importance of getting the cross off the wall and embracing its life-giving message in the midst of daily life.

Jesus confronts us with the shattering news that prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God before the rest of his followers. Jesus reminds us that we cannot come to him unless we are willing to change our ways so to live with honesty and love. Jesus asks us to change our minds about following him because it is never too late. This message embedded in Matthew’s Gospel tells us that we cannot stand apart from the dying and rising of Jesus, but we must live this pattern every day.

I witness people facing up to their heroin addiction with a choice for sobriety or to face certain death. I hear the confession of a sex addict who has never known true intimacy in his entire life, the cross he carries into his next one-night stand. Jesus invites us to change our minds, our actions and follow the will of the Father. The cross is not just a piece of fine art hanging on a clean wall in the comfort of a small chapel. People living in poverty become the message of the cross for every person who enters our worship space.

One of our staff members found an artist who spent the next week repairing the cross. I found all the lost tiny pieces of wood that splintered from the corpus. I cannot help but think of the lost being invited to the banquet feast as I searched the floor. The servants invited everyone to the feast whether or not they were prepared. People were invited to feast on fine wine and good food that is still served to us who decide to follow the Christ. So many people are starving for this invitation because so many people feel so isolated from faith and the church. Not only did I pick up the fragments of wood, I began to see our stray people more clearly. I see many lost teens in our neighborhood. They come because the system of foster care and adoption fails many youth when their families of origin beat them or emotionally abuse them. I read recently that only one-third of parents whose child has disappeared even bother to report the child missing or lost. The Kingdom is ready for everyone.

Jesus tells his followers not to follow the example of the scribes and Pharisees. They put heavy burdens on others and do not lift a finger to help. Jesus reminds his followers that only the humble will be exulted. I fret and worry about the many people at our chapel door all week long. These are the people who are living out the message of the cross. This cross of humility is always before my eyes and gets caught in my heart. This cross is not an artist’s rendition of something that happened years ago. This cross is when people come to us daily needing medication for mental illness, diseases and broken bones. This cross means people have not showered for several months, have no families and often do not care whether or not they live. This cross screams out from frustration, urinates on our doors and eats meals from trash cans.

The life of Christ is not contained in wood, plaster-of-Paris, or bronze. We must love God with our entire heart, mind and soul. Jesus tells us that this cross of love must be lived for our neighbor. To extend ourselves in love and commitment to all people we call our neighbors is hard work. The real freedom of the cross of Christ is to live for other people and not count the cost. We must all see the reality of Christ living among people and not get stuck on an artistic image that does not affect our lives.

Jesus tells us that we are worth our daily wage. We are invited into the Kingdom of God even though we may be stubborn at first and only desire Christ in the eleventh hour. We so often take years to make the real decision to follow Christ and come to live the cross in every aspect of our lives. These reminders help every worshipping assembly live out the message of Christ Crucified. I prayed all week that our crucifix could be put together again and I prayed for people who remain weary and beaten down by life.

The artist put the pieces of the broken crucifix back together. He returned the piece of art to us perfectly assembled and polished clean. I hung the cross back in its place and no one suspected the accident.

I view the repaired cross hanging on our wall with greater respect for people who cannot always put their lives together. They live the reality of Christ’s dying and rising. The gospels teach a new understanding of the cross being lived off the wall. Now when I see the repaired piece of art, I pray for the people who teach me the genuine meaning of the celebration, the Solemnity of the Triumph of the Holy Cross.

Message in a Bottle

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Summer 2011
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A friend traveled to Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal in Quebec, Canada last autumn. My religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, commissioned him to journey to the site of the many healings attributed to Saint Andre Bessette, CSC. His task was to photograph the celebrations of Brother Andre’s canonization both in Montreal and in Rome. During his visit to Montreal he photographed pilgrims walking on their knees on the steep steps of the Oratory. He shot people praying in the chapels and gardens and the room where Brother Andre lived. My friend even photographed Brother Andre’s heart that is still enshrined at the Oratory.

When the photojournalist arrived back in Portland, we shared coffee, stories and the photos from his journey. As we sipped coffee at a local coffeehouse, he handed me a white paper sack and told me it was a special gift. I opened the wrinkled bag and took out a bottle of Saint Joseph’s oil from the Oratory’s gift shop. An artist’s sketch in blue, red and white of Saint Joseph carrying a white lily adorns the plastic bottle.

These words appear in several languages on the side of the 500ml container: “Brother Andre often advised those who came to him to rub themselves with some vegetable oil which had been burning in front of the statue of Saint Joseph. Even today, oil used in this manner remains a link with our tradition. It is an expression of faith. It is not the oil itself which cures, but the Lord who hears the prayers of the faithful.”

The unopened bottle of oil still sits on a bookshelf next to my bible in my bedroom. I admit I really do not know how to use it. I am not sure where this oil of devotion fits into the healing ministry of the Church today. In fact, I am deeply confused about many aspects of healing and how we carry on the tradition of Jesus reaching out to the leper, the blind man and the Canaanite woman’s daughter. I firmly believe there is a message contained in the bottle of oil. I just do not know how to get it out of the sealed bottle and into people’s lives.

Many believers question the use of such oil today within worshipping assemblies. Some people associate healing with snake oil salesman and sleight-of-hand trickery of fundamentalist preachers trying to make a living. Many liturgists frown upon such personal devotion because a bishop in the context of the Chrism Mass has not blessed this oil during Holy Week. This oil does not fit into the traditional sacramental life of the Church. This oil goes well beyond the clerical role of anointing the sick and forgiving sins within the seven sacraments of the Church. This bottle of oil used in the tradition of Brother Andre seems far removed from the sacramental, clerical and liturgical norms.

I know I am also not alone in my skepticism about physical, emotional and spiritual healing within the Church today. People are suspicious about healing because first of all we are all powerless over suffering. I have known and observed priests who refuse to pray with people individually because they are afraid to enter into the depths and uncertainty of people’s real suffering. Others are squeamish about body pain, surgeries, bloody accidents, physical abnormalities, paralysis and the fact that suffering itself is uncontrollable. Sacramental rubrics, liturgical rites and decrees from the institutional church cannot control suffering. For many clergy, if suffering cannot be controlled, the best form of healing is to avoid it all together.

I am also suspicious of healing based upon my graduate studies in our liturgical tradition and my training in pastoral and professional skills. The professional minister today is trained to avoid such attempts to heal because it does not fit into any field education requirements or competencies. In many ways the professional model of the church today has drained much of the Spirit’s presence out of any notion that healing happens with vegetable oil, scapulars, personal devotions, holy cards or prepackaged devotions of any kind.

During the lifetime of Brother Andre, the ministry of healing was a prime mission of many religious communities.  Religious communities of men and women in the past set out on horseback in the United States to found and build hospitals, orphanages, and care facilities for anyone who was lost, forgotten, ill or dying. Today the presence of priests, brothers and sisters in institutions of healing has given way to the latest technology and concerns over insurance coverage. Our church has lost much of its personal mission of healing.

I am desperate to find healing today. I simply do not know where to turn to discover answers. I stand daily amid the brutal chaos of people living with severe mental illness. Many people hear voices that tell them to kill themselves, to ignore their medications and to punish themselves. People sit in the rain around our building and cry out in the night. They lash out at passersby and refuse to speak with their counselors who are assigned to our streets.

I pray for healing for people who blame homeless people for being homeless. I want healing for every family so that our gay and lesbian children will not be abused or bullied. Hundreds of children have fled into the woods or the streets in Oregon because of domestic abuse. I lash out in the night to God that young girls are being trafficked in our suburban shopping malls or in upscale grade schools. I am not sure how much more I can take of the young mother diagnosed with breast cancer or the addict that refuses treatment or the honor student who cuts herself.

I realize I cannot control countries at war or how the institutional church treats people. If I can find my way into this bottle of oil, I may be able to focus my belief that God alone heals. I desire healing amidst the shambles of people’s stories and their regrets from the past. I am now realizing the message in the bottle is also for the cynic and the critic.

Hundreds of people came to Brother Andre every day during his ministry. I now sense his frustration about people’s lives. Andre first guided people to stay close the healing sacraments of the Church. However, so often people were not healed. They needed so much more than what he could give them. He reached for the oil that was there at the Saint Joseph statue because that is what was available to him. Brother Andre told some mothers to wash their children in dishwater and or to go to confession. He said all those things because he did not have answers to the depths of people’s suffering and anguish.

There is something in this bottle of oil that frightens me. I must come to terms with God’s healing love in the world that is more potent than my fear and more consoling than the oil from the Saint Joseph statue. God’s healing happens without our permission, rules or guidelines. God does not commit healing power only to the well educated, the immaculately dressed or the clean cut. God’s healing happens amidst the mess, chaos and confusion of everyone trying to figure out how to ease suffering, whether of others or their own.

God healed many people through Brother Andre’s intercession even though Andre was not a priest, not within the confines of the sacramental church.  The oil for so many was simply a reminder of what they already knew but had forgotten in the midst of their pain, that God alone eases suffering, forgives sin and offers new life for the body and the soul.

Someday I will have the courage to open the bottle of oil. I will take the risk of unsealing the bottle and opening my heart. I will risk that my relationship with suffering people allows God to enter and heal everyone beyond my imagining. I will take the step to pray with people upon their request. I will pour out the holy oil and believe in the miracle that Jesus’ passion leads to new life for me and for every person. Someday I will receive the message hidden in the plastic bottle on my bookcase.

Getting Our Feet Wet

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Spring 2011
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I admire our young whistleblowers. I am not referring to corporate moles or people who want to snitch on other people’s errant behavior. I am speaking about the young volunteers in our parish who are trying to tell us that so many situations in life need changing. These young students and many other twenty-something believers are finding their true vocations among suffering people.

These faith-filled followers of the gospel are blowing the whistle on the fact that so many people are starving for nourishing food, genuine companionship, available housing and affordable health care. These vocations are rooted deeply in the belief that God is still healing people and that everyone deserves at least the basics of life. Because these vibrant young people believe in the love of God, they are speaking out about the apathy, prejudice and lack of faith they find within the church today.

On October 17, 2010, the Church of Canada and all of our ministries in the Congregation of Holy Cross celebrated the canonization of Brother Andre Bessette, CSC. His legacy to our religious community is one of profound healing and hospitality among the sick and marginalized.  On that morning during Eucharist here at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon, two young people spoke about how their lives have been changed volunteering and ministering among God’s forgotten flock.

Taylor hobbled up on crutches to the microphone. He spoke deliberately, with great strength even though he had broken his leg in a bicycle accident. He told us that he has been volunteering here since he was fourteen years old. Taylor arrived here as a shy, skinny junior high student struggling with many personal issues. He has remained at the chapel volunteering because he has found his voice and purpose in life. Taylor now is a senior at the University of Portland and envisions his future tackling issues of poverty both locally and globally. He also served migrant worker camps while attending high school. He traveled to Kenya last year to explore environmental issues and now wishes to operate an orphanage in Kenya after college. His words on that day of celebration seemed so piercing and hope filled. He reminded us that faith lived out in this parish has profound meaning.  I felt such great gratitude for what God continues to reveal to Taylor and his response to people in need.

Valerie approached the microphone next feeling homesick for our community. She traveled from Chicago back home to Portland for the weekend to celebrate Saint Andre with our parish. She served as a staff member here and misses her hands-on work.  Valerie now attends the University of Chicago pursuing a degree in social work. She believes the link to real personal and social healing is through serving people surviving poverty. She connects Andre’s life of healing and hospitality with the vision and purpose of Dorothy Day.

I am so inspired by Valerie’s faith. Valerie told us that she was received into the Catholic Church as a senior at the University of Portland. One of her defining moments of faith was standing in a line for free health care during college. She was so afraid of being identified as “poor.” While she was standing in that line she was reading a book about Dorothy Day’s life that explained the concepts of human dignity being revealed by God’s love. It was a true moment of insight and conversion for Valerie. Her deep desire to serve people surviving homelessness and mental illness was born.

I reflect on these young vocations of love and service as we enter into the Easter season.  The Fourth Sunday of Easter in particular point us into the direction of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. On this Sunday we traditionally pray for the next generation of church vocations. There is much fear in the church today about the decreasing numbers of vocations to religious life and priesthood. People blame parents for not inviting children into traditional vocations while other people blame the sex crimes of the clergy for dwindling numbers of young men considering seminary. Some people blame a new liberalism while others blame the new conservative trappings of religious life.   There seems to be human blame in all directions, while Jesus is inviting young people to discover new roles as servants of the Shepherd.

Taylor and Valerie have entered the gate of Jesus through their own suffering. Jesus has welcomed them into a vocation of dedicated service that will last for years to come. These vocations are so genuine and honest, so faithful and solid. I am humbled as a priest that members of this generation continue to guide me into the Shepherd’s gate with their lives of integrity and purpose.

Valerie shared with me after the celebration of Saint Andre that she remembers standing in our lobby during one of her first weeks at the parish. One of her duties was to welcome people through our red doors for the various services we provide such as food, clothing and hygiene products.  She remembered that her feet were wet from riding her bike to work that morning in the rain. As she welcomed people she realized that everyone’s feet were wet, except the shoes of homeless people were squishing water. She realized she was called by God to offer dry socks. She then told me that she prayed she would have enough faith to offer shoes. Valerie then realized that she would need more faith to get people housing so they do not have to sleep in the rain. After visiting the parish for Andre’s celebration, Valerie realized that she could imagine healing large enough now to end homelessness.

Entering the gate for any believer to care for the shy sheep means dealing with messy situations. Walking through the gate also demands tremendous faith. These hands-dirty vocations of our young people show me that Christ is still inviting people into the life of passion, death and resurrection. I see the red door of our parish building being the eternal gate of welcome and hospitality, the entry into the sheepfold. I see shepherds of young people relating to people lost among the briars of prejudice and selfishness and forgotten among the wealthy and well deserving.

Valerie and Taylor know their sheep. The sheep also know their voices. These two vocations are authentic because both Taylor and Valerie have known suffering, personal loss, fragile egos and hurtful relationships. People suffering poverty respond to Valerie and Taylor because they do not hide their need for God or their own personal loneliness and poverty. They are leaders who are one with the sheep.

I long to get my feet wet in service alongside these new vocations. They hear the Shepherd’s voice with clarity and purpose and teach me to persevere. I want to work among Taylor and Valerie and others who believe that faith will heal people and that working together will someday bring homes for everyone to protect them from the rain.

Advent: A Housing Project

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, November 2010
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My parents decided to sell our family home in Edwardsburg, Michigan the year after I was ordained a priest. Even though I had not lived in the cozy house for ten years prior to that decision, the news of my parents’ move devastated me. I was an adult having made decisions about my future, but my past seemed to be slipping out from under me. This charming white, renovated home sitting on the edge of Garver Lake was not just a commodity; it felt as if it were at the core of my identity.

I did not realize the emotional power of this piece of land and the house with the open view to the lakefront until I visited my parents just before they sold our home. I walked into the familiar setting to see cardboard boxes being filled with family heirlooms, everyday items and simple gifts I had given them. I saw antiques that my mother and I purchased at flea-markets through the years being carefully stored in bubble-wrap. The setting in which I felt safe, comfortable and protected from the world was being torn up and being sold to strangers.

I felt so alone walking through once-familiar rooms. I strolled through the home one last time before saying goodbye to my past and my parents. I ambled out of the house being stripped of so much of what I thought was important. Part of my angst was that I was being transferred for the first time as a new priest to a different state in the western part of the country. Not only could I not visit my old house, I would be living even further from my folks.

I stood on the driveway looking back at the house and wept like a baby. My mother held me and I felt my father’s arm on my back. This moment was a clear transition into adulthood. There was no going back on my decisions or my parents’ choices. At that moment I was a lost child, a homeless adult.

I remember my fear on the driveway especially during another transition into a new liturgical year. I hear the gospel writer Luke tell us again that people were speaking of the temple adorned with costly stones and votive offerings. Jesus explains that a day will come when there will not be one stone left on another at the temple site. I can imagine the fear people felt hearing these words. The temple was a place of security, community and faith. The panic of change overwhelmed many believers. Saying goodbye to my family home that last day crushed many stones in my memory of what I thought was secure.

As Advent unleashes its prophets’ voices, I hear Jesus spearheading the end of time. He commands our wakefulness. He cuts our ties on earth telling us that two men will be out in a field, one will be taken and one will be left. Two women grinding at the mill will be separated, one taken and one left. If the master of the house would have known when the thief was coming, he could have saved the home from robbery.

Panic must have been written on their foreheads and fear inscribed in their hearts. The one who was to come, the Messiah, first separates us from people we love. I still sleep with one eye open remembering the day that Jesus invited me to let go of the home of my youth.

John the Baptist insists that good fruit must be born in us from our change of hearts. This conversion remains costly as we try to adjust our attitudes about our human priorities and cling to God alone. The Advent wake-up call challenges even the most dedicated believer and the most sophisticated parish assembly to let go of earthly ties of safety and familiarity. This challenge for every individual and community comes at the time of year when we prefer to focus on our cultural nests of financial security, family relationships, warm memories and stable futures.

As I got into the car at my parents’ old house after saying goodbye, I wondered why I was really leaving. I questioned God’s plan for me to move, to live a vocation that would always separate me from my family and my past. I hear again in Advent the reasons for my growing up.

John the Baptist’s followers see that Jesus is healing the sick, getting the lame back on their feet and cleansing the lepers of all disease. They witnessed deaf people hearing and friends being raised from the dead. Jesus also preached news that the poor should always be housed in our concern and love.

I left the security of my childhood home to find my real shelter in God. Finding my life in God enables me to provide a home for others. Now I experience the need for people suffering poverty to always have good news preached to them. I see in other adults the devastation of childhood abuse and the deep grooves of generational poverty and loss. I let go of my childish ways to teach the illiterate, welcome the outcast and befriend the sinner.

Advent calls every worshipping community into adulthood.Our faith cannot remain in cozy corners of sentimentality or in rooms locked in the past. Our common faith is not a dusty antique packed away in our history. God calls our generation to open our eyes to people suffering mental illness and those who make their homes on the streets. We must show our children the real reasons why the Church exists. Advent calls us again to step into the unknown, to cling to God and to embrace people living on our cultural margins.

I celebrate now the gift of being an adult and leaving my hometown so many years ago. I still miss my deceased parents every day and I hold tight to the support they instilled in me as I left home.

As we enter into a new year of grace, some memories still stick to the pavement of our family’s former home. However, now as an adult I do not weep for my loss but instead grieve for people who have never known the security of love, self-worth and family integrity. I now understand my real home in Christ Jesus. He was born humbly on earth so we will know our relationship with heaven. Now I minister among God’s fragile who teach me to wait for a new earth where everyone will find our true home in Christ Jesus.

Saint Doorkeeper

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, September 2010
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Every morning various groups of people anticipate the unlocking of the front doors to our parish building. People seeking a change of clothing or fresh hygiene products line up beginning at 6:00 a.m. Members of the staff arrive one by one beginning at 7:30, but struggle to approach the only door their key will open because a man is sleeping under a tarp in front of the door. Volunteers line up before 9:00 a.m. greeting one another and meeting the new group of nursing students who will volunteer in our morning hospitality center.

The unlocking of our red steel doors at our urban parish, the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon ritualizes the opening of our two-hour weekday hospitality center. After one of the large doors is propped open, over a hundred people stream single file to our front office. They inquire about emergency travel, money for prescription drugs, or wait to receive a pair of clean white socks. People living in the single-room occupancy hotels gather to socialize or to receive a weekly voucher to a local Laundromat. A staff member then opens the hospitality center leading everyone in prayer so people may voice their pain and needs.

On Friday evenings, our parish community hosts a soup line in our very small lobby. Strangers and friends gather to socialize and to feed on a banquet of homemade soup and peanut butter sandwiches. We serve the anticipated food at our front door because some people suffering mental illness may feel trapped by coming into a public building. At our red doors even runaway teens who fear the church trust the hands that offer them hearty soup and hot chocolate.

Opening our parish doors ritualizes our ministry among God’s people living in poverty because the Congregation of Holy Cross staffs our parish. On October 17, 2010, my religious community will celebrate a man of weakness becoming a saint for everyone in the Church.Blessed Brother Andre Bessette, C.S.C. from Montreal, Quebec, in Canada whose only formal ministry was being a porter, will be the first canonized saint in the Congregation of Holy Cross.

Brother Andre officially welcomed all people at the door of Notre Dame College in Montreal beginning in 1872, the year of his profession of vows as a Holy Cross religious. Andre’s humble presence to strangers and firm devotion to Saint Joseph compelled him to believe in God’s healing power. Saint Joseph is the patron of Holy Cross Brothers as he humbly lived in the presence of Jesus. Brother Andre believed that our lives on earth should reflect this humble posture of living, working and serving always in the presence of Christ Jesus.

Brother Andre (Alfred) was born eighth of twelve children. His parents baptized him immediately after birth since he was so tiny and frail, and wasn’t certain to survive. He grew up with fragile health and became an orphan at twelve years old. The Congregation of Holy Cross even postponed his religious profession because of his ill health. He lived with the sensitivity of illness that turned him to greater reliance on God. He was singled hearted in his life of penance, simplicity and devotion believing that healing was possible for all kinds of pain and illness. By May 9, 1878, the first written testimony of five cures attributed to Brother Andre was published.

The ministry of our many volunteers, staff and parishioners teaches me that faith must be grounded in real suffering. Our work among people living in poverty and brokenness is not pious, fake or self-indulgent. The issues we face in our parish starkly remind us that we carry no real answers to people’s addiction to drugs. We do not have sure-thing answers to people living with severe mental illness as a result of being sexually abused as children. We cannot protect the short-skirted street princess, the stoned dealer roaming ruts in our front sidewalk or the strung-out Iraq veteran shouting obscenities on our corner. I cannot even protect myself from the loneliness I feel living in the midst of my homeless neighbors. However, people’s suffering must lead us all to greater faith and service no matter on which corner of the world we find ourselves.

I cling to the image of Andre welcoming strangers at the door. He stood for hours each day speaking with people for just a moment because he believed in God’s compassion to those who are suffering. This image forms our ministry here at the Downtown Chapel and should form the core of every parish no matter how much we want to hide our individual anguish from one another. The model of ministry of this humble man opens the doors to every worshiping community and crosses the boundaries of race, culture, education and national borders, and any other way we might seek to divide ourselves from one another.

Celebrating sainthood is never easy for the rest of us on earth. We tend to create new images of these people because we are afraid of how they challenge us today. I see this in how we reinterpret Brother Andre in art. He was a sickly, illiterate man, short in stature. In stained glass in our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland, Oregon, Andre sits among other North American saints looking healthy and robust. In the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angles, California, an image of Brother Andre processes in the communion of saints woven in tapestry. There the image of Andre is six feet tall, broad-shouldered and looking as if he worked out at Muscle Beach. The image of Brother Andre in our midst must be grounded in the humility and love he personified on earth.

Even in my own religious community in the United States, as members of our American culture, we struggle to be changed by Brother Andre’s work among the poor. We prefer most often the well-educated rather than the illiterate, the prosperous rather than people suffering poverty, and the wholesome student rather than the addict or person suffering mental illness. When we honestly celebrate the saint’s mission in the Church, then we have to change our lives of privilege into greater dependence on God. We have to translate our community’s politics into real mission among the poor. We have to cultivate our vocations of love over our desire for self-promotion.

Brother Andre worked tirelessly to build Saint Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, Quebec. Yet, he really opened the door there for the sick, lonely and poor to find a home in the healing power of Christ Jesus. When he died in 1937 over a million people made a pilgrimage to Montreal for his funeral. Miracles of healing still occur today. I witness these miracles welcoming people suffering poverty, isolation and illness every day as we open once again our red, steel doors of our parish and rely on God alone. Our holy doorkeeper still lives among God’s poor. Saint Andre of Montreal, pray for us.

Wheels of Misfortune

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, July 2010
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I often catch myself defining my life by my possessions. Sometimes I identify my success through labels of priesthood and the privileges that ministry offers me. I can measure my life and work by clerical perks. I can hide from others and myself by never paying taxes and not being responsible for another person or a family. I take my health insurance for granted in the present and my secure retirement in the future. The label of priesthood even offers me the ability to overindulge on food at our common table.

These external possessions do not provide the reasons for priesthood. If I live in this shallow clinging to benefits, then I miss my true self and my relationships with people. Ministering among people living with profound uncertainty changes how I relate to the external securities of my profession. I discover that other people’s struggles define my priesthood much more than my earthly possessions and privileges.

Each weekday people line up at our parish door asking for some basics of life, a toothbrush or underwear, a cup of coffee or a haircut. Recently a man in his early thirties came up to our front office window and asked a staff member for a backpack. She kindly offered him a small bag with wheels. He insisted on a backpack with growing frustration in his voice. The staff member assured him the bag with rollers could accommodate his belongings.

The exhausted man started to cry. He did not want to give into accepting the bag with wheels. He slowly explained that if he took the bag with wheels it would lead next to acquiring a shopping cart. If he possessed a wheeled cart, that would lead to pushing his belongings around the city. If he found himself piling his possessions on a metal cart, then he would have to admit to himself that he was homeless. He just did not want the label, the identity of being a homeless man.

Nearly every person struggles to find the appropriate relationship with what we think we own. The liturgical gospels from the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time until the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time prioritize our belongings. Jesus invites his disciples into an abundant life. The only scarcity is the number of laborers. He challenges his disciples to focus not on sacks and sandals but on the peace that will change people. He calls them to move around from house to house carrying little on their backs. Jesus assures them that the message of the Kingdom of God will be the real priority to share with everyone who pays attention.

Jesus shows us that we must be attentive to people on this journey. Focusing on too many earthly possessions keeps us from recognizing people in need who are directly in front of us. The wholehearted love that we are to offer God is the priority and it is to be lived out serving the needs of people. As I listened to the man who did not want a wheeled bag, I took my own personal inventory of what I consider my true possessions. I know well that my earthly stuff offers me an identity that often keeps me on the opposite side of the street from people who most need help.

Theses gospels reveal to us that our real possession is Christ himself. Our frustrations and concerns often stem from not being in relationship with Jesus in the first place. Martha and Mary battle for his attention with their activity and their contemplation. As I minister among people struggling for daily bread, I evaluate at sunup my relationship with God who first gives me the gifts to be attentive and active. I understand that if I am to be at the feet of Christ with my brothers and sisters in poverty, then I must change the way I see my life and all my resources.

Jesus warns us in these summer days not become greedy. He touches us with love so that we will believe that our lives are not based on what we own. We do not need bigger storage units and more closets, larger barns or plastic containers; we simply need a new priority to recognize what is enough in our lives. The man who did not want a wheeled cart unfortunately faced dire times and had recently become homeless. He was still learning to prioritize his needs in order to just survive. Jesus calls us again to look beyond the value of our possessions. This message is difficult to hear for many who do not possess the basic essentials of life.

Jesus tells us not be afraid. That request from our Savior is always difficult when we are faced with daily hunger, a lack of medication for depression, threats of nightly assaults and no money. He asks of us again to give away what little we have and to not be afraid of how we will live. The man at our window was so afraid to enter into the phase of his life in which he found himself, being homeless. He did accept the bag with the wheels. He just needed someone to listen to him. He needed someone to catch the meaning of his tears. I still learn lessons from our experience with him, to not be afraid to enter into the real issues of my life, the next phase of grace even when I am most afraid.

We cannot enter the narrow gate with all our possessions in hand, not even if we push them through the gate in a wheeled cart. Jesus continues to show us that the last will be first and the first will be last. If we realize that we do not create our identity from our many possessions, then we will rest humbly in God. We will discover that our real identity comes in knowing God and befriending our real selves.

No matter in which community we worship, God invites us to take a seat among the humble. As I reevaluate my attachment to my possessions, I see in our common prayer that I do not own these possessions anyway. All that we have in life is a gift from God. No matter how we live in the world, no matter how we store our supplies or find our identity in designer labels, God gifts us with all life. As the man left our parish center, our staff member assured him he was always welcome to park a wheeled cart at our door anytime in order to pray with us.

A Reading from the Prophet Bonnie

Originally published by U.S. Catholic, December 2008
– PDF version – Online version –

God’s messengers are often just as surprising as the words they bear.

Advent always opens me up. Just when I think I am in control of my life and ministry, I am confronted by the challenges of a new liturgical year. The prophets get under my skin. The gospels splash my soul to surprise and awaken me.

Never has Advent shaken my priorities as the year Bonnie camped out in front of the red doors at our urban parish. Our small chapel in Old Town, Portland, Oregon serves our low-income neighbors, our homeless friends, and people just getting on their feet after prison. Just before Thanksgiving Bonnie wheeled a shopping cart to the front door filled with her stolen treasures: picture frames and toys, extra sweaters and fake flowers.

Bonnie signed up for our hospitality center on her first morning in search of new clothing and a warm breakfast. Her boundless energy disturbed everyone’s routine in the small basement room. Suddenly our entire staff, volunteers, and the room full of guests awakened to her forceful presence. We panicked as she stuffed food into her pockets, paperback novels under her jacket, and rolls of toilet paper in her plastic bag.

Bonnie’s kleptomania unnerved the staff, her penetrating voice disturbed many of our shy guests, and her wiry presence evoked fear in me. Bonnie began her Advent journey by disturbing our entire operation.

She prayed during Mass on her first day with a voice that could stop a train, screaming out every liturgical response at the right time but with a dozen extra words. She threw off the rhythm of our common prayer so completely that the entire congregation stopped speaking. People erupted with complaints and tried to quiet her. Bonnie persisted with her prayer.

Many of us were left confused and bewildered in those first few days with Bonnie. She stirred up resentment among our neighbors, angered many parishioners, and even blocked people from entering our front door.

But I also began to notice something shift inside me. Slowly I opened my eyes to see her differently. I began to hear the message of Jesus in Mark’s gospel: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Bonnie shook me out of my own sleepiness toward people who suffer beyond my imagining. I started to interpret her disturbing actions and screeching voice as our Advent wake-up call, a real prophet in our midst.

She challenged our professional ideals regarding how we deal with crisis and how we try to keep order as we serve the poor. As the voice crying out in the desert, she echoed the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist to get our acts together and let go of our control. Bonnie was not going to let us get too comfortable thinking we were in charge of our lives or even of the parish. Once we all began to see her as a gift to us, she started to change our experience both of her and of the Advent season.

One day during Mass I heard Bonnie screaming outside the chapel. She was trying to stop people from stealing her things. When Bonnie started screaming, I saw one of our parishioners leap out of the pew to go outside. There was something about her scream that day that was raw and primal.

I felt deep sadness rise up in me. Bonnie was communicating to us that many things in our society are not right. Her haunting scream reminded me of all the ancient prophets who tried to get the attention of people to reform their lives and society. I heard in her scream the challenge to wake up and realize that addicts need shelter and sobriety, people need adequate housing, and the mentally ill need affordable medications. I felt in her scream the poverty of the world.

Bonnie also changed my perceptions of her loud responses at Mass. In the very predictable patterns of common prayer, I understood by her piercing voice that those who are marginalized by poverty or mental illness need to be heard. Mass could no longer be prayed on autopilot. We had to think about what, how, and why we were praying the liturgy. She made us think about our responses to the Word that was proclaimed. She halted us in the middle of blindly reciting the Creed. Like the biblical prophets before her, she was teaching us how to pray and live with new awareness and intention.

Bonnie still reminds me that most of the suffering around us remains hidden and secret. She helps me realize we all must take on the prophet’s role when disease, poverty, loneliness, and financial instability grab hold of our communities. People who suffer silently need the voices of the rest of us to speak up for the abandoned and neglected. The Advent season calls for courage and conviction to make faith real, inviting, truthful. Advent is a time to go deeper into our human condition, beyond the surface of relating to one another from our financial status or educational backgrounds or the styles of clothing we wear.

One day Bonnie approached a woman named Sally, who was born with one arm shorter than the other. Bonnie walked up to Sally and said, “Don’t worry about that arm, honey. When Jesus comes back, he will fix that right up for you!” Bonnie really believes in Emmanuel, God-with-us. She even voiced God’s consolation and joy announced in the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”

I thank God for our prophet Bonnie. Even though she washed her glazed donuts in our baptismal font, collected our hymnals in her shopping cart, and took hundreds of our plastic rosaries to wear around her neck, we all recognized that she carried Christ into our midst. She unstuck my notion that Advent is about the purple polyester fabric in the sanctuary or the flattened, artificial greens with faded, purple ribbons posing as the circle of life. She helped me break open the lie that Christmas is for the rich and well-deserving. God desires to be in relationship with all of God’s beloved.

Before Bonnie left our parish, she knelt down in front of the crèche on Christmas Eve. Several parishioners feared her kleptomania as she approached the newborn king. Instead, poised in prayer, she placed a clean, meticulously folded purple blanket in the small stable. It was her cleanest blanket, her source of warmth on the cold Portland streets.

I never realized I would find the birth of Jesus in the center of mental illness, homelessness, and my own insecurity. God gave us the gift of hope years ago in a small stable and continues to grace us with real human beings who teach us that faith is about relationship. I wait patiently for Advent this year to see if our prophetic sister returns. I wait for love again to awaken me.

Trinity Blest

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, May 2008
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I usually cringe when an engaged couple asks my advice on planning a wedding. Discussions of turquoise dresses, unity candles, and thousand dollar floral arrangements send me fleeing the church. The expectations of parents, the search for the longest church aisle, and the guest musicians often make me feel like my presence is another accessory, another “check” on the list of wedding preparations from the latest bridal magazine.

Kim and Charlie gave me a new perspective about wedding preparations. Kim explained to me that she spent a year after college graduation working among the poor. Charlie also shared his desire to live out his faith in a more challenging way. They wanted their wedding to express their deep conversion into God who changed everything about their lives. The engaged couple desired to profess their vows in our small urban chapel which welcomes people who struggle for the essentials of life. This decision drew a line in the sand about how they wanted people to view not only their wedding but their marriage. She stepped out of her family’s expectations that their ceremony be held in their home parish.

Preparing for their marriage became an act of God’s faithfulness. God so often becomes a cultural accessory at a wedding. God’s action is invited as a stamp of approval, or an inconvenient guest, hidden among the fake flowers and candelabras. Kim and Charlie’s plans stepped out of the cultural norm and into an authentic expression of faith and service.

The couple also wanted to make sure that the people present at the wedding did not feel like observers or well-dressed adornments. They asked people to bring to the ceremony white socks, bags of new underwear and clean blankets for people who come daily to our hospitality center. Their friends and family received the message that this wedding was a call to action, and that action of service comes from the covenant of God’s faithfulness.

The Eucharist remained the centerpiece of the couple’s commitment.
The crystal clarity of hospitality, the simple music, the contemplative pace, all revealed to the congregation that God is the one who brought them together, and God’s initiative would lead them beyond the church doors and into a life of fidelity and purpose.

This wedding unmasked a deeper understanding of God. It was not a ceremony that talked about God, but explored God’s real activity in Three Persons. We moved beyond the quirky images of how people often think about the Trinity, as shamrock or triangle, into a deep, profound action in people’s lives. No one left our simple worship space unaffected by deep grace or an ache for justice. The frivolous, cultural wedding accessories were replaced with breathtaking awareness of love and compassion for the poor and suffering.

Now is the time in your parish community to unveil people’s relationship with the fidelity of God. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity summarizes the liturgical journey from Lent through the gift of Pentecost. It reminds us that the marriage of heaven and earth in Christ is truly our path to change, commitment and reliance on the Three Persons of God.

The liturgical Gospels after the Solemnity of the Trinity now open for us the profound call to base our lives in the continuing action of God’s faithfulness. The marriage covenant of the Trinity in our earthly ways shows us the path to building our commitments on rock. We first must have the courage to listen to the echoes of God in the course of real life. Kim and Charlie revealed to me that the storms of wind and rain are nothing compared to the shelter of truth and honesty.

We often think our faith comes from our own decisions. God’s initiative calls us beyond ourselves. The courage to follow Christ beyond our selfishness is also God’s gift. This marriage bond of God and His people continues to show me that love is real even in the midst of my doubt and insecurity. My fragile earthy ways can become a new identity in God’s love for me.

There are few people who have the courage to risk everything to hear God’s call. To be a laborer in the harvest means we let go of the stifling images we have of God, ourselves and people in need. God is in relationship with us. We in turn keep the heavenly marriage vows alive by entering into profound relationship with the marginalized, the anxious and the doubtful right here on earth. God calls us each by name, beyond the labels of our sickness, past our notions of sin and our own self-reliance.

God’s initiative in our lives is not a pious accessory but takes place deep within our human fear. This marriage promise from God gives light to our human ways. When fear keeps our hearts concealed and in the dark, authentic faith counts us more valuable than the sparrows.

Kim and Charlie’s vows expressed their desire to build their marriage on rock. They replied to the question of Jesus, “Who do you say I am?” They showed the rest of us that God’s call does not come in one occasion. The call of God satisfies us in all stages of life, in all sorrows, in good times and in bad.

I received the vows of Charlie and Kim in the midst of people they loved. My heart was glad as I heard their words of commitment to follow God forever. Words which I now understand bind their earthly desires to heaven’s promises. These words were more than fancy frills from a ritual book but the deep passionate response of a couple who understood their love flows from God.
I believe we must dig deeper into our human experience to sift out the love of God from our fear. Kim and Charlie’s lifetime commitment teaches me that the Trinity is still surprising us, continuing to teach us that love from heaven changes everything on earth. Blest be God, forever.