Inheriting Great Promises

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Fall 2012
– PDF version –

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks,Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord. 
For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh, and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago, and opened for us the way to eternal salvation, that, when he comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which now we dare to hope…
It is truly right and just…
For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendour: when our frailty is assumed by your Word not only does human mortality receive unending honour but by this wondrous union we, too, are made eternal…
It is truly right and just…
For today you have revealed the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations, and when he appeared in our mortal nature, you made us new by the glory of his immortal nature. 

I pray the preface during the season of Advent standing on the border of a culture clash. As a society we live out an obsession with materialism more obviously during December.  We are on a quest for a perfect holiday of intimacy as presented on television and on the Internet.  We also try to scatter the darkness of the world and within ourselves by stringing twinkling lights and attending obligatory office parties.

However, beginning a new liturgical year, the Church focuses on waiting for Christ in a world of great poverty and longing. We seek the intimacy of a savior who promises heavenly love even among people we ignore.  We begin a journey of walking toward a Light that illumines souls and sparks a loving desire to pray.  This journey satisfies even the loneliest of hearts and most broken of relationships. This journey to God is not obligatory or costly, but this love is sheer gift. God’s love is free for the asking.

This journey in the Advent season goes well beyond the shades of purple draped in our sanctuaries and the quarrels among liturgists on where to display the Advent wreath this year. This journey welcomes people’s lives into the path that the ancient prophets spoke out about. They told their people to straighten up their lives and get their priorities in line with God’s love. This journey opens our earthly hearts toward the realization that Christ is already here among us calling us deeper into the human condition. We are to let go of racism, prejudice and insincerity and anything that diminishes being human. We believe that Advent shocks people into realizing that Jesus still makes a home in our human flesh. This is not a design from the latest couture, but God’s design from our ancient past, that we all become vessels of grace, love and forgiveness.

These are the realities behind the simple words of the Advent preface, “For he assumed at his first coming the lowliness of human flesh”. I remember praying years ago that I longed to make a home in God. I spent years with this prayer. Then one day I realized God needs to make a home in me. This shift in prayer is the essence of Advent. This prayer seemed to change everything in my relationship with God and in serving people in ministry.

This shift is the basis for a new hospitality, to receive Christ within our hearts that are fragile and weary, “and so fulfilled the design you formed long ago”. This is the foundation for learning how to receive other people, just as they are and not trying to change them in our own image and likeness.  Hospitality seems radical and even more counter-cultural during Advent.

Mary and Joseph spent their last moments of pregnancy searching for people to welcome them. This is not a lost image or a cute Christmas story, but opens for us, “the way to salvation.” This reality is still among us today. God is invested in us as human beings. God is waiting for us to welcome the Spirit of love among us. God longs to make a home within us. This image of hospitality is key to praying the prefaces of Advent and Christmas. Today, Christ the Savior is among us, still assuming the lowliness of human flesh.

Our parish community opens our doors to many people every day during the year. Our Hospitality Center is especially busy during the Advent season. People suffer severe loneliness during December. Many people who live outside are struggling to survive another wet and cold winter. People living alone in the single-room occupancy apartments in our neighborhood struggle to keep clean from drugs and alcohol. For so many neighbors Christmas seems beyond their reach because gifts and family are scarce.  Loneliness cripples, defiles and even kills.

We welcome people searching to find a home in simple conversations with dignity and respect. We welcome people who want to give birth to something new in their lives but fear keeps them on the streets and using drugs. We welcome a young man who is just discovering his mental illness and a mother who has just left her boyfriend because he abuses her child. We welcome people lost amid the cold nights and the cold shoulders given by their families. We welcome people sent to the streets because they have no insurance or who cannot make their house payments or keep a job. People are lost in so many ways and our ministry is to welcome people without stripping them of dignity and respect.

This sacred sense of hospitality is not a one-way relationship. “For through him the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendor.” I spend much of December days weeping the losses of suffering people.  My heart is open to the coming of Christ in our midst when I can share honestly with people the realities of life and suffering. I am humbled by the complexities of people’s situations and their desire for new life. I do not welcome people to the Table of the Lord believing that my life has power over people or that my hospitality only makes me feel better about myself. This holy exchange of hospitality means that our entire community is changed when we welcome the vulnerable, the ill, the lost and the wanderer. We share our heartaches and the awareness that the lack of justice is real and believable.

Last year on in the closing days of Advent, I walked into our parish office and noticed a sign that a member of our staff was creating on the computer. The sign read, “We will be handing out backpacks and sleeping bags on December 23.” I stood at the computer and cried. The sign told the story of our common ache for people’s lives. We all know we cannot fix people’s situations or provide shelter or housing for people. We cannot solve the situation of the pregnant teen that comes to us seeking shelter for the week. We do not have the resources to solve addictions or the money for the correct prescriptions for cancer or mental illness. We can offer the simplest things, a backpack or a sleeping bag because so many people will not find shelter for Christmas. So many people will be left behind without family or food or parties or new clothing.

In Christmas, we celebrate our human worth as we give birth to the Word. The path of eternal life begins with Jesus in our midst. So often we postpone our acceptance of God’s love for us. I see this often in my own lack of reverence for my gifts, my body and my vocation. I see how we deflect the Incarnation when I sit with a young teen who cuts herself so that she will at least feel life. I see it in how a middle-aged man compulsively has sex with any available partner. He claims his wife does not know. It is easy for us to believe that we will have a home in the after life, so often it is more difficult to believe we have a home in our own bodies.

This message of Christ offered to the world continues Epiphany. Jesus’ presence to us as a miracle from the Father is truly Light for all to see. This presence of Jesus is dimmed by our lack of trust that God will lead us out of the darkness we carry within our lives. The Light is dimmed by violence, war and hatred. This darkness makes us question our selves and the God who will lead us into the future. The Light of Christ offers us direction and hope.

These celebrations of Advent and the Christmas season continue the journey of our redemption in Christ Jesus. The journey is not about purchasing the perfect gift so to fulfill a social norm. This journey is about the rich presence of grace deep within our human hearts and lives. We are guided now not by a star, but our inner lives of prayer, faith and service.

The texts of the preface for these liturgical celebrations challenge us all to receive God in all we do and to make room for our neighbor in all that we hope to become. The Light is here and we cannot gaze at the ground. The Light is for all nations, all times and all peoples. The journey gives meaning beyond the culture clash of Christmas. The journey will lead us safely home singing hymns of glory without end.


Summoning Us To Glory

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Summer 2012
– PDF version –

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God, through Christ our Lord.
For through his Paschal Mystery, he accomplished the marvellous deed, by which he has freed us from the yoke of sin and death, summoning us to the glory of being now calleda chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for your own possession, to proclaim everywhere your mighty works,for you have called us out of darknessinto your own wonderful light…
… For out of compassion for the waywardness that is ours, he humbled himself and was born of the Virgin;by the passion of the Cross he freed us from unending death,and by rising from the dead he gave us life eternal. And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory,as without end we acclaim:   

I stand praying the preface on humble ground. This is the earth on which Christ emptied himself of heavenly affections. I stand on common soil with Jesus who bent down to write in the sand words of forgiveness for an adulterer. This is the soil that he mixed with saliva to heal the blind and the ill. This is the earth in which chaos, wars and violence still rage as we live his command for peace. On this ground, Jesus sacrificed his life, his ministry and teaching on a cross between two thieves. This is the ground, the sacred earth in which Christ rose from the dead after three days in the dark cave that held his body.

This ground of sacred prayer is anything but ordinary. These prefaces during Ordinary Time are not throwaway prayers. They are not meant to be prayed out loud only while people fumble with kneelers, change positions, calm children and ready themselves for the consecration of the bread and wine. These prayers reveal the vulnerability of people who beg God for healing as we all try to make sense out of our lives. These prayers summarize the mystery we celebrate even far from the altar table, as God possesses us. Mighty works are revealed in our humility during Ordinary Time.

I pray these texts often feeling awkward and out of place. I have not always felt emotionally comfortable standing on the earth. I have often felt unworthy to stand in the position behind the altar because I have been reluctant to claim my place among God’s chosen. I have spent years in therapy healing the past, in spiritual direction claiming the Spirit in the present, allowing my spirit and body a place on the planet. I pray these prayers walking on the earth, ministering among the marginalized, discovering my own life and God’s love within me.

As a priest and human being, I know I must continue to claim my faith among this holy nation of believers. I hear so often from other priests that they are burned out from always proclaiming the Paschal Mystery.  So many ordained men never really believe the reality of love and forgiveness within their own lives.  I listen to clergy beaten down by age, restlessness and severe loneliness.

Many years ago as a younger priest, I facilitated a retreat for clergy. I heard volumes of anger from priests about their positions behind the altar as leaders of parishes and larger institutions. They were exhausted from proclaiming, preaching and teaching about faith because so many priests in that group had not experienced God’s consolation and love. They were so angry amidst God’s people and the larger institution of the Church. They wept with me in private conversations and among one another about not finding meaning standing alone at the altar table.

I remember one priest screaming at me that there must be something more than the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. He asked me to find some other method of teaching, pattern of healing or philosophy of life to speak about. I wept with him as he cried on my shoulder. I tried to comfort him with only what I had come to realize even as a young priest, that I find a place on the earth only in the healing love of Jesus, the Christ. I felt the darkness of his life on my shoulder and in my heart. I stood with him as if I were at the altar table, offering his life to God. I cannot predict outcomes or change people or even heal them. I can only remind people that we are all among God’s possessions being lifted from yokes of burden. We live even among the shadows of the healing light of Christ’s presence.

I still muster the courage to stand on the opposite side of the altar from people. The longer I pray there, the deeper my commitment is to people who are searching for something more in their lives. The preface of the Eucharistic Prayer invites every person into a dialogue of life. This dialogue goes well beyond simple words no matter the translation. This dialogue back and forth between priest and people is about the deepest aspects of our lives.

I recently met a twenty-something young man who has just been released from prison. During his incarceration because of selling drugs, he found God. He spoke with me in a soft voice in the dimly lit chapel before Mass. He told me he just spent the weekend exploring a vocation as a priest and a monk. He also told me that he has yet to be baptized. He is confident that God is calling him to be ordained.

I saw deep within his brown eyes, the desire to be healed of his heroin addiction. His sad eyes told me that perhaps moving out of the last pew to the other side of the altar would take his pain away. Perhaps being a priest would release him from his wayward ways. He longs for God to free him from the yoke of sin, addiction and heartache. I wanted to remind him that waywardness and heartache does not disappear once you get to the other side of the altar. I longed to tell him that God is in his present darkness and the light will lead him one step at a time.

Perhaps the heroin addict and the priest should change places on some days. The addict needs to constantly offer his pain up to God in order to survive another day. The priest needs to be honest about his suffering and come to need God more than anything in order to survive another day. This is the real dialogue the preface suggests. We are a chosen people who need God. We are a royal priesthood that constantly offers up our pain and suffering to God so we will all be healed. Every person on the earth is God’s possession.

Every worshipping community needs to explore this sacred dialogue. The people and the priest, the daily suffering and the daily offering to God becomes the flow of the Paschal Mystery. I have yet to imagine another place to go for meaning when a homeless mother comes and says that suicide seems to be the only answer. I do not know where else to turn when a young man is struck by a car days before his graduation. We do not know where to place our trust when a young mother offers up her newborn child in death. We turn in any worshipping community to the Lord who invites our hearts to rest and be freed from the yoke of pain, suffering and grief.

I admit that priests will have to get used to many of the prayers of the new translation of the Mass. However, many priests will also have to take stock of their life of prayer, their ability to discover God’s consolation for their lives and receive the people in real dialogue of faith. These texts from Ordinary Time will take time to settle into the hearts of priests and people. The faith behind the words will continue to show us Christ’s love and compassion for us all.

God still has compassion for our waywardness. We turn to God in the dialogues of war and destruction and his call for nonviolence. We turn to God’s compassion when we blame people living in depression and other forms of mental illness for their disease. We turn to God to feed people who are starving especially for love. We turn to God in this sacred dialogue when priests do not believe and when addicts grasp newborn faith.

I am deeply grateful for my position at the altar to articulate our communal praise to God. Even the heavens ring with praise for what is loved on the holy soil of earth. Thankfulness and gratitude form the church in prayer when our dialogue of life and faith begins at the Table of the Lord. God emptied himself of heavenly form and walked among us. He still feeds us in our humility and welcomes us in our waywardness.           

As I pray these various forms of the preface behind the altar, I plant my feet safely on the earth. Here on the rich soil of our earthly home I have come to know my place among people who live on the daily bread of hope. I stand behind an altar lifting up to God my fearful heart and lifting up the lives of people who desperately need God for human survival. We are all given a share in the richness of Christ’s resurrection so we will all find our footing in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Our gratitude is without end. 

Finding Our Home in the Empty Tomb

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Spring 2012
– PDF version –

PREFACE III OF EASTER – Christ living and always interceding for us
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
at all times to acclaim you, O Lord,
but in this time above all to laud you yet more gloriously,
when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.
He never ceases to offer himself for us
but defends us and ever pleads our cause before you:
he is the sacrificial Victim who dies no more,
the Lamb, once slain, who lives for ever.
Therefore, overcome with paschal joy,
every land, every people exults in your praise
and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts,
sing together the unending hymn of your glory,
as they acclaim:
PREFACE IV OF EASTER – The restoration of the universe through the Paschal Mystery
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
at all times to acclaim you, O Lord,
but in this time above all to laud you yet more gloriously,
when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.
For, with the old order destroyed,
a universe cast down is renewed,
and integrity of life is restored to us in Christ.
Therefore, overcome with paschal joy,
every land, every people exults in your praise
and even the heavenly Powers, with the angelic hosts,
sing together the unending hymn of your glory,
as they acclaim:

I minister among many people who feel undeserving of joy. I encounter in the dimly lit confessional not only the darkness of sin but people’s reluctance to accept healing and forgiveness. Joy eludes many people who have been beaten down by physical and emotional abuse and the many years of depression that follow. Joy never finds a home in people who blame themselves for being abused. Joy is seldom experienced or grasped for some people who have found their only identities at the bottom of a booze bottle. God’s healing rarely finds a home in people who live in the darkness of blame, fear and doubt.

I see the consequences of a joyless life standing at the altar on Easter day. These Easter texts of the preface express the absolute joy of the Christian. Jesus becomes the Christ is his passion, death and resurrection. Joy among our parishioners is rather muted, reluctant and seems only to belong to the wealthy or educated or some unknown stranger. Many members hesitate to rally around Easter because they are still without the basics of life, still hunger and still feel unloved in their present circumstances. I know deep within my life and in the lives of all people, Christ is sharing the gift of new life and healing in the simplest of ways. Risen life cannot help but break through the savage pain of any heart that clings to faith.

The prefaces of Easter claim this story in the human voice of the priest. Christ is still offering his life for people who seek the joy of resurrection. Many sinners find a home in the sacred forgiveness of the sacraments of Eucharist and reconciliation.  The wall of sin is easier cast down than the wall of self-hatred and shame for a life that feels undeserving of anything that is good, loving or holy.

Seeking forgiveness of God for our own sin and living that forgiveness among all of our relationships is Easter joy. The reality of forgiveness is seen off the altar in the human turmoil of our lives. Joy happens when we bring that grace to worship and the altar of God is seen as Christ offering his life for us always.

I remember facilitating one of our Personal Poverty Retreats several years ago. The retreats are a thirteen-hour immersion into the issues of long-term poverty, mental illness and the devastations of addictions. There were seven people in that particular group.  The core of the day is to share our own personal poverty, our own need for God. In the afternoon we shared our experiences of working in our morning hospitality center. This open discussion among us brought a great gift.

Out of the seven people on the retreat, four people confided that they all had children who were homeless, mentally ill and addicted. The conversation became intense; the silence of grief and sadness overwhelmed all of us. Each participant shared the grief of letting go of control of each child. One participant told the horrific story of her son’s suicide.

Phil began to share his story of his addicted son. Phil’s face was creased with worry. His voice was angry at years of trying to fix his son’s addiction. He became enraged because he felt he had done everything to change his thirty-something son. After Phil finished his story and sat silently, I leaned into the group and asked him, “Phil have you ever tried just loving your son?” Phil’s face began to relax and it was as if someone had raised the shade of darkness from his life. Phil replied to me with tears streaming down his cheeks, “No, I’ve never just loved my son.”

After that retreat, Phil searched for his son. He found him living in an abandoned car next to an old building. He slowly began to just listen to his son, Matt. Trust began to be built after years of tension. Phil and Matt started to do simple errands together and have lunch. After a while of sorting through their relationship, Phil invited Matt to the next retreat at the parish. They shared their stories together for the first time in the small group of the retreat. They told the stories of how healing happened between father and son and how reconciliation and joy slowly returned to their lives.

Last Lent, Matt died of his long-term addiction. I went to the funeral and the priest preached about how Matt and his father were reconciled at a retreat at our parish. I wept sitting in the pew over the new life that happens in the tension of forgiveness, over the often hidden redemption of fathers and sons.

Jesus defends us and pleads our cause to the Father. Grace never gives up even in death. Love triumphs even when hidden in small groups or abandoned cars. This is paschal joy celebrated at Easter, the hope that even long term suffering gives way to the Kingdom of God. The heavenly powers proclaim this on altar tops and in the hearts of fathers willing to try one more time to love a son.

The Easter preface speaks boldly about what is lived in silence and often without notice. Old orders of life can be destroyed. Life lived amid years of depression can be clean of self-blame and a lack of trust. The heart cast down by poverty, mental illness and hardship is lifted out of the tragedies that keep us cast down. On the altar of Easter sits the cup of blessing and bread of life that overcomes the aches and pains of relationships well beyond the sanctuary of our churches.

I pray this holy text on Easter hoping that I will see for myself the integrity of life being restored in Christ Jesus. I know that this prayer is not about what Jesus did for us. This prayer as is the Eucharist itself, is about what Jesus is doing now in our midst. The grace of integrity is not only about the past, but also about every relationship that bears the weight of our wanting to give up on love.

Our renewal of baptism on Easter allows us to resist again the power of evil in our relationships. Even though people present at the Eucharist may be baptized in the new life of Christ’s resurrection, people may feel they have been passed over by God. The Passover of Christ, his death and resurrection, brings us all to new life no matter the sin, the hurt or the suffering. I experience all the angelic powers of love when I stand at the altar and become aware that grace is working in the hidden life of the Church.

These holy prayers challenge us to discover joy at Easter. The prefaces teach leaders of the parish to invite people into what the prayer texts say even to people who refuse to accept God’s forgiveness and peace. We do not blame people for their poverty nor do we blame them for the abuse, depression or mental illness they experience in life. Easter must find a home in our conversations and ministry among people who feel excluded from hope, insecure about relationships and threatened by possible damnation from God. Love in the womb of the altar table is birthed on Easter morning in honesty and genuine hope. We are followers of the One whose tomb was empty but whose life is filled with love.

So many people do not realize that the love of God is a free gift. The reconciliation of Christ among us overcomes everything within us that separates us from the Father. People with emotional injuries have a difficult time receiving this gift because they still think the do not deserve such a treasure. They wait for the emotional and mental put-downs from us, the Church, that they are not worthy. They wait for more abuse. The gift of God’s love and joy is free. This gift is given to all of us to make sure we do not control it, suppress it or cause more people deeper pain. Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection are joy for all acclaim the Lord.

On Easter morning we really offer our suffering to the Father in the name of Christ Jesus. We gather around the altar table aware of the misfortunes of people’s lives and the heartbreak that keeps joy at bay. Last Easter, I prayed with a lump in my throat on Easter morning. I remembered the story of Phil and Matt. I prayed that healing might become visible for us all.  I also prayed embracing all the stories of the silent confessional. I prayed recalling that healing and redemption happen in our community even though so many of us may never find the joy we long for. I stood at the altar of God with my hands extending in cruciform believing that we are all being raised up, all finding our home in the empty tomb. This hymn of God’s glory never ends. We sing in common voice from our common humanity discovering again Christ’s paschal joy.

The Stations of the Cross: The Faces of Friday

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Winter 2011
– PDF version –

I encounter the restless suffering of people every day. The pain that I meet at the Downtown Chapel in Portland, Oregon does not easily scab over nor does it ever heal from the inside out. This pain comes from the consequences of surviving generational poverty. The suffering is long term when a middle-aged man tells me he has never loved anyone as an adult because he was raped as a child. A young bearded city-stroller confesses that his brother and sister prostituted their mother to make some quick cash for drugs. A dirty-faced woman suffers from years of mental illness and repeatedly asks me why God hates her so much. These are some of my encounters here on our urban parish corner. Our staff and volunteers spend their days listening, working and helping to sort out what the Church means on such a street-savvy block.

During this Lenten season, I begin my tenth year on this beloved block. I have learned throughout these years to honestly lean into the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising with our staff and many volunteers. I cannot sustain my presence here without taking stock of my faith on a daily basis. I have been stripped of every false notion and pious sentiment that I ever held. However, I know I can turn toward bitterness and rage when I see the ways our society treats individuals. I can rant and rave at how little the Church seems to care about people living in poverty. I sort out these options daily in order to survive my ministry.

I turn toward the only path that I know will bring life. This path is the real journey toward Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Stations of the Cross live in our midst. The moment-to-moment issues of suffering, denial, hatred, prejudice call me to go deeper into the real meaning of my faith. This past year, I wrote a version of the Stations of the Cross so members of our community could more easily find their stories in Christ’s love and resurrection. This version of the Stations of the Cross will also help educate benefactors about the lives of people in our community. Our pastoral associate, Andy Noethe, photographed volunteers and staff and produced a DVD. These stations tell composite stories of people whom I have met in ministry. These scenes of real people’s lives interpret the action of Jesus and the people whom he encountered on the way to the cross.

I share the stories to enable all of us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Christ’s life today. This Lenten season tempts us all to give up on our faith. The Gospels call us to wake up with the disciples to a new perspective of being with Jesus, not under a tent, but on the solid ground of our lives and ministry. Jesus longs to encounter our lives, to tell us how we have sinned in the past and then challenges us to be bearers of Good News. Jesus exposes our common blindness of neglect and ignorance and longs to set us free from the entombment of our fears. This is the journey toward the life Christ longs for us in every worshipping community.

The first two “Stations of the Cross: The Faces of Friday” are presented here. The video version will be available on the websites of Celebrate! Magazine. The video version and the written text will also be available on the website of the Downtown Chapel. I invite you to pray the various stories with faith and longing for the love God has for every person. These stories call me to realize I cannot control people’s lives, or change their circumstances, or solve their problems. However, I am changed profoundly by the depth of people’s sorrow in the center of life itself, in the promise of Christ Jesus.

The First Station: Jesus is condemned to death.

Leader: Show us your face, O God
People:  Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

I remember when Henry landed in jail. The newspapers said that he was arrested because of his violent outbursts in the streets in the middle of the night. Everyone who knows him realized quickly that his mental illness caused his lashing out, his violence.

When I visited him in jail he told me that he woke up that first morning lying on the concrete floor of his cell. His jittery words and shivering body could hardly express his confusion as I sat in front of him. He admitted that his real sentence is his lifelong mental illness. His fingers shook as he gestured his words. He cannot afford medication and cannot remember to take his pills anyway. Henry is simply unable to care for himself.

Henry so often condemned himself by thinking that he was worthless in other people’s eyes. He always apologizes for his slow ability to utter words or to speak up for himself. When Henry lived on the streets he used to swear that people hated him because some people would spit on him as he slept in a doorway. He would plug his ears as people condemned him with insults, loud obscenities and rude gestures as they passed him lying on the sidewalk. I was struck by how Henry’s jail cell is the place of Jesus’ unfair condemnation.

Leader: From the condemnation of poverty and discrimination:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the condemnation of mental illness and false accusations:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the condemnation of insults and obscenities:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

Personal Prayer and Meditation:
1.Where do you witness innocent people being condemned to suffering in the world?
2. How do you relate to your own struggles, personal suffering and loneliness?
3. How are you responding to the suffering of other people in your prayer and service to others?

The Second Station: Jesus is given his cross

Leader: Show us your face, O God
People:  Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

I never felt so helpless as the day I met Michael for the first time. He called me and asked to come to the parish office and talk. I will never forget his sad, drawn face, his skinny body standing in the threshold of my office door. I invited him in, but he refused to enter. He stared at me and said, “I have tried to speak with three other priests and they would not listen to me. Would you at least listen to me?”

I remember looking down at the floor and quietly assuring him I would listen. He came in and I offered him a soda. He nervously sat down and immediately told me he had AIDS. I did not confess my naïveté at that time about the complexities of his disease. We sat in the quiet office for hours, going over in detail the physical effects of his illnesses. But it was the emotional toll that devastated him. His parents threw him out of their home. He had not spoken with them in months. He was not getting proper medical care and his friends all disappeared when they heard of his diagnosis.

I sat in my office feeling so afraid because I knew I could do little to change anything for Michael. He taught me that to enter into real suffering means listening with an open heart. I walked with him on his ground of suffering for several months. And when he died, I walked with his family to a fresh grave as they tried to bury all the regrets of not caring for their son.

Leader: From the cross of fear and rash judgments:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the cross of shame and guilt:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!
Leader: From the cross of family apathy and neglect:
People: Save us, O Christ, through your Holy Cross!

Personal Prayer and Meditation:
1. What does carrying the cross mean for your own life?
2. How do you view the crosses other people have to carry?
3. How do these crosses change your attitudes about people?

Off The Wall

Originally published by Celebrate! Magazine, Fall 2011
– PDF version –

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
– PDF version –

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.