Passion of the Lord

Originally published by GIA Quarterly, Winter 2012
– PDF version –

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Every month a group of people from the Portland area gathers at our parish for a day of retreat concerning the issues of urban poverty. After lunch we walk the neighborhood speaking about the agencies that befriend people in poverty. We explore the conflicts with the city and the police. We sort out people’s attitudes about other people who are surviving poverty. We pray in front of the nonprofit groups that were started by Catholic groups. The procession becomes a stational liturgy, walking from building to building, a pilgrimage of how the Church has helped people overcome issues of addictions, hunger and the ongoing challenges of mental illness.

Before one of our tours, after the noon Mass, one of our longtime parishioners sat on a chair outside of our chapel and chanted, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” He yelled it over and over again. His singing stunned the group of retreatants. They realized the procession of Christ into Jerusalem is still going on. We did not wave palms but had conversations of about neglect, poverty, racial divides, the lack of healthcare and the horrific effects of long-term mental illness. The group realized on that Friday afternoon that Holy Week would begin for them on that very afternoon in November.

As you prepare the liturgy for Palm Sunday, remember the processions of life and death. Remember the gurney that carried the young father from an accident scene. Reflect on the victims of the natural disasters that claim people in your area of the country. Sort out how people are trying to make ends meet, running from job to job in order to raise a family. Remember the young, single mother crying out in the night for her sick child as she races to the hospital. Remember the processions of people walking for issues of cancer and Alzheimer’s, running races for cures, change of attitudes and caring banners to raise consciousness about human dignity. Listen to the Psalm over and over from the cry of people in poverty, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

Holy Thursday Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper

Last year one of our parishioners told the story of the emotional abuse he experienced from his father. We were gathered as lectors and Eucharistic ministers to reflect on the Triduum. He told us that his father would not allow him and his sisters to run around the house with bare feet. They grew up ashamed of their feet. The father would tell the children how ugly, not only their feet were, but also how ugly they were. When our parishioner decided to become Catholic as an adult, he was so nervous that he would be asked to have his feet washed in public on Holy Thursday. Without realizing his story, the priest at the parish he had attended had asked him to have his feet washed during the Triduum before being initiated into the Church.

He told us that he presented his feet reluctantly and fearfully before the priest and the congregation on Holy Thursday.  He told us with tears in his eyes that the priest washed away more than his foot odor. The act of extending his feet, the vulnerability of his naked foot, began a healing process with his past and gave him courage to extend his love and his life beyond his own hurt and even selfishness. That gesture of love changed his past and opened a new life of service for a man who had been ashamed of his body as well as his voice in the world.

Prepare the liturgy of Holy Thursday with the assurance that washing feet extends the Eucharist far out the doors of the church. We claim Christ who offered us bread to eat and wine to drink and the gesture that challenges us to love beyond our own lives. The goal of the Eucharist is not just to adore the power of God’s presence, but also to take that love into the lives of those who are starving for relationship, communion and justice. Remember that to extend our feet to the community is a vulnerable posture. We extend not only our feet but also the source of all life, the Eucharist of Christ Jesus.

Good Friday of the Passion of the Lord

Last year I gathered a group of women to process with me down the aisle to lift high the cross for veneration. We gathered a widow and a volunteer from our hospitality center. We gathered a woman who earned a Masters of Divinity degree and a woman who is wheelchair-bound because of a car accident. We gathered a pious woman wearing a Mantilla and an elderly woman with severe mental illness. We limped, walked, strode and wheeled ourselves up the aisle. The images of these women represented so many issues of our community and neighborhood. I lifted high the cross, but the reality of suffering was on the faces of these holy women representing so many other people surviving daily struggles.

We all journey to the cross, because we all live the reality of suffering every day. The cross that is presented in the liturgy reminds us that we live facing suffering and death. We grieve for our friends and relatives. We grieve the losses of our dreams. We let go of jobs, financial security and the ideas of how we wanted to live our lives. The cross is ever in our midst and the procession to reverence the cross reminds us of all of life.

Prepare the liturgy with a deeper understanding of what you bring to the wood of the cross. Remember your suffering, your misunderstandings that have yet to be resolved or mended. The cross in every community must be unveiled, reverenced and kissed with honesty about all the issues that people face. No person is left out of life’s suffering and no person is left out of the procession to touch and kiss, to kneel and adore, to love and cherish the wood of the Crucified. We all walk together toward the suffering Christ so to rise with him in resurrection.

At the Easter Vigil in the Holy Night

Years ago, a young student prepared for full initiation into the Church. She was rather short and wore her hair pulled tightly back into a bun. Her blouses were always buttoned up including the top button and her skirts were long, well below her knees. She attended sessions of preparation throughout the year, her brow furrowed with intensity and earnestness. However, on the night of her baptism, in the well-lighted church, she appeared with her hair hanging down on her shoulders. She wore all white and her smile replaced the furrows on her brow. She was stunning. Everyone who knew her could only smile with delight. When I poured the waters of new life on her head, she calmed down and breathed deeply. She woke up from her worry. She was awakened to a new life within her and her external appearance became as dazzling as light.

The sacraments of initiation are also sacraments of change and gladness. We prepare people to fully live the gospel stories, images and values. We delight when people turn from drugs and alcohol, finally reconcile with family and find adequate employment. We are beside ourselves when people find a home within the sacraments of the Church. We are transformed into believers when people take hold of the grace offered them. We are spellbound when their courage takes them to the font, when mystery is poured on their heads and runs down their cheeks and when hope nudges them to the altar table.

Prepare the Easter Vigil with the assurance that liturgy is about people. The grace of the night is all we need. This grace is fuel for integrity and beauty within the liturgy. Prepare the Vigil as if your faith depends upon it. Believe in what you are organizing and singing about. The liturgy consumes the wayward into belief, the lonely into communion, the worried into grace filled and beautiful lives.

Personal Poverty Retreat

Originally published by Ministry & Liturgy Magazine, February 2008
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Our parish church, on Burnside Street in Old Town, downtown Portland, Ore., sits on the border of a great divide. On one side corporate executives scurry one by one to tall, marble buildings, but on our side people dressed in drab colors line the sidewalk in front of our building waiting to enter our red doors for coffee or clean underwear. One day I noticed a woman executive who crossed the forbidden line. She stood on our sidewalk pointing her finger at a man, mentally ill and homeless, who was playing with his grey kitten. Dressed in grey flannel and stiletto heels, she screamed at him not to endanger the cat. After her encounter, she stormed into our lobby, where I was sweeping the floor, and yelled at me, “you have to do something about that man who is hurting that cat!” I assured her I would take care of the situation. After she left the lobby I turned to one member of our parish staff and said, “1 wait for the day when someone comes into our lobby and says, ‘We, together, should do something about that young man who suffers from mental illness and is without housing, employment and friends’.”

This encounter teaches me that we all face different forms of poverty. Dozens of times every day in ministry, I realize poverty is not an abstract reality but reveals itself through our own histories, relationships, and education. We carry poverty in our prejudices or our backpacks, in our cultural expectations or in a shopping cart. We express issues of poverty by the labels we attach to one another, no matter which side of the street we live on.

This interaction between two people dressed in grey also shows me the black and white divide between the rich and poor that continues an ancient tradition. This chasm reminds me every day of Lazarus in the doorway who longed to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table. The segregation calls to mind the journey of Jesus to a Samaritan town to reach out to a woman under the noonday sun. It underlines Jesus’s command to welcome ill strangers, people with handicaps, the former prisoner, and the newly widowed to the feast where all people fit around his open table. This ancient way of dividing the poor and rich teaches me that we have yet to understand the basics of gospel life, in which our lifestyles of fear can be replaced by reaching out to those who need the staples of love and understanding.

Our parish staff searched for ways to educate people living beyond our corner. We wracked our brains to develop a method to move believers beyond their black and white interpretations of life. The staff realized that our ministry among the poor on our side of the street could become a vehicle for real catechesis among those who already have jobs, security, and satisfying relationships. We began to realize that the poor themselves would become the teachers, the authentic catechists. The antidote to unhealthy interactions with poor people begins by learning from those who are suffering, lonely, and drug addicted. Building authentic relationships remains the answer to recognizing the dignity of all life. But the people would first have to be willing to cross the street.

And I needed to examine my own life, priorities, and actions to discover which side of the street I really live on. I needed to grapple with my own need and desire for God, my own personal poverty. I needed to authenticate God’s work in me by stepping out of my fear and comfort in order to serve people suffering physical and emotional poverty.

I found the way to bridge the chasm between faith and service right under my nose. Our daily hospitality center has changed my approach to God more than anything in my years of priesthood. When I spend two hours handing out hygiene products or laundry vouchers and listening to people’s stories, our interactions strip away all the pretense of my human ego and priestly identity. I am the one emotionally naked most days as I realize all the masks, education, and power I stand behind. Mingling in our hospitality center strips away any notion I have that people should be different than they are or that I could possibly have answers for their questions of survival or sobriety. So I invited those who live on the opposite side of the street and beyond to enter into this place of self-stripping.

The parish staff developed from our basic daily ministry an opportunity for others to join us in learning more about prayer and service. Every Friday we work a 13-hour day. We now open up this time once a month so others may join us in an unconventional retreat. We call this day of work and reflection “The Personal Poverty Retreat.” People in small groups muster the courage to cross the dividing line and participate in this day of ministry and sharing.

I gain great courage as I hear people reveal insights and stories during the debriefing sessions following morning hospitality. They understand that the trip across the street was worth the effort as they slowly unravel all their misconceptions about people who are poor, addicted, or lonely. Facing the mentally ill rouses palpable fear in people who are used to having all the answers in life, those who spend their days telling others how to live or what to do. Teachers, bankers, and retired executives often sit confused about how the experience challenges them. I watch in silence as I hear a retired grandfather express guilt over his well-earned possessions. I listen with gratitude as a businessman reveals that he must reinterpret his basic notions of a lifetime of cultural norms, his perceived masculine role in society, and the threats he feels to the American dream. Encountering people who live in poverty becomes real catechesis to the rest of us who think relying on our own power, education, and social status will bring us to God.

After we celebrate the Eucharist at noon, we take the call of the dismissal seriously. We let go of the safety of the sanctuary and enter the streets of the neighborhood where we visit Catholic agencies serving the needs of people living on the streets or in single-room occupancy hotels. I try to resist the notion in myself that this is a poverty safari, a tour of gazing at drug dealers selling their stuff or glaring at the mentally ill person who asks for a handout along the way. This walking tour opens up all our senses, especially for those who are used to passing through this same area in the safety of their car. I see a couple having sex in a doorway, a family creating a cardboard hut near a fence, and a man telling jokes to himself. It is on this tour that people experience the issues of our city trying to eliminate housing for the poor, closing agencies that provide services, and avoiding the needs of the mentally ill people. Amidst the piercing sounds of jackhammers, ambulance sirens, and buses rushing by, we always pray in front of each service agency. This is not a tour about how the church serves the poor but an exploration of people’s consciences to find new ways to learn the needs of others and a new dependency on God who calls us out of ourselves.

The foot-tour raises challenges and exposes consequences about people in poverty, but the two-hour reflection session afterward is where the rubber meets the road. Here we try to ask the startling questions raised by shattered notions of who poor people are and about the God who calls us to do something with our lives. I introduce the session by reading aloud about one of my mentors in Scripture. The Canaanite woman perks us all up after the walk outside, challenging us to shake our fists at Jesus to change his mind about the needs of her daughter. She teaches us to advocate not only for those we love but also for those we just met along the way. This holy woman in Matthew’s Gospel reveals that what we must do to change people’s lives is to storm heaven with our prayer to make sure Jesus is paying attention to his lonely and forgotten.

l am profoundly changed by the challenges people face while sharing in this group setting. One by one people share their real poverty. Suddenly people are making the connections that a recent divorce isa path to God or that the powerlessness they experience with a tormented teenager is the way to a new life of compassion and change. I witness the Spirit softening the anger of a middle-class parent realizing that his years of anger and hatred toward his homeless son need to change. He now understands through the course of the day that he cannot fix his son’s addictions and ‘that he simply needs to love him and offer support. I am amazed at how people let go of so much control and regret, old patterns of life, church, and family. The people on retreat realize that their answers to questions of family, society, and church do not always work for every person, no matter how hard they try to convince people of their correctness. This kind of catechesis does not come from a religious education manual or a tidy parish program but is found in real and honest relationships with those who find themselves on the margins of society and church.

Our evening ends by sharing a meal with other volunteers and then working in our soup line, The Brother Andre Cafe. In our church lobby we encounter people from the neighborhood coming to us not only for food but for an affirmation that their lives count. They come because this is about community, even as broken and tenuous as it is. I try to make the connection with our folks on retreat that this line is an extension of the sanctuary where people feel cared for and welcomed. It is the human and complicated table where people learn that profound hunger brings honest community. This safety of community sometimes is shattered by a man who acts out his mental illness violently or by people just wanting to stir up a fist fight.

I am deeply inspired when people realize Christians are not U do-gooders. People begin to learn that serving under our own power only gets us to burnout and anger. They make the connection that discipleship comes from realizing that we are all loved by God and then we are called into loving others. We do for others what only God can first do for us – that is simply to love. This is the real grace I witness when people come to the conclusion that they do not possess all the answers in life, that finally they need God to do the work only God can accomplish.

I learn from people encountering the needs of the poor that admitting suffering is the road to true community. This admission and conversion is a struggle in every parish community. This is the key to building bridges between people on both sides of the street. This model of retreat convinces me that parishes only need to look to those who are suffering in their midst to begin to understand that people need to be loved as they are and not made over according to our prejudice or ambivalence. Once we admit our own poverty, our own need and desire for God, we can learn to walk together, no matter which side of the street we may live on.

I look forward to the day when we all stand on the same side of the street believing in something more than our fear. We can work together to change these initial instincts into actions of acceptance and service. Participants on our retreat show me that attitudes change when we cross the barriers that separate us from other people’s suffering. Barriers fall through the simple encounters of people as they strip away their black and white differences and share a cup of coffee and a warm bagel.