Archive for the ‘Reflection’ Category

Lessons from Disaster

September 7, 2018

On a Tuesday morning seventeen years ago I was sleeping-in at college. I had no classes that morning so I stayed in my dorm room bed as late as possible, peacefully unaware. I eventually descended from my loft and turned on the TV. The Catholic channel (EWTN) showed people praying in the chapel “for the bombing victims.” Then my roommate walked in and asked me if I’d heard. “Airplanes crashed into the World Trade Towers and the Sears Tower in Chicago. Another plane crashed into the Pentagon, a car bomb blew up at the State Department, and there’s a fire on the National Mall.” Standing there, I realized I would remember that moment for the rest of my life, just as others vividly remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President Kennedy before me.

It’s striking how much confusion there was on September 11, 2001. Most of what my roommate had told me proved inaccurate. Terrible things had certainly occurred – the murder of thousands and the distressing of millions more – yet the news of that day was clouded with false rumors and inaccurate reports. Time would clarify the truth of what had actually happened.

Eager to help in the days after the towers fell, I went to give blood at a Red Cross drive. I waited perhaps an hour until my turn came to have my finger pricked for the pre-donation iron test. Being uncomfortable around blood, I became woozy, had to lay down, and left without contributing anything. Despite my failed effort, others across the country donated more than enough to meet blood supply needs for months.

The shocking evil of September 11th impressed upon me humanity’s brokenness. Even if these terror groups abroad were answered with overwhelming military force, I grasped that what was wrong with the world would remain unrepaired. When I considered what would be the greatest thing I could do to help change the world and myself for the better, I concluded it was to begin attending weekday Mass. My class schedule did not permit me to go every day, but daily Mass grew me and my love for Jesus in the Eucharist. It helped me to embrace my priestly vocation and did good beyond myself that I believe God will reveal to me someday.

These lessons from 9-11 are applicable today. It is heart-breaking to be confronted by these recent scandals in the Church, but remaining unaware of them (asleep to them with eyes closed) would not have made them any less real. It is better that things be clearly understood in purifying daylight. Great evils and crimes have obviously been perpetrated. Thousands have been hurt and millions have been distressed. Yet we must be cautious to weigh all early reports carefully, for their truth will only be fully known with time. We want to improve the situation in the Church but there may be little you and I can do within our immediate influence. We are not popes or bishops or journalists, but we have access to a power beyond our natural reach. I urge you, in this troubled time, to draw closer to Jesus in his sacraments and our daily prayer. This is the greatest thing we can do to help change the Church, the world, and ourselves for the better.

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The Time St. Paul Corrected St. Peter

August 31, 2018

Jesus gave Simon the fisherman the keys to his kingdom and changed his name to “Rock” (that is, “Petros” in Greek, or Peter):

I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19a)

The significance of these things is found in the Old Testament. God changed the names of Abram, Sarai, and Jacob to Abraham, Sarah, and Israel to declare what he would achieve through their lives. (Abraham, for example, means “father of a multitude.”) In the old Davidic dynasty, the king’s chief steward and master of the royal household would carry a key symbolizing his authority. Thus, for Jesus’ kingdom (the Church), Peter is given the great power and office of prime minister:

Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19b)

Yet, despite his divine calling, St. Peter was not always perfect in his personal example. The New Testament records that on one occasion he had to be fraternally corrected by St. Paul.

In the early years of the Church, as belief in the Gospel began to spread from Jerusalem into pagan lands, the question arose of how much of what God commanded through Moses needed to be observed by the Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) converts. God gave not only the Ten Commandments in the Old Covenant but some 613 religious rules, touching on many areas of daily life, including food and clothing. These precepts were called the Mosaic law.

St. Peter’s vision at Joppa and his subsequent visit to Cornelius the centurion’s house in Caesarea (recounted in Acts 10) revealed to him God’s will that Gentile converts to Christianity need not be obliged to observe the full Mosaic law. But others were teaching, “Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice, you cannot be saved.” Around the year 50 A.D., the Apostles and other Church leaders gathered for the Council of Jerusalem to settle this question.

There, some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers in Christ stood up and said to the assembly, “It is necessary to circumcise them and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.” But St. Peter replied, “[Why] are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they.” (Acts 15:10-11) And the Council decreed that Gentile Christians were free from observing the bulk of Jewish religious rules and customs.

The Dispute at Antioch: Saints Peter & Paul by Jusepe de Ribera

But there was a later episode at Antioch where Peter’s personal example did not match his professed beliefs, and St. Paul was moved to correct him:

[W]hen Cephas (the Aramaic word for “Rock” or “Peter”) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he clearly was wrong. For, until some people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to draw back and separated himself, because he was afraid of the circumcised. And the rest of the Jews also acted hypocritically along with him, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not on the right road in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all, “If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:11-14)

Apparently, the “people from James” were Jewish Christians who were disapproving of Peter eating non-kosher meals with the Gentile Christians, leading Peter to withdraw from table fellowship with those non-Jewish converts. St. Peter, the first Pope, was preserved by God from teaching error, but he was not immune to personal faults. Paul publicly corrected Peter because his failure in leadership was leading to scandal within the Church. Spirit-led fraternal correction is a spiritual work of mercy and a duty of Christian love.

The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law says:

[The Christian faithful] have the right, indeed at times the duty, in keeping with their knowledge, competence and position, to manifest to the sacred Pastors their views on matters which concern the good of the Church. They have the right also to make their views known to others of Christ’s faithful, but in doing so they must always respect the integrity of faith and morals, show due reverence to the Pastors and take into account both the common good and the dignity of individuals.” (Canon 212, Section 3)

In this present, painful season in the Church, let us remain faithful but not silent. Let us insist of our shepherds that these scandals may lead to cleansing through true leadership and effective reform.

Foreign Words of our Faith

July 12, 2018

Hebrew Words
Alleluia – “Praise the Lord” (literally, “Praise Yah[weh]”)
Amen – “Verily” / “Truly” / “So be it”

Greek Words
Kyrie eleison – “Lord have mercy”
Christe eleison – “Christ have mercy”

Latin Words
Agnus Dei – “Lamb of God”
Ave Maria – “Hail Mary”
Fiat – “Let it be done”
Gloria in excelsis Deo – “Glory to God in the highest”
INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum) – “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”

French Words
La Croix – “The Cross”
La Crosse – “The Crosier” (a bishop’s shepherd’s crook/staff)
Noel – “Christmas”
Notre Dame – “Our Lady”

Spanish Words
Los Angeles – “The Angels”
San Antonio – “St. Anthony (of Padua)”
San Francisco – “St. Francis (of Assisi)”
Santa Cruz – “Holy Cross”
Santa Fe – “Holy Faith”

St. Paul’s Vision Problems

July 11, 2018

 The oldest known depiction of St. Paul the Apostle, a fresco from the Catacomb of Saint Thekla in Rome dated to the 300’s A.D.

Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, accompanied by a great light from the sky which suddenly shone around him, left the great persecutor of the early Church blind. “Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing…” After three days, the Lord sent a Christian named Ananias to prayerfully lay hands upon Saul/Paul. “Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.” Yet problems with Paul’s vision seem to have lingered or later returned.

Writing to Christians in Galatia (central Turkey) more than a decade after his conversion, Paul recalls, “[Y]ou know that it was because of a physical illness that I originally preached the gospel to you…” While he does not directly identify the malady, he then observes, “Indeed, I can testify to you that, if it had been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.” And in his personal closing to the letter he adds, “See with what large letters I am writing to you in my own hand!” These clues suggest that swapping-out Paul’s eyeballs for another pair would have improved his poor and ailing sight.

Paul, previously blinded by hatred of Christians, saw the light and was converted. The Lord forgave all of his sins through baptism but forgiveness does not always remove all of our sins’ consequences. In restoring Paul’s sight the Lord may have permitted some physical encumbrance to remain. For what purpose? For Paul’s greater good: to serve as an enduring sign to him that what he experienced on the way to Damascus had been real and to remind him of how far he had come; to keep him humble amid the incredible graces, revelations, and miracles of his epic ministry; and to help him remain faithfully dependent upon our Lord Jesus, who once told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” May God grant that we would spiritually profit as much from our own divinely-permitted trials as St. Paul did through his.

Call No Man Father?

June 19, 2018

Was it unchristian for our country to celebrate Father’s Day last Sunday? That’s one implication of a common criticism raised against the Catholic Church. Sometimes Protestants chide us, “Jesus said, ‘Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in Heaven,’ so why do you Catholics call priests and popes ‘Father?’” Yet this charge could also be raised against St. Paul who writes in his Letter to the Romans of “our father Abraham” and “our father Issac.” What’s more, St. Paul is moved by the Holy Spirit in his First Letter to the Corinthians to assert himself as their spiritual father: “Even if you should have countless guides to Christ, yet you do not have many fathers, for I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

So what is Jesus saying in his teaching on titles (father, master, rabbi/teacher) in Matthew 23? Judging from the whole of the New Testament, our Lord’s concern is not with labels or hierarchy in themselves (for “he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles.”) Jesus is warning us against the fallen, human attitudes that we can attach to positions and titles of authority and honor. Jesus says, “You have one teacher… you have but one Father in Heaven… you have but one master, the Messiah.” We must not allow anyone (be they a noted thinker, politician, celebrity, employer, or parent) to displace or compromise God’s primacy in our lives. Embracing a teaching or custom against our Faith is to worship an idol instead of God. And Jesus says “you are all brothers…. The greatest among you must be your servant.” So whenever we are called into a position of influence (be it as a parent, pastor, politician, or what have you) we must remain humble and glorify God while serving him and our neighbors.

The Venerable Servant of God Bishop Fulton Sheen once observed, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing.” Our Faith has good answers to offer anyone who cares enough about the truth to simply look or listen. So do not fear religious conversations with your family, friends, or peers. You’ll both learn more along the way and you could very well help them into the fullness of Jesus’ Catholic Church.

Our Lady of Zeitoun

April 3, 2018

A Fascinating Marian Apparition from Egypt

Fifty years ago this week, on the evening of April 2, 1968, a group of Muslim mechanics and drivers working across the street from Virgin Mary’s Coptic Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, saw a woman atop a dome of the church. Two other men also noticed the white figure on the top of the church and the matter was reported to the police. A crowd gathered on the site and interpreted the sighting as an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After a few minutes, the event ended. According to tradition, Zeitoun is on the route that the Holy Family took when fleeing King Herod’s efforts to murder the infant Jesus.

Our Lady of Zeitoun

One week later, on April 9, 1968, the phenomenon reoccurred, again lasting for only a few minutes. After that time apparitions became more frequent, sometimes two or three times a week, for several years, ending in 1971. The woman spoke no words, but moved about the church’s mysteriously illuminated domes. She would also face the people in the streets below and gesture warmly with her head or hands. Sometimes she was accompanied by luminous, dove-shaped bodies which moved about at high speeds. Muslims hold Mary in very high regard even though they deem Jesus to be merely a prophet of Islam. She was seen to kneel down before a cross on the church roof; significant, since Muslims deny Jesus’ crucifixion.

Pope (or Patriarch) Kyrillos VI, the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, appointed a committee of high-ranking priests and bishops to investigate. On May 4, 1968, Kyrillos VI issued an official statement confirming and approving the apparition. These apparitions were witnessed by perhaps a million people, including President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and were documented by newspaper photographers and Egyptian television. Egyptian government officials concluded in 1968: “Official investigations have been carried out with the result that it has been considered an undeniable fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing on Zeitoun Church in a clear and bright luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, whether Christians or Muslims.”

The Life & Works of Fr. Joe Walijewski

March 6, 2018

Five years ago this week, our own Bishop William Callahan announced the opening of the cause for the beatification and canonization of Father Joseph Walijewski, a priest of our diocese who lived from 1924 to 2006. On May 27th, a ceremony at our cathedral will mark the close of our diocese’s investigation into his life and the submission of his cause to the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Father Joe was one of ten children born to poor Polish immigrant parents in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Growing up during the Great Depression, he pitched in to help the family survive by selling newspapers. He only spoke Polish at that time, but he knew he would have to learn English to be successful, and he did just that.

After finishing his Catholic schooling in Grand Rapids, he came to Wisconsin to attend seminary in Milwaukee. Like many young people, he struggled with his studies, but he set to his task of learning Latin, Greek, and his other courses. His superiors thought he lacked ability. In his own words, Fr. Joe recalled, “I was deficient in my studies but I remained determined.” The young seminarian promised the Lord to commit five years of his priesthood to working in the missions if he could pass his courses. La Crosse’s fourth bishop, Alexander McGavick, saw potential in the young man and welcomed him to join our diocese. On April 16, 1950, he was ordained in our cathedral in La Crosse by our fifth bishop, John Patrick Treacy.

As a young priest Fr. Joseph served in Mosinee, Thorp, and Stevens Point. He heard a talk by Bishop Luis Aníbal Rodríguez Pardo about the desperate needs of his people in Bolivia. When Fr. Joe asked Bishop Treacy if he could be a diocesan missionary there, the bishop told him to pray on it for a year and talk to him again. A year later, Fr. Joe was back. He departed for Santa Cruz in 1956.

Upon landing in Bolivia, Bishop Charles Brown literally handed Father Joe a machete. Together they hacked through the tropical grass beyond the outskirts of Santa Cruz. “Build a church here and the people will come and build their homes next to it,” the bishop said. Holy Cross Parish is today at the heart of a city of 1.2 million.

Always a humble servant of the Lord, Father Joe lived in a barn with the livestock as he built his first church. Lacking funds and skilled workers, the strength of the walls for that new church fell short. The walls came tumbling down—not once, but three times. Yet Father Joe did not lose heart. He told folks this was fitting for a church named Holy Cross fell, for Christ fell three times under the weight of His Cross. Fr. Al Wozniak – a priest with an engineering background – went to lend assistance and our diocese’s parish mission in Bolivia stands firmly today. After ten years in Bolivia, our sixth bishop, Fredrick Freking, recalled Fr. Joe back to Wisconsin in 1966. Father Joe then led parishes in Heffron, Almond, Buena Vista, and Thorp.

In 1970, an 7.9 magnitude earthquake shook Peru, triggering the world’s deadliest landslide. A wall of glacial ice and rock—more than a half-mile wide and a mile long—slid eleven miles at speeds topping 100 miles per hour. It completely buried two cities in its path, seriously damaged others, and killed more than 74,000 people. The avalanche wiped out electricity, communications, and roads making it difficult to provide relief and rebuild.

The archbishop of Lima, Peru appealed for Father Joe to help. Father went to Peru to pastor a new parish in a rapidly growing neighborhood on the outskirts of Lima. That community is Villa el Salvador, the “City of the Savior.” There were about 80,000 impoverished people there when Father Joe arrived. Peruvians flocked there hoping to find work, food, and to escape increasing terrorist violence. Father Joe built their first church and the population of this city grew to 900,000, keeping Father Joe busy. He directed the construction of eight additional chapels.

In the early chaos following the earthquake, terrorist groups wreaked havoc on the local people. They targeted those serving as religious and civic leaders for execution. Our Lord seemed to be watching over Father Joe. He spared his life once when Father Joe ran late for his regular visit to a village eight hours away. The delay saved him from being rounded up and executed with the mayor and two others in front of the frightened villagers. Another attack against Father Joe came when terrorists rigged his Massey Ferguson tractor with dynamite. After the charge failed to detonate, friends asked Father Joe about his physical safety. He replied, “I don’t worry about it, and tell God that, when it is time to go, just be sure to send someone else to keep this work going.”

St. John Paul the Great visited Lima in 1985. The Holy Father was already running behind on a very active schedule. Yet he broke away from his aides, looking at Father Joe, saying, “I want to talk to this priest.” Father Joe told him about the homeless children sleeping under newspapers in the streets. Before the pontiff left Peru, he gave the local cardinal a check for $50,000 to support the local ministry. From those seeds, in 1986, Father Joe opened an orphanage, Casa Hogar Juan Pablo II, the “House-home of John Paul II.” It has since welcomed hundreds of boys and girls needing security, family, and Christian love.

In 2000, Father Joe was granted senior-priest status, but he was not finished working. He opened a retirement home for the elderly and would drive deep into the rainforests to celebrate up to five Masses with the Ashiko Indians every Sunday. On April 11, 2006, after fifty-six years of ministry, Father Joseph Walijewski died in Lima, Peru at age 82. He is now buried in the Grotto of the Assumption of Our Lady, which he had built, on the hill overlooking his Casa Hogar orphanage.

Fr. Joe Walijewski meeting St. Pope John Paul II in 1986

 

Our Light Amid the Darkness

March 3, 2018

America, shaken and grieving unprecedented violence; divided by animosity and racial tensions; politicians seeking to remove the president through impeachment; these are descriptions of the United States 150 years ago.

While still reeling and mourning from the deaths of more than 600,000 Civil War combatants, there was fierce contention over how harshly the North should treat the vanquished South and what rights should be accorded to former slaves. The political polarization was so great that, this week in 1868, the president was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. (Pres. Andrew Johnson would go on to remain in office, being acquitted in the U.S. Senate by a single-vote margin.) They were dark, troubled times in our country. Meanwhile, a new source of light was being lit among us from across the ocean.

On March 3, 1868, a decree of Pope Pius IX established two dioceses within the twenty-year-old state of Wisconsin: La Crosse and Green Bay. For the fifteen decades since, under the stewardship of ten bishops, our diocese has been advancing the Kingdom of Christ. We established churches, schools, and institutions. We proclaimed the Gospel and celebrated our living Faith. Great good was done and many souls were saved.

We can easily get discouraged by the evil we see in current events. But even amid tragedy and trials our great, fruitful, saving work goes on — often quietly and unnoticed. It has always been so. “For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)

The Diocese of La Crosse — Founded March 3, 1868

The Most Interesting Woman in the World

March 1, 2018

With a single word, she crushed a deadly serpent.

Pregnant just once, she has billions of children.

She ended the Soviet Union with her heart.

She is… The Most Interesting Woman in the World

For more than a decade, she held the title for
“The Best Thing to come from Nazareth.”

Her preexisting condition?
Sinlessness — The Lord ensured it.

She lost track of her 12-year-old for three days…
is still considered the world’s greatest mother.

She once redesigned a used garment
and it converted Mexico.

Her favorite nation?
Her coronation.
(But she loves your homeland, too.)

At over 2,000 years old,
she could still get carded buying wine,
though she never needs to.

I don’t always drink wine, but when I do, I prefer my Son’s.

Stay holy, my children.

 

 

Jesus is Asking you for a Date

February 1, 2018

Jesus is asking you for a date: it’s February 14th. This year, Ash Wednesday lands on St. Valentine’s Day. These two observances, seemingly opposite, are both in fact dedicated to love. Little is known with certainty about St. Valentine, the 3rd century martyr buried near Rome. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘the popular customs associated with Saint Valentine’s Day undoubtedly had their origin in a conventional belief generally received in England and France during the Middle Ages, that on February 14th (i.e., half way through the 2nd month of the year) the birds began to pair.’ Valentine’s Day is a celebration of eros, the romantic form of love that delights in loving the beloved. Ash Wednesday calls us to agape, the form of love that is willing to undergo sufferings for another’s good.

Jesus commands us to love: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … You shall love your neighbor as yourself. … As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” We must give of ourselves to God and neighbor yet we can only give of what we possess; this means we must be able to say “no” to ourselves in order to give a fuller “yes” to others. Such self-mastery comes through asceticism. By disciplining our desires through mortification and penance we grow in our conversion and virtue. Internal and external acts of Christian self-denial are typically done privately, but Jesus Christ’s Church prescribes communal penances for the season of Lent.

All Catholics who are at least fourteen years old are to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday, on Lent’s Fridays, and on Good Friday. Catholics at least eighteen years of age must also fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday until reaching their fifty-ninth birthday. What is “fasting?” Lenten fasting means eating just one full meal that day. Two additional smaller meals (less than one full meal when put together) are allowed if necessary, but snacking on solid foods between meals is not. Physically, mentally, or chronically ill persons, as well as pregnant or nursing mothers, are exempt from Lent’s fasting and meat abstinence rules. However, merely being in a dating relationship, engaged to someone, or married, does not.

There will be no fancy steak dinners for Catholics this Valentine’s Day. (Perhaps make romantic dinner reservations for February 13th or 15th instead – you’ll end up with an even better table.) Eros love and agape love can certainly complement each other. Jesus Christ delights in his Church as his beloved bride while also being prepared to greatly suffer and lay down his life for us. This Ash Wednesday, Valentine’s Day, let us perfect our love for our beloveds through ascetic self-denial and elated gifts of self.

A Parable on Pushing Boulders

January 24, 2018

Once upon a time, a Christian hermit lived in a cabin on a wooded mountainside, devoting himself to prayer. One morning, as he quieted himself and opened himself receptively to God, he sensed Jesus speaking to him – hearing him not with his ears but in his mind. The Lord said, “Go to that large boulder outside your house.” The man got up and went. Then the Lord said, “I want you to push this boulder for a half-hour every day.” The man obeyed, daily exerting his body in every manner against the smooth, massive stone, yet even after months of pushing the boulder remained completely unmoved.

The man asked himself, “Why am I failing? What am I doing wrong? The Gospels say that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains, but I can’t even budge this boulder an inch. Why does God demand this of me when he knows I can’t do it?” At this, the man became quite angry and (wisely) voiced his frustration, confusion, and hurt to the Lord.

The man heard Jesus reply, “Do you have reason to be angry? I told you to push the boulder, but I never asked you to move it. Look at your arms, look at your legs – by your faithfulness to me you have become strong. Now you are prepared for my next task for you. Though you thought you were failing, you were succeeding in fulfilling my will.”

Recent Popes on the Culture of Life

January 17, 2018

“The promotion of the culture of life should be the highest priority in our societies… If the right to life is not defended decisively as a condition for all other rights of the person, all other references to human rights remain deceitful and illusory.”

— Pope St. John Paul the Great

“The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself. This is true of life from the moment of  conception until its natural end. Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right—it is the very opposite. It is a deep wound in society.”

— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

“All life has inestimable value even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

— Pope Francis

“That is the dignity of America, the reason she exists, the condition of her survival, yes, the ultimate test of her greatness: to respect every human person, especially the weak and most defenseless ones, those as yet unborn.”

— Pope St. John Paul the Great

What if Jerusalem were in Western Wisconsin?

December 29, 2017

(Not all will personally resonate with the reference city
chosen for this reflection, but I share this article because
its device and style may be fruitfully employed by others.)

One thing I brought back with me from my first trip to Israel was a better grasp of its geography. A visit to the Holy Land yields a previously unknown sense of scale offering new insights to the Gospel. In lieu of flying everyone abroad, perhaps I can bring its holy places closer to home. Let’s allow Bloomer, Wisconsin to represent the location of ancient Jerusalem and examine where other sites in the region would be situated relative to it.

The town of Bethlehem is about five and a half miles (in a straight line, as the crow flies) south-southwest (SSW) from Jerusalem. So, allowing Bloomer to be Jerusalem, Jesus was born not far from St. John the Baptist’s Catholic Church in Cooks Valley, Wisconsin. If the Holy Family, retracing the steps of their Hebrew ancestors during their flight into Egypt, passed by the Great Pyramids of Giza (273 miles WSW from Jerusalem) they fled almost as far as Sioux Falls, South Dakota. After King Herod the Great’s death, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to their hometown of Nazareth, 64 miles north of Jerusalem. Each year, Jesus’ parents would pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem, as from Hayward, Wisconsin to Bloomer and back, for the Jewish festival of Passover.

One of the things that struck me about seeing the Old City of Jerusalem in person is how very small it is. There is just 0.35 square miles – only twice the area of Vatican City – within its high stone walls. The locales of Jesus’ Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension are all reasonably short walks from each other.  If we take St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Bloomer as the location of the Jewish Temple, the Cenacle (or “Upper Room” where the Last Supper was celebrated) is located to the southwest at the intersection of Riggs Street & 19th Avenue. The site of Jesus’ crucifixion and tomb (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher) is almost due west of the church, in the middle of Bloomer’s Lake Como behind the A.J. Manufacturing building. And the traditional site of Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven from the Mount of Olives would be almost due east from the church, in the first field south of the Bloomer Public Elementary School.

As the young Church spread, a Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus obtained authority from the Jewish High Priest to arrest any Christians he might find in Damascus, 134 miles NNE from Jerusalem in Syria. However, the Lord Jesus enlightened him on his journey as to (quite fittingly) the Apostle Islands off of Wisconsin’s northern shore. This Saul, who became St. Paul, would go on to preach and win converts as in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba & Saskatchewan (i.e., Turkey & Greece.) Just like St. Peter, St. Paul was martyred for Christ far from home, 1,432 miles from Jerusalem in Rome, a distance like that of Seattle, Washington from Bloomer.

Following the Apostles, Jesus’ Church continued to grow through the centuries and around the world, winning new souls in new lands, including our own. Our Christian Faith has come to us today from ancient Jerusalem to St. Paul’s Catholic Church, wondrously spanning a distance equaling that of Bloomer, Wisconsin to Kyoto, Japan.


The two gray domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher appear behind the Islamic Dome of the Rock shrine atop the Temple Mount
in this photo I took in November 2016 from the western slope
of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

The Ox, the Ass, & the First Manger Scene

December 20, 2017

In the year 1223 A.D., about two weeks before Christmas and three years before his death, St. Francis of Assisi shared an innovative idea with a beloved friend: “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” With Pope Honorius III’s approval and his generous friend’s help everything was ready for Christmas Eve.

Blessed Thomas of Celano (writing just six years after) recounts the unveiling of that first manger scene, or crèche:

“With glad hearts, the men and women of that place prepared, according to their means, candles, and torches to light up that night which has illuminated all the days and years with its glittering star. Finally the holy man of God arrived and, finding everything prepared, saw it and rejoiced. … The manger is ready, hay is brought, the (live) ox and ass are led in. The brothers sing, discharging their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night echoes with jubilation. The holy man of God stands before the manger full of sighs, consumed by devotion, and filled with a marvelous joy. The holy man of God wears a deacon’s vestments, for he was indeed a deacon, and he sings the holy gospel with a sonorous voice. Then he preaches sweetly to the people standing about, telling them about the birth of the poor king and the little city of Bethlehem.”

The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth make no mention of an ox or donkey, but St. Francis included them in his scene because the duo had so commonly appeared in Christian imagery and writings since the Early Church.

Like the crucified thieves beside Jesus’ cross, this pair of creatures beside Jesus’ crib can represent two types of people in our world. Some respond to the birth of God among us like a donkey, with a foolish, stubborn resistance. But others, like an ox, humbly take the yoke of Christ upon their shoulders, learn from him, and produce a great harvest. Some attend Christmas Mass eager to leave early and without plans to soon return, like Judas Iscariot at the Last Supper. Yet Jesus calls us to attend to him week in and week out as his faithful oxen so that we may have peace in this world: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

The Temptations of the First Christmas

December 19, 2017

If I were a demon prowling about the world seeking the confusion, discouragement, and ruin of souls, how might I have tried to wickedly snare God’s beloved ones in the events leading up to the first Christmas?

If I were a demon, I would say to St. Elizabeth during her early months of pregnancy, “Did people suppose that your husband had some kind of vision when he took so long in the temple and came out unable to speak? He simply had a stroke. Zechariah will never speak again. Now you’re feeling sick every day and your abdomen is expanding. How could it possibly be a baby at your age? A cancer is growing inside of you. You’ll be dead soon. It’s hopeless.

If I were a demon, I would say to the Blessed Virgin Mary soon after the Annunciation, “You think you saw an angel? That’s crazy! You only dreamed or imagined it. Who are you to be the mother of God’s son? Who do you think you are! Don’t bother going to visit Elizabeth – you’ll only embarrass yourself. You had better hope this isn’t real, because none of your family, friends, or neighbors will believe you. Joseph will divorce and abandon you. You’ll be all alone.

If I were a demon, I would say to St. Joseph after he learned that Mary was with child, “Do you really believe she conceived by God’s Spirit? Who ever heard of such a thing? She’s lying and taking you for a fool. Even if it were true, who are you to be a foster-father to the Messiah? True or not, the best thing is for you to just get a divorce. Whatever you were thinking when you married her, you certainly made a terrible mistake.

Even once Christmas arrived, my diabolical efforts would not cease. I would caution Bethlehem’s shepherds to steer safely clear of that holy child and to keep watching over their flocks. I would counsel the Magi to dismiss the starry signs as coincidences and not to hazard a long, uncertain journey from the East. I would pressure Joseph to ignore the dream directing him to take his family into Egypt, and I would goad Mary not to trust in her loving husband’s lead: “God surely would have told you instead of only telling Joseph.” Thankfully, none of these people were kept from doing God’s will, tripped-up by these or other temptation traps, in relation to the first Christmas.

Some people think of temptation strictly as promptings to immoral pleasures. But temptation comes in many forms. We can be led to harmful inaction or disaster by temptations such as fear, doubt, sadness, and despair.

Some people assume that saints do not know temptation like the rest of us. But were Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth oblivious to thoughts and unassailed by feelings like those I realistically described? Saints come to understand temptation quite well as they discern and persevere through the trials of life.

Some people believe that God only watches over and guides a few, favored saints – while having less care and concern for the rest of us – but this is also a temptation. Even if your life takes a shocking turn and you don’t know what to do, even if you have a stroke, or cancer, or your mind begins to fail, even if you are betrayed or abandoned by everyone, you are his dearly beloved one. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise, even if they speak to you in your own voice.

Sometimes we envision the first Christmas and all the events surrounding it in idyllic postcard pastels, as if they were flawless occasions of comfort and joy. But imagine being far from home and not being able to find a room for your very pregnant wife, or having to undergo labor and delivery on the floor of a stable. God was with Mary and Joseph and both experienced unforgettable happiness that night, but it was not a time preserved free from hardship or trial.

Sometimes we hope or expect our Christmas to be perfect, and strive for everything to go just right. Yet circumstances never fully cooperate. Things are less organized, less harmonious, less supremely happy than we wished them to be. From its beginning, Christmas has never been “perfect,” but its intrinsic goodness is always present for us — for Jesus Christ has come. This year, do not allow disquieting or perfectionistic temptations rob you and yours of Christmas joy.