Sunday, September 21, 2014

Restlessness in Leuven: Opening Mass for American College St. Damien Community

There is a restlessness in the city right now.  Students are back.  Some coming from near, some from far.  Some sure of what they are doing; some not sure of much at all.  The fritteurs are hot and ready to go, grease is steaming away.  You can smell fries flowing, wafting through the air. The kegs have all been tapped.  The cellars are stocked with that much-prized Belgium brew (thanks be to God for those monks).  And for the past few nights you could see the masses of young people making their way to the center of the city:  the famous Grote Markt and Oude Markt.  My guess though is that probably not many of them are going to Sint Pieterskerk.  Not many going to stop off and fill up at the Sedes Sapientiae.  Mary probably has had fewer customers these days than De Rector, De Kroeg or The Capital.  But even though students may not stop off at the church that does not mean that their hearts are not restless.  For all of our hearts are restless.  All are searching for something more.  It’s just that sometimes we don’t know where to seek.   Sometimes we don’t even know where to begin to ask. 

The Israelites were a restless people too.  They searched for God in many places.  Even when God revealed himself to them, they still weren’t really sure where to find him.  So they sought him in pagans God, in idols of smooth stones and in sorcerers’ wisdom.  They searched for him on mountains; they searched for him in valleys.  They were restless and looked in so many places.  But Isaiah simply said to them:  Seek the Lord where he may be found: call on him while he is near.   They knew where God could be found: in the covenants and in the promises, in that culture sustaining monotheistic belief.  But they weren’t always so sure.  So their restless hearts searched in many other places. 

One of the goals of my last assignment as a priest was to build community beyond the walls of the church—especially with the youth.  We went out one night in an attempt to do just that, and were going to a play together.  I was driving and I had my GPS set.  Now I am terrible with directions, but the GPS has really enhanced my life.  It told me to take a right and so I followed the directions.  It brought us into this cul-de-sac, I could literally see our destination just in view, but then the GPS started going crazy.  It told me to go right, then left, then right again.  We kept winding around these houses.  It said that we were right next to our destination, but it kept telling me to turn and turn and turn.  We couldn’t find our way out of these houses.  But I kept my cool. I wanted to seem like I knew what I was doing.  Finally in a fit of frustration I turned to the other chaperone sitting next to me and asked:  do you know how to get out of here?  She said:  I wondered how long you were going to wait to ask me.  It is just up there straight ahead and take a left.  She was correct, and we proceeded to our destination, no thanks to me.

We have all embarked on a new journey.  Perhaps up to this point we have followed our inner GPS well.  Perhaps unlike many of those parading to the center of town the past few nights, we have been graced with the gift of faith. And so we have chosen to come to Leuven.  For many of us we have chosen to stay in a community because something inside of us encouraged us to do so.  We have all chosen to follow some intuition inside to choose the field and subject matter we are invested in.  In the midst of all of that, hopefully, we have asked God for guidance and help in making these decisions.  This is a wonderful thing, but we can’t stop there.  We must keep searching.  For oftentimes when we think we are on the right path, when we think we are following correctly, it is then that we start to rely a little too much on ourselves, and it is then we find ourselves a little like the Israelites, searching to settle our restlessness in the wrong way.

If the first reading is a gentle invitation to us all to search for the Lord where he can be found, the Gospel today should be a bit more challenging.  Here we see that it is not always so easy to understand God’s ways.  Most of us are probably like the workers who worked hard all day.  We have tried to be faithful.  We are at least asking the right questions.  We know of our own restlessness and want to find rest in God.  And yet it was just those who did all the right things, those who were faithful and hard working in a good Palegian fashion, who misunderstood the ways of God.  Perhaps we think we have done the right things and so we should know what to expect from God.  But then the words hit us in the gut:  God’s ways are not our ways. 

For in Christ God changed everything.  The old order was flipped on its head.  In Christ when we think we have everything figured out we must think again.  For in Christ:
The first become last
The last become first
The wretched are redeemed
The redeemed are asked to suffer
The scoundrel is saved
The saved are sent out
The tax collector becomes a saint
The saint is then despised
The wise become foolish
And the foolish are given a chance to see.

As soon as we think we have it all figured out, as soon as we think we are certain of our path, as soon as we think we have found the place where our hearts need to rest, it is then that we must seek the Lord even more, ever more, always more. 

We will have the chance to read a lot of books and take a lot of classes.  We will know a lot about God and about faith and about religion.  But it is exactly at this point that we should beg God for the humility to say that we really do not know that much at all.  This is not a nihilistic skepticism.  Rather this is admittance that our ways are not always God’s ways.  When we think we have things figured out we must step back in humility and beg God for assistance.

We will have the chance to get to know each other in community.  We will laugh and cry and rejoice and get frustrated.  But even when we think we know each other well we should beg God for the humility to see that there is so much more mystery in every person that we still don’t see.

We have assurances that we know where the restlessness of the world can find its rest.  But lest we lose our place of rest in Jesus we must always bring ourselves back to him. 

So in our studies we seek the Lord.
In our meals we seek the Lord.
In our tears and joys and frustrations and triumphs we seek the Lord.
In all things we seek the Lord.

And we know where he can be found.  Right here in this community that is gathered, in his church, in this historic chapel that has for years connected America and Leuven, where for over 150 years, right here, in the basic elements of bread and wine we see that our ways are not God’s ways.  For in this sacred institution narrative God actually comes again and again and again to be with his people.  And he says to each of us, and to each of those restless hearts in the city of Leuven:  I am here.  I am waiting for you. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

St. Kwinten's Catholic Church, Leuven, Belgium

I just thought I would include a link to the parish where I help out occasionally here in Leuven.  It is a wonderful community, many of the members being students in the Faculty of Theology or the Higher Institute of Philosophy.  But many others are engaged in a lot of different studies and work in the area.

The community contains members from all over the world.  It has been a nice home away from home for me, and I am grateful for that.

Here is the website:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Sixth Category for Glenmary Mission....Inter-Religious Dialogue?


          Most folk know that Glenmary operates under five general categories of mission:  Catholic nurture, working with the Universal Church, ecumenism, social outreach, and evangelization of the un-churched.  But perhaps just for a day I added to those missionary tasks Inter-religious Dialogue.
        Back in 1986 in Assisi, Italy, St. John Paul II began a tradition of bringing together people from all of the world's religions, as well as people of good will, in order to pray for peace.  Of course, this was a complicated task given the diversity of beliefs and practices.  But his motivation was genuine:  get people together to think, talk, dialogue and pray for peace in a world that desperately needed it.

      Today, I was able to attend a continuation of this dream of Saint John Paul II in Antwerp, Belgium, as the Saint Egidio community put on a program entitled "Peace is the Future."  Once again, people from various religious backgrounds, civil leaders, and people of good will came together to reflect on what peace might look like in our world, and how we can possibly move towards realizing some of these dreams.  Given the recent atrocities in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine, as well as continued violence in other parts of the world, it was certainly a timely event.

From left to right: Hilde Kieboom (St. Egidio), Abraham Skorka (Rabbi and friend of Pope Francis),
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp, Vian Dakheel (Yazidi Community and MP of Iraq who was recently pleaded in the news for her persecuted community in Iraq), and Andrea Riccardi (founder of the St. Egidio community)
              One of the most moving speakers was Vian Dakheel, a MP of the Iraqi government and a member of the Yazidi people.  She has recently been featured on the news begging for international support and response for her people who have been slaughtered and scattered as refugees due to the inhuman and barbarous acts of ISIS.  She again brought many to tears, describing how ISIS finally left the Yazidi area they had been occupying because the smell of the corpses or her slaughtered people began to be too much for them to take.  She certainly made real the suffering of her people to so many who are isolated from the direct effects of this violence.

          Equally moving was the presentation of Ignatius Aphrem II, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East (pictured left).  He talked about visiting many different sites throughout the Middle East where his followers lived only to see countless acts of genocide, killings, starvations, and persecution.  He mentioned how faith in the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ, is the only way to achieve lasting peace.  But he said that in visiting families and speaking to survivors it was sometimes difficult to communicate this.  

         There was also a presentation by Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, Grand Mufti of the Arab Republic of Egypt (see below).  As a Muslim, he emphatically proclaimed that extremism and terrorism are not part of the Islam.  He said that unfortunately much of the violence done in the name of Islam today is being led by radical leaders who have had little to no education in Islamic tradition, and who are motivated by complex and irrational reasons for their atrocious acts against humanity. 

     This was a moving event for me.  Being surrounded by thousands of people, many of which are leaders of their respective religious traditions, indicated a sign of hope in our tumultuous age.  Yet the path to peace is a difficult and complex one, that must consider all of the various elements that add to violence in our world.   Many hope in governments to provide the answer, or better distribution of the world's resources to bring about the solution.   These all certainly can help the situation.  But for myself, I only think that peace will be achieved as the world is drawn closer to the one who frees us from our sinfulness, frees us from our selfishness, and the one who turned from violence and aggression and gave us his own life instead:  Jesus Christ.  May we who believe in him pray more fervently for peace in our hearts and in the world, and may the world continue its dialogue and search to realizing the peace that we all desire.  


A Subversive Faith--Homily from this Weekend

It was nothing more than a little incense dropped into a bowl.  That was all.  Drop it in and the public sacrifice was over.  It appeared seemingly innocent.  But it was much more than that.  For the early Christians it was a denial of what had become so dear to them.  A denial that there really was only one Lord to whom they devoted their entire lives.  So they refused.  They were subversive to the reigning culture.  Some lost their lives.  But the faith lived on.

In the camp no one spoke up.  Silence pervaded the ash filled air.  Life was work, sleep, and try to stay alive—or perhaps not.  Faith was impossible.  Hope completely lost.  Love unimaginable. Yet when one man was called forward to receive the punishment for three that had escaped, an act of love would come.  A subversive act by a man named Maximilian.  He would lose his life, but the faith would live on.  

There is something about the Christian faith that is always subversive.  For if it is not subversive than the Church either admits that the Kingdom has come, or we are simply apathetic to the Kingdom.  It is never subversion through violence or even coercive power.  It is subversive by simple acts of love, living the very example that Jesus has left us.

In the safety that many of us here experience in the Western world, we will probably not risk losing our lives by being subversive. Yet it will take great sacrifice none-the-less. I believe that today’s Gospel is actually speaking to us as a community to be subversive.  It is not the subversion of violent regimes or political oppression.  It is subversion of elements of the culture in which we find ourselves.  A culture that is not always so conducive to faith:  one that insidiously creeps in on us without our knowing.

The gospel begins by saying that if our brother sins against us, we should go and tell this person. This is the first invitation to live a subversive faith.  It is by being a community of discipline. It means first being willing to let someone know when they are acting in the wrong.  But it is also our own ability to allow others to invite us to deeper conversion. This might seem simple.  But in our culture it is really unheard of. 

For we live in a time and place that holds tolerance to the highest degree.  Seemingly, no one can do anything wrong.  In private anything really goes.  And even if someone should act in an incorrect way publicly, it is really no place for someone else to say something.   We determine what is right and wrong for ourselves, and no one should bother us otherwise.  Talk about what is right and wrong is even taboo.  For your right and my wrong is all that matter.  There is not much that binds us together. 

Stanley Hauerwas states that we live in an age that has thrown discipline out.  Not only in society has this been eclipsed.  But it is also gone from the church.  He says that the church has remained only a place of care.  But it has lost the art of discipline.  And therefore it has lost one of its subversive qualities, and it is weakened at being the Sacrament of Salvation to the world. 

For us then, one of the most powerful acts of subversion that we can image to the world is a mutual openness to discipline.  It says that we ultimately don’t determine what is right and wrong.  That often we are mistaken; that not all things are relative; and that not all things should be tolerated.  We certainly will be misunderstood, mocked and maybe even laughed at.  We will have to unlearn some of what culture has taught us.  It will be painful, but the faith will live on.

The next way the Gospel is inviting us to be subversive is found in one simple verse: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.”  In matters to determine the truth of a situation the good news of Jesus invites us to appeal to authority. 

Now anyone versed in some philosophy knows that the appeal to authority went out long ago.  For as Chesterton writes “Modern man will accept nothing on authority, but will accept anything on no authority.” With the hermeneutic of suspicion of anything but “pure reason” authority was sent back in a time machine to the Middle Ages where some would say that it belongs.  For those of us considered theologians or at least theologians in the making we know about how far appeal to authority gets us in our arguments.  And for parents I am sure when asked over and over from your kids why they need to go to bed, “because I said so” doesn’t always seem to work so well. 

But our willingness to appeal to authority, and to accept that authority, is a subversive act in our current culture.  For it says that we have limits.  That as glamorous as science is: it is still limited.  As brilliant as our God-given minds are: they are not infallible.  And as deep as we are able to plumb the depths of meaning and understanding in this world: the depths are limitless and not fully attainable.  We are limited.  We are weak.  And to admit we need to appeal to an authority—a God given authority based on God’s word—is a subversive act.  It admits our creaturelyness. We shouldn’t feel foolish about hanging on to tradition.  We shouldn’t feel foolish about appealing to authority. We may be misunderstood and deemed irrational and seen as foolish in doing so, but the faith will live on.

I would like to illustrate the final way in which our Gospel today calls us to be subversive by a little story from when I was in the missions. 

Agnes was the grandmother of Samantha.  Every Saturday evening she would drop her granddaughter off at the church.  Her granddaughter, a 14 year old convert to Catholicism, one of the first converts in our missions, would run inside and be greeted by the community.  But Agnes would stay outside in her van.  She would park close enough to be able to see what was going on inside. But she never came in.  Week after week she simply sat out in her van.  I began making it a habit to join her after mass.  Sometimes if we had hospitality I would bring her juice or cookies.  We would talk.  Laugh.  But she never got out of her van.  And she never stepped foot in the church.  Once I asked her why she always sat outside rather than joining us.  She responded:  I’ve looked for God a lot in my life but rarely have I found him.  But now I have.  I know that God is there in your little church.  I can see it by that candle that is always lit.  I can see it as the people gather.  I can see it in how my granddaughter has changed.  God is there.  And this is as close as I need to get for now. 

The Gospel today makes a promise to us that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, he will be there in their midst.  Believing in that reality is perhaps as subversive as we can get.  For the world is longing to know where to find God.  And unfortunately many charged with the responsibility to point people to wear God can be found have let the world down.  Whether through sin or through unbelief or through pride we have become convinced that we are not sure where God can be found.  We walk around in a haze of the “false humility” of fragmentation and uncertainty and we don’t know where to look.

But what we will do here in just a few minutes subverts all of that.  In the baptism of Manuel—whose very name indicates that we know where to find God—we gather as a community and answer the question that is written on the human heart.  We answer the question that the world in its lust for idols, a world with its sky line of towers to babel searching for God, it its technological frenzy to achieve transcendence is dying to have answered. 

Where is God:  God is here.  Where two or three are gathered, he is here.   And thus the negative elements of the reigning culture are subverted.  And we and the world are transformed.