In the end, we are the same

All Saints and All Souls Days (B)

I recently had a conversation with a new friend about how many facial features and physical characteristics are shared by people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent. My friend, who is a first generation American of Palestinian heritage, told me that he is often presumed to be Italian. I’m half-Italian but look more like an everything bagel, or better yet, a pizza with all the toppings. Hard to tell.

The conversation with my Palestinian-American friend led me to mention my interest in National Geographic Magazine’s “Genographic Project”, which has the fascinating end goal of identifying the geographic origins of human life. I really want to participate in this study. In exchange for a smear of saliva and $199 to cover the cost of the kit, (so worth it!) I can, according to the website, identify the migration paths that my ancestors followed “hundreds—even thousands—of years ago” and determine more accurately if I actually am the chopped salad of Italian/Danish/German/French/English/Russian heritage that my previous genealogical research (see below) revealed. My new, wise friend said, “In the end, we are the same.” Yes. Yes, we are.

This Sunday, November 1, we honor in a special way every known and unknown Saint, and on Monday, November 2, we honor our deceased family members and friends. All Saints and All Souls. As baptized Christians we are called to be the former; as human beings we can’t avoid becoming the latter. In the end, we are the same. Last year for All Soul’s day I wrote about the discovery I made doing my family history. I have chosen to re-post it because it speaks to that human interconnection which my friend named.

A Soul’s Legacy (first published Nov 1, 2014 and worth re-reading Nov 1, 2015)

Early in my marriage, when my husband was in law school, I decided to trace my family history. Stories about stout-hearted immigrant ancestors who scraped together the fare for passage, and willingly left their families and everything they knew for what they hoped was a better life used to break my heart. But those stories also inspired me. These were sturdy and brave souls; braced for whatever awaited them on the distant shore. I felt compelled to know them better because I shared some of those traits.

c1848-ottocatherinekidsraus_cmyk

My great grandparents and their children. My grandfather is seated on the right.

At that time there were no online immigration records. Research involved letter writing, contacting distant relatives for copies of pictures, marriage licenses, birth certificates, and the hand written details inside the old family bible. It included working with translators who could communicate with village churches in the old country, and countless Saturdays spent in the New York Public Library combing through rolls of microfilm for census records, city directories, and vital records. It involved studying maps and taking road trips. It was a treasure hunt that led me to an amazing discovery.

My research began with my four grandparents, which turned into sixteen extended families. On and on it went. Through the process of collecting and weaving bits of data into family stories I actually developed a relationship with my ancestors. I felt I knew them somehow, and I did.

Incredibly, I was able to piece together vignettes of life through historical records: addresses and occupations, the age and number of children, whether they rented or owned, if they lived in a flat, over a store, with other relatives or took in boarders, and whether they had received their sacraments. All of these things plus what was happening locally and globally helped me “know” them.

For most, life was difficult. Many were poor. I located news clippings and obituaries for children hit by a streetcar, or runaway horse, or who succumbed to an illness that is no longer a threat. I learned about their neighbors and what part of town they lived in, and if they were active members of their church or community.

426ec-coletta

My great-aunt on her Confirmation day.

In addition to facts, my research generated questions that had no answers, like how they spent their day, if they did acts of charity, who were the silent saints among them, and who might have been affected by a simple kindness, or a friendship between neighbors that changed a life for the better.

I discovered a profound level of human connection that revealed our divine union with God. I realized what I was doing was in fact honoring the lives of those who had passed, and ultimately honoring God, of whose great plan they were a part. Were it not for this divine union we would not exist. I honor them with my prayers in a special way on All Souls Day.

The legacy we leave begins with living in right relationship; it dwells deeply in the life of every single person with whom we share a moment, a kindness, or a generous act, as well as in the things we do to ensure a future for those souls who are with us and those yet to be born.

Happy All Saints and All Souls Day.

Reflections on the feasts of All Saints and All Souls by Father Thomas Rosica CSB.

Do you have questions about the feasts of All Saints and All Souls? These two short video reflections by Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB, and CEO of Salt + Light Catholic Media will shed light on why these two days are such rich sources of consolation and hope.

Please visit and support Salt + Light Catholic Media.

From the Salt + Light website: “Born on the wings of World Youth Day 2002 in Canada, Salt + Light is a unique instrument of the New Evangelization. It is dedicated to being – and helping others become – the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Our mission is to proclaim Jesus Christ and the joy of the Gospel to the world by telling stories of hope that bring people closer to Christ and the Catholic faith.

We share the joys and hopes of the Gospel through television, radio, print, and online media. Our work unites people together through prayer, celebration, reflection, education, authentic dialogue and enquiry, thought-provoking reporting and stories of faith and action. We also challenge believers to grow in the knowledge of the faith and the Catholic tradition in its many expressions. We strive to offer an invitation to all peoples, especially those on the peripheries of faith and the Church, to draw closer to the Lord and experience the community of the Church.”

I want to see

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended the vigil mass at our new parish church. We were running late, but my initial worries about making an entrance during the procession (or worse while the mass was in progress) were relieved when I saw the celebrant, cross-bearer and ministers still standing in the narthex waiting to process in. We slid unnoticed into a pew.

At that moment we realized something was wrong.

A man called out loudly from the side aisle; his garbled words echoed against the marble.

All the assembled, standing for the start of the mass, turned in their pews to see what was happening and then turned quietly back, heads lowered. They remained standing, some looking at their hands, or nervously leafing through the bulletin, or exchanging glances with one another. Some, unable to ignore the commotion turned toward the small crowd of people surrounding and attending to the man.

I asked a woman in the pew behind us if she knew what was happening. She shrugged and said, “A man is shouting.” As a newcomer to this urban parish who is not used to this much pre-mass excitement, I wondered if the woman’s casual response meant this was a common occurrence in this faith community.

The man’s incoherent ramblings continued. I prayed for him and for the priest and pastoral staff who quietly spoke with him.

A few years ago we attended an early morning Easter Sunday mass in a Jesuit parish located in the Flatiron District of New York City. This glorious sacred space was packed with worshippers. Somehow my husband and I managed to squeeze into a front pew where I observed a woman wrapped in a blanket blissfully asleep on the floor in front of us. She awoke during the opening rite and participated from her place on the floor. I noticed she was wearing a pink sweater and had a bow in her hair for Easter. When the time came for the sign of peace, one, two, three, then a steady stream of people, including the presider, came to greet and shake the hand of this woman, who clearly was a known and loved member of their community.

Both of these examples remind me of this weekend’s gospel, the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who sits by the road leading out of Jericho, begging Jesus to have mercy on him. [MK 10:46-52]. Bartimaeus’ loud and persistent attempts to gain Jesus’ attention disrupts the crowd so much so that “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.” [Mark 10:48]. But notice, when Jesus asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus begs not for food or money; he says, “I want to see.” [MK 10:51]

For the past seven weeks (the 24th through 30th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into Jesus’ teaching journey with his apostles and the larger group of disciples following him to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus attempts to help his followers to see—to guide their comprehension of his identity—and to reveal the conditions of discipleship.

One of the many things I love about studying Mark’s gospel is noticing who “gets” Jesus. It is a testament to the subtle brilliance of the writer that he positions two miracles of restored sight at either end of Jesus’ teaching journey. In both cases, two blind non-followers receive the sight that the disciples have yet to gain. In the first, a nameless blind man is brought to Jesus by others for healing. Jesus restores the man’s sight, but not immediately; the man’s comprehension requires time and coaxing from Jesus. [MK 8:22-26]. The second case is different. Here the blind man has a name, Bartimaeus, and his faith and desire to know Jesus gives him particular insight into Jesus’ identity. Immediately upon receiving his sight Bartimaeus becomes a follower of Jesus. [MK 10:52].

I like to think, with my longing to understand who Jesus is and how I can be a good disciple, I am more like Bartimaeus than the unnamed man from Bethsaida, but that would be untrue. I’m like both of them: a little confused but enthusiastic; and I’m like the disciples on the journey: dense but promising. I think that is what Mark is trying to tell his readers. There is hope for us.

Turns out the man who disrupted the procession at my local parish last weekend was known to the community, just like the woman who had been sleeping on the floor of the Jesuit church was known to the members of her congregation. In both instances, I received new sight. The compassionate response of my pastor and fellow parishioners attending to the disturbed man’s comfort, much like the beautiful witness of an Easter people showering love on a woman our culture pretends not to see healed my blindness and allowed me to ‘get’ Jesus in a way I had not expected to.

How badly do we want to see? Persistence like that of Bartimaeus is the plow that clears the way between seeing who walks alongside us, or remaining in the dark. As for myself, I have moments of spiritual clarity and moments of blurred vision. But I know the Christian life is a journey of coming to see. There is hope for me.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Were you listening?

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. (…) Allow us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [MK 10:35, 37]

Um…James and John, excuse me, but were you listening?

Jesus’ disciples were slow to learn. This is evident throughout the Gospels. There were probably many times when Jesus just shook his head in frustration. But the lesson of servant-leadership was as radical then as it is now; Jesus knew it was dangerous; he knew it meant suffering, entailed self-denial, relinquishment of power and any  expectation of reward. He also knew it was the only way.

The Gospel of Mark was written about 66-70 C.E. for a community of marginalized, mostly Gentile Christians living amid the Jewish revolt against Rome, a time when anything deemed to be anti-Roman was a valid cause for persecution. For many, the choice to remain Christian meant certain death, so the question of “is this really worth it?” was their reality. The Gospel writer’s aim was to shore up the community’s faith in Jesus’ identity and to help them make sense of their suffering in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.

We still need this reassurance, don’t we? I know I do, and Mark’s focus on discipleship—who “gets it” and who does not—is one of the reasons I love studying it.

For the past six weeks (the 24th through 29th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into the particular journey of the apostles and the larger group of disciples following Jesus as they neared Jerusalem. Jesus’ lessons along the way could be called a “way of the cross” because through them he reveals the conditions and rigors of discipleship. [MK 8:22-10:52]

This is why James and John’s question to Jesus is so appalling. When the two brothers approached Jesus he had just finished telling the twelve, for the third time, about his impending death. You have to wonder if James and John heard a word of what he said.

Perhaps they developed selective listening because they already heard Jesus predict his death twice before [MK 8:31-35, 9:30-32], and the more graphic details Jesus provided about being handed over, mocked, spit upon, and flogged before being killed didn’t register with them. [MK 10:33-34a]

Or maybe they zeroed in on Jesus’ words about rising on the third day, concluded they were in the clear and began to work out their own bright futures in the Kingdom. [MK 10:34b]

Perhaps they did not listen when Jesus redirected his comments about how hard it was to enter the Kingdom of God from the rich man to the disciples? [MK 10:24]

Surely they remembered the time when Jesus shot down the idea that any of the disciples should consider themselves the greatest. [MK 9:33-37]

Maybe James and John thought the other times Jesus spoke about the first being last and the last being first [MK 9:35. 10:31] he meant if for the others, since the two of them plus Peter seemed to be in Jesus’ inner circle. (Mark’s  gospel includes three important events with Jesus that the other apostles were not privy to: the raising of Jairus’ daughter [MK 5:21-43], Jesus’ Transfiguration [MK 9:2-13], and keeping watch while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane [MK 14:32-42].)

After Jesus predicted his death the third time James and John seemed to say, “Hey Jesus, phew! That sounds rough. So glad it’s going to work out, though. Just wondering…when you get to the heavenly banquet could you save those seats on either side of you? You know, just throw your cloak or something over them so everyone knows they are taken. Thanks dude!”

In their zeal for winning favoritism they eagerly assure Jesus they can drink the same cup and share the same baptism. Their affirmation, however, does not indicate they comprehend the depth of Jesus’ cup: that it is filled with suffering then salvation, and his baptism leads to death then resurrection.

James and John’s question speaks to the overall incomprehension of Jesus’ followers—contemporary Christians included—of the cost of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel continues, “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” [MK 10:41]. We might initially think the ten were upset by James’ and John’s selfishness, but it is likely at least some of them shared the same self-interest and were ticked that James and John beat them to the punch. Ouch.

The community for whom Mark wrote his Gospel may also have included a few members who misunderstood the lesson of true greatness. Perhaps like James and John in today’s passage, they wanted to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ glory. Today’s church is no different. We want the glory but aren’t that thrilled about all the heavy lifting that goes with it. The thing is, to understand Mark’s gospel is to grasp that discipleship progresses to the cross.

Jesus’ teaching on service is clear. The privilege awarded to the disciple entails carrying that cross for others, and that leads to redemption. Jesus calls us to follow him, and fortunately for us he never throws up his hands and gives up on us, even those times when we drop our cross.

Mark’s Gospel tells us no disciple is perfect. Everyone, including the reader is in process.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

My Hungry Ghost

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

A guest post by Buddhaguysays.

I spend my life fighting my own selfishness, the urge to filter the world through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” As I have aged, raised a family, moved forward in a career, made friends, become part of various communities, this selfishness—my hungry ghost— has continued unabated and in fact has grown and expanded. It now has become tinged with worry and fear: “What if I don’t have enough to retire on, what if my way of life—my comfortable way of life—gets unhinged in some way through financial loss, illness or separation from family, or changes in my routine, or my community?” On, and on, and on the feedback loop goes.

I fight this urge to cling.  I strive to be “ego-less” to get outside myself and turn towards others. This I know is the right path, the path that my Catholic teaching exhorts as do the great wisdom teachings I have explored and tried to embrace in my lifetime.  But man, is it hard.  It is a battle I wage regularly and more often than not, I lose.

The reading from the Gospel of Mark contains the well-known passage: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” [MK 10:25]. Jesus advises a rich man to sell all he has and give to the poor in order to attain treasure in heaven.  After the rich man leaves, despondent over this daunting requirement, Jesus tells his disciples that “there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age…” [MK 10:29b].

In my simplistic reading of this gospel, it is the call for me to be “ego-less” to stand in relation to God, which of course means in relation to my neighbor (broadly defined as all of humanity and not just those in my family, town or country) within whom God dwells.  It is about turning off the filter that clings and hoards and says “what’s in it for me?” and turning on the filter that says “this life is not just about me, it is about God and all of God’s creation and living according to the gospel teachings.” This message is the hardest for those who have the most to lose.

I know the truth in this teaching. My selfish hungry ghost however is my constant companion. The battle continues.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

All In The Family

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

What does it mean to be joined by God to another? For that matter, what does it mean to be joined to God? Both of these difficult questions are at the heart of this weekend’s readings[1] which revolve around God’s plan for the life of the world: our origins, the union of marriage, openness to life, the Kingdom of God, the blessing of children and covenant fidelity to one another. In other words: family life.

Think of these readings as the meat in the sandwich between the events of last week’s wildly successful World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia and the much anticipated 2015 Synod of Bishops on the Family which opens today and continues through October 25. Francis’ many references to the importance of the family during his visit to the United States have given me much to ponder and these combined events are guaranteed to provide plenty to chew on over the next month or so.

I recently participated in an online conversation surrounding the Catholic Church’s focus on openness to life (which for many translates solely to its opposition to artificial birth control). I took issue with one non-Catholic, unmarried person who claimed this teaching was solely responsible for the overpopulation of the planet. Um, really? I was reminded of a time 25 years ago when I, very pregnant, stood in a crowd at a busy intersection in New York City, where I worked, and overheard an intended-to-be-overheard comment from a couple standing right next to me that it was supremely selfish to bring another child into the world. True story. My ears burned for the rest of the day. Actually, it still stings a bit. I feel sorry for people who think this way.

In his address to the joint meeting of Congress on September 24, Pope Francis said,

“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without.” — [September 24, 2015, address to a joint meeting of the United States Congress]

I share Francis’ concern for the family. It troubles me deeply. But to be perfectly honest, I struggle with how to write about marriage and family because I know it is a source of pain for many. I believe strongly in marriage, the joy that children bring to the union, and the value healthy families bring to society. But I know marriage and children are not for everyone and I do not imply that they should be. My long and happy marriage is due to a combination of luck and hard work. We have been blessed to raise two healthy, well-adjusted adult daughters. I’m fully aware that this not the case for everyone. I have many dear friends who are deeply bruised by the experience of divorce and others who struggle to raise troubled children. I come from a large and loving family as does my husband. We are fortunate that both families have remained intact, despite the normal challenges which marriage and family life bring.

My family experience is not the same as yours, and yours is not the same as anyone else’s. It is wrong to compare them, but still, we do. The bottom line is that families come in many shapes, sizes, and circumstances.

The key is love.

Pope Francis affirmed this in his off-the-cuff speech on the importance of family which he delivered to the hundreds of thousands and people gathered in Philadelphia. Referring to God’s highest expression of love—the incarnation of Jesus—Francis said,

“So great was his love, that he began to walk with humanity, with his people, until the right moment came, and he made the highest expression of love – his own Son. And where did he send his son – to a palace? To a city? No. he sent him to a family. God sent him amid a family. And he could do this, because it was a family that had a truly open heart. The doors of their heart opened.” —[September 26, 2015, Pope Francis speech at the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia]

This morning I re-read this speech for the umpteenth time. With each reading I am struck anew by the simple clarity of this brief message which came from this pope’s heart. I read,

“All of the love that God has in himself, all the beauty that he has in himself, he gives it to the family. And the family is really family when it is able to open its arms and receive all that love.”

I think that pretty much sums up both what it means to be joined by God to another, and to be joined to God.

Open your arms, families of all shapes, sizes and circumstances, and let the love of God in.

Read a transcript of the Pope’s speech on the importance of family here: http://www.phillyvoice.com/transcript-pope-francis-festival-families-speech/

[1] [Gen 2:18-24, Heb 2:9-11; Mk 10:2-6]