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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Sunday, Week 4 . . .

[Random musings arising from the psalms for Sunday in Week 4 of the Liturgy of the Hours.]

Today is October 13, 2019. We had the first frost of this fall the night before last. The trees I can see from my window have not yet gotten the message--still all green.

Sunday of Week 28 in Ordinary Time. The church year ends with Week 34. Then a new church year begins. Another Advent. I am 84 years old. How many more Advents will I see? What I have seen is more than enough. Like Simeon, now I can die in peace (Luke 2:29).

The "Invitatory Psalm"

Psalm 95 is the traditional psalm to begin every single day throughout the year.

"Come, let us make glorious noise for the Lord."

The Lord. Our Lord. The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. The God who made us into a people. "Lord" is the personal name, so sacred that Jewish practice doesn't vocalize it. Four consonants on the page. No image of this God.

"The Lord is a great God, king among all the gods."

The Lord has competitors. A few weeks ago I decided to name the two competitors who have controlled my day for years: Excellence controls my work day. It is truly a competitor god for me. In its name I have to be the best at every moment of my work day. I am too focused on being excellent to be aware of the people who flit in and out of my work day. They are shadows, ghosts. I need every available moment to be Excellent.

My other competitor god is Leisure. When I am not at work I want to be absolutely free to do anything I want. There are many intrusions on my free time. Most of them I accept voluntarily. But Leisure is always beckoning me from the shadows. I will sacrifice time as long as the sacrifice is scheduled. But an unscheduled intrusion? Resentment. Anger. Leisure rules.

"Don't harden your hearts the way the people did in the desert. Your fathers just had to test my faithfulness."

"Moses, why did you lead us out into this desert where we are dying of thirst?"

In so many of the psalms the majority of the people are doing the wrong thing. The minute Moses was out of the picture they made the golden calf.

Are we all that different? How many people baptized as Christians are living as Christians? Many of them are official "fallen-aways," but how many of the ones staying have their hearts in it?

When Pope Benedict XVI said that he foresaw a smaller, more committed Church, I heard him calling for a community of the Pure, like the Puritans or the Pharisees. But maybe he was just acknowledging the fact that at any given moment, the majority of so-called Christians are not really Christians. So what else is new? The majority of the children of Abraham at any given moment were questioning the Lord's relevance in their lives. And not just questioning. Ignoring the presence.

"I was with that crowd for 40 years and their hearts were always somewhere else--anywhere else but me."  So then the Lord shares frustration: "By God, they will never see the kind of world I wanted for them."

Psalm 118

This first psalm of morning prayer on the Sunday of Week 4 is a prolonged song of praise of the Lord.

"Praise the Lord because the Lord is good. The Lord's steadfast love lasts forever."

Steadfast love. The word is often translated as "mercy." This noun is paired over and over and over in the psalms with a second noun: "faithfulness." The Greek word can also mean "truth," but here the truth is that the Lord never gives up on the people.

Steadfast love and faithfulness. What a description of God, our God, the Lord. Much better than all the other gods: wealth, control, esteem, health.

But maybe our picture of the Lord is just a creation of our own wishful thinking. Maybe we aren't strong enough to face the brutal truth: we are chance products of a blind evolution that will chew us all up and spit us out just like all the other species that come and go on one tiny planet in a universe where they may be billions of planets just like ours.

But then there's love. Human love. Woman, man, child, parent. I have experienced love. Is it wishful thinking when I say that this particular person loves me? I could be deceived. I could even go the way of those 18th-century philosophers who questioned whether there was anything real beyond the limits of their head. I know that everything I perceive with any of my five senses is shaped by what goes on in my neural system.

But, No! I cry. I am not deceived. This person loves me. I love this person.

The Lord loves me. I love the Lord. Is there any difference?

How much more impoverished is a world where there is no love.

Now that is not an absolute proof for "the existence of God." Maybe we can never come up with an absolute proof. But in the meantime we have to live. We want to live. We want to live more abundantly,

So most of our fellow travelers never think about the Lord. What else is new?

Wednesday, October 2, 2019


"A great God is the Lord,
  over the gods like a king."
                        Psalm 95

The Lord is over all the other gods. That was from the days when people had all kinds of gods. We don't think that way any more.

But don't we? Any time we think we are so different from the people who went before us, I get suspicious. So I ask myself, do I have any of those other gods ruling parts of my life? Not all of it, just parts?

They say that the fundamental religious question is: Why get out of bed in the morning? Maybe another religious question is, "What will control my life today?

I reflected on my years of teaching. That was easy. What controlled my day was the goal of excellence. I had to come up with original, creative, remarkable insights for every moment I was in front of a class. There was fear involved. I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to do it.

Then when the teaching day ended, something else controlled my day: the idea of leisure. I would have time to do anything I wanted.

The best day of the year for me was always the day in May when I turned in the grades for the semester's classes. Three whole months of leisure! It couldn't get any better than that.

All that was years ago. I'm retired. What controls my life today?

Scheduled events. Mass I am scheduled to preside at. I must preach creatively, with remarkable insight. The same is true for every other thing on my schedule. I must be excellent.

Excellence is an idol for me. It controls me. I sacrifice to it. I fear terrible things if I fail to measure up to its demands.

Leisure is still my other idol. When I see a day on my schedule when I don't have to do absolutely anything, I rejoice. But when the day comes, I flounder around. I worry that I am not using that wonderful time well. I can't believe that I'm looking around for things to do. Something is wrong with me. Maybe Leisure is still ruling my days.

It was a few days ago that I began thinking about Excellence and Leisure as my idols. When Excellence loomed up before me, I thought: "Wouldn't it be better with the Lord as my lord?" It was a remarkably freeing experience. Suddenly the day seemed more free, more open to how other people might intrude into my schedule.

When I was letting Excellence rule my life, every person was a potential intrusion. I kept my office door open, but I really hoped no one would walk through it. Eventually people must have realized that, because few people did.

A close friend of mine is in full agreement with me when I say that the most important thing in my life is my schedule. I never realized that behind my schedule are lurking at least two demons: Excellence, and Leisure.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

A Herald-Whig exchange

A few weeks ago “Don Blickhan” published the following letter in our Quincy paper. I am quite sure he is “Father Donald Blickhan,” recently retired as chaplain at the Illinois Veterans Home. He was chaplain at Fort Benning, Georgia back in the 1990s when I was going to the School of the Americas protest there, and he published a letter attacking the SOA protest movement.

He is also a former student of mine. I taught him in high school. Within the last two years he has twice asked me to take his place for Sunday Masses at the Veterans Home.

printed August 8, 2019

To the Herald-Whig:

Socialism is based on the illusion of a utopia, an imaginary state of things or place where everything is perfect. There is not, nor has there ever been a perfect place.

But socialists nevertheless passionately pursue that goal. But in so doing they cause great harm to the social order.

Socialism is fundamentally immoral because it depends on theft to achieve its ends. Socialists propose taking money from one group and giving it to others. It holds that the end justifies the means.

But theft always involves a disrespect for the person who is thereby violated and is therefore profoundly divisive of society. It sets people against one another.

A good number of our current political candidates are socialists. They believe that their programs will make America a better place. And that sounds so nice. They propose a “free” college education, socialized medicine, open borders, and many other idealistic schemes that sadly will only bankrupt our country.

It is a popular sentiment in the country today because it is so seductive. It is seen as an easy way to solve our country’s challenges. The only problem is that a utopia is a goal that can never be attained. And the more it fails, the more a society disintegrates as those in power multiply their efforts to attain the impossible. It becomes a fanatical pursuit.

Every nation that has gone down that route has been destroyed. Have you noticed what has happened to Venezuela and Cuba?

Don Blickhan

printed August 22, 2019

To the Herald-Whig:

Don Blickhan’s letter (August 8, 2019) contains a number of statements that I challenge.

He says that socialism is immoral because it takes money from one group and gives it to others, which he says is theft. All taxation is theft. It is theft when we tax ourselves to pay police, firefighters, school teachers, and Medicare recipients, and to build highways and airports.

We should do as much as possible without government intervention, but when we cannot get something done by private efforts, we should use government authority to do it. Governments exist to support life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

There are almost no societies in the world today that are either totally capitalist or totally socialist. All countries have a mixture of private enterprise and government intervention. How much government intervention is necessary needs to be determined by reasoned political discussion. 

Blickhan presents as absurd several ideas proposed by some current political candidates: "'free' college education, socialized medicine, and open borders."

We have free elementary and secondary education. It is not absurd to debate whether we should have free college education.

“Socialized medicine” was the term used to oppose Medicare when it was being proposed in the 1960's. While Medicare is no more perfect than any other human enterprise, not many of us over 65 want it to go away.

We should not be looking at “open borders” as a horror to be feared. Jews and Christians welcome strangers and aliens. Immigrants seeking asylum are people who have fallen among robbers, and we do not pass them by.

Furthermore, our country has thrived because we have welcomed immigrants. Our openness has  provided us with some of the most creative and productive people in our economy. Our gain is other countries’ loss. Immigration is helping to mitigate the problem caused by our low birth rate: fewer and fewer young workers supporting more and more aging retirees.

Blickhan does not mention the most important issue we face: climate change. Science is warning us that really drastic changes in our lifestyles will be required if the earth is to be livable fifty years from now. Drastic changes will require government action. 

Joe Zimmerman

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Forgiveness of sins

Give thanks to the Father
who made us fit for the holy community of light,
and rescued us from darkness,
bringing us into the realm of his beloved Son,
who redeemed us, forgiving our sins . . .
(Colossians 1:14, ICEL translation)

"who redeemed us, forgiving our sins."

I have always wondered why forgiveness of sins is so important in the Gospels and other New Testament texts. The people I know and live with don't seem that sinful. I don't feel sinful. Sometimes I think my sin is that I don't feel sinful. Either that or the people in New Testament times must have been a lot more sinful than we are today.

But then, praying that the other day, it struck me. No. Those people weren't any different from us. They weren't any more sinful than we are. Maybe the sense of "sin" in these texts is a vague sense we all have that, deep down, we must be guilty of something.

We all hurt sometimes, and it is a human tendency to think that when we hurt, we must have done something wrong. That is why people have so often offered sacrifices in atonement for sin. The book of Leviticus scheduled such sacrifices routinely. They would never run out of things to be forgiven.

And then comes Jesus, saying so often, "your sins are forgiven." What he was really saying was that we should quit seeing God as the Grand Inspector, peering into the depths of each of our days, spotting the places where we should have loved more.

Yes, Jesus was saying. You should have loved more. So? God knows that. God knows how you were made, and God accepts you as you are. That's forgiveness. Your sins are forgiven. God loves you anyway.

This all seems like trivializing the Gospel. It's pop psychology, "positive thinking." But it's more than that. I'm not just okay, and you're not just okay, but you and I are loved, and not just by each other. We are bathed in love greater than any of us.

We are in the realm of God's beloved Son, who redeems us, forgiving our sins. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

A definition of love

I am a priest. To become a priest I had to study philosophy. The philosophy I studied is called "neo-scholastic." That means it is based on medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

Neo-scholastic philosophy is big on definitions. You start every discussion with a definition of your terms.


What is love? Everybody talks about and writes songs about it, but what IS it?

Jesus said that all the commandments can be boiled down to two: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. But what does that mean? How do you know when you are loving God or your neighbor? What IS love?

I searched for a definition for years. Here is one that half-satisfied me:

          Love is wanting to be with someone and for someone.

That is a definition based on prepositions, not completely adequate, but it served me as the best I could do.

Then I received what I consider a really adequate definition. Maybe it isn't the definitive one, but hey, nobody down through the centuries, including Thomas Aquinas and anybody else I can think of has done better.

I can say that, because I would think that if anyone has done better, we would have heard of it.

          Love is respectful, vulnerable, faithful, passionate involvement of one person with another.

I got this definition from a real philosopher, another Franciscan with whom I lived for years, John Joe Lakers. He had studied in England under people like Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose specialty was language. But "JJ" also spent thousands of hours talking with people, very often married people or people wanting to get married, or people wanting to stay married but not knowing how. He struggled for years to write a book, and finally did write one. The book was so difficult to read that he used his book-signing talk telling people why they didn't have to read it.

I read it, because I was his friend and I proof-read it for him before it got published. Even after doing that, it took me a while to discover that he was using the definition of love all through the book without actually saying it was a definition. Once I saw that it was, I was off and running.

I think that for the last 25 years, I have not preached a sermon or homily when I didn't mention the definition.

Let's break it down.


Love is, first of all, involvement of two persons. What is involvement?

Involvement is interacting, being present to another, talking, listening, doing something together.

Involvement can take all kinds of forms. It can be "making love," or fighting, or staring at someone. It can be playing any one of the thousand games that we play with each other, using any one of the thousand masks that we wear.

Involvement can be with God too. What else is prayer besides involvement with God?

Some surveys I have read say that there are more people who pray than there are who believe in God. Pretty strong evidence of how important involvement is in our lives.


Respect is extraordinarily important in human involvement.

How many relationships are ruined by one disrespectful word? Marriage Encounter had a rule: Don't call names.

Names hurt. Names kill. "You are a slut." "You are a loser." That's all it takes, one little word. In some neighborhoods, to "diss" someone can cost you your life.

What is respect? Just courtesy, just a few rules of behavior in public. Eye contact, smile, speak, listen.

Here is one way that racism operates: A person of another color comes into the room. I am nervous, because I am afraid that I might say the wrong thing to that person. So I look away. I try not to meet the person. 

That's disrespect.

Why am I not courteous? Why can't I make genuine eye contact and smile? Our racist heritage (based on the rules required to make slavery operate) says that you never treat the slave as an equal. You must be actively discourteous. In polite society, it is courteous to your peers to be discourteous to your slaves.

When I don't respect, I don't love. And I want to love my neighbor as myself.


How many stories are there about strong men who become lovable when they are forced to be vulnerable?

We often wear masks because we don't want to be hurt. I don't want you to see how afraid I am that I am not masculine enough. I don't want the teacher to know that I am dumb, so I become the class disruptor.

If God loves me, that means that God must be vulnerable. This sets off alarms. God is not supposed to be vulnerable. God is all-powerful. God cannot change. If God would be vulnerable, God wouldn't be God.

Sorry, but God loves.

Our problem is philosophy. (Who was it that talked about the "god of the philosophers"?). Aristotle thought that anything that changes has to be imperfect because presumably it changes so it can become more perfect. The goal is to arrive at the perfect state, the perfect body, the perfect building. Greek architecture created masterpieces of unchanging beauty--think of the Parthenon.

But life is change, and God created life. Isn't God more perfect when God is vulnerable?

The clincher: Jesus was vulnerable. Jesus is God. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus, don't read Aristotle.


Faithfulness is being in it for the long haul.

The problem with the "one-night-stand" is that it lacks faithfulness.

Of course, we cannot be faithful with the check-out person in the grocery store in the same way we are faithful with close friends. But we can treat the check-out person with respect and vulnerability, and we can refrain from doing anything that will shut down the possibility of knowing that person better. That's being faithful--not doing things that shut off future involvement.

Here is where much of morality enters in. We do things and we refrain from doing things because we can see what will happen when we do or not do them. The script in our brain sees ahead: if I do this, it will be a lot harder for me to be involved with this person down the road.

The Ten Commandments are descriptions of behaviors that shut off future involvements with people. They are rules for faithfulness. That's true of all law.

That's why Jesus could say that if you love God and your neighbor, you have got all the rest of the Law covered. It is a minimal cover--when you add in respect and vulnerability and passion, you have the whole package and life not only goes well, it goes forever.


JJ proposed passion as the first characteristic of loving involvement. Earlier in his life he had put it second in his list of adjectives, but he moved it to first place because he saw it as so important. But I put it last because passion is not under our control. We don't create passion on demand. The very word says it: passion is passive. It is not under our control. Active voice and passive voice. Active voice: I am writing this. Passive voice: This piece is being written by me.

I'm a pretty rational guy, and I am suspicious of passion. I have often thought I don't have any passion. Marriage Encounter said that it is typical of men to think they don't have passion. But I do have it, because I notice that there are things that get me fired up.

So while passion is essential to love, the fact that you don't control it means that if you are interested in being loving--and who isn't?--you can't start with trying to be passionate. That is something that just has to come along. It is a gift. If you treat someone with respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness, passion may be given you. If it does, rejoice.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Christianizing barbarians

One of my professors in graduate school once said: “Every generation of infants is a horde of barbarians needing to be civilized.”

I thought of that remark when I was looking at the small size of the congregations at all the Sunday Masses in a church where I recently presided, and especially at the lack of young people in those congregations. I thought of the comment of one of our parish priests who said that he estimated that half of the children in his parochial school do not go to church on Sunday.

It could probably be said that the history of Christianity has been the story of generations of spiritual barbarians needing to be Christianized. During some historical periods, missionaries thought that all you had to do was baptize people and they were Christianized. We now know that their solution was too easy.

But I am afraid that we are guilty of another solution that is too easy. We pride ourselves as Catholics that we are the largest denominational group by far in the U.S. These days we are wringing our hands at the number of people who respond to the question “What is your religion (or religious denomination)?” by answering “None.” They are the “Nones.” Catholic “Nones” are the second largest U.S. denomination.

This is not a sign of spiritual failure on our part. Let me explain.

The forefathers and foremothers of most of us came from Europe and found themselves in a hostile U.S. Protestant environment. The gatherings that they created in this country were by necessity heavily based on kinship. Migration tends to be based on kinship ties. Most people come to a new land because they have relatives already there who provide a soft landing for them when they arrive.

I speculate that back in Europe these immigrants were not particularly Christianized, because in  most times and places the number of really Christianized Christians is a small minority of people who call themselves Christian.

A Christianized Christian is a person who has a real relationship with God, or, to use a more generic term, a Higher Power.

Revivals (Catholics called them “parish missions”) aimed to help people have a real relationship with God. “Conversion” was the term they used. People who attend revivals or parish missions are not unchurched, they are pre-churched or de-churched. (Priests who heard confessions at parish missions had stories of people who had been away from the Faith for 40 or 50 years.) The preacher’s goal was to church them.

When pre-churched European immigrants came to the United States, their parish church became a focus of group unity. Catholic rituals gave structure to their new world, by means of its liturgical seasons and its sacramental rituals. Immigrant groups built impressive churches, often within blocks of other immigrant churches. Some of these churches were so large that their builders surely expected parish Masses to have hundreds of worshippers far into the future, maybe forever, though more realistically, the large church was too often a tribute to the ego of the pastor.

I grew up in the climactic years of immigrant Catholicism. I knew who the Catholic movie stars were, and the Catholic athletes, and saw Notre Dame as evidence that the Church was on a roll. Movies like Bing Crosby’s “Going My Way” presented an idealized  priesthood. The end of World War II with its millions of returning veterans and the resultant baby boom gave rise to an explosion of priestly and religious vocations.

But, even as a child I recall parishioners saying that when parish young people went to college, they never returned. The election of John Kennedy, a Catholic, as President was just one more indication that the walls that had nurtured immigrant culture were down. The Second Vatican Council, the Vietnam War, revolutionary openness about sexual issues, and the availability of contraception uncovered the differences between Christianized Catholics and pre-Christianized Catholics.

For several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a “team priest” in Worldwide Marriage Encounter. During those years the movement was very successful--we would have weekends with 20 or 30 couples every few months. Looking back, I think its success was due to the fact that it welcomed some of the new societal developments like the sexual revolution, and in the name of the Second Vatican Council, provided a spirituality that many couples had never experienced--a truly Christianized spirituality. Those couples had grown up in a pre-Christian Baltimore Catechism Church and Marriage Encounter helped many of them experience a true religious conversion.

Today, here in Quincy, Cursillo continues to have that effect. There have been over 230 Cursillo weekends at the Retreat Center here on campus since the movement began in the 1970s. Each weekend involves new candidates, sometimes as many as 30 or 40, and a team that spends months preparing for their weekend. Like the old parish missions, it is Christianizing pre-Christians.

Pre-Christianity rides on the coattails of kinship. Where kinship ties remain strong, the church remains significant in people’s life spaces. When kinship ties break, church affiliation breaks too. The reason for the attrition from church membership is that kinship has been less important in people’s lives. There are several reasons for this. One is the increasing prevalence of divorce. As families dissolve and become reconstituted, the wider networks of kinship ties become fragmented. Another is increasing geographic mobility. Perhaps the most important factor is the smaller size of families. The fewer relatives you have, the fewer relationships you have that tie you to your kin group.

We should quit grieving over the membership attrition we see in our churches. It has always been thus, The only reason it was not thus is because of the artificial support of kinship and geographic stability, neither of which are essential features of Christianity.

This is another way of saying that the Church requires constant re-evangelization. A personal religious conversion requires person-to-person contact. Whenever a Christian community is not fed by individual conversions resulting from individual contacts and conversations, whatever numbers appear on membership lists or even in church on Sunday are poor indicators of Christian life.

It has always been thus. The harvest is great but the laborers are few.