25 December 2016

Merry Christmas!

"Behold, admirable humility, that the Lord of the heavens should descend to the manger of brute animals."
- Saint Bonaventure
A blessed and merry Christmas to you and yours!

24 December 2016

Homily - 25 December 2016 - The Nativity of the Lord - Do you know what the ox and ass know?

The Nativity of the Lord

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We come today heeding the call of those ancient shepherds who said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15). This “thing,” of course, is what the choir of angels announced to them as they watched their sheep, namely, the Birth of the Son of God and the Son of Mary.

Centuries later, but many centuries before us, Saint Jerome made the cry of the shepherds his own and moved to Bethlehem to be near the place where the Lord Jesus was born. Being so near the place where Mary placed the Christ Child, Saint Jerome once cried out in frustration, “Oh, if only I could see that manger in which the Lord was laid!”[1] Jerome was a very good grumbler, though a holy one, and went on to explain his frustration, complaining:

As a tribute of honor, we Christians have now removed the mud-baked [reliquary] and replaced it with a silver one; but the one that has been removed is more precious to me! Silver and gold are appropriate for the pagan world.[2]

This tendency to improve upon the circumstances of the Lord’s Birth, to make them more appealing to our own standards, remains with us today as we sentimentalize Christmas. Even now, pilgrims who visit the relic of the manger housed in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome know something of what Jerome complained as they attempt to peer through the sparkle and glitz of the silver and gold of the reliquary to look upon the humble wood of the manger itself.

Centuries after Saint Jerome, and yet still centuries before us, Saint Francis of Assisi also desired to heed the cry of the shepherds and see the place where the Lord Jesus was born and the manger in which Mary placed him. Moreover, he wanted to help others do the same. This is why in 1223 he asked Pope Honorius III for permission “to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass.”[3]

Nearly eight centuries later, we still erect Nativities in our homes, churches, and in public places so everyone who looks upon them might also say with the shepherds, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem” and see the manger in which the Lord Jesus was laid. Happily, this tradition is now embraced by many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who join us in using statues both small and large to envision what those shepherds beheld that caused them to return to their fields “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20).

It is curious to note that Saint Francis requested two particular additions to our Nativity displays that neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark mention in their accounts of Jesus’ Birth, two additions without which our Nativities would seem incomplete. These, of course, are the ox and the ass.

A few days ago, I asked our Kindergartners what they could tell me about Christmas. As might be expected, they were quick to mention the presence of the animals. When I asked why the animals were there, one of them told me they brought gifts for Baby Jesus, a detail I must surely have known at one point and have since, sadly, forgotten. She told me the sheep kept the Holy Infant warm, the cows gave him milk, and the donkey brought him to Bethlehem. Perhaps this is why Charles Dickens once said it “is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when the mighty Founder was a child himself.”[4] Even so, this is not quite what Saint Francis had in mind. Why, then, did the little poor man of Assisi want the ox and the ass included?

MS Sloan 2468
While Saint Francis is the first person to portray the Nativity without painting or carving, he is not the first to include the ox and the ass in depictions of the Birth of Jesus. Many illuminations from the medieval manuscripts portray the ox and the ass closer to the manger than Saint Joseph, and sometimes even closer than the Blessed Virgin Mary. The ox and the ass tend to gaze upon the Christ Child with looks of warm affection and a sublime wisdom. These artists knew that many centuries before Saint Francis, Saint Jerome, and well before the Birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold, “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3).

If we study the expression of the ox who looks upon his owner, what do we find he knows? The ox knows, firstly, that he gazes upon a great mystery, “an infinitely greater thing than anything” J.R.R. Tolkien said he “would dare to write.”[5] The ox knows that when he looks upon that Child, he looks upon the invisible God made unexpectedly visible. Of all of the Lord’s wonders, this is the most incomprehensible of all, that the omnipotent God would take unto himself a human face, that the Creator of all things would lower himself to become one of his creatures. The ox knows that he gazes upon “the firstborn of all creation,” “whom angels fall down before” (Colossians 1:15).[6]

The ox knew, secondly, that this invisible God made suddenly visible looks out upon his creation with his human face, with eyes full of compassion, knowledge, power, and tenderness. He looks upon all he has made and calls out to men and women with a word of love and of command. “You are my friends,” he says, “if you do what I command you” (John15:14). “Love one another,” he says, “as I have loved you” (John 15:12). “Be perfect,” he says, “as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). “These things I have spoken to you,” he says, “that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full” (John 15:11).

The ox knew, thirdly, that this Divine Child, who takes the risk of our refusing to love him, came to lead us out of our self-absorption and show us how to love fully and authentically. One manuscript depicts this in a striking manner. It shows the Child Jesus flying down from heaven already carrying his Cross. Truly, he has come this day “not to be served, but to serve,” to love us to the end (Matthew 20:28; cf. John 13:1). He calls us to set aside our own self-interest and imitate his selflessness.

All this we see in the ox’s face, but what do we find in the expression of the ass? We sing each year in that beloved carol by an unknown author, “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.” The ass knew that the crib of his master is the ass’ own manger. Yes, the crib of the Holy Child is nothing more than a feeding trough for the animals, but in this is contained a great mystery. This Child grew and called himself “the bread of life” and told us quite emphatically, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:35, 53). The Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, a village whose name means “the house of bread” and was placed in a manger, not as food for the animals, but as food for those he came to save, as food for you and me.

The ox and the ass bellow and bray to us today, beckoning us to approach their manger so we might look upon the face of the invisible God made visible and know what they know. They call us to pause in silence and consider their questions: “Do you know your Master and his crib? Do you understand and know his mercy and love? Will you eat of him and be nourished by him to love as he loves?” They call us to ponder the tremendous love God displays in his Incarnation, to recognize that “God is so good that he can give up his divine splendor and come down to a stable, so that we might find him, so that his goodness might touch us, give itself to us, and continue to work through us.”[7]

This Christmas, let us resolve to know the heart of our Master, to allow ourselves to be touched by and understand his love, to imitate his selflessness and allow it to work through us in all we say and do. If we open ourselves in this way to love and to be loved by this Child, then our lives will proclaim peace and good will to all we meet, bringing joy and gladness wherever we go. If we welcome the Birth of the Lord Jesus in this way, then we will have a very merry and blessed Christmas indeed. Amen!

[1] Saint Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord, 31. In Advent and Christmas with the Church Fathers. Marco Pappalardo, ed. (Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2010), 52.
[2] Ibid.
[3] In Tomaso de Celano, First Life, XXX.84. In Brother Thomas of Celano: The Life of St. Francis of Assisi and The Treatise of Miracles. Catherine Bolton, trans. (Assisi, Italy: Editrice Minerva), 80-81.
[4] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Stave 3. In Stories for Christmas by Charles Dickens (New York: Platinum Press, Inc., 2003), 69.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, Draft Letter to Michael Straight, 1956. In The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Humphrey Carpenter, ed.(Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), 237.
[6] Christina Georgina Rossetti, “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 24 December 2005.

23 December 2016

Catholic New World provides details of the exhumation of Father Tolton

The Catholic New World, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago has published an article detailing certain aspects of the recent exhumation of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton which I did not share when I wrote about standing at the feet of Father Tolton:
Canon law also requires [this is not technically correct, but I suppose it is close enough] that dioceses employ a forensic anthropologist, a medical examiner and archeologist [sic] in the process. Those three men worked on removing the remainder of the soil and uncovered Tolton’s body. It didn’t take long to find the skeletal remains. 
Over time the earth crushed the wooden coffin in which Tolton was buried. They discovered the casket had a glass top because they found a significant amount of broken glass mixed in with the remains. At the time Tolton died, glass-topped coffins were used for people of position or who were well known. In addition to the skeletal remains, the crews found other items such as metal handles and wood from the coffin, the corpus from a crucifix buried with him, the corpus from his rosary and a portion of his Roman priest’s collar. “The intent of all of this is preserving the remains we have of a possible saint. We want to make sure that anything that we find is preserved so it will go into a sealed casket and from the sealed casket into a sealed vault,” said [Roman] Szabelski.
After a brief discussion about how exhumations can differ one from another, the author of the article, Joyce Duriga, provides a few additional details:
As the remains were unearthed, the forensic pathologist laid them out on a table in a mortuary bag under which was a new priest’s alb. He pieced the bones together anatomically.
Bishop Paprocki led everyone in the rosary while that was happening. In addition to the skull, they found Tolton’s femurs, rib bones, vertebrae, collarbones, pelvis, portions of the arm bones and other smaller bones.
The forensic pathologist verified by the skull that the remains were of a black person. By the shape and thickness of bones in the pelvic area he was able to determine that the remains were from a male in his early 40s.
Once all of the remains and artifacts were collected, the process to reinter Tolton began. Priests from Springfield vested the remains with a white Roman chasuble and maniple, amice and cincture. Tolton’s remains were then placed in a new casket bearing a plate that identified him as “Servant of God Augustus Tolton,” along with his dates of birth, ordination and death. A document was placed on top of the remains attesting to the work done that day.
Then they wrapped a red ribbon around the casket and sealed it with a wax seal of the Diocese of Springfield. The coffin was in turn placed in a burial vault with another inscription. A second vault held the broken glass and coffin parts and both containers were reinterred in the grave. A closing prayer service wrapped up the solemn process.
The grave will only be opened again if Tolton is beatified, said Bishop Perry. No relics — pieces of bone or any of the other objects found in the grave — were removed that day. Relics can only be shared if Tolton moves on to the next stage in the canonization process — beatification.
Nearly two weeks later, I am still deeply grateful for the privilege of being present at the exhumation and am edified by the reverend work carried out that day.

22 December 2016

St. Agnes Parish Christmas Schedule

As you gather with your family and friends to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, we invite you to pray with us at St. Agnes Parish in Springfield.

Our Christmas schedule is as follows:

Christmas Day:
4:15 p.m. - Carols
5:00 p.m. - Holy Mass

9:30 p.m. - Carols
10:00 p.m. - Holy Mass

Christmas Eve:
10:00 a.m. - Holy Mass

May the Child of Bethlehem shine the light of his Face upon you, filling you with joy and peace at his Birth. Merry Christmas!

HRH The Prince of Wales: For many, following Christ is "a daily stark choice between life and death"

For some years now, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales has remained one of the few persons of high status to speak out against the increasing persecution of Christians throughout the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria. Thus far, his pleas on behalf of our brothers and sisters in Christ and of other persecuted groups have gone largely unanswered.

Three days ago, Prince Charles spoke out yet again and made a plea for us to remember those seeking to escape such persecution.

Please take a few moments to watch the video message he recorded at St. James' Palace:

Please also consider making a donation this Christmas to the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need which has a special concern and care for those suffering for their fidelity to Jesus.

21 December 2016

Unwanted and returned Christmas gifts in the U.S.A. total nearly $263 billion

An article in this morning's print edition of the State Journal-Register titled "The not-so-perfect gift might be intentional" caught my attention. I found it online at the Portland Herald Press with title, "Michelle Singletary: Don't give a gift to send a message."

The author, Michelle Singletary, cites a research paper by Deborah Cohn, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology, who found,
One out of every three gift recipients in the U.S. returned at least one gift item during the 2013 holiday season with the total dollars of returned gifts estimated at $262.4 billion (not including fraudulent returns).
Frankly, that number shocked me. It should shock you, too.

Think about that for a minute. Nearly $263 billion in unwanted Christmas gifts. What does this say about the gratitude the average American feels toward the gift giver? What does this say about how well the average America gift giver knows the person to whom the gift is given? What does this say about how well the average American knows why we give gifts to each other at Christmas in the first place?

The current population of the United States of America numbers some 325 million people. If my math is correct, that means the average American returned gifts totaling more than $800. Each. Children, though, aren't returning gifts, so the actual figure must be higher. What kind of gifts are people giving to each other?

So far this year, most of the gifts I've received have been in the form of chocolates, Dr Pepper, and gift cards to Barnes & Noble (which are all perfect gifts for me). If years past are any indication, this will likely continue, and my gratitude will not be the less for it.

Are we trying to impress each other with the gifts we give? Perhaps.

According to Singletary, Cohn found that people tend to return gifts for one of five reasons:
  1. Gifts (presumably) given in an attempt to change a person;
  2. Gifts (presumably) given to you for me;
  3. Gifts (presumably) given in aggression knowing the recipient will not like it;
  4. Gifts (presumably) given purely out of an obligation; and,
  5. Gifts (presumably) given with the intention of showing off.
Let me just say that if you are giving gifts for one of the above reasons, you're doing it wrong (unless you're Bilbo Baggins about to leave the Shire and will never see any of the recipients ago).

We, as a nation, have drifted so far from the central tenets of Christianity that we do not even know realize the ridiculousness of what we have done to the celebration of the Birth of the Savior. We have turned our gift-giving into a mockery.

The magi offered the Child of Bethlehem their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to honor him as a priest, a prophet, and a king; they recognized who Jesus of Nazareth is and gave him appropriate gifts. How well do we know those to whom we give gifts? Is it really that hard to find a gift that will honor their personality and hopes, while at the same time demonstrating we value their uniqueness?

Perhaps this Christmas we should stop taking pictures of ourselves and engage those around us in real conversation. If we do, maybe next year we can give a gift from the heart, a gift that won't be returned.

18 December 2016

Homily - 18 December 2016 - The Fourth Sunday of Advent: There is still time to be still

The Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Apostle Saint Paul expresses today the purpose for which he so profoundly spent himself for the proclamation of the Gospel, namely, “to bring about the obedience of faith, for the sake of his name, among all the Gentiles, among whom are you also, who are called to belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:5-6). With our emphasis today on personal liberty and choice, we do not like to hear about the notion of obedience. We think of obedience as something belonging to a former age, a day in which men and women were hindered from fulfilling their dreams, but is this really the case?

If we break the word “obedience” apart, we find it comes from two Latin words, ob audire, which mean, when placed together, “to listen towards.” True obedience, then, is not simply following an order or a command unquestioningly, but rather listening so intently to the other person - with the intention of discovering his or her heart and deepest needs and wishes - in such a way that his or her desires become my own. More than being about submission, obedience, properly understood, is listening to another person with the heart, of knowing the other so well that I anticipate his or desires and needs. “This,” then, “is true Christian obedience, which is freedom: not [to do] as I want, with my own plan of life for myself, but in putting myself at [God’s] disposal so that he will make use of me. And in placing myself in his hands I am free.”[1] We might say that “Christian freedom, therefore, is completely different from arbitrariness; it is following Christ in the gift of self, right up to the sacrifice on the cross.”[2]

If actively listening to another person is the goal of authentic obedience, what does Saint Paul mean when he speaks of “the obedience of faith?” The obedience of faith is an intentional act by which “man completely submits his intellect and his will to God,” by which we “submit freely to the word that has been heard because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself.”[3] The word that we hear, the word toward which we listen, is Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who communicates his merciful love to us through the Sacraments, which he entrusted to his Church, founded upon the Apostle Saint Peter, and through the Sacred Scriptures, which the same Church devotedly preserves and venerates as the inspired word of God. By the act of faith, the disciple of Jesus strives to listen to what he says about every aspect of life, from choosing a spouse to raising children, from working honestly to spending money wisely, from using my own body properly to honoring the dignity of others, and everything in between; no facet of life remains untouched from his word. By the act of faith, the disciple of Jesus listens to what he says about every aspect of life and acts upon that word with the confidence that it comes from him who cannot deceive and who cannot be deceived. By the act of faith, the Christian becomes the friend of God by keeping his commands because the one who speaks is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (cf. John 15:14; 14:6). This obedience of faith is “the unconditional acceptance of a servant, and the loving commitment of a child.”[4]  Both of these we see modeled in Saint Joseph.

This listening to the Word of God, as Joseph clearly did, is not merely a passive activity; it requires our own desire to grow in union with the Lord. Moreover, it requires a “close communion with the one who calls us to be his friends and disciples, a unity of life and action nourished by listening to his Word, by contemplation and by prayer, by detachment from the mindset of the world and by ceaseless conversion to his love so that it may be he, Christ, who lives and works in each one of us.”[5] It requires that we spend time in silence in the presence of the Lord, that we still our hearts, open our minds, and close our lips before him to be able to discern his “still small voice” speaking within the depths of our hearts (I Kings 19:11). We have no better example of this respectful and loving silence in the presence of God than Saint Joseph, who speaks not a single word in the Scriptures, yet who supports Mary and Jesus through his devotion.

This season of Advent, this period of watching and waiting, is one of joyful expectation, a blessed and holy time intended for a deep and profound silence in imitation of Saint Joseph, whose role is too often passed over in our thoughts. Let us, then, turn for a moment toward this holy man, “who lived with unique intensity the period of expectation and preparation for Jesus’ birth.”[6] If we look to him, we will learn how to prepare ourselves for the joyful celebration of Christmas.

When the angel of the Lord said to him, “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home,” Joseph offered neither objection nor question (Matthew 1:20). He welcomed the mission entrusted to him as his duty and privilege: “She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). It is Joseph’s silence in the presence of the mystery of the Incarnation, his silent listening to the word of God, that particularly strikes us in our own age of almost constant noise.

Too often silence is seen today as a sign of confusion, of weakness or loss, but this is not the case with Saint Joseph. His “silence does not express an inner emptiness but, on the contrary, the fullness of the faith he bears in his heart and which guides his every thought and action.”[7] His silence is a sign of his knowledge, of his strength, and of the gift he has received. “It is a silence thanks to which Joseph, in union with Mary, listens to the Word of God, known through the Sacred Scriptures, continuously comparing it with the events of the life of Jesus; a silence woven of constant prayer, a prayer of blessing the Lord, of the adoration of his holy will and of unreserved entrustment to his providence.”[8] It is a silence born of awe and wonder, and one we would do well to imitate because, as Pope Francis reminds us, “where love is concerned, silence is always more eloquent than words.”[9]

Indeed, before so great a mystery as the birth of the only Son of God, of God made man, what else is there to do but to fall to the knees in humble, grateful, loving, and silent adoration? What words could possibly be uttered in the presence of the Divine Child? For this reason that ancient and beloved hymn sings,

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth
our full homage to demand.

This is the mindset of the one who, with Saint Joseph, awaits the birth of the Christ Child in silent wonder.

There is still time to still our hearts and keep silence so that we might hear the voice of Love speaking tenderly to us. In these last few days, then, before the birth of the Messiah, let us allow ourselves to be filled with Saint Joseph’s silence to listen to the will of the Lord for our lives and to make his will our own. Then, as we approach the manger of Bethlehem to adore the newborn King, we will be able to give him the best gift, the obedience of faith, to profoundly spend ourselves in his service, and so live in true freedom as heralds of his merciful love. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to the Clergy of Rome, 7 February 2008.
[2] Ibid., Angelus Address, 1 July 2007.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 143-144.
[4] Ibid., 2716.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Letter to Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., 10 January 2008.
[6] Ibid., Angelus Address, 18 December 2005.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Pope Francis, Amoris laetitia, 12.

11 December 2016

Standing at the feet of Father Tolton

As the Diocese of Peoria and the Archdiocese of New York continue in their public disagreement over the transfer of the mortal remains of the Venerable Fulton John Sheen, the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois worked together yesterday to exhume the mortal remains of the Servant of God Father Augustus Tolton in St. Peter Cemetery in Quincy, Illinois.

A tent was erected over Father Tolton's grave to shield the workers from the elements/
The exhumation took place as part of the ongoing process for his eventual - may it please God! - beatification and canonization. I was deeply honored to have been asked to have a role in yesterday's work and will treasure the memories of that day for a very long time.

Though I cannot as yet share the details of what was done and found yesterday, I can say the exhumation was carried out for reasons historical: to be absolutely certain Father Tolton lived and died, and is not simply the creation of someone's imagination. The exhumed proved Father Tolton did indeed live and die.

The two local television stations in the Gem City aired apparently hastily prepared news reports concerning the exhumation.

Inaccurate News Reports

KHQA erroneously reported that "while the canonization process typically takes ten years, Father Tolton has passed the first stage, having been declared Blessed." This is not true. Father Tolton has not been inscribed among the Blessed, but has instead been named a Servant of God; this is, if you will, the first stage of the canonization process.

If the Holy Father judges him to have lived a life of heroic virtue, Father Tolton will be declared Venerable, the second stage. If, after being declared Venerable, the Holy Father recognizes a miraculous healing to have occurred through Father Tolton's intercession, he will be inscribed among the Blessed, the third stage. If, after being declared a Blessed, a second miraculous healing occurs after his beatification, Father Tolton will be inscribed among the Saints, the fourth and final stage.

KHQA also erroneously reported that Father Tolton's writings must still be examined as part of the canonization process. However, his known writings have already been examined and submitted to the Holy See. In addition to his writings, the KHQA report also said the "heroic virtue and miracles during Father Tolton's life will be examined so Tolton can officially be canonized." This part is correct, though the Holy See is more interested in miracles after his death than before.

KHQA correctly reported that "anthropologists, forensic pathologists and archaeologists" were on hand yesterday and conducted the exhumation and that Father Tolton's mortal remains were placed inside a casket and reinterred in his grave.

WGEM's report inaccurately named the Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois as "John Paprocki." His name, of course, is Bishop Thomas John Paprocki. This is a sign of poor editing of the article, as can be deduced from another portion of WGEM's report:
Father Tolton was the first African-American priest to work in Quincy, and Bauer says that his legacy adds to the great history of the area.  
Bauer says that his legacy adds to the great history of the area. 
I'm not sure the repetition is needed so soon.
The WGEM report also incorrectly stated, "The Vatican now needs to confirm if Tolton performed three miracles." The Holy See is actually seeking confirmation of two miracles, one for beatification and a second for canonization.
These two reports show the wisdom of Treebeard when he cautions the young Hobbits, "Don't be hasty."

A Brief Account of the Day

After everyone involved in the exhumation gathered at the grave, we sang "Blest Be the Everlasting God" and listened to the words Father Tolton spoke before he left Quincy for Chicago in November of 1889:
My gratitude to those people of the Gem City is threefold. Some of the white friends and benefactors of St. Joseph’s church did not forget their colored priest Father Tolton. They did not let him go away empty handed from the Gem City, but as a token of respect they have made him a suitable donation, asking him to remember them in his prayers, and promised to do three times more if he would only remain with them. Catholics will love and respect a priest regardless of nationality; at least that is the spirit of those people in the Gem City who knew me for twenty-nine years or more. Never will I forget the happy hours spent in the little St. Joseph church. I wish them all the blessings that can be bestowed upon them, for that charitable spirit that they have always shown toward me and the colored children.
We then heard Leviticus 19:17-18 read aloud and then prayed to God asking him to guide the work of our hands as we exhumed the remains of this holy priest. Then the work of the day began.
As the notary of the day's proceedings, it was my happy duty to record what happened and when it happened throughout the course of the exhumation. This provided me the unexpected privilege - and the sublime joy - of standing at the feet of Father Tolton as his remains were lifted from his grave and clothed again in the sacred vestments of a priest.

Once the forensic pathologist and anthropologist concluded their investigation, Father Tolton's remains were transferred to a new casket, which was then placed inside a vault and lowered into his original grave. There the remains of this Servant of God will rest, until we he is raised by the Holy Father to the dignity of the altars.

Once he was returned to his grave, those present gathered again to pray. We sang Father Tolton's favorite hymn, the hymn with which he was welcomed back to Quincy 130 years ago, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." We then heard the following passage from Sr. Caroline Hemesath,'s From Slave to Priest:
Detail of a work by Isabel Armengol
Father Tolton won the hearts of old and young alike. The secret of his success lay in his innate simplicity and genuine love for all with whom he came into contact. He never tired of telling his people that God cared for each one of them and that he had a deep concern for the welfare of every one of his children. To prove his statements he invariably referred to the Gospel. By means of a clear explanation or simple dramatization, Father Tolton was able to recreate scenes of Christ’s life on earth and his mission among mankind; he repeated the words of the Master with such profound reverence that his hearers sensed the presence of the living Christ. No prelate ever received higher praise than that accorded to Father Tolton by a very young pupil of Saint Joseph’s School. Seeing the priest on the street, the child said to its mother, “See, there goes Jesus” (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006, pages 179-180).
We heard next a reading of I John 3:14-16 and gave thanks to God for the work he guided and prayed the Prayer for the Canonization of Father Augustus Tolton.

Those involved in the proceedings then enjoyed a warm meal together and parted company, now bound together by a common friendship with Father Tolton.

A Few Personal Reflections

Despite the cold temperatures, I cannot recall hearing any grumbling or complaints of being uncomfortable (though some of us did stand in front of heaters from time to time to warm our toes). Nor do I remember hearing that demonstrate a great reverence for the task at hand. The day was marked by tranquility, amicability, and a reverence for the sacred. I will attempt to put it better into words in the days ahead, though I am not sure I will able to do so.

For years I have walked where Father Tolton's feet have trod, both in Quincy and in Rome; yesterday I stood beside him and gazed with love upon his mortal remains in these days as we look to the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus who will raise our mortal bodies from the dust of the earth. Though I do not follow it as well as I should like, Father Tolton's life of quiet humility and long-suffering is an inspiration to me. Some people dream of standing on the shoulders of giants; I hope merely to walk in the shadow of this humble man who never lashed out against his enemies.

Bishop Paprocki was right when he said, "To have someone from your own hometown to be a saint, to be a role model, to show other people how to be as a Christian, that's a great thing to have." All of Quincy should rejoice as Father Tolton's cause for beatification and canonization continues to advance, one step at a time. Quincyans know Father Gus as one our our bright gems, as one of our citizens who represent the best of our beloved city; Catholics, we pray, will soon know him as a Saint, one of those who, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, "shine with [Jesus'] light and so guide us along our way" (Spe salvi, 49). May Father Tolton soon be as a heavenly gem, drawing all who look to him toward the merciful love of Jesus!

The Reverend Landry Genosky, O.F.M. (who baptized and confirmed me) once wrote in reference to Father Tolton's original burial in Quincy, "They brought the remains back to Quincy as he had requested. It was as it should be. His heart had never left it." These words kept resonating in my heart as I gazed upon Father Tolton's remains as I repeatedly him that the hearts of Quincyans will never leave him. Many Quincyans had endured extremely hot temperatures to be with me at Father Tolton's grave this past July and many more would have been with me yesterday in freezing temperatures had they been permitted.

My only regret is that I somehow did not think beforehand to bring a kukui nut lei to place inside Father Tolton's new casket as a token of my aloha for him. I should have liked to have laid one at his feet. I hope instead he will now accept the aloha of my heart and intercede for me so that I might follow his priestly heart more closely.

09 December 2016

The drama of the village drunk in the crèche at St. Peter's

Two of my friends are currently visiting the Eternal City and were surprised by the presence of what appears to be the local village drunk passed out among the sheep in the crèche (the Nativity scene) displayed this year in St. Peter's Square:

When asked to explain his presence in the Nativity scene, my first reaction was one of renewed gratitude for being back in the United States of America, even with the bitter temperatures, where such scenes are absent from our Nativity scenes.

As a general rule, Americans tend to prefer their Nativity scenes to be quaint, pleasant, and charming, almost absent of any real discomfort the Holy Family would certainly have experienced. We have sanitized, if you will, our imagining of Christmas morning to fit nicely with the lyrics of "Silent Night" (a song I've never really liked).

When Saint Francis of Assisi first requested permission of Pope Honorius III to re-present the Birth of Jesus, his biographer, Tomaso di Celano, tells us the Poverello wanted "to portray the Child born in Bethlehem and to see somehow with my bodily eyes the hardship he underwent because he lacked all a newborn’s needs, the way he was placed in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the ass" (First Life, XXX.84). While we have tended to shy away from these hardships, the Italians have taken to displaying the Birth of Jesus in the context of everyday life in all of its normalcy.

Certainly it might be argued the Italians sometimes take this too far (as they do with many things), but nobody likes drama as much as an Italian, and what could be more dramatic than the village drunk in the Nativity?

This dramatization of the early hours of Christmas morning, while distasteful to American sensibilities, may be intended as a stark reminder of the reality of our sin and the very reason the Father sent his Son to be born of the Virgin. As I preached yesterday"the message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy."

Perhaps the presence of the village drunk can help us appreciate anew our fallen and sinful condition and our sheer dependence upon the merciful love of God.

08 December 2016

Homily - 8 December 2016 - The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception

Dear brothers and sisters,

Every good parent or teacher makes use – from time to time – of an uncomfortable question to point out the wrongdoing of a child or pupil. Is this not what the Lord God did today when he “called out to the man and asked him, ‘Where are you’” (Genesis 3:9)? It cannot be held that God did not know Adam’s physical location; to make such a claim of the omniscient Creator would be absurd. It is, rather, as Saint Ambrose says: the Lord poses “not a question, but a reproof.”[1] It is as if God asks of Adam, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death.”

The Church’s tradition calls this forsaking of eternal life the original sin by which

man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. Constituted in a state of original holiness, man was destined to be fully “divinized” by God in glory. Seduced by the devil, he wanted to “be like God,” but “without God, before God, and not in accordance with God.”[2]

It is this same forsaking of eternal life, this same original sin, that each one of us has inherited from Adam and Eve, our first parents. This is why Saint Paul says that “sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men have sinned” (Romans 5:12).

If we spend even a small amount of time considering our own sinfulness, we know the effects of this original sin all too well. “It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it; subject to ignorance, suffering, and the dominion of death; and inclined to sin.”[3] It is this inclination toward sin from which each of us suffers and why Saint Augustine famously called us walking fomes peccati, walking tinderboxes of sin.[4]

This seems to us a strange message to hear as we find ourselves in the midst of our preparations for Christmas. We expect to hear a more hopeful and joyful message, forgetting that “oft hope is born, when all is forlorn.”[5] The truth of our fallen and sinful condition lies at the heart of the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:31). When Gabriel spoke to Saint Joseph, he told the husband of Mary to name her child Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

The Archangel’s announcements to both Saint Joseph and to Holy Mary come as the great and long-awaited prophecy which the Lord God said that vile and wicked serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers” (Genesis 3:15). Christ Jesus, the offspring of Mary, the second Eve and whose Birth we celebrate at Christmas, struck at the serpent and defeated him with the weapon of the Cross. This is why Saint Paul says “as one man’s trespass led to the condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men” (Romans 5:18). The message of our sinful condition, then, and of our salvation from it in Christ, lies at the heart of the Advent message; to ignore this salvation from sin and death, is to rob Christmas of its beauty, of its wonder, and of its joy.

Today we celebrate a foundational aspect in the life of one of those whom Jesus saved from sin as we give thanks to God for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was not until 1854 that Mother Church finally defined what had long been held and believed by the faithful when Pope Pius IX solemnly declared, “the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, was, by a unique grace and privilege of Almighty God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, preserved exempt from all stain of original sin.”[6] Because of her role as the Mother of God and in order to prepare a worthy ark for the Word made Flesh, “Mary benefited first of all and uniquely from Christ’s victory over sin: she was persevered from all stain of original sin and by a special grace committed no sin of any kind during her whole earthly life.”[7] It is this preservation from original sin and from its effects that the Church calls Mary’s “previent grace,” the grace given to Mary before her acceptance of the divine plan because she accepted the divine plan.[8] Mary, then, “is not merely the greatest of the saints but something altogether different and unique.”[9]

You and I, of course, have not been so graced. The Lord still calls out to us, asking, “Are you trapped in the imagined godlikeness that the serpent falsely promised you?”[10] His simple question, “Where are you?” is really an invitation for us “to make admission of [our] faults” and be reconciled to God so we might lift our eyes towards him and gaze upon the beauty of his face.[11]

Like Adam and Eve, we are often hesitant to admit our sin to the Lord; we hide from him and so deprive ourselves of his presence. But the Lord, in his infinite mercy, does not abandon us; rather, he sent his Son, born of the Virgin Mary, to call out to us, “From what condition of goodness, beatitude and grace … have you fallen into this state of misery? You have forsaken eternal life. You have entombed yourself in the ways of sin and death. Let me lead you forth into the kingdom of light” (cf. Colossians 1:13).

Mary shows us how to listen to the call of the Lord, how to give a generous response to him, and how to entrust ourselves entirely to the Lord’s loving mercy so that we might no longer live in a miserable condition. In these days of Advent, she calls us to place ourselves “within the orbit of her holy life.”[12] She desires to enfold us within the mantle of her love and to look upon us as our Mother (cf. John 19:27). It is within the orbit of Mary’s holy life that the disciple of Jesus wishes to enter; “here he wants to dwell, to breathe, to become quiet, and to receive comfort and strength to continue his life with renewed courage.”[13] Let each of us strive to wait with Mary so that we might welcome her Child when he comes and say with her, “May it be done to me according to your word” and live a life “holy and without blemish before him” (Luke 1:38; Ephesians 1:4). Amen.

[1] Saint Ambrose of Milan, De Paradiso, 14.70. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I: Genesis 1-11. Andrew Louth, ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2001), 84.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 398. Emphasis original.
[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 405.
[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, De Continentia, 3.
[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of The Lord of the Rings, 5.9, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 859.
[6] Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.
[7] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 411.
[8] Roman Missal, Prayer Over the Offerings of the Mass for Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
[9] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying: The Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer. Leopold of Loewenstein-Wertheim, trans. (Manchester, New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press), 155.
[10] Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Commentary on Genesis, 2.26.1. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament Vol. I, 84.
[11] Saint John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis, 17.22. In ibid., 85.
[12] Romano Guardini, The Art of Praying, 159.
[13] Ibid.