Original Letter of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the US Catholic Bishops

Pope Francis’ Good Shepherd pectoral cross

This original translation of Pope Francis’ letter (1 Jan 2019) to U.S. Catholic bishops can be found here.

OFFICIAL TRANSLATION

Letter of the Holy Father Pope Francis to the Bishops of the United States of America

To the Bishops of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Dear Brothers,

During my meeting on 13 September last with the officers of your Conference of Bishops, I suggested that together you make a retreat, a time of seclusion, prayer and discernment, as a necessary step toward responding in the spirit of the Gospel to the crisis of credibility that you are experiencing as a Church. We see this in the Gospel: at critical moments in his mission, the Lord withdrew and spent the whole night in prayer, inviting his disciples to do the same (cf. Mk 14:38). We know that, given the seriousness of the situation, no response or approach seems adequate; nonetheless, we as pastors must have the ability, and above all the wisdom, to speak a word born of heartfelt, prayerful and collective listening to the Word of God and to the pain of our people. A word born of the prayer of shepherds who, like Moses, fight and intercede for their people (cf. Ex 32:30-32).

In that meeting, I told Cardinal DiNardo and the other bishops present of my desire to accompany you personally for several days on that retreat, and this offer was met with joy and anticipation. As the Successor of Peter, I wanted to join all of you in imploring the Lord to send forth his Spirit who “makes all things new” (cf. Rev 21:5) and to point out the paths of life that, as Church, we are called to follow for the good of all those entrusted to our care. Despite my best efforts, I will not be able, for logistical reasons, to be physically present with you. This letter is meant in some way to make up for that journey which could not take place. I am also pleased that you have accepted my offer to have the Preacher of the Papal Household direct this retreat and to share his deep spiritual wisdom.

With these few lines, I would like to draw near to you as a brother and to reflect with you on some aspects that I consider important, while at the same time encouraging your prayer and the steps you are taking to combat the “culture of abuse” and to deal with the crisis of credibility.

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Richard Rohr: Do You Worship the Past or the Eternal?

… Religion tends to prefer and protect the status quo or the supposedly wonderful past, yet what we now see is that religion often simply preserves its own power and privilege. God does not need our protecting. We often worship old things as substitutes for eternal things. Jesus strongly rejects this love of the past and one’s private perfection, and he cleverly quotes Isaiah (29:13) to do it: “In vain do they worship me, teaching merely human precepts as if they were doctrines” (Matthew 15:9). Many of us seem to think that God really is “back there,” in the good ol’ days of old-time religion when God was really God, and everybody was happy and pure. This leaves the present moment empty and hopeless—not to speak of the future.

God keeps creating things from the inside out, so they are forever yearning, developing, growing, and changing for the good. This is the generative force implanted in all living things, which grow both from within—because they are programmed for it—and from without—by taking in sun, food, and water. Picture YHWH breathing into the soil that became Adam (Genesis 2:7). That is the eternal pattern. God is still breathing into soil every moment!

Evolutionary thinking is actually contemplative thinking because it leaves the full field of the future in God’s hands and agrees to humbly hold the present with what it only tentatively knows for sure. Evolutionary thinking must agree to both knowing and not knowing, at the same time. This is hard for the egoically bound self. It wants to fully know—now—which is never true anyway.–Richard Rohr, Everything Changes

Third Sunday in Advent

“Christ used the flesh and blood of Mary for his life on earth, the Word of love was uttered in her heartbeat. Christ used his own body to utter his love on earth…In this the Christian life is a sacramental life. This Advent God invites you to touch, and taste, and smell. Listen to your body this Advent. Stretch your senses and taste and see that the Lord is good.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said to them in reply, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.’”Matthew 11:2-6

This is Guadete Sunday. We light the third Advent candle as a sign of joy. It is to remind us that when we dream like God dreams—wild visions flowing over with grace, and justice, and mercy—then our road will be lit by this third candle.

Sometimes it is hard for us to feel the scriptures in our bones until we see them acted out. In Venezuela I met a nun who for twelve years had worked in a poor neighborhood located on a steep hillside high over Caracas. Her name was Sr. Begoña. She had been a religious Sister of the Sacred Heart for many years in Spain before moving to Venezuela.

Sr. Begoña talked about the change that she had seen in the self-image of the poor since the government began prioritizing social programs for “the least of these.” Initially, she was very skeptical of the Venezuelan president. He had a military background and she’d grown up in Spain under General Franco. She had no use totalitarian leadership. She was also skeptical of how successful government programs could be in helping the poor. Would they create dependence? What happens when a new administration comes into office? “But,” said Sr. Begoña, “I have lived in this neighborhood for a long time and the poor were for the government programs and for the president. I decided that I would take my chances with the poor, with the people. They were first to understand the new national project.” She said that if the government programs were a mistake she would still rather err with the people than against them.

Not long after making this decision, the neighborhood people invited her to a big march in support of the national agenda to give preferential option to the poor. The day arrived and hundreds from her neighborhood walked the two hours down the hillside into the Caracas city center. Along the way they were joined by thousands of other very poor people from the slums that ring Caracas. There was singing and chanting and laughing—a palpable energy of joy, hope, and possibility. “I always wondered what it meant in the Gospel that the blind saw, the deaf heard and the lame walked,” said Sr. Begoña, “but on that day I was walking with poor people who were blind and deaf and lame. Suddenly, I began to understand—because they were seeing and hearing and walking.”

Where do you see the gospel brought to life?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Second Saturday in Advent

“The story of Joseph’s bewilderment when he realized that his future wife was going to have a baby is well known, and it is well known too that Mary did not explain. Sometimes there is little to be gained by trying to explain, especially when misunderstandings arise from Christ conceived in us. At that time, in that Advent moment, God’s voice is silent within us; it is simply the sound of our heartbeat. Love is more effective than words.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.”—Isaiah 29:18

In Jose Saramago’s allegorical novel Blindness he uses a quotation from the Book of Exhortations as the epigram: “If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.”

The metaphor of “giving sight to the blind” is meant to be used as just that…a metaphor. Isaiah is not talking about physical blindness or deafness. Often when one physical sense is lost then acuity is heightened in other senses. There are however other kinds of blindness and deafness that both Isaiah and Jesus address. For one, the blindness of ignorance, specifically ignorance of Torah (“the scroll”). It is important to study scripture. You don’t have to be a “master” or academic, but you need a hunger for the text. There are many things that dull our hunger, our desire, for the Word. There are many things that we allow to prevent us from exploring the question “Who am I really?

Near the end of Saramago’s novel, when the blind people are getting their vision back, a character says, “I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind. Blind but seeing. Blind people who can see, but do not see.”

In Advent we brave the darkness. In Advent we ask God to give us “second sight” or true sight. In Advent we dare to open our ears to the deep song of prayer that under girds all creation.

Take time today to gaze at something beautiful.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Friday in Advent

Fire Dance by Elena Kotliarker

“Till like a fire there appeared the prophet Elijah whose words were as a flaming furnace. Their staff of bread he shattered, in his zeal he reduced them to straits; by God’s word he shut up the heavens and three times brought down fire.”—Sirach 48: 1-3

The book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) is a collection of folk wisdom interspersed with songs of admiration for great figures in the Hebrew tradition. The scientific era has taught us to devalue folk wisdom, but the bible demonstrates that the common wisdom of poor people should be valued alongside the learned wisdom of the priests and prophets. The book of Sirach is a storehouse of shared stories. Stories are the bones of a culture. Without stories, things fall apart. Life no longer makes sense.

Sirach 48 is a praise poem honoring the prophet Elijah who used what might be called natural magic or earth-based science to defeat the priests of Baal. Elijah’s dedication to Yahweh opened him to receive Yahweh’s wisdom on how to win this particular battle. To win the hearts and minds of the people who worshiped a rain god it was necessary to defeat the rain god at his own game. So Yahweh demonstrated superiority by controlling water. When the priests of Baal lit a fire to sacrifice a bull, Elijah called down rain to put it out. And when the priests of Baal called for a downpour of rain, Elijah “shut up the heavens” causing a drought in the land.

The setting of these power struggles and the weapons used are foreign to us—but the basic dynamics are not. Some people interpret these Old Testament battles as the One True Religion against the Other. Jesus, however, drew the line differently. There are those who use power and institutions to oppress the poor and those who do not.

In Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Jesus’ students ask him, “Why do the scribes say Elijah has to come first?” In typical Jesus fashion, he ignores the narrow-mindedness of their question and goes to the heart of it. It is not important what the scribes have said in the past. Elijah has already returned and the Messiah is now among them. This is what they must realize. This is what they must open their hearts and minds to understand.

What power struggles are present in your own life? What wisdom do you need to face them?

Ad … vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

Second Thursday in Advent

St. John of the Cross (Hacienda Los Olivos, Spain)
St. John of the Cross (Hacienda Los Olivos, Spain)

I believe with all my belief … in the coming of the messiah. … And even if there is a delay, … I believe.—Hebrew song

But I will leave as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly, who shall take refuge in the name of the LORD.Zephaniah 3:12

One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;
In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
—Ah, the sheer grace!—
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;
On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide
Than the one that burned in my heart;
This guided me more surely than the light of noon
To where He waited for me
—Him I knew so well—
In a place where no one else appeared.
O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.
Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

—Saint John of the Cross, from “Noche Oscura”

Can you make a tryst with the Lord and steal away to meet him?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

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Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe

"Our Lady of Louisiana" by Rick Delanty
“Our Lady of Louisiana” by Rick Delanty

“Christ has lived each one of our lives. He has faced all our fears, suffered all our griefs, overcome all our temptations, labored in all our labors, loved in all our loves, and died in all our deaths. Through Jesus, God knows our hidden selves, and still God delights to be one with us.”—Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water.”Isaiah 41: 17-18

It was a cool, dry day with a breeze when I walked through the market that surrounds the Cathedral of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City. Everything related to Guadalupana was for sale. T-shirts, bumper stickers, ash trays, rosaries, plastic roses, 3-D posters with eyes that followed you as you passed by. I passed under an allee of riotous red, pink, and orange bougainvillea into the Cathedral plaza and finally into the church itself. Downstairs is the painting of the Virgin that appeared to Cuatitloatzin (Juan Diego), a Nahuat Indian in 1531.

To view the painting you must stand on a moving walkway that takes you past the painting. That day several viejitas were riding the walkway on their knees, then returning to the front and riding it again. My friend told me that I had to prepare my heart before passing before the painting. She translated the message engraved on the marble wall. Among other things, it said that one must not approach the Virgin of Guadalupe with a list of demands. On the contrary, one must approach her with an open heart and a clear mind so that one can hear and fully receive the message of the Holy Spirit.

“That light, does it rise from the earth or fall from the sky?” writes Eduardo Galeano in his reflections on Cuatitloatzin and the Virgin of Guadalupe. “Is it a lightning bug or a bright star. It doesn’t want to leave the slopes of Tepeyac and in the dead of night persists, shining on the stones and entangling itself in the branches. Hallucinating, inspired, the naked Indian Juan Diego sees it: The light of lights opens up for him, breaks into golden and ruby pieces, and in its glowing heart appears that most luminous of Mexican women, she who says to him in Nahuatl language: ‘I am the mother of God.’”

What healing of the feminine do you need in your life?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Tuesday in Advent

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.—Isaiah 35:1-2

Isaiah is weaving a vision that indicts the military might of the kings of Tyre, Babylon, Egypt, Edom. In earlier chapters, Isaiah gives a sharp-tongued eulogy on the death of that clear-cutting king Nebuchadnezzar: “The pines themselves and the cedars of Lebanon exult over you. Since you have been laid low, they say, no man comes to fell us” (14:8).

What are these songs that the earth sings? What is the role of singing amongst those who are oppressed? In slavery and servitude the world over singing is a sign of lament and resistance. So if earth is singing for joy then these must be “resistance songs.”

As theologian Ched Myers says, “Empire has always been at war with nature.” “Resource wars” are nothing new. But when empires are brought low, as Isaiah predicts will occur when God’s word is fulfilled, then the very earth will sing its victory song over the oppressor.

Do you live an honorable life with regards to the earth? Will your Christmas gifts celebrate creation?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print.

December 10 in Advent

“We are only syllables of the Perfect Word.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”Matthew 11:19

merton1Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk from the Abbey of Gethsemene in Kentucky, died on this day in 1968. In his life, he worked for peace and prayed and argued for an end to war. “Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and women and love God above all,” he wrote in Seeds of Contemplation. “Instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.”

Merton was ostensibly electrocuted by a faulty wire on a fan in his room where he was attending an international meeting with Eastern and Western contemplatives in Bangkok. (For more on the mystery surrounding Merton’s death, read The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation by Hugh Turley and David Martin, 2018.) His body was shipped home on a military transport plane alongside the bodies of soldiers who died in Vietnam. Merton would have appreciated their common lot.

One man who knew Merton described him as a “merry monk,” like in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. He recalled Merton’s bright, inquisitive eyes, filled with humor…more like a “chip monk” one person told me. Though he was a cloistered contemplative, and at times tried to be a hermit, Merton kept up a lively letter writing exchange with atheists, artists, communists, bohemians, women, poets, Buddhists, and radicals. In Merton’s life, “wisdom is vindicated by her works.”

Christmas Eve is less than two weeks away. Who will sit at your Christmas table?

Breathe in. Breathe out. Ad…..vent.

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..

Second Sunday in Advent

“The law of growth is rest. We must be content in winter to wait patiently through the bleak season in which we experience nothing of the sweetness of the Divine Presence, believing that these seasons when we feel most empty are most filled with a still small Christ-life growing within us.”Caryll Houselander, woodcarver and mystic

“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”Romans 15:4

Youngest Child: What does the second candle mean?

Oldest Person: We light the first Advent candle to remind us of the promise of the prophets that a Messiah would come, bringing peace with justice and love to the world. We light the second candle to remind us, and God, that we are still waiting for the Messiah, patiently and actively like a farmer waiting for the sprouting seed.

“There is great virtue in practicing patience in small things,” writes the 20th century English mystic Caryll Houselander, “until the habit of Advent returns to us.” The disciplines of Advent are ones that teach us to do small things greatly, to do few things but do them well, to love in particular, rather than in general. This habit of small “successes” generates creativity, a sense of well being, a generosity of spirit rooted in satisfaction. It generates hope.

The Greek word for hope is elpis. In the Greek pantheon of spirits Elpis was the female personification of hope. When Pandora opened the jar given to her by Zeus, the spirits of disorder flew free into the world. Elpis remained in the jar, thus preventing humans from suicidal despair. Hope is depicted as a young woman carrying lilies in her arms.

Christians engaged in social transformation often get discouraged. We are acutely aware of the evils of the world. Sometimes we despair. Sometimes we allow our anger at injustice to be the source of energy in our lives. Sometimes we actually create despair and depression in our lives when we only fight losing battles. It is mandatory that we yoke ourselves to disciplines that generate hope.

Walking on the streets of a Las Vegas suburb, I met an 8-year-old boy out riding his bike. The bike was a clunker and the boy was wearing hand-me-downs. I asked him, “How’s it going?” “Great!” he replied. “I’m in my ninth week of having fun!” I laughed and laughed. Then I took out my date book to mark out my own nine weeks of fun.

Having fun is not the same as having hope, but they are related. Dipping in the deep refreshing pool of joy and contentment is one reminder that the world and everything in it—good and bad—belongs to God. It is our work to live in “day-tight compartments”—receiving our daily bread, doing good, offering hospitality, choosing compassion and forgiveness, serving the “least of these,” singing, praying, and, when night comes, giving our bodies and souls over to sleep.

What habits do you have that generate hope?

Ad……vent. A d v e n t (slowly breathe in on the “Ad” part and out on the “vent” part)…There! You prayed today. Keep it up!

With gratitude to Pax Christi USA where some of these reflections first appeared in print..