Where Is Your Church?

I live in a part of town where I see literally dozens of folks strolling by, many of them walking their dogs. (Sometimes I think it’s the other way around, since the walkers are often obediently following their dogs!)

A favorite route of mine is down to the Chemung river, just a few blocks south from my home. After several seasonal thunderstorms, it’s now a serene brown with fewer mosquitoes than usual — always a risk after almost daily showers. Taking advantage of ideal temperatures, I tramped down a couple of streets, then up the slope to walk on the levee for as long as my waning energies would allow.

I soon saw another walker coming from the opposite direction. Surprisingly, I recognized him and was even able to recall his name. “Arthur!”

He looked quite puzzled to hear his name —  probably because there aren’t many African Americans in this neighborhood who might know him. As a matter of fact, this was our third encounter. The first one had struck me as so unique that I couldn’t forget him. And why was that? 

We had met on the levee, just as we had last week, and continued chatting after the first friendly greetings. Before I knew it, there he was quoting Scripture at me. Not that he sounded “righteous” or holier-than-thou. It just fit comfortably into our topic. I thought he must be a pastor somewhere so I asked him, “Arthur, where is your church?”

He aimed his walking stick straight down, making a dent in the soil. “Right HERE!” said he, most unequivocally.

At this third meeting, he was again puzzled that I called him by name. I suppose this was because, in his mind, he hadn’t said anything unusual or memorable in bringing God into the conversation. He carried his thoughts of God with himself as a matter of course. Wherever the paths Arthur’s conversation may have taken him, there was God within him as his walking companion.

I find this encounter particularly meaningful these days. In over a year we’ve seldom had the opportunity to attend a liturgy in person and in a building we call “Church.” Arthur figured it out. If we could think of “Church” as St. Paul teaches, we’d take comfort in finding God and Church in others, wherever we are.

Holy Week

As we begin Holy Week, I’m happy to share with you a Scripture-based Stations of the Cross, written by Fr. John Colacino C.PP.S. of Rochester, New York. . Tap the link following the opening prayer for the complete text of the Stations. Also, check this site next week for Father’s Stations of the Shroud.

Opening Prayer

All-powerful God, in obedience to your will,
your only Son suffered death on the cross to save the human race.
Grant that we who embrace this mystery on earth
may share the triumph of his redemption in heaven.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever. 

Stations of the Cross in Honor of the Precious Blood

Feast Days

If it weren’t for feast days, every day would be alike. Some of us of a certain age need to check several times a day, “What day is it?” Prior to retirement and the Covid self-quarantine, we had events on our calendar that anchored us to the present. Thankfully, within the last six or seven weeks, we’ve also had birthdays of composers to celebrate, such as these notables: 

December 16, Beethoven.
January 27, Mozart
January 31, Schubert
February 3, Mendelssohn

(I try to honor these favorites of mine via CD, but preferably via my piano and 10 fingers.)

Needless to say, our Mass readings also offer up a number of saints for special tribute. I had almost forgotten today’s (February 3) honoree, San Biagio, whom you’ll recognize more readily as St. Blaise, patron and healer of diseases of the throat.

San Biagio: A fourth century physician, and bishop of Sebastea, Armenia (now Sivas, eastern Turkey), Biagio was, according the legend, martyred on 3 February 319 AD. He is one of the most popularly venerated saints, by both the Catholic and the Orthodox Church. and in many countries the ritual blessing of the throats with crossed candles is celebrated.

Saint Blaise is my mother’s patron saint. Her real name, the name given to her in baptism, was Biagia, the feminine form of Biagio.

Early in the twentieth century, the Italian immigrants who settled in Buffalo (NY) wanted their children to fit in and so gave them “American” names that were popular at that time. One of the relatives who had been among the earliest to arrive in the States, had the honor and responsibility to select American names for both children and adults. Therefore, Biagia became “Bess” or “Bessie.” This name sounds so unworthy of my mother who had so great an attraction to and love for the arts! Apparently her piano teacher thought so too, and consistently addressed her talented student by her correct name, “Biagia.”

All six of my mother’s children attended parochial schools where the blessing of throats was faithfully administered, giving us a welcome opportunity to leave the classroom and line up at the altar rail for our blessing.

But what really impressed me were the multiple interventions from this saint at our dining table. I can still see the dish of lentil and rice soup at my mother’s place, blackened with pepper. Invariably, the pepper did its work and Mama would be seized by a coughing fit. Frightening as this could be to hear her literally gasping for breath, I learned to be confident in the powers of her patron saint who would protect the health of my mother’s throat and lungs.

Nowadays, my refrain might be, “Aarg! I’m turning into my mother!” I should be so lucky. 

Though I don’t overuse the pepper, I did get the coughing gene. But her other legacies were infinitely more important: an enduring faith in the Lord, her favorite saints, and the traditional blessings from the Church. 

The Romantic Ideal

For some reason (it must have been creeping boredom after eight months of social distancing), I remembered having read a striking article in our Rochester diocesan Courier. It was titled: “Romantic ideal is missing in religion.” 

You can see why I was intrigued. I remembered having copied the article — it was definitely worth saving! — and I dearly needed to re-read it. I went through the usual search process, looking in all the logical places it might have been. No luck.

Then several days later, pop! There it was in some raggedy file. The article, published in February 2004, was written by Father Ronald Rolheiser, Missionary Oblate of Mary Immaculate. Father Rolheiser is the author of many books on prayer and the spiritual life. Their titles match the spirit and flame of this article such as The Holy Longing, Sacred Fire, Wrestling with God, and others. 

In the Courier article, Father Rolheiser was exploring why our churches were “graying and emptying.” He readily dismissed the Conservatives’ reasoning: “the intoxicating power of secularity, … a pampered culture that has lost its sense of self-sacrifice, rampant individualism, [and] the sexual revolution.” 

Liberals had other ideas on the subject. They blamed “the breakdown of the family, a church out of step with the culture, a church too rigid, too patriarchal, … too much consumed with its own agenda … etc.”

Rolheiser offered a startling alternative: “We’ve lost a romantic ideal … We’ve no idealistic fire left.” After these many months of social distancing from friends and the Sacrament, this seems particularly valid. Even so, Rolheiser shows a healthy respect for theology, knowing that sound theology provides the necessary balance to the passionate love that moves and attracts believers. And really, isn’t this what our Lord Jesus taught? 

I have not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” (Matthew 5:17)

And how is the law to be fulfilled?

“A new command I give you: Love one another.
‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)


What a different approach to worshiping God!

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

Father Rolheiser boldly writes: 

What we’re lacking is fire, romance, aesthetics . . . What needs to be inflamed today inside religion is its romantic imagination, and this is not so much the job of the theologian as it is the job of the saint and the artist. We need great saints and great artists, ideally inside the same person.

We can find these qualities in persons such as St. Francis of Assisi who drew thousands, – no, millions, to a passionate union with Christ. This was not because of a brilliant mind, but by a humble demonstration of a powerful and self-sacrificial imitation of Christ in the Gospel. 

Rebuild my church.
Francis took this command literally, but soon realized what he was really meant to accomplish. Yes, the law, the rules, are necessary as they prepare the soil to receive the holy seed. But they are not meant to override the command to love, to forgive, to accept.

Rolheiser ends his article boldly with these words:

“Without vision, the heart doesn’t know where to go; but, without romantic fire it doesn’t want to go anywhere, least of all to church.”

Yes, Mom

Posted on July 25, Feast of St. James

I can just hear Zebedee and wife in heated discussion.

Z: “Those sons of yours just took off, left me and the guys in the middle of the day. No thought of cleaning up after fishing all night (getting nothing, of course) or helping us mend the nets. Me, me, me — that’s all they think of! They won’t amount to a hill of beans!

W: “Yes, Zeb, but just think. They’re part of the group that’s following this new prophet. As one of his chosen, they’re going to be way ahead of the guys that work for you — no offense. They’re going to be like Elijah — maybe even higher.”

Z: “Sure, you’ve put all those fancy ideas in their heads, those good-for-nothings!”

But as we all know, Mother knows best. She’ll show them! She’ll go straight to the top; she knows how capable her wonderful children are and will do anything to ensure their success. Their father is never satisfied. James and John never do anything right in his eyes! And so . . .

The mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?”
She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine [now they’re only hers] sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your Kingdom.” (Mt. 20:20-28)

Mark tells this same story with one major difference. It’s James and John who make the request, not their mother. (10:35) Matthew’s version is the Gospel for today’s feast of St. James.

Being a mother whose sons –and daughter– bask in the sunshine of near perfection, I prefer Matthew’s version. The typical Jewish (Irish, Italian, Polish, etc., etc.) mother knows no timidity when it comes to her children. Maybe Zeb-Wife had heard the story of how Jesus’ mother Mary had intervened at that wedding in Cana. If she hadn’t let him know about the wine running low, Jesus would have had no idea that anything was amiss. 

Jesus politely rejected the Zeb-wife-mother’s request. As usual, it provided an important teaching moment about how his followers must not strive for places of honor but for opportunities to serve.

But after all, isn’t it true that James and John did get to enjoy special stature among the twelve? Why do you think that was? They, with Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration. This same trio accompanied Jesus deep into the Garden of Olives. Of course they couldn’t give him any feeling of support, falling asleep at once after the full supper. Not a good beginning for their apostolate.

I wonder how things stood between Zebedee and Wife later on. I like to think that Wife was gracious enough not to make it an “I-told-you-so” ending, and that Zeb was gracious enough not to dwell on their sons’ martyrdom. 

The celibate mystic, Julian of Norwich radically spoke of Christ as Mother:

“So Jesus Christ who sets good against evil is our real Mother. We owe our being to him–and this is the essence of motherhood! –and all the delightful, loving protection which ever follows. God is as really our Mother as he is our Father.“ (Chapter 59)

I do think that parenting is best done as a duet: men’s strength balanced with tenderness; women’s unconditional love balanced with discipline.