In the life of a parish, where layers of tradition are tiered with transition and change, there are moments of grace alog with all the challenges, and there are persons of wisdom as well. Fr. Nick is one of those rare persons whose humanity, faith, and reason are aligned with dignity, respect and purpose. In a church of change, diminishment and growth, he manages to be a rudder and a light all at once. Most importantly, his embrace of difference, understanding of perspectives and genuine kindness makes life easier for others. In his own battles, his openness and honesty were stirring reminders of human fragility and human strength. There were times when he sat to share the liturgy, when he used a chair to deliver the homily, when he sat in the lobby of the church to greet parishoners at the end of Mass. Maybe the times which were revealing of his character was the awe of his assistant conveyed in countless anecdotes that inevitably drew laughter from the congregation. That younger priest regularly shared, quite humbly, what he was learning from his mentor. It all shows that the often predicted demise of Catholicism is not as imminent as some predict. Instead, there are Catholics out there willing to take that one small step at a time to bring comfort to a suffering world. You know who you are…thanks to each of you and special thanks to Fr. Nick!
American culture is reeling: Roe v. Wade has been overturned, gun violence has become a pervasive news item, the war in Ukraine is cranking up shortages and egging on inflation. History has a messge for us in all of this: Americans are as we have always been: restless, contentious, angry and outspoken. There is fervor and ferocity in the ways we are grappling with the polarities among us, and there is an urgency about perceptions, impatience with process and conflicting purposes and perspectives. As a Catholic, living through this and through this tumultuous time period for the insitutional church and its representatives, there is so much to think about, to consider. After all, St.Irenaeus’ ancient intimation about “fully human, fully alive” resonates with relevance.
To be fully human is to experience the full depth and breadth of our selves: the continuum of emotions, the variegated choices, the inevitable flaws and foibles. It demands the fullness of who we are intellectually, socially, spiritually and emotionally, to live with the sense that who we are matters and what we do, how we do it and when we do it makes a difference for self and others. It means recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and discovering over and over that options do exist and choosing wisely actually can happen. Most of all, it means allowing acknowledgement that we are all only human and created of those same fibers of emotion, spirit, heart and intellect. We all live within the frameworks of time and circumstance and struggle to do the best we can with what we have at the moment. To be fully alive, then, is to embrace the wisdom that human experience offers and dare to see with clear vision, to hear less and listen more, to speak with openness and question with a kind curiosity, to touch with tender care and support with trustworthy fortitude.
Facing the floodgates of social change and battling age-old institutional fragilities, to be “fully human, fully alive” is more important than ever. Facing fears, implementing ideas, designing processes and taking steps are viable when we realize that we are called, by virtue of being, to be fully human and fully alive. The two are meant for each of us and all of us; no one is in this alone. We were born for freedom, and the readings for this week point out that we are meant to serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In a time quaking with uncertainty and vested in violence, there is also the warning: But if you go on biting and devouring one another,beware that you are not consumed by one another. History captures the stories of those who have been devoured and consumed, made the ultimate sacrifice and suffered the greatest griefs. But there are other threads of history: the triumphs that suggest that the chance to be fully human and fully alive is afforded to each of us. Look around: young mothers pushing baby strollers, fathers fishing with a child, grandparents celebrating new births, mourners finding comfort in the arms of friends, new relationships and shared harmonies, avid discussions, intellectual exchanges, tough questioning, defined ideals and wrestling with the real. We are like the generations before us who dared to bring us to this point. It is ours to recognize our freedom, choose to serve and become fully human, and fully alive.
Fathers Day, 2022. Juneteenth. Corpus Christi. And from the shadows of memory comes an unsolicited image from the 1980’s. Philadelphia. The arrival of John Paul II to a outdoor crowd of young people clearly conscious of Catholic identity, bursting with enthusiasm for a youthful pope defined by his embrace of faith and challenge. Energizing and energized by the crowd, he floated like a white vision on a distant stage. Holy Father. Forty years later, an older Jesuit wears the same white garments and has held together a church divided by its brokenness and grapples with a world where Catholic identity is neither well defined nor fashionable and so much is questioned. Still, he bears the title and welcomes the foibles of his own humanity, admitting, “Who am I to judge?” and daring others to the same humility. In a year with a curious intersection of holidays, the images bear a startling relevance in a world of transition.
The role of fathers has changed over the centuries and our understanding of that, our expectations, have also evolved. Shifts in social roles, the success of the feminist movement and emerging economic realities demanded more of persons and new styles of parenting. Fathers, each one shaped with all the features and flaws of every human being, strive to do the impossible in meeting the needs of children, partners, family. There are no handbooks to adequately prepare a person for the role: it simply happens and then unfolds over lifetimes with chains of challenges, wrong turns, victorious laps and unimaginable situations. Even the best of fathers have feet of clay, and the realization of that actually enables their offspring to see the person each father truly is and gradually absorb the wisdom gathered over the decades of his experience. It takes time and generosity to learn to know the person a father is, to see more than the role he plays as parent. How he feels about it, why he does it, what he believes, all that matters, too. There is always room for new understandings of each other, for deeper appreciation, which leads to the celebration of Juneteenth.
Junetenth highlights the ending of an era begun long before. The celebration of it marks a deeper understanding of the conflict that tore the states apart and confounded earlier generations. The celebration evolved to what it is today in a clear sign of a deeper understanding of a collective past, a willingness to revisit the past and highlight a strength in the narrative. It brings together the past and provides a path for the future, in the same way a father carries his past and enters the future with the birth of offspring. Celebrating it now as a national holiday marks a new consciousness, a deeper understanding of the complexity that has brought us to this moment in time. It means learning to see the past differently with grace and openness and embracing the stroy as it evolves. In a sense, it seems closely connected to Corpus Christi, the feast of the Eucharist, the reminder that we are actually all part of something and someone greater than ourselves.
Corpus Christi, to me, is the invitation to transcend differences and judgments, and to see the essentail sameness, the humanity and the suffering and the joys that are part of human life….every human life. It is about looking beyond the parameters of the tiny worlds we often choose to live in day to day. It is about seeing and drawing in deep gulps of the bigger pictures and contexts we each exist in. It is about learning to love as a father is meant to love, without condition, and knowing God’s help is needed for that to happen.
Each of the holidays offers so much to think about, if we take the chance. Each invites us to see that there is always more to the story than what we think we know. Each enables us to become part of something greater than ourselves.
Just over a year ago, I lost a world I had just discovered. There was a heart and home where belonging and being were one in the same. Without a doubt, it was the gift of a lifetime, transformative, and empowering. In the loss, I learned so much more about it: for the first time, I knew what it was to be recognized, accepted, trusted, known. It was the safest of all spaces: no need to hide or to protect oneself; words were welcome and moments treasured. Most shocking of all, the gift of that world remained in the weeks and months of wicked grieving. Nothing could have surprised me more. It spoke of dimenstions of love I had never even imagined. And now, humbled by learning I had not once suspected, the experience becomes applicable to other circumstances. Today Catholicism celebrates Trinity Sunday, an unbridled explanation of love and the mysterious three persons in one God.
As a child, the simple three leaf clover was the favored explanation. It was later, as a young adult, that I saw the convergence of persons in God with a skepticism. It sounded like 2 persons and one spirit to me, and nothing quite added up. Some explained the Spirit as the dynamism between Father and Son; some saw the Trinity as an unbreakable form, a tripod of perfection. For me, it remained a mystery. It was encountering Poor Clares that some understanding began to develop.
For monastics, the liturgical calendar complements the secular and spills over with meaning, even lodges collective memory firmly against the vicissitudes of daily living in 2022. And so the saints and the holidays are remembered and observed each year by someone, somewhere, and so the faith goes on. Memory is crafted from experience shaped in its sharing and re-telling; the mystery of the Trinity became a facet of collective identity within the church. Memory can be transformative, and Trinity Sunday highlights that. It is a holiday that invites us to see, to make and to nurture connections. For monastics, that made a lot of sense within the life of the community and within personal relationships with God. And for everyone, it makes so very much sense. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that we are not alone in any sense of the word. There is continuity in the love of God from beginning to end, and the movement of the Spirit is as real as the Eucharistic Presence and the Lord’s Prayer “Father”. The power of that is constantly available, present to us, if only we choose to look and see, hear and listen, know and touch. The mystery of it cannot actually be simplified to that four leaf clover, but it can tie to the idea that as humans we are continually learning about love and loss, grief and growth, what life is really all about. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that love is the constancy that may not have been known or initally understood, but is waiting to be recongized, accessed and enjoyed. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that each of us is accepted, known and understood by God who is simply there, waiting for consciousness of His Presence.
She was a diminutve Poor Clare, a contemplative Franciscan who lived out her adult life within the physical walls of a monastery. In her 70’s, with snow white hair cropped close and penetrating brown eyes that thoroughly embraced the world, she had a soft Brooklyn accent, a quick laugh, and a keen sensitivity to others. She was the first to challenge me to think about the presence of the Spirit in the world, and she did it with a keen consistency that allowed me to consider the idea that beyond all our human differences, there is a unifying feature. She would say, “if you look long enough, you will always find the common ground…and that is the work of the Spirit.” And she never hesitated to note that perhaps further looking was required, especially for herself. But it was her intense belief that the animation of the world, the source of all synchronicity, was the Spirit. Pentecost, in her world, was the feast that opened that possibility for all. For her, Pentecost was the promise of unending Presence just as surely as the Eucharist was the promise fo unending connection. The very thought could light up her whole being and energize the most passive of moments. And she confided, over truly awful coffee in the confines of a tiny parlor for visitors, that it was that very insight that was so closely connected to her monastic life and to her ability to live within the walls with the sameness of their lives: the same women, the same schdule, the same meals, the same limits and the same hopes, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was something bigger than themselves that made each of their unique personalities into a glowing whole of a community. Never one to deny the truth, she was simply realistic about strengths and weaknesses, her own and everyone else’s. But it was the work of every day to make the community work, to be part of this greater whole and to enable each one, every one, to become better. And it was, to her, the movement of the Spirit that made it all possible. It has not occurred to me until recently that her monastic microcosm carries great lessons for the wider world.
In a world where there are so many deep needs and unpredented wants, that tiny Poor Clare stands in her plain brown dress with the simple cord at her waist in silence with a profound message. Life is work, and building community is a significant challenge. it is not all about the wants of one person or another, but about a whole that is greater than self. It is about knowing self and daring to really know others, to be prepared to observe, to listen, to accept and to challenge, and most importantly, to be attuned to the right time for each. The idea that there is something beyond self that can lead, unite, and animate means trusting in the promise of Pentecost and learning to listen to the whisper of God’s voice in every venue of the created world. It is about standing up and speaking out as well as sitting down and listening carefully, gently, with an open heart. And most of all, it is about the ability to discern the difference between the two.