One of the things that stands out about the Church is her insistence at respecting the human person at every stage of his or her existence. This, of course, starts in the womb. The Church seems to be the only one upset about the way our society disposes of living, developing human beings in the womb. That accumulation of genetic processes that occur with amazing intelligence without any human direction (but of course for us believers with Divine assistance!) is an important fact of life.
However, one also has to see the concern of the Church for the human person as he or she ages and dies in this earthly life. The traditional respect for the body of a deceased person is part of this revered continuum. End-of-life (earthly life that is) issues are part of this love for God’s creation of the human person. Hence the care with which we urge each person to communicate to their loved ones their wishes in regard to the extent of medical intervention that is envisioned by them as well as the rites desired by them to be celebrated at their passing away to higher realms.
This respect, when extended to dealing with the remains of a person, may seem to be exaggerated. What does it matter what one does to a dead human body? But Christianity, following from Judaism’s real respect for the physical nature of the person, always counseled an honorable and reverent burial of the body. Cremation was not allowed for a Christian because of the future resurrection of the body. Our concept of the soul being the real human being that is released from the body at death is a remnant of Platonic philosophy. Christianity and Judaism take our flesh much more seriously. Even in the doctrine of the Eucharist, we receive not the soul of Christ but His body! It was always the militant anti-religious forces that pushed cremation of the body as an act of unbelief in Christianity. Even today, cremation is allowed by the Church as long as two conditions are met: that the cremation not be construed as an act of unbelief in the resurrection of the body, and secondly that the cremains be interred in a Cemetery and not kept in the home or scattered in the backyard!
Recently there was a news report that a man, to honor his friend’s passing away, promised to go to every Ball Park that they had gone to together and to deposit some of his friend’s ashes at that park. He was to do it by flushing them down a toilet at the park during one of the games! Clearly we react to this simply because flushing remains into a toilet strikes us as an act of disrespect no matter what the intentions of the person might be.
The Church’s insistence on the burial of the remains in consecrated ground is part of her continued call to respect the dignity of the human person at every stage of life, even into the person’s death. This, I think, is a very good thing in a world where everything becomes disposable. The human person is a product of genetic heritage (Nature) and earthly history (Nurture). As such, the reality of each person must be honored and what that person ‘is’ includes what the person has become through the accidents of history and their own free choices.
Whether we are talking about the embryo in the womb or the elderly person in the hospital bed, the holy is present and must be reverenced. We are not free to do what we want whether by Abortion or flushing down a toilet to this being that becomes through its own history. Many react at any strictures imposed on human choices, but doing whatever I want is not freedom; it is license, which, unfettered, could be very destructive to humanity and even the earth.
Often our commitment to great ideals is revealed through small actions which, when taken together, exhibit and even protect one’s basic stance in life. One can speak greatly about the love of parents to their newborn baby, but it is the daily diaper changing and the daily feeding and the, often nightly, tending to the infant that shows the love.
So also with the dignity of the human person. It is should be seen in the many small actions and decisions which enflesh and makes real that dignity.
One of the major changes of the past half-century is encapsulated in the term: Sexual Revolution. Before this series of events, the Christian view of the place of sex in life dominated our social mores and even our legal system. Simply put, sex was created by God to be used exclusively in Marriage to procreate children and to provide a unity so that the family could survive the vicissitudes of this changing world. The teaching of the Church still consistently holds this view, but no longer by society.
The natural forces that God has given this sexual process are very powerful, like the forces keeping the atom together. When one splits the atom and releases that energy, overwhelming power is unleashed that is difficult to control.
Once the ‘sexual revolution’ split the atom of sexual energy, which God gave it for its own preservation, we have the present destructive fall-out of that energy. Convenient ways of controlling fecundity (Birth Control) has created a sexual mores where there is no consequence of new life and, hence, a virtual playground of sexual pleasure opened up in the place of a sexually responsible attitude. What began as married couples responsibly limiting the size of their family was taken up by society as permission to engage in sex for pleasure alone. The idea of taking the awesome beauty and power of sexually responsible love, involving life-long commitment, and making it a ‘recreation’ that can be used by anyone at any time is a bedrock of the false freedom that our culture thinks essential for meaningful living. And if Birth Control does not provide safety in the use of this pastime (sex), then one should be free to terminate a life soon to be born (Abortion). The only rule to be strictly enforced is that sex be between two consenting adults or two consenting minors. Even if a pregnancy occurs to a minor, they should be free to terminate it without a parent’s knowledge or consent. (You even need a parent’s consent to give a child an aspirin, but they can procure an abortion without a parent’s knowledge—legally!) Sex is a right and no one should be able to abridge or contradict that right, not even society or Church or God.
For a Christian, nay even for a thinking person, this is absurd.
The purpose of sexuality is the procreation of children and the strengthening of the marital union. Once it breaks through those God-given boundaries and becomes a recreational pastime with no moral or psychological repercussions, we have the breakdown of the family and the undermining of the nation. This is expressed through a host of domestic and national ills that have become all too common: Abortions, high incidence of divorce, Adultery, child sexual abuse, spread of pornography etc.
This does not even begin to interpret the destruction of the moral fabric that effects other non-sexual areas of human interaction: lying, gross indulgence in the material at the expense of the spiritual, falling attendance at religious services, and a general adoption of the importance of the flesh and its demands. When linked with the philosophy of individualism and the relativity of truth, we have every person for themselves. This leads to a lack of community and a general feeling of futility and loneliness. The whole moral edifice is off tilter.
God has created reality as a coherent whole. When something as basic and powerful as sexuality is loosed from the confines and limitations that God imposes on it, then are we surprised that the whole does not cohere and we are left with pockets of unrelated realities feeding the atheism and the nihilism of our age?
Just as an earthly ecosystem hangs together or fall apart when one important element is taken away, so the moral system that God has given to us begins to fall apart when such an important element as sexuality is misused.
The relative place that sex has in the divine ecosystem is seen when we opt for celibacy as a morally justified and spiritually beneficial state. The world stands aghast at this choice because it puts sexuality in its place. People who often confuse sex and love say “But how can one live without love?” You can’t, but love is not sex. It is greater. Many Saints have lived very nicely without access to sexual relations, but not without love of God and neighbor. Jesus Himself was a fully functioning, even an ideal, human person without any hint of a sexual or marital dimension.
Sex is a beautiful gift from God and invites us to be part of the creative dimension of God’s action in the world; but it has its place. And when that place is enlarged and its borders compromised, the whole human enterprise is at risk.
I attended a very interesting meeting of the Astoria Civic Association the other night. It centered, as always, on important concerns for the citizens of Astoria. The topic was the real estate boom in our neighborhood. It is no secret that Astoria and Long Island City have been earmarked for great expansion. Prices of homes and rentals are moving toward the stratosphere. For those of us who live here, it is not too surprising that so many people want to live here. A safe community very near to Manhattan has always been an attractive option.
When some people ask me why do I live New York City, I simply respond that if I have only one life to live on earth, I want to be part of the greatest city on earth; but then they rightly respond: “But it is so big and noisy and scary in its size and energy.” To which I answer: “But not in Astoria!”
We have the best of both worlds here. It is part of this great city with all its energy, opportunities, culture and diversity. Yet it is also a small town where you can walk to the store, where you don’t need a car for everything, where you can know your neighbors and in which you can enjoy a stroll with nothing to do but enjoy. A sort of Mayberry in Gotham!
Unfortunately, these same forces can subvert this idyllic vision. As things get more expensive, many people cannot afford to live here anymore. Struggling families who are the basic units of our community will find it impossible to stay here. Mom and Pop stores that are the bedrock of our neighborhood will not be able to pay the exorbitant rents. Out go the fish stores, the bread stores, the delis and in come the high-end clothiers. Out go the Diners and in come the Bistros. It happened to the once very ethnic neighborhoods of Manhattan, many of the communities of Brooklyn, and will be the fate of Astoria as well.
The challenge of our civic leaders is to help guide the forces of this change so that much of our community is preserved. Granted there are only some things that can be done in preserving affordable housing and the building guidelines can only do so much against the forces of the market, but we need to try to make Astoria an exception to the rule. We do not want to become a bedroom community to Manhattan, a place where singles can sleep more affordably while they pursue their careers and where families find they cannot remain. This has not happened yet, but what happened to parts of Brooklyn that were equally attractive could be the end of Astoria, as we know it; and not in the next century, but in the lifetime of all of us!
What can we do with these historical forces that seem to be beyond us? We have to be involved in our community. People working together can make a difference in a neighborhood. People who are not aware and organized will just be run over with these changes. We have, for instance, in place some zoning requirements that help us to protect our neighborhoods. A block that has been zoned for one and two family homes is an important bulwark against these forces for change.
Astoria must always be a fit place for families who want to set down roots in our community. We still have people in our parish who have lived all their lives in this community, whose children, now married, are still here. This deep commitment by resolute Astorians can be the basis for both civic and religious continuity in our distinctive and historically significant place in the living organism that we call New York City. While we should welcome and value the people who are here only for a time, until their jobs change or their marital and familial obligations require a move, we should never forget the rooted Astorians who are the very bedrock of our community, present and future.
This came home to me when I surveyed the couples I am preparing for marriage. Church law requires the resident parish to prepare paperwork for a marriage to be celebrated in another locale. I am preparing about 14 couples for marriage. Only three of them will be married here in Astoria. The rest are transplants from other places that live in Astoria but have no roots here. These couples will be married upstate or in Michigan or in Ireland or in Columbia or in Florida. Previously, these transplanted couples were the exception. Today they are the rule. We desperately need to provide affordable places to live for real families who have grown up in Astoria and who will remain in Astoria.
We truly have the best of both worlds: Big City and Small Town. But we must also protect this reality before the tsunami of economic change makes it impossible.
Being an immigrant myself, I am intensely aware of the giftedness of the immigrant to our nation and our responsibility to provide an orderly and fair transition to citizenship. I remember my father telling me how important coming to America was for him. There was no hope in the towns of Southern Italy. Poverty was part of life and a certain fatalism also. He wanted to come over to this country since his brother was already here and could be his sponsor.
My dad began work at 5 years old. His family was very poor and needed for him to go each day to the local shoemaker and clean his shop. He told me how proud he was to come home each day with a loaf of very needed bread for his parents and family. There was no possibility for school (my father was self taught and learned to read on his own). While working for the shoemaker, he learned how to make shoes. This was the old apprentice system, which was prevalent throughout Europe since the Middle Ages. At 18 he was drafted by the Italian army and saw 4 years of fighting on the Austrian front in World War I. After being wounded several times, he ended the war as an artillery sergeant. When he went home, there was no work and no hope, so he traveled to the new world in search of hope and dignity.
The immigration system at that time was very open: all you needed was to be healthy and have a sponsor and you got in. There were so many Italians and Jews coming in, however, that the first restrictive laws were passed. America really wanted only white people from Northern Europe. Luckily my Dad got in before these restrictions took effect.
As soon as he was legally able, he became a citizen of this great nation that embraced him and gave him hope.
America is a nation that has always welcomed people like my father. But there were always the voices of fear and restriction. While it is important to have a solid and workable immigration system, it is also important to remember the generosity of spirit that made this country so great. When we compare ourselves to other English speaking countries, with far more restrictive immigration systems (like Canada and Australia), the United States became the greatest country in the world because of our openness to immigrants. Even Mao Zedong (no friend of the United States!) admired the international nature of our country. Our openhearted stance toward immigration produced a labor force unequaled in the world, and this labor force gave birth to new generations of prosperous and educated citizens that have made us great.
Unless we fairly and compassionately fix our immigration system, the forces of selfishness and restriction will win out and we will lose that place in the world’s imagination: “Here is a great country that wisely and generously believes in the future”.
Sure we need to have borders that work. But we also need a fair and efficient way of attracting and assimilating the peoples who want to work hard for their families and for hope in the future. And not just the educated! How many of our ancestors were graduates of colleges and holders of degrees? Were they not poor and humble people who were willing to work long hours and multiple jobs to have hope in their families? The stories are countless of the humble beginnings of great and educated men and women who contributed a great deal to the development of this great nation. Our future is bound up with the prodigious work ethic of the aspiring people of the earth. Do we dare become welcomers of only those who we judged to ‘merit’ coming here? How many of our ancestors would still be in the hopeless conditions of their countries of origin? It is this very hopelessness that provides the astounding capacity to strive and work hard. When combined with the freedom that our Constitution furnishes, this results in the hope that makes it all worthwhile. While they at first have no hope of desire to enter the hallowed halls of Harvard, their children or grandchildren will.
The greatness of this nation is built on the hopes of the humble of the earth. To do everything we can to ‘keep them out’ and accept only the ‘fully formed’ who could better contribute to their own country’s welfare is to condemn ourselves to eventual decline.
Put personally, my father would have been kept out as well as the other branches of the family because we were not ‘northern enough’ and ‘educated enough’ to make a lasting contribution to America.
Our immigration system needs to be rehauled completely so that we profit from the aspiring multitudes who will make us great again.
For you reading this on Sunday April 23, this is my 40th anniversary as a Priest of Jesus Christ. On April 23, 1977 in the little church of St. Gerard Majella in Hollis, Queens, Bishop Francis Mugavero ordained me to be a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn. I had gone through some 12 years of training for this moment. For four years, I went to Cathedral Prep (Brooklyn); four years at Cathedral College in Douglaston; and for 3 and-a-half years at the Major Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington. After being ordained a transitional deacon in January of 1976, I was sent for one year and some months to St. Gerard’s. At that time, we each were ordained in our deaconate parishes individually (12 of them that year). In June of 1977, I was sent to my first assignment at St. John the Evangelist in Brooklyn.
One can get the mistaken impression, however, that once I was ordained my training was over; but the truth of it is that my training had just begun. I had entered the great Seminary of the People of God. The Seminary in Huntington had given me the theological tools that I needed. It had also helped form me spiritually so that I could profit by the next stage of my training, the most important one: on-the-job training that can only happen with direct and continual contact with service to the Body of Christ, the Church.
Over the past 40 years, I have learned many things by experience. When I entered the school of the Lord’s service, I thought I had it all, that there was nothing left to learn. However, that attitude was just part of my immaturity. Luckily, I was open enough that I could perceive how little I actually knew and how I had to admire and emulate the great priests that surrounded me, since they had already submitted to the program of life-long learning which the priestly life is.
For instance, there was once an old Italian woman who struggled to walk. She walked with a pronounced disability, teetering and veering, holding onto her cane and on anything else that could help support her. Her walking-up for Communion looked painfully difficult. One day I saw her after Mass and offered to bring Communion home for her so that she did not have to struggle to come for Mass. She paused and looked me straight in the eye and said: “As long as I have strength in my body it is I who come to my Lord and not my Lord to me.” There was so much power in her words that I understood the greatness of the Eucharistic Presence and how small we are in comparison: a very valuable lesson told to me by a truly great teacher.
Over and over again the people of the parish taught me how to be a good priest. One day I was hearing confessions when I was very tired because I was not taking good care of myself. I had been overworking, which is a real danger for priests. We begin to think you can measure a priest’s worth by how many hours he works. That day, while a penitent was confessing to me face-to-face, I drifted off into a deep sleep. I woke up as the penitent gently touched me on my knee and said, “Father, you need to get more rest.” Embarrassed, I struggled to give some excuse for my drifting off, but I knew deep down that the Lord, through the penitent, was teaching me that rest and sleep are not just add-ons, that I could sin by pride and arrogance if I thought that I had no limits and could work all the time. The encounter was capped by a humorous remark when the gentleman smiled at the door of the confessional and said, “Next time I will try to make my confession more interesting!” I laughed and realized what a big person this was to be able to minister to me with such good humor. The instructions would often come from the most unlikely places.
For instance, when I teach in a classroom of very young children. Their questions often caused me to think more deeply about my faith. Here at Immac I have often had to go back to the Lord to ask Him about a problem or an issue that was brought up by one of the first graders I call my “young theologians.”
I have had to, over the past 40 years, go back to my past understandings of the things of God to reappraise and re-think something based on an encounter with one of the members of the congregation in which I was serving. Needless to say, I am still learning. I am in good company when I reflect how Jesus warned us not to call anyone on earth our teacher. He said we are all learners.
I am still in the Seminary learning how to be a priest. God continues to patiently teach me though my work. I am comforted to know that I am in good company, since we are all being taught: we are all learners.
I thank the Lord for this great seminary of the People of God!
If walking the walk with Christ defines our Holy Week observance, what are we to make of this mystery of the Resurrection? How can we walk the walk if the path is unknown and unseen and we are not even sure our legs know how to walk on this water?
When we talk about Resurrection, we are talking about Mystery. This is meant not like a mystery story which is a puzzle to be solved, at the end of which we discover who did the murder and why. Mystery with a capital “M” is a supernatural environment that requires an act of faith on our part and an act of courage in moving forward into the unknown, fully cognizant of the risks involved, but absolutely confident in the goodness of the endeavor and the rightness of the action. We move onto holy ground that requires the humble act of removing the sandals of our reason and bowing before the incomprehensible, yet fully felt, love of God for us, for me.
The Resurrection was an historical event that happened in our world and could be seen and even touched in its reality. It was an event, moreover, that involved God in His totality as Trinity. It was an event that had a meaning and a purpose for us all.
In the Resurrection, the Father raised Jesus from the dead and thereby vindicated Christ’s mission and His sacrifice and the Father’s own trust in the Son when both at His Baptism and at His Transfiguration He enunciated His judgment: “This is My Beloved Son in Whom I am very pleased.”
The prayer of the Son, Jesus, to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane is answered in the Resurrection of the Son from death. It is the third and most powerful “Yes” of the Father to the Son (the others occurring as has been said in the Baptism and the Transfiguration). It turns the silence of God in the Garden and on Calvary into the loud and final proclamation of love by the Father.
In John’s Gospel, this is immediately linked with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (in Luke it occurs in the Pentecost event) by the breathing of Jesus on the assembled apostles, on the assembled Church. This breathing forth (one must remember that the Hebrew word for ‘Spirit’ and ‘Breath’ is the same: Ruach) is intimately bound up with the power to forgive sins. This controversial power that caused so many problems for Jesus, is now spectacularly given to the Church and Her Sacramental system.
Therefore, we see that the Resurrection is not simply a personal event that happened to Jesus. We get this idea when we say that Jesus is risen. This makes Him the doer of the act of resurrection; but this robs the event of its Trinitarian and ecclesial reality. In the Resurrection, the Father of Jesus has the last Word (this is not just a pun!). Jesus, a condemned and executed man, hated by both the religious and the secular authorities, is raised to life by the Father Whom He served so faithfully; and for the accomplishment of Whose Will, He deliberately traveled to Jerusalem where it was commonly known a most unwelcome welcome awaited Him. Jesus is vindicated by the action of the Father in His Resurrection. Once more, though not in words but through this action, the Father says, “This is my Beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”
It is in this context that the Church was born by the breathing of the now living Jesus on His apostles. In this theological understanding, the Church was born in the Resurrection event as He breathed the Spirit on His Apostles and gave them the power to forgive sins, a power that heretofore was reserved to God alone. The reconciliation of humankind with God and among all humans with one another has begun. The Church, from this point onwards, moves to building the Kingdom of God.
The Resurrection then becomes our story.
This new narrative is manifest not only in the broad outline of our own suffering, death and individual resurrection, but also in the daily deaths that we experience. There is a song in the great Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” that contains the repeated phrase: “Every day a little death…” In the pessimistic Sondheim universe, this is sung as a kind of refrain of futility; but there is a living truth in it. The drama of redemption does not just happen at the end of our earthly life. Every day we experience the Passion, the Death and the Resurrection in our faith as we see in our daily life the outline of what we celebrate every Holy Week. It is the pattern by which we live and move and have our being. It is the pattern of Christ.
While I was still a teenager, I came across a book entitled “The Day Christ Died” by Jim Bishop. In it, the author traces the fateful events of Holy Thursday night and Good Friday hour by hour. He uses the best scriptural opinions of that day and reconstructs a plausible narrative of what it must have been like to go through that night and that day that changed history. I remember reading it hour by hour in real time one Holy Thursday and Good Friday. This required that I stay up all night and read what happened at 1:00 AM and 2:00 AM etc.
My parents got a little worried about this seemingly extreme form of devotion; but it had a lasting impact on me. While I was doing this all-nighter, I felt a deep connection with Christ and a true love for the extent of Christ’s love for me and His willingness to undergo so much suffering for my salvation. When you go hour by hour, you begin to realize how bitter the passion was and how much dignity and compassion the Lord exhibited during those frightening hours. I remember reflecting, at the time, how much I hated to go to the doctor because of the needles he often gave me for the protection of my health. If I so dreaded being pierced for my health, a piercing that lasted barely a few seconds, how great was His suffering as He passed the night and the following day!
The Liturgy of the Last Supper, the time of adoration signifying His time in the Garden of Olives, the Stations of the Cross the next day, the Liturgy of Good Friday with the kissing of the Cross—all of these came alive to me with such a force that I relive the experience every Holy Week! It made me think of the importance of my union with Christ during every liturgy, but especially during Holy Week. The palms, the processions, the adoration, the kissing of the Cross, the marvelous majesty of the Easter Vigil all make me tremble with awe and deep joy.
I am so glad the Church has never made these days “Holy Days of Obligation”, jamming the Churches with people who feel they have to be there instead of how it is now: filled with real participants who make it their calling to be there with Christ through a reenactment, no, a reliving of the love of Christ exhibited by His Passion, Death and Resurrection.
Holy Week therefore, and its marvelous liturgies, is an act of love and devotion. We walk with Christ and unite ourselves to His experiences during that fateful week simply because He is the most important reality of our lives and it matters what He felt and what He accomplished for us.
Therefore, the decision to come to the sacred liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday is one made out of love. There is no question of not being there since it is a matter of love and true love has no measure. It is infinite and inexhaustible. The “I don’t have time” and the “All these ceremonies bore me” excuses are so far off the mark as to seem irrelevant. If I do not want to be present, I should not dare approach the Sacred Liturgies of Holy Week. They are not for the casual observer or the spiritual tourist. They are for the mature Christian who is ready to walk the walk of Christ.
I truly believe that one enters into a deeper relationship with their Catholic faith when they recognize the importance of this week and is joyfully willing to spend the time and energy to make this the most important week of the year.
For our life in Christ is not just a pretty phrase: it must be a reality. This whole thing is not about something, it is about Someone. To choose to be with someone even when things go so wrong is the true depth of love. Think of the times spent with a loved one as they visited doctor after doctor, waiting room after waiting room to see if they can regain their health or at least slow down the relentless poison that is a serious illness. It is boring and it is scary and it is difficult; but because we love our father or our mother or our child or our friend, we willingly walk the walk with them because to do otherwise means abandoning our relationship with them. When we love, we show this especially during the hard times. We refuse to walk away but walk with. This is love and this is what Holy Week is about.