06 December 2017

'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.' Sunday Reflections, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B

St John the Baptist, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]


Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings, (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    “Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight”’.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Old Road to AuversNorbert Goeneutte [Web Gallery of Art]

Charles Kuralt was a reporter with CBS TV in the USA whose On the Roadstories were a regular part of the Evening News for 25 years. These were offbeat stories about real persons and were often uplifting. I remember one in particular from about 1970 when I, then a young priest, was studying in the USA. It featured an elderly man in a small town in one of the Midwestern states. His town was about 10 kms from the next town but in order to go from one to the other you had to travel 20 or 30 kms. The authorities in both towns were unwilling to build a road to connect them.

So this man started to build a road himself, using logs as a foundation, as I recall.

In 1982 Charles Kuralt gave a lunchtime talk in an auditorium in Minneapolis where I was on a pastoral programme in a hospital for three months, working as a chaplain. I went to hear the broadcaster. Someone in the audience asked him what had become of the road that the old man had begun to build. It turned out that the man had since died. But after his death the authorities completed the road.

This man was engaged in a form of what the Legion of Mary Handbook calls 'Symbolic Action', described in these terms: Observe the stress is set on action. No matter what may be the degree of the difficulty, a step must be taken. Of course, the step should be as effective as it can be. But if an effective step is not in view, then we must take a less effective one. And if the latter be not available, then some active gesture (that is, not merely a prayer) must be made which, though of no apparent practical value, at least tends towards or has some relation to the objective. This final challenging gesture is what the Legion has been calling 'Symbolic Action'. Recourse to it will explode the impossibility which is of our own imagining. And, on the other hand, it enters in the spirit of faith into dramatic conflict with the genuine impossibility.

The sequel may be the collapse of the walls of that Jericho.

The old man featured on TV wasn't thinking of himself but of those coming after him. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

St Mark is repeating the words of Isaiah used in today's First Reading: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40: 3).

Fr Alfred Delp SJ 
(15 September 1907 - 2 February 1945) [Wikipedia]

Fr Alfred Delp SJ, hanged by the Nazis in Berlin on 2 February 1945, is in many ways an Advent figure. Advent of the Heart is a collection of 'Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings - 1941-1944'. The People of Advent is one of his prison meditations, written exactly 70 years ago. I have highlighted some parts.

The herald angel
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up and down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord's coming to redeem the world and deliver it have a different and much more vivid meaning.

And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me as a present during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: Be of good cheer. The Lord is near. A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor and I often have the feeling that he is rendering me some heavenly aid.

Promises given and fulfilled
It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times - like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough - if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. And the awareness of the angels of good tidings, uttering their blessed messages in the midst of all this trouble and sowing seed of blessing where it will sprout in the middle of the night.

Then angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God's questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.

Footsteps of the herald angel 
Advent, even when things are going wrong, is a period from which a message can be drawn. May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when, so immured within the four walls of their prison that their very eyes are dimmed, they see nothing but grey days through barred windows placed too high to see out of.

May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the herald angel, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.

Golden seeds waiting to be sowed 
For the first thing man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life is to open his heart to the golden seed which God's angels are waiting to sow in it.

And one other thing; he must himself throughout these grey days go forth as a bringer of good tidings. There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; there is so much faint courage that needs to be reinforced; there is so much perplexity that yearns for reasons and meanings.

Reaping the fruits of divine seeds 
God's messengers, who have themselves reaped the fruits of divine seeds sown even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of harvest.Patience and faith are needed, not because we believe in the earth, or in our stars, or our temperament or our good disposition, but because we have received the message of God's herald angel and have our selves encountered him.

Trial of Fr Alfred Delp SJ [Source]

The example of the life and death of Fr Alfred Delp SJ and his writings continue to help many Prepare the way of the Lord.


Handel's Messiah begins with the the opening verses of today's First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11), adapted from the Authorized (King James) Version:

Tenor Recitative. — Isaiah 40:1-3
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Tenor Air — Isaiah 40:4
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.



Chorus — Isaiah 40:5
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

The first video above features Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The second features Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, based in Toronto.


29 November 2017

'If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Advent, Year B

Young Jew as Christ, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


Jesus said to his disciples:

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

Liam Whelan  (1 April 1935 - 5 February 1958)

If this is the end, then I'm ready for it

These were the last words of Liam Whelan who died in a plane crash at Munich Airport on 6 February 1958 along with other members of the Manchester United football (soccer) team as they were returning from a match in Belgrade. About seven years ago I learned from a friend named Brendan whom I have known for more than 50 years that, when they were both aged 14 or so, Liam rescued him when he got into difficulties in a swimming pool in their area. And last year I discovered that another friend, who was a classmate of mine for five years in secondary school and for two years in the seminary, also named Liam, that this talented young footballer had been a neighbour of his and that even when he had achieved fame as a professional footballer he would still play knockabout football on the street with the local boys whenever he would come home.

The average age of Manchester United's players at the time of the accident was only 22. These young men were earning only £15 a week, about 25 percent more than a tradesman could earn. Endorsements could bring in a little more income for a few talented players whose career would end for most at 35, if not earlier. 

There was snow on the ground at Munich Airport and the plane made three attempts to take off. Harry Gregg, the goalkeeper for Manchester United and who also played in that position for Northern Ireland's international team, was sitting near Liam Whelan. He survived uninjured and helped save a number of people from death. He has often told the story of Liam Whelan's last words: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.

Clearly young Liam had his life focused on what was most important. He was ready to meet death. I have often spoken about him at Mass and in giving retreats. 

Those who knew him describe Liam Whelan as 'a devout Catholic’. I know that he sent his mother some money for her to go to Lourdes. 11 February 1958 was the centennial of the first apparition of our Blessed Mother to St Bernadette. Mrs Whelan, a widow since 1943 when Liam was 8, used the money instead towards a beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes over the grave of her son. I pass it each time I visit my parents’ grave.

Liam Whelan's grave (right)

I vividly remember the dark, late afternoon I heard about the crash from a street-singer whom I knew by sight and who was running around agitatedly telling people of the crash. I didn't know whether to believe him or not but the news on the radio confirmed that it really had happened. It was the first time in my life to experience what has been called a 'public-private moment', a public happening, usually a tragedy, that becomes a very personal one for those who learn of it, one that is seared in the memory and often in the heart.

Liam Whelan grew up in the next parish to my own and I remember going to Christ the King Church the evening his remains were brought there. I was outside the church with countless others. An article by John Scally in the February 2008 issue of The Word, the magazine of the Divine Word Missionaries in Ireland that is no longer published, described what many experienced: Their funerals were like no other. Most funerals are a burial of someone or something already gone. These young deaths pointed in exactly the opposite direction and were therefore the more poignant. Normally we bury the past but in burying Liam Whelan and his colleagues, in some deep and gnawing way we buried the future.

I still feel some pain at the deaths of Liam Whelan and his colleagues nearly 60 years after they died but the story of Liam's preparedness for his sudden death is one that continues to inspire me.

Liam's last words, If this is the end, then I'm ready for it, are a perfect response to today's gospel. Jesus is not trying to frighten us but he is telling us starkly to be prepared always for the moment of our death, to do everything with that in mind. Advent is a time when we prepare not only to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas, but to become much more aware of his daily coming into our lives, and to prepare, as individuals and as a Christian community to welcome him when he returns at the end of time in a way that we won't be ashamed.

What would we say if he asked us in the Philippines where I spent most of my life, for example, Have children who have been abused had their court cases finished quickly? I have heard that young Maria, who has gone to the court five or six times for a hearing, something that is quite upsetting for her, has been told on each occasion that the defence lawyer isn't yet ready.

What would we say if Jesus said, I have been told that many forests have been cut down for profit and that this has resulted in many deaths in Leyte, for example, in 1991 and 2003. Is this true?

Tropical Storm Thelma (Uring) [Wikipedia]

More than 5,000 died in a flash flood in Ormoc City, Leyte, on 5 November 1991. Deforestation was blamed as a primary cause of the devastation.

The gospel this Sunday is, literally, a 'wake up call'. Beware, keep alert . . . Therefore, keep awake . . . And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.

May the response of Liam Whelan, a young professional footballer who took these words to heart, inspire us and give us a desire to be always prepared to meet the Lord, in this life and in the next: If this is the end, then I'm ready for it.


This was recorded on St Columban's Day, 23 November 2011, in the Abbey of St Columban, Bobbio, Italy, where the saint died and is buried.


Antiphona ad introitum  Entrance Antiphon  Cf Ps 24 [25]:1-3

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

Ps 24 [24]:4. Vias tuas, Domine, demonstri mihi; et semitas tuas edoce me.
Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.

Ad te levavi animam meam, Deus meus,
To you, I lift up my soul, O my God.
in te confido, non erubescam.
In you, I have trusted, let me not be put to shame.
Neque irrideant me inimici mei, 
Nor let my enemies exult over me;
etenim universi qui te exspectant non confundentur.
and let none who hope in you be put to shame.

The longer version is sung or recited when the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated.

[I have told the story of Liam Whelan on this blog a number of times before, originally here.]



23 November 2017

'Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' Sunday Reflections, Christ the King, Year A

The Last Judgement, Michelangelo [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


Jesus said to his disciples:

 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’


St Elizabeth of HungarySándor Liezen-Mayer [Web Gallery of Art]


In November 1974 some members of the Praesidium of the Legion of Mary of which I was spiritual director came to me and told me of two starving children, a brother and sister, that they had come across on home visitation. The Legionaries were students in the college department of what was then Immaculate Conception College, Ozamiz City, where I was chaplain. At the time ICC was run by the Columban Sisters. It is now La Salle University, under the care of the De La Salle Brothers.

We arranged with the parents to take the two children to the local government hospital. When I saw Linda, as I will call her, I thought she was a malnourished eight year old. I was utterly shocked when I learned that she was twelve. Her brother, whom I'll call Nonoy, was five. His ribs were sticking out and his stomach severely bloated. The eldest in the family, a girl aged 13 or 14, showed no signs of malnutrition. This was the first time I had ever met anyone with signs of starvation. I never discovered why the children were in such a state.

After a few days Linda began to shyly smile and slowly got a little better, due to the nourishment and attention she was getting. But Nonoy showed no signs of improvement. He died two days before Christmas, without once smiling. We buried him on Christmas Eve.

Linda was able to go home and on at least once occasion we took her on an outing. She was still very small for her age but always cheerful whenever we met her. However, the severe malnutrition had taken its toll and she died in September 1975 while I was at home in Ireland.

St Martin and the Beggar, El Greco [Web Gallery of Art]

 Today's Gospel makes me both fearful and hopeful. 


Fearful, because Jesus speaks such harsh language: You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angelsThis is not 'the Church of nice'.

Hopeful, because Linda and Nonoy will be there at the Last Judgment to speak in my behalf.

St Martin de Porres OP [Wikipedia]

This portrait was painted during his lifetime or very soon after his death, hence it is probably the most true to his appearance.

During November the Church honours three saints noted for their extraordinary love for the poor, St Martin de Porres (1579 - 1639) on the 3rd, St Martin of Tours (316 - 397) on the 11th and St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207 - 1231) on the 17th. These three gave of their very self. These exemplified in their lives what Jesus is teaching us in today's gospel.

El Greco is one of many artists who have depicted the scene of St Martin of Tours, then a young soldier and preparing for baptism, giving half of his cloak in the depths of winter to a beggar clad only in rags. The following night, the story continues, Martin in his sleep saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by angels, and dressed in the half of the cloak he had given away. A voice bade him look at it well and say whether he knew it. He then heard Jesus say to the angels, 'Martin, as yet only a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.' Sulpicius Severus, the saint's friend and biographer, says that as a consequence of this vision Martin 'flew to be baptized'.

Sándor Liezen-Mayer in his painting of St Elizabeth of Hungary above, shows her protecting a young mother and baby with her cloak. The saint herself was a young mother. She married at 14, bore three children and was widowed at 20. The painting reminds me of a beautiful Irish blessing, Faoi bhrat Mhuire thú/sibh ('May thou/you be protected by the cloak of Mary'). The young saint, who was only 24 when she died, followed the example of St Francis, with the blessing of her husband, lived very simply and served the poor and the sick each day personally and ate with them at the same table.

Shrine of St Martin de Porres in Lima [Wikipedia]

St Martin de Porres, born outside of marriage and of mixed blood, learned some of the medical arts by working with a barber/surgeon in his young days. He devoted his life as a Dominican lay brother to caring for the sick, whether they were rich or poor. It was mostly the latter who came to him and whom he went looking for. Like St Francis he had a special closeness to animals and people brought these to him to be healed. He is often depicted carrying a broom, with a dog, a cat and a mouse at his feet eating from the same plate. 

These three saints from different social backgrounds wrestled with situations we wrestle with today. They spent themselves in bringing about the Kingdom of God by serving the very poorest. St Martin of Tours, who like St Elizabeth was born in Hungary, asked himself as a soldier if it was proper to engage in battle, where he would kill others. Wikipedia tells usRegardless of whether or not he remained in the army, academic opinion holds that just before a battle with the Gauls at Borbetomagus (now Worms, Germany), Martin determined that his faith prohibited him from fighting, saying, 'I am a soldier of Christ. I cannot fight.' He was charged with cowardice and jailed, but in response to the charge, he volunteered to go unarmed to the front of the troops. His superiors planned to take him up on the offer, but before they could, the invaders sued for peace, the battle never occurred, and Martin was released from military service.

Conscientious objection doesn't only concern those called to join an army. A Swedish midwife,  Ellinor Grimmark, was fired in 2014 for refusing to do abortions. This is an area where, more and more, individuals will have to make choices that may involve losing their jobs, or even worse. (This year a Swedish court ruled against Ellinor Grimmark).

The world is still overwhelmed with the needs of those trapped in poverty, victims of wars, of natural calamities. Pope Francis has spoken of the Church as being 'a field hospital'. He has asked priests and others to know 'the smell of the sheep'. St Elizabeth of Hungary and St Martin de Porres immersed themselves in that every day, seeing in each one they served Jesus Christ himself. And those they took care of, whether they were aware of it or not, were being served by Jesus himself through those saints and through the many others down the centuries who have been doing the same.

I am certain that Linda and Nonoy will hear Jesus say to them, Come, you that are blessed by my Father . . . I hope and pray that they and others like them who have crossed my path down the years will put in a good word for me so that I will hear Jesus say the same to me.

Christus Vincit! Christus Regnat! Christus Imperat!
Christ Conquers! Christ Rules! Christ Commands!

This very ancient Latin hymn, which is a litany, is also known as Laudes Regiae. In the video above it is sung in St Mary's Cathedral, Tokyo.