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FrWallThe human population is evolving into two categories: those who lived before and those who live during the digital age.
 
Those who lived before have at least one disadvantage: they’re more easily forgotten.
 
A case in point arose recently when I did a Google search on Monsignor William Wall.
 
I met Monsignor Wall when I was about twelve years old and was an altar server at my parish church.
 
In those days, we altar servers knelt on the altar step while the celebrant conducted the liturgy with his back to us.
 
The rubrics called for the celebrant to genuflect multiple times during the Mass, and the first time I saw Monsignor Wall genuflect was also the first time I saw khaki pants and sneakers emerge from under the cassock and alb.
 
It was the mid 1950s, and I had never seen a priest arrive for Sunday Mass in anything but black clerical garb.
 
I learned that his mode of dress wasn’t the only thing unconventional about Monsignor Wall.
 
He was a tough customer with a no-nonsense attitude and a blunt vocabulary.
 
He would often pause during Mass to direct a death stare at someone in the church who was disruptive or inattentive.
 
One Sunday he stopped in the middle of his homily and asked the chatty choir members if they thought they could preach better than he could.
 
Another Sunday, he froze during the final blessing with his hand raised in the air and asked the ushers in back of the church, “Will the standing army of Christ please kneel?”
 
More important, he was the founder and overseer of the Mount Carmel Guild in Paterson, where he specialized in helping indigent men who were addicted to alcohol.
 
He dealt directly with these men, gave them tough love, and put them to work.
 
I didn’t understand it at the time, but he was also the first priest I knew whose ministry wasn’t confined to a church or a parish or, for that matter, to Catholics.
 
He was, in fact, the first example I encountered of the kind of ministry Pope Francis has been urging since the first days of his papacy—a ministry that reaches to the outskirts of society to touch the most desolate of our brothers and sisters.
 
Monsignor Wall died many years ago in a tractor accident on a farm he operated as part of the Guild’s program.
 
My Google search on his name produced very few responses and no substantial information about him.
 
He did his work and departed this earth before there was an Internet to capture his biography and preserve it forever.
 
But he lives on in the incalculable impact he had on the lives of men he helped and the example he set for untold others, including me.
 
We observe All Souls Day on November 2, but the Church traditionally dedicates this whole month to commemoration of the faithful departed.
 
There is no more fitting way to carry on that tradition than by remembering in prayer those who have contributed to the spawning and maturing of our Christian faith.
 
Our parents, our teachers, our pastors, our mentors—exemplars like Monsignor Wall—may not have a place in cyberspace, but they have earned one in our memories and our hearts.
 
This post was first published in the Catholic Spirit in the Diocese of Metuchen where the writer is a permanent deacon.

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Mary_MedjugorjeDuring the forty-plus years that I worked as a newspaper editor, there were several instances in central New Jersey in which people reported seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary.
 
The most recent example involved a family that said that when they stood in their yard and looked up at a window on the second floor, they could see Mary’s image in the refracted light on the glass.
 
There were other instances—including one that for a while drew hundreds of people to a home in Monmouth County, creating a significant traffic problem—in which the accounts included communications from the mother of Jesus.
 
And, of course, we all occasionally read or hear stories in the news in which people have encountered Mary and Jesus himself, often in the most unexpected places.
 
I was reminded of all these episodes recently when I read a story in “Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly” about the continuing controversy over the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin that have been reported for the past 36 years in Medjugorje, a village in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
 
Many folks accept the statements by a group of villagers that Mary has made regular appearances there and engaged in dialogue with some people.
 
There have also been many reports of healings, vocations, and conversions connected with Mary’s appearances.
 
There have also been bitter conflicts among well-meaning people who either do or do not believe that Mary appears in Medjugorje.
 
The Church has authorized investigations of these reports but has reached no conclusion, although Pope Francis, on the one hand, has not formally dismissed the visions but, on the other hand, has expressed the personal opinion that Mary does not appear in the village.
 
Apparitions, particularly of the Virgin Mary, are a part of the tradition of the Church; this year is the centennial of one of the most famous of them, the appearances of the Blessed Mother to the three children at Fatima in Portugal.
 
My view of this subject in general is that apparitions are possible, though I leave it to others to determine if this or that vision was legitimate.
 
The topic always reminds me, though, of the comment Jesus made to Thomas the Apostle, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” and his remark to the royal official in Cana, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe.”
 
Jesus reminded us repeatedly that he was calling us to faith that was based on his authoritative teaching, his example, and his passion, death, and resurrection.
 
Many scholars tell us that even the miracles Jesus himself performed during his lifetime were acts of compassion, not means of dazzling people into belief.
 
It isn’t as though those of us—and that means most of us—who have never seen Jesus or Mary in a windowpane or a grotto are somehow deprived of their presence.
 
On the contrary, Mary is accessible to us in prayer, and Jesus is accessible to us in prayer, in the Eucharist, and in his mystical body—the Church.
 
We can call on Mary or any saint for comfort and intercession, and we can achieve a loving, personal relationship with Jesus without the spectacle of public apparitions.
 
In fact, we can better open ourselves to the reality of the holy and the divine in the calm and quiet of meditation and worship.
 
The Hebrew Scripture tells us that it wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire that God called Elijah; it was in a still, small voice—a voice that calls each of us all the time and waits only to hear the answer, “Here I am.”
 
This post was first published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. The writer is a permanent deacon in the diocese and managing editor at RENEW International.

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sidewalkThe Mission Co-op preacher in our parish this year was a Maryknoll priest who said that Africa, where he worked for many years, is no longer “mission territory.”
 
I don’t know how the Church categorizes the Muslim countries in the northern Africa, but I have seen the overall Catholic population of the continent placed at around 200 million—nearly three times the Catholic population of the United States and Canada. The World Christian Database estimates that there will be more than 450 million Catholics in Africa by 2050.
 
And from what I’ve heard from that priest and others familiar with the Church in Africa, this phenomenon isn’t just in the census.
 
Masses in Africa are packed, I am told, and they are joyous occasions, marked by song and dance and fellowship, and folks aren’t looking at their watches or making for the door right after Communion. In fact, a missionary sister who spoke to an adult group at my parish last year said churchgoers in Africa feel shortchanged if the homilist doesn’t speak for half an hour.
 
There is a parallel boom in religious vocations in Africa. The Bigard Memorial Seminary in Nigeria, with more than a thousand students, is said to be the largest in the world.
 
That’s all good news, but it doesn’t mean that the concept of “mission territory” is no longer relevant.
 
Pope Francis has been telling us for the past four years not only that there still is mission territory—namely our own immediate surroundings—but also that we are the missionaries.
 
He doesn’t mean that we are called upon to convert non-Christians to the faith as though we were Junípero Serra in the Baja.
 
Rather, Francis means that we are called to be more than parishioners; that we are called to be missionary disciples who spread the faith far beyond the walls of our local churches.
 
The Pope has inspired some debate by saying that this missionary discipleship does not mean proselytizing—that is, directly trying to convert someone from one religion to another.
 
Some Catholics have objected that such an approach can lead to the idea that religious truth is a matter of personal choice.
 
But Francis has explained that the Church is more likely to grow and become more vibrant and effective by making itself attractive than by arguing doctrine.
 
In other words, if I read the Holy Father correctly, the Church’s future lies in helping people, including disaffected and lukewarm Catholics, see beyond superficial appearances and outmoded or simply false impressions.
 
The pope himself gives a perfect example of this. He doesn’t compromise on the dogmatic teachings of the Church, but because of his public image—and especially the joy he finds in his faith, and the magnanimity with which he greets people of all faiths or no faith—far more people than ever in recent history are paying attention to what the leader of the Catholic Church says on issues of mutual respect, social justice, political integrity, and moral responsibility.
 
When he named his famed apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” it wasn’t a casual decision.
 
The whole world witnesses the joy that this man finds in his religious faith, and the world takes notice.
 
When he asks us to be missionary disciples, he is asking us to let others see the joy that fills us because of our encounter with Jesus Christ, to gently tell our faith stories whenever opportunities arise, and so to present the Church as a caring and inviting home.
 
This post was originally published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese and managing editor at RENEW International.

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RightOne of the hit songs around the time that I was finishing high school was “You Talk Too Much,” written by Reginald Hall and sung by Joe Jones on a record that made No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
 
As was typical of the rock ‘n’ roll lyrics of that time, the meaning of this song was obscure. Who was talking too much? The song didn’t say.
 
That song came to mind because these days, talking too much has become a part of our culture.
 
The never-ending commentary on television and radio in which real and faux authorities talk at each other about politics, government, social issues, and even sports, seems to serve little purpose except to fuel bitter exchanges on social media and confirm folks in the opinions they already hold.
 
Often, the discourse, rolling on like a truck without brakes, descends into schoolyard vitriol.
 
I’m sure that there are reasonable people on both sides of every contested subject, but such people are drowned out by the relentless polemics.
 
A character in the “Peanuts” comic strip once concluded an argument by saying, “I’m right, and you’re wrong, and it’s simple as that.”
 
It is rarely as simple as that, but as more and more folks adopt that intractable attitude, as fewer and fewer are willing to give opposing views a fair hearing, we are putting at risk the quality of our life as a nation and our lives as private citizens.
 
One reasonable voice that rises above the maelstrom is that of Pope Francis, who more than once has addressed this very issue.
 
He raised the topic, for example, when he met with university students in Rome.
 
Speaking of media reports of the insults exchanged by public figures, Francis told the students that it was “time to lower the volume. We need to talk less and listen more.”
 
During that meeting, the pope explained that civil discourse is not a matter only of good manners.
 
“Wait. Listen carefully to what the other thinks,” Francis said, “and then respond,” and—instead of summarily dismissing the other’s point of view, ask for a further explanation of what you do not understand.
 
“Where there is no dialogue,” he said, “there is violence. …
 
“Wars start inside our hearts. When I am not able to open myself to others, to respect others, to talk to others, to dialogue with others, that is how wars begin.”
 
When Francis was ordained to the diaconate and then to the priesthood, he promised to practice what he preached, and he does that where this topic is concerned as in many other contexts.
 
Whereas the Church’s dialogue with non-Catholics, non-Christians, and people of no faith has accelerated in the decades since the Second Vatican Council, Pope Francis has made a point of personally and publicly engaging in this dialogue himself.
 
He does not compromise the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, but he respects the right of others to have other beliefs, and assumes the intellectual integrity of those who do.
 
Catholics and Jews, Catholics and Muslims, even Catholics and many Christians of other denominations are going to disagree on many things, but the dialogues between Francis and these communities provide a challenging example while at the same time demonstrating that civil discussion is possible no matter how much the parties may disagree.
 
This post was originally published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. Deacon Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International.

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ramadanI must admit that I felt a little presumptuous breaking the Ramadan fast when I hadn’t been fasting in the first place.
 
But my wife and I had been invited to attend a catered dinner in a firehouse banquet hall where the local Muslim community was gathering to break their fast.
 
The invitation had come from a member of that community who earlier had accepted my invitation to speak to a parents group at my parish.
 
This is as it should be: Muslims and Christians treating each other not only as fellow human beings, but even as friends.
 
The negative attitude that many people have about Muslims in general results from associating all Muslims with the Islamic terrorists who have attacked the World Trade Center and killed innocent people in suicide bombings and other atrocious acts here and abroad.
 
That attitude also extends to the broad assumption that all Muslim people think alike, whereas the empirical evidence, as well as common sense, suggests otherwise.
 
There are more than 1.6 billion Muslim people in the world, about 80 percent of whom do not live in the Middle East or North Africa.
 
Like the 2.4 billion or so Christians in the world, a group that size will represent every possible shade of religious, philosophical, and political thought.
 
It’s a complex subject, and some very recent data on it is available on the web site of the Pew Research Center in a report titled “Muslims and Islam: Key Findings in the U.S. and Around the World.”
 
Whatever we learn about the world Muslim population as a whole, we are more likely than ever to encounter individual Muslim men and women in our communities, schools, and workplaces, and it is imprudent to jump to conclusions about them.
 
It should be obvious that simply shunning folks simply because they are Muslim is not consistent with the Gospel. Beyond that, those we sometime read about who yank hijabs from Muslim women’s heads or publicly urge Muslims—or people they mistake for Muslims—to “go back where you came from” may be expressing an understandable rage or fear, but they are also aggravating rather than mitigating tensions, and doing so based on inadequate information and understanding.
 
The Catholic Church in the United States is active in movements to counteract such ideas and behavior and increase productive interaction between Christians and Muslims.
 
These movements are not ethereal exercises; they are important steps toward building a better society and a better world.
 
At a recent two-day Christian-Muslim dialogue, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego expressed the urgency of this matter, saying, “The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians. It depends on love of the one God and love of neighbor.”
 
Bishop McElroy, who co-chairs a West Coast Catholic-Muslim dialogue sponsored by the national conference of bishops, emphasized that the parties must acknowledge the substantial differences in their religious doctrines and, at the same time, foster “an overriding sense of friendship.”
 
And, the bishop said, those who participate in such dialogues must relate their discussions to the faith communities they represent.
 
“It does little pastoral good,” he said, “for a national dialogue to focus on theological themes if the pastoral life of our members is not affected.”
 
As Christian and Muslim leaders carry on these discussions on our behalf, we can follow the results of their dialogue with open minds and, meanwhile, treat our Muslim neighbors with the equanimity Jesus would expect of us.
 

In 2017, Ramadan ends in the evening of Saturday, June 24.

 
This post was originally published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey. Deacon Paolino is managing editor at RENEW International.

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Father_Lasance_prayer_bookI once overheard a man telling his companion that she was overreacting to whatever situation they were discussing.
 
“Ask yourself this,” he said. “A hundred years from now, who will know the difference?”
 
That advice immediately made me think of the same sentiment put in another way and in another language: “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?’’ — “What is this in eternity?’’
 
That is said to have been a favorite expression of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and St. Aloysius Gonzaga; I have known of it since I was about 14 years old.
 
And I know exactly where I first heard it: in “My Prayer-Book” by Father Francis Xavier Lasance.
 
A beat-up copy of that book was left in our parish church when I was an altar boy, and when no one had claimed it after a very long time, the curate, Fr. Bernard McKenna, gave it to me.
 
That was in 1956, and the book is on my desk now.
 
“My Prayer-Book” was first copyright in 1908 and again in 1936. When the one I have was published, it sold for anywhere from $1.75 to $10.00, depending on the binding. A replica of the 1908 edition is on sale now for about $26.00.
 
The book is 5.5 by 3.5 inches and it contains more than 700 pages of “reflections, counsels, prayers, and devotions” as the title page reports. It also contains the order of the Mass in Latin and English.
 
Some of the wisdom in this book comes from Father Lasance himself, and a great deal comes from a large number of other sources.
 
The subtitle of this book is “Happiness in Goodness” which reflects the author’s central theme, that ours is basically an optimistic faith designed not to depress us but to bring us good cheer.
 
It was in that context, in a section called “Faith and Humor,” that the expression “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?’’ appeared.
 
“Think of the countless occurrences that fret and annoy,’’ says the prayer book, “that drive a man into himself and shut up his outlook over the world which the good God has given him, that make him petty and irritable and sour—how they would go down before such a question, as rank weeds before a scythe; how they would be lost sight of, as a swarm of gnats becomes invisible under the full light of an unclouded noon!”
 
I took that argument seriously and have pretty much lived under its influence ever since, trying to weigh the trivial problems of daily life against the promise of life forever in the presence of God.
 
All right, the language and the imagery are kind of dated, and there are some instances in which the tone of “My Prayer-Book” may seem out of place in our time—an uncharitable view of Protestants, for example—but it is a compendium, and a tangible relic, of our unchanging faith, and I keep it close at hand so that I can thumb through its pages.
 
Father Lasance (1860-1946) was a prodigious figure. He was a diocesan priest in Ohio, serving as a curate and a chaplain until, at the age of 30, he was forced by illness to live as a semi-invalid.
 
But quid hoc ad aeternitatem? Father Lasance, instead of feeling sorry for himself, used the time he gained by being precluded from parish work to write 39 books which were translated into numerous languages and which sold in the millions of copies.
 
He accepted no compensation for his work, but asked that the revenue be given to charities and used to provide his books free of charge to those who couldn’t afford to buy them.
 

—For his devotional works, Fr. Lasance
was given a special blessing by Pope Pius XI on May 10, 1927.


 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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twitter_pontifexIn one of his short stories—“The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether”—Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “Believe nothing you hear and only one half that you see.”
 
This statement, which has been altered in various ways and attributed to writers other than Poe, is nonetheless good advice if it means that one should not casually accept things for which there is no evidence.
 
If anything, this caution applies more than ever in this age of “Photoshopped” images, digital animation, and posts that litter social-media sites.
 
I saw an example the other day when a member of my high school class posted on Facebook an image of Pope Francis accompanied by the following statement, attributed to him:
 
“It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good person. In a way, the traditional notion of God is outdated. One can be spiritual but not religious. It is not necessary to go to church and give money — for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history do not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in His name.”
 
“Oh,’’ gushed another classmate, who now lives in the Midwest, “I love this man. He’s talking about me.”
 
I don’t know if she meant that she’s an atheist—which I doubt, that she doesn’t go to church, or that she finds God in nature.
 
Regardless of what she meant, she was responding to a statement that Pope Francis did not make and, for the most part, would not make.
 
The graphic, which has been circulating in the digital world for some time, is one example of a problem that has accompanied this papacy almost from the first day—a compulsion on the part of some to hear the pope as fulfilling their wishful thinking.
 
To be sure, Pope Francis has given us a fresh perspective on topics such as atheism.
 
He has spoken of our obligation to respect the intellectual integrity of people, including atheists, who don’t agree with us. He has also reiterated—perhaps in plainer language than we are used to—the Church’s consistent teaching that, as Father Thomas Rosica has repeated it, “those who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ and his Church but sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, try to do his will as it is known through the dictates of conscience can attain eternal salvation.”
 
The pope has not, however, issued a license for us to adopt the spirituality we find most convenient and comfortable, even if that means no spirituality at all.
 
And anyone who has read what this pope has written or listened to what he has said knows that he would not dismiss so lightly the value of worshipping God in the assembly of the Church.
 
On the contrary, he has stressed the importance of the Church as the Body of Christ as the source from which the “new evangelization” will flow out into the community and to the outskirts of society.
 
In the past, the teachings of the popes have been somewhat inaccessible, both because of the formality of their language and the means of their distribution.
 
But the homilies, speeches, and documents of Pope Francis are not difficult to understand and not difficult to find.
 
In this “information age,” we can easily read them or read about them in responsible publications.
 
If we want to know what Pope Francis teaches, we should not rely on Facebook to tell us.
 

—Facebook launched on February 4, 2004


 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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eleanor_roosevelt_mccallsWhen I was a boy, my mother subscribed to six women’s magazines.
 
I was a compulsive reader even then, so I leafed through “McCall’s” and “Ladies Home Journal” and so forth as soon as they arrived.
 
One thing that caught my eye was a column written by Eleanor Roosevelt, who by then was the widow of
Franklin Roosevelt.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote more than one column, but the one I read faithfully was a question-and-answer feature called “If You Ask Me.”
 
Besides the fact that I was just a nerdy kid, I was fascinated by the give-and-take of that format.
 
Recently, I discovered that all of those columns, along with other work by Mrs. Roosevelt, has been archived by The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and I have started to re-read them.
 
Actually, I started with the first column, which appeared sixteen months before I was born, so I’m reading some for the first time.
 
In the column that appeared in June 1941, one of the questions submitted by readers was whether Mrs. Roosevelt thought religion should become a more dominant part of daily life.
 
Mrs. Roosevelt wrote that it should, adding “but there is only one way … and that is by bringing it out of the church and into the lives led by religious people.’’
 
Mrs. Roosevelt, who was a church-going Episcopalian, made this same point on other occasions, and she also wrote that for Christians, the model for living out religious faith was the radical lifestyle of Jesus.
 
And she took her own advice in the sense that she was—to use a 21st century expression—“out there,” seeing first-hand what was going on in the country and beyond.
 
Even in the 1940s, Eleanor Roosevelt had the air of a fuddy-duddy about her; in fact, she often mentioned that because she was so old-fashioned in her manners as a child she was nicknamed “Granny.’’
 
But she was a pioneer in campaigning against racism and other forms of prejudice and working on behalf of women and labor and youth—and that made her very unpopular among some Americans, and she was—and still is—a controversial figure for other reasons.
 
That’s a complicated story, but what interests me at the moment is that statement Mrs. Roosevelt made seventy-five years ago.
 
One the one hand, it might seem self-evident that religion practiced in church is of little value if it isn’t practiced outside of church.
 
But in the second decade of the twenty-first century, when Pope Francis says virtually the same thing—making of himself a living example—the idea is treated in many quarters as though it were a new revelation.
 
In fact, though, Jesus made the same point in the first century in his criticism of pious people who wouldn’t help a stranger in need.
 
There is a lot of angst over the declining numbers of people who attend Mass regularly, or at all.
 
But the pope and other Catholic leaders argue that folks will be attracted to the Church, not by seeing other folks going there but by seeing and hearing those who do go to church also witnessing to their faith by what they say and what they do at home, at school, at work, and in the community—including, as Francis likes to remind us—those parts of the community that are farthest from the Church.
 
It’s such a simple concept, but a concept that, in our own time, Pope Francis sees as an ideal yet to be achieved.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Water_WineWhen I was a member of St. Joseph’s parish in High Bridge, New Jersey, the church was so crowded at one Easter Sunday Mass that the pastor invited standees to take seats in the sanctuary.
 
The only people to accept the invitation were a woman and her teenaged daughter.
 
After Mass, the woman remarked to me that she was delighted, because she had never witnessed the liturgy at such close range, and she noticed many details that had escaped her up to then.
 
Among those details was part of the ritual in which the celebrant or the deacon pours a little water into the chalice of wine before the consecration.
The woman noticed that the deacon, in this case, said something inaudible while he was pouring that drop of water.
 
She was referring to this prayer: “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
 
I don’t know why we are instructed in the Roman Missal to say that prayer quietly, but the prayer and the ritual itself refer to a fact that is central to our faith, a fact that we celebrate in an especially solemn way on Christmas.
 
On that holy day, we celebrate the moment in time in which God, while retaining his divine nature, took on human nature in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, so that Jesus was fully God and fully human.
 
In the symbolism of the ritual we’re discussing, the wine represents the divine nature of Jesus, and the water represents his human nature; once the wine and water have mingled they cannot be separated, and so it is with the divine and human natures of Christ.
 
And there’s more.
 
While we acknowledge in that prayer that Christ is both divine and human, we also pray that we who are human may share in his divinity.
 
That idea can be found in Scripture—for example in the Second Letter of Peter in which the author writes that Jesus “has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature, after escaping from the corruption that is in the world because of evil desire’’ (2 Peter 1:4).
 
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite explicit about this, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods’’ (Catechism, paragraph 460).
 
Through the grace of the sacraments, through Scripture, through prayer, and through acts of justice and mercy, we spend our lives being formed more and more in the image of the one who was born in our image, to the delight of angels and shepherds.
 
As the prayer over the wine and water says, God “humbled himself” when he assumed human form, but he also beckoned us sons and daughters to realize the full potential of our humanity, to become fit company for him.
 
We achieve the full transformation when God welcomes us into communion with him for eternity—into heaven, as we say—a destiny that, because of original sin, was unimaginable before the Nativity.
 
We hear it each year in the carol: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, then he appeared, and the soul felt its worth.”
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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skyrocketsDuring one of our visits to my family in Italy, my cousin asked on a Thursday morning if we wanted to attend Mass that evening.
 
My relatives live in a tiny village that hasn’t changed appreciably since my grandparents left it more than a hundred years ago; in fact, the house the Paolinos live in hasn’t changed appreciably since it was built in the late 1680s.
 
In such a place, “events” that extend beyond eating meals, gathering eggs, and milking the goat, are rare.
 
So we would have accepted my cousin’s invitation almost regardless of what he was inviting us to.
 
The Mass—which turned out to be a devotion to St. Nicholas of Bari followed by the liturgy—was to begin at 6.
 
The parish church, as are many in Italy, is dedicated to St. Nicholas, a fourth-century Greek prelate whose reputation gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus.
 
After eating an early supper, we were sitting around in the house at about 5:30 when we were jolted by a series of loud explosions coming from nearby.
 
That is, my wife and I were jolted; my family hardly reacted except by laughing at us.
 
The source of the noise, it turned out, was a young man crouching on a hill above the village church and launching skyrockets—the local means of calling people to prayer.
 
This seemed incongruous to me at first; I had never associated fireworks with the celebration of the Eucharist. I even wondered if it was appropriate.
 
But as I reflected on it, it occurred to me that the spirit expressed by launching those skyrockets, rather than being out of place, was something to aspire to.
 
The skyrockets, which continued even as we were walking the short distance from my family’s house to the church, seemed to say, “Listen up! Something amazing is about to happen. Don’t miss it!”
 
Given the sparse population in the mountains where this event took place, and given the obscure location of the village, the turnout for a weeknight of devotions and Mass was respectable—including a youngish folk group that provided the music.
 
What did these villagers experience that was so amazing that it was announced by skyrockets? That people—regardless of what might distinguish them one from another—were about to gather as one family and, together, express their gratitude to God for his grace, express their good will toward each other and toward the world at large, and then become one with each other, with the whole Church, and, in a sense, with all of Creation, by sharing the body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
 
December 6 is the feast day of St. Nicholas of Bari.
 
This post also appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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King_of_SiamThe king of Siam has been, in a way, a victim of his own success.
 
The king I have in mind is commonly known in the English-speaking world as Rama IV or Mongkut, who ruled the Asian nation now known as Thailand from 1851 to 1868.
 
The western world probably would be oblivious Rama IV if it weren’t for the accounts in literature, film, and live theater, of the experiences of the English tutor Anna Leonowens.
 
As it is, however, these romanticized versions of the teacher’s interaction with the king have made him a well-known figure.
 
But the image of Rama IV that has been embedded in western consciousness, notably by Yul Brynner’s portrayals on film and on the stage, resembles the real man only vaguely if at all.
 
It is true that Rama wanted to protect Siam from being colonized by a European power and that he wanted to introduce modern ideas to the Siamese people.
 
And it is true that to some extent he achieved these goals, although the reality was not nearly as simple or successful as Oscar Hammerstein would have us believe.
 
In keeping with Siamese expectations for young men, Rama became a Buddhist monk when he was twenty years old, and he led a reform movement in monasticism.
 
He studied Latin, English, and astronomy, and he became a close friend of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix, who was apostolic vicar in Bangkok, a popular and influential figure in Siam.
 
Rama’s philosophical inquiry attracted the attention of Thomas Merton—a student of Buddhism—who recorded in his journal the king’s observation that “There is nothing in this world which can be clung to blamelessly, or which a man clinging thereto could be without blame”—an idea that Pope Francis might endorse.
 
In his effort to establish Siam’s place among the community of nations, King Rama corresponded with world figures including United States presidents Franklin Pierce, James Buchannan, and Abraham Lincoln.
 
Although it has often been written that Rama offered to send Lincoln elephants to use against the Confederacy during the War Between the States, it appears that the king actually wrote to Buchanan, Lincoln’s predecessor, offering to send the animals for use as beasts of burden.
 
By the time the letter reached the United States, Lincoln was president, and he responded, explaining that the climate in North America might not be suitable to elephants and that Americans were relying on steam engines to do the heavy hauling.
 
As a part of this correspondence, Rama, in 1861, wrote an expansive letter to Pope Pius IX, addressing him as the “Holy Father of the Catholic Christian World.”
 
The letter was dictated by the king and taken down in Siamese by a scribe, and then was translated by the king into a rather stilted English and carried to Rome by Pallegoix. This letter is now in the Vatican Museum.
 
The king began by taking note of his friendship with Bishop Pallegoix. He then wrote that although Siamese monarchs for centuries had practiced Buddhism, they also had allowed people of other religions to practice their faith unmolested and had welcomed refugees from places such as China and the southern region of what is now Vietnam where Christians in particular were persecuted.
 
Rama mentioned that Pius IX, in a letter hand delivered by Pallegoix, in 1852 along with a mosaic of the Pantheon, had specifically asked that Catholic missionaries and other Christians in Siam be protected from harassment.
 
What is most compelling about this letter is the king’s frequent references to religious tolerance.
 
After all, he wrote, the path to internal happiness and eternal life “is in fact difficult to be exactly known.”
 
The king refers in this letter to “the Superagency of the Universe”—in other words, the one God whose nature is hard to ascertain. Rama asks this “Superagency” to confer “temporal and spiritual happiness” and eternal life on the pope.
 
And some commentators have pointed out that the notion of one God is not a part of Buddhist thought, and that the king probably used this expression out of deference to the pope’s beliefs.
 
Rama’s interaction with the pope and his comments in this letter suggest that he embraced an idea expressed by Pope Francis in his apostolic letter “Amoris Laetitia”:
 
“Keep an open mind. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. …
We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike.”
 
Rama IV was born on October 18, 1804.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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parishionerMy second-floor office in Plainfield looks out on the front of a Catholic church.
 
When I arrive at work at 8 in the morning, the daily Mass is just beginning.
 
About a half hour later, I can see the congregation leaving—the same people every day.
 
They don’t all file out at once, get in their cars, and drive off. They come out chatting with each other and the pastor; they linger on the steps and the sidewalk and only gradually drift away.
 
Most of the daily congregation is advanced in age, which may be inevitable on weekday mornings. One man more shuffles than walks to and from his car; another uses crutches to make his way up and down the church steps.
 
These people, who I guess are “die-hards,” came to mind recently when I was reading Father Kenneth Doyle’s syndicated question-and-answer column, which appears in my diocesan newspaper.
 
Father Doyle’s correspondent asked why the Church doesn’t dispense with holy days of obligation inasmuch as the “only people at Mass are the true die-hards.’’
 
Father Doyle explained that canon law provides for ten holy days but gives the bishops’ conferences in each country a great deal of latitude with respect to when and now those days are observed.
 
In Canada, for example, the bishops have retained only two—the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (December 8) and Christmas Day. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops retains five of the traditional holy days and allows individual dioceses to transfer a sixth, the Feast of the Ascension, to the following Sunday.
 
Father Doyle acknowledged the low attendance and the confusion and wrote, “If we are to maintain the six holy days of obligation for the United States, we probably need to do a better job explaining their meaning and their importance.”
 
May I add that while we’re doing that, we should reassess the use of the term “obligation” with respect to holy days and even Sunday Mass.
 
Like most English words, this one has shades of meaning.
 
For example, while the primary definition is “something one must do because of a law, rule, or promise,” a meaning further down the ranks is “a debt of gratitude.”
 
But the term usually doesn’t evoke an action that one takes with enthusiasm—in fact, an action one would take even if there were no “obligation.”
 
That problem was implied by what the correspondent told Father Doyle: “Please encourage the bishops to put the celebrations on Sunday or take away the obligation.”
 
Does that mean that without the obligation the Mass holds no attraction?
 
While the canonical obligation does exist, the first incentive for attending any Mass is the opportunity to encounter the Lord in his word, in the Eucharist, and in the assembly of his people.
 
When we’re explaining the meaning and importance of the holy days, as Father Doyle urges, this is what we should emphasize before we stress the “obligation.”
 
If we believe what we say we believe about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and about his presence in his word and among two or more who gather in his name, then wouldn’t we rather attend Mass than do anything else?
 
Wouldn’t we rather attend Mass than excuse ourselves because there is no “obligation,” or is that only for “die-hards”?
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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September 25 is the feast day of Blessed Hermann of Reichenau.
 
Blessed_HermannPeople of a certain vintage will recall a time when after every “low” Mass we prayed the “Hail Mary” three times and then “Hail Holy Queen” — known in Latin as “Salve Regina.”
 
When I was a youngster I said those prayers every Sunday and on the frequent weekdays when I was the altar boy for a daily Mass.
 
In addition, on most Wednesday evenings, I assisted at devotions to Our Lady of Fatima in which we prayed the rosary, followed by “Hail Holy Queen.”
 
I was always attracted to the “Salve Regina,” and in those days I was not yet aware of its remarkable origins.
 
That prayer — “Hail, Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy, our life, our sweetness and our hope” — is essentially a poem written by Hermann of Reichenau, an 11th century Benedictine monk who was beatified by Pope Pius IX in 1863.
 
Hermann was a composer, a poet, a music theorist, a mathematician, an astronomer, and an historian.
 
The range of his scholarship and his achievements would have been remarkable if he had been in good health, but he was actually severely disabled.
 
He was born with a cleft palate and spoke only with great difficulty.
 
He had cerebral palsy and, researchers believe, either amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease) or spinal muscular atrophy. He could barely move and had to be carried from place to place.
 
Because his condition was so extreme, his parents couldn’t give him the care he needed, and they placed him with a community of Benedictine monks.
 
Hermann spent the rest of his life in a monastery, professing as a monk himself when he was 20 years old, eventually becoming the abbot. He died when he was 40.
 
Like Stephen Hawking in our own time, Hermann had a natural curiosity about the world around him, and a desire to learn, that were greater than his disabilities.
 
He was a well-known composer of religious music, and some of his work survives today. He wrote extensively about the science of music which, in his era, was considered a branch of mathematics. He also wrote on geometry and arithmetic.
 
He introduced to central Europe, from sources originating in Arabic Spain, a portable sundial and devices used for measure angles and distances in astronomy.
 
Also among his achievements in astronomy was accurately calculating the length of a lunar month.
 
Somehow, Hermann found time to write the first comprehensive history of the events of the first millennium, beginning with the birth of Jesus.
 
By the time he wrote the “Salve Regina,” he was blind.
 
It must take an almost unique combination of qualities for a person like Hermann to not only lead a productive life but also excel in multiple disciplines.
 
He may be an encouraging model for folks who have more than their share of physical challenges.
 
But while I have been spared any such disabilities, and even lesser ones, I apply Hermann’s example to myself, too.
 
Self- pity, fatigue, impatience, boredom, and indolence at times make it seem more attractive to patronize myself than to learn more about the world and put to good use what gifts God gave me.
 
But I think about Blessed Hermann, and I tango on.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Benedict_XV

Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa was crowned
Pope Benedict XV on September 6, 1914
.


It hasn’t gotten much attention, but we are now in the centennial of the reign of Pope Benedict XV.
 
I myself wouldn’t have noticed this except for an article in the Jesuit magazine “America.”
 
Benedict, the former Cardinal Giacomo della Chiesa, was pope from September 1914 until he died of pneumonia in January 1923.
 
That means that he was pope during the whole of World War I, which he characterized as “the suicide of civilized Europe”—an apt description of a conflict that cost 16 million lives.
 
When Pope Benedict XVI chose his papal name, he did so to honor both St. Benedict and Benedict XV—the latter because of his efforts to promote peace and his attention to the human crises brought on by both the war in Europe and the Russian revolution.
 
Although he was a career diplomat, Benedict XV was not in a good position to influence either side in the so-called “war to end all war.”
 
The Vatican’s international status had been seriously damaged in the previous century when Italy seized the Papal States and Pope Pius IX in 1870 declared himself a prisoner of King Victor Emmanuel. Benedict XV was the first pope to begin nudging the Vatican out of that isolation.
 
Benedict’s appeals to both sides to forswear violence reached passionate levels.
 
“The abounding wealth,” he wrote to the belligerents in 1915, “with which God the Creator has enriched the lands that are subject to you, allow you to go on with the struggle; but at what cost? Let the thousands of young lives quenched every day on the fields of battle make answer: answer, the ruins of so many towns and villages, of so many monuments raised by the piety and genius of your ancestors. And the bitter tears shed in the secrecy of home, or at the foot of altars where suppliants beseech; do not these also repeat that the price of the long drawn-out struggle is great, too great?’’
 
But neither side in the war, which was the culmination of a decades-old power struggle among the European nations, was interested in overtures from a voice that had no army and few diplomatic ties to back it up.
 
As Pius XII would do during World War II, Benedict strictly maintained neutrality, which had the ironic result of alienating both camps.
 
But Benedict persisted not only in arguing against the war itself and urging the parties to solve their differences through peaceful means but also in agitating for humane treatment of prisoners and release of interned civilians.
 
He succeeded in some of these humanitarian efforts, including an initiative in partnership with Switzerland to arrange for the exchange and treatment of seriously ill prisoners and detainees.
 
The pope also campaigned to raise money, including some of his personal funds, to assist civilians, including children, who were left destitute by the conflict.
 
When the war had played itself out, Benedict was concerned that the Allies would be vindictive, but his ambition for the Holy See to participate in the peace conference was rebuffed.
 
“Nations do not die,” he wrote. “Humbled and oppressed, they chafe under the yoke imposed on them … passing down from generation to generation a mournful heritage of hatred and revenge.’’
 
The onerous Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent rise of Adolf Hitler proved him right.
 
Benedict was a small man, slight of stature—so much so that when he was archbishop of Bologna he was known as “il piccolito,” “the little one.”
 
But in difficult circumstances a hundred years ago, he was a large man indeed as he took the only rational and moral position amid one of the worst catastrophes in human history.
 
This post also appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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On August 26, 1978, Albino Luciani was elected Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, choosing the name John Paul I.
 
John_Paul_II was caught off guard by the election of Pope Francis and, like most people, I had to learn who Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio was.
 
When he had been in office for only a few weeks, it occurred to me that Pope Francis had a precursor: Albino Luciani—Pope John Paul I, who held the office for only 34 days.
 
When I referred to him in a homily, 37 years after his death, two parishioners asked me if I hadn’t meant John Paul II.
 
One of the sobriquets applied to John Paul I was “il sorriso di Dio”—the smile of God. He exuded earthy warmth, and in that respect he was very much like Francis.
 
John Paul I also paved the way for Francis by simplifying the trappings surrounding the papacy: He did away with the coronation and the triple tiara, opting for an inaugural Mass and a bishop’s miter.
 
John Paul discontinued the use of the royal “we” in his formal addresses, referring to himself as “I,” and he used homely images as examples—a man whose collar was dirty because he hadn’t washed his neck or a porter sleeping on a pile of baggage in a train station.
 
John Paul had many interests in common with Francis, and some of what John Paul said and wrote before and while he was pope could have been the words of Francis.
 
Here’s an example from before John Paul’s election: “The frantic race for creature comforts, the exaggerated, made use of unnecessary things, has compromised the indispensible things: pure air and pure water, inner peace.’’
 
Here’s another from a papal audience: “We are the objects of undying love on the part of God. We know: he has always his eyes open on us, even when it seems to be dark. He is our father; even more he is our mother. He does not want to hurt us, he wants only to do good to us. …”
 
Because of this pattern, I wasn’t surprised that in “The Name of God is Mercy,” a book which consists of a long interview with Pope Francis, he quoted John Paul I four times—twice on the subject of humility and twice on the subject of mercy, favorite topics of Pope Francis.
 
Francis once said in an interview that he could best be described as “Jorge Bergoglio, a sinner.” And he quotes Luciani saying that he believed he had been appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto, Italy, because God prefers that some things be written not in bronze or marble but in dust, so that, if the writing remained, it would be clear that the merit belonged to God and not to the dust, by which Luciani meant himself.
 
Francis, who proclaimed this Jubilee of Mercy, repeatedly alludes to the inexhaustible patience of God, who never tires of forgiving those who repent.
He quotes John Paul I commenting on the father of the prodigal son as an image of God:
 
“He waits. Always. And it is never too late. That’s what he’s like, that’s how he is … he’s a father … who comes running to us, embraces us, and kisses us tenderly.’’
 
Francis has spoken of the Church as a “field hospital” whose purpose is not to reprimand but to heal.
 
And he quotes Luciani, repeating a metaphor used by St. Francis de Sales: “If you have a little donkey and along the road it falls onto the cobblestones, what should you do? You certainly don’t go there with a stick to beat it, poor little thing. It’s already unfortunate enough. You must take it by the halter and say, ‘Up, let’s take to the road again. … and we will pay more attention next time.’ ”
 
In his eulogy for John Paul I, Carlo Cardinal Confalonieri described the pope as a comet who briefly lit up the Church.
 
But the evidence all these years later is that John Paul’s light was more enduring than that and still illuminates the Church through the ministry of our present Holy Father.
 
This post first appeared in The Catholic Spirit, Diocsese of Metuchen.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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