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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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DeadEndKidsThere’s a recurring element in the story line of the TV series The Middle that struck a familiar chord with me.
 
This plot element focuses on a low-brow family whose kids are the scourge of the neighborhood.
 
The situation immediately reminded me of a family in the town where I grew up, a gang of boys who have always been, in my mind, synonymous with “no good.’’
 
The oldest of them was several years older than me, so their reputation was well established before I started crossing paths with them.
 
Well, “crossing paths” isn’t the right term, because the object seemed to be to avoid crossing paths with anyone in that clan.
 
In fact, now that I’ve had the occasion to reflect on it, I realize that those boys never did anything to me or, for that matter, caused any trouble that affected me in any way.
 
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
 
Like millions of people, I suppose, I am a member of a social-media group for people who grew up in the same town.
 
I chat in an ever-growing network of people who share memories of the schools and neighborhoods and shopkeepers in that town and who, in many cases, have had some direct connection to my family or me.
 
In the several years that I have engaged in this conversation, I have had several encounters that I would not have expected.
 
But nothing surprised me more than to see, suddenly turning up in conversation strings, the name of one of the older members of the Terrible Tribe of my past.
 
My first reaction was surprise that he had survived this long, what with what I imagined had been his lifestyle.
 
My second reaction was astonishment at the tone of his conversation, which was laced with nostalgia for the people and places we had been familiar with fifty years ago and more.
 
And it was an affront to my smug attitude toward him and his kin that I picked up from his profile the fact that he has been successful in an elite kind of business with which I would never have associated him.
 
Inevitably, he and I became involved in the same conversation and wound up talking directly to each other.
 
He said that he didn’t remember me, but he had warm and complimentary things to say about my brother and my family in general.
 
In fact, he said, “If you needed a friend, you always knew the Paolinos were there.’’
 
Clearly, he wasn’t referring to me.
 
This exchange prompted me to think more carefully about my relationship with those boys and to realize that I had had no relationship with them at all.
 
I had nursed revulsion for them for more than six decades without any insight into their personalities or their possibilities.
 
So I am grateful that through the unlikely vehicle of a social medium, I was prodded to reexamine an impression I had formed when I was relatively young and inexperienced.
 
This episode has reinforced for me ideas that I myself have preached and taught for more than thirty years: the fundamental goodness of human nature, the possibility of redemption in every human life, the need to approach each person—as Pope Francis has both taught and practiced—with the equanimity practiced by Jesus.
 
In the movie People Will Talk, Cary Grant, playing a physician, hears a bed-ridden old woman say that her doctors have given her up for lost.
 
“The nerve of some doctors,” Grant replies, “giving people up for lost as if they had found them in the first place.”
 
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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TabernacleI felt a hand fall on my shoulder and heard a familiar voice say: “Dignity! Dignity at all times!”
 
It was Jack Troy, an usher in the parish where I grew up.
 
I had graduated from altar server to usher when I was about 17.
 
Without the ritual of the Mass to restrain me, I was a little disorderly in my new role at first. I was waving the collection basket around like a baton when Jack came up behind me.
 
“Dignity at all times,” he said, and added, “you’re in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.”
 
That was an expression that I heard often when I was a kid.
 
That wasn’t only because I frequently needed to be reminded of it; it was also because the level of awareness that Christ was present in the tabernacle was very high in those days.
 
It was commonplace to see people bless themselves, or to see men remove their hats, even if they walked past a church on the sidewalk outside — because they were conscious of crossing in front of tabernacle.
 
Inside, people spoke in hushed tones. Men removed their hats; women kept their heads covered; no one walked past the tabernacle without genuflecting.
 
I’m not one to argue for a return to the 1950s when the culture of the Church was very different from what it is now, but I think the basis for all that reverence was important, and I think we have to be careful not to let it slip away from us.
 
This is a matter of balance.
 
For example, whereas the tabernacle was once at the center of every sanctuary, in many churches in more recent times it has been moved to a side altar or a Eucharistic chapel.
 
The reasoning behind this change was that the focal point during the celebration of Mass should not be the tabernacle but the sacrifice being renewed on the altar.
 
Another consideration is the healthy idea that a church should be a welcoming place, not a forbidding place—a place to which people come in joy, not in fear and not out of an ill-defined sense of obligation.
 
Our challenge is to maintain a balance between those positive changes in our practice and outlook and our core belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist that is celebrated on the altar and that reposes and is adored in the tabernacle.
 
Children are growing up in a skeptical, secular, materialistic culture that is not hospitable to such an idea. On the contrary, children are likely to hear an idea like the real presence of Christ dismissed and even ridiculed.
 
If they are to embrace the truth that Jesus is literally present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist they must learn it from adults who embrace the truth.
 
They’re more likely to learn if they see us go to church with both reverence and joy; if they see us participate in Mass not as solitary individuals but as part of a loving community; if they see us genuflect or bow our heads with purpose when we are before the tabernacle; if they see us receive the Eucharist, not by snapping it out of the minister’s hand and walking away, but by taking it into our own hands as something sacred and consuming it while facing the altar; if they see us treat the cup, whether or not we drink from it, as if it were the same vessel from which Jesus shared his blood; if they see us participate in the liturgy from beginning to end—not in a rush to get away but overjoyed at being once again in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.
 
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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Pope_FrancisPope John Paul II visited the White House on October 6, 1979, and I was watching at home, because that was a Saturday.
 
After the arrival and initial courtesies among the group gathered in front of the mansion, President Jimmy Carter gave welcoming remarks on the portico as the pontiff waited his turn.
 
At this point, my telephone rang.
 
“Are you watching this?” said the voice of the publisher I worked for at the time.
 
“If you mean the pope, yes I am,” I answered.
 
“Why is he standing up?” my boss demanded. “Why don’t they have a chair for him? Who plans these things?”
 
The publisher was a thoughtful guy, but he wasn’t a Catholic and probably hadn’t paid much attention to the pope before that season.
 
But once John Paul II set foot on American soil, the publisher could think of little else.
 
The same was true of the co-publisher, also non-Catholic, who only grudgingly addressed business topics while the pope was in the United States.
 
She told me so when I went to her office and tried to get her attention away from the television that I had never seen turned on before that week.
 
“I can’t take my eyes off him,” she said.
 
And who could blame her?
 
John Paul II generated a level of excitement that few if any of us had ever witnessed.
 
The phenomenon was distilled in the opening words of a television documentary broadcast after the pope had returned to Rome.
 
The program began with a view of the pope’s vehicle moving through a vast cheering crowd, and the off-camera voice asked, “Who is this? WHAT is this?”
 
But as breathtaking as John Paul’s visit was, we Americans may be about to witness something that exceeds it—the first visit of Pope Francis.
 
The public response in both intensity and magnitude well could be unprecedented.
 
But the question, as it has been from the beginning of this papacy, will be, “What is this?”—what is this excitement really about?
 
Certainly a lot of it will be about the pope’s “star quality.”
 
He is an attractive figure to people of all ages and backgrounds, and this can both help and hinder him in his mission.
 
Francis will have no trouble getting people’s attention in the United States; folks are going to extraordinary lengths to assure themselves an opportunity to get a glimpse of him in the flesh.
 
But some people who profess to “like this pope” may be in love with headlines and sound bites—such things as “Who am I to judge?”—but they may not be absorbing, much less applying to themselves, his exhortations on caring for the poor, extending mercy before judgment, protecting natural resources, curbing reckless consumerism and wasteful lifestyles.
 
What’s more, Pope Francis well understands the contemporary world and no doubt is aware that some if not much of the adulation directed at him is superficial.
 
He knows that alone he cannot make the world more merciful, more prudent, more just.
 
But no doubt he also knows that thoughtful people are listening to him, listening to more than comments reported out of context in the secular media, listening to his challenge to individual men and women to transform the world around them.
 
My guess is that he is banking not on all the millions along his path but on the unknown number who hear and understand his call to bring the Gospel to life, to evangelize the world around them, to evangelize those millions when the cheers have faded away.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Pope_FrancisWhile I was working as a local reporter, I spent a couple of years covering a city that for decades had hosted big industries—mostly heavy metals and petroleum.
 
This was in the 1960s, when the nation’s great awakening regarding care of the environment had not yet occurred.
 
The industries located in this city emitted all sorts of toxic materials into surface and ground water, into the earth, and
into the atmosphere.
 
Few voices were raised then about examining the nature of these emissions and their effect on ecology, and particularly their effect on human, animal, and vegetable life.
 
One of those voices belonged to a young lawyer who regularly appeared at public meetings to discuss this issue.
 
Far from being taken seriously, he was widely regarded as eccentric and naïve.
 
I was covering a meeting of the city governing body one day when this young man stood up and told the officials that he had recently bought a new car:
 
“I drove the car home from the showroom and parked it in front of my house and, gentlemen, when I went out the next morning, I could write my name in the filth that had accumulated on the hood.”
 
The city attorney, who wasn’t supposed to speak unless he was asked a question, muttered loudly enough for everyone to hear: “Gee, it’s nice to be educated,” and the audience laughed.
 
This vignette represents the state of mind that prevailed in those days when “we”—if I may generalize—did not think about the consequences of what we did in the environment.
 
The young lawyer eventually was vindicated as government and society began to recognize that practices once were taken for granted were damaging air, water, earth, and the health of human beings and other species of life.
 
Industries that once had released substances including sulfur, lead, and mercury into the environment were compelled to adopt controls on their smokestacks and effluent outflows and in general use safer means to dispose of waste.
 
But progress in this field has never caught up with the full dimension of the problem; human activity is still damaging the environment, which is an observable phenomenon, whether or not one wants to blame mankind, wholly or in part, for global warming in particular.
 
Pope Francis made this point in his encyclical, On Care for Our Common Home (Laudato Si’), writing that “our industrial system, at the end of its cycle of production and consumption, has not developed the capacity to absorb and reuse waste and by-products.’’
 
This is not still subject to scientific investigation; it’s an observable fact. With respect to the end of the cycle of consumption, it’s an observable fact in American homes and businesses that send as much or more waste to landfills than to recycling centers.
 
Resistance to this and other messages in the encyclical has tended to be expressed on a macro scale, but damage to the air, earth, and water on which we all depend begins with individual human beings.
 
In this regard, Pope Francis cited Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the world’s Orthodox Christian community, who has “called attention to the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet, for ‘inasmuch as we all generate small ecological damage,’ we are called to acknowledge ‘our contribution, smaller or greater, to the disfigurement and destruction of creation.’ ”
 
In the 1950s I worked in my family’s grocery store where we used a very large cardboard barrel, hidden behind a refrigeration unit, to dispose of all sorts of trash including paper, metal, and plastic.
 
One of my chores, when this barrel was filled to the top, was to drag it around the back of the building and burn everything in it.
 
Being a kid and naturally attracted to fire, I enjoyed this part of my job, particularly when the occasional aerosol can that had been thrown into the barrel would explode with a sharp bang.
 
None of us then thought about the smoke and fumes that spread out from that fire; they were out of sight and out of mind.
 
But I hope that if we were operating that store today we would know better and that we would find a safer, if more complex, means of disposing of that trash.
 
If we did not, given what we now know about ecology, how could we escape moral culpability for the outcomes of our cynicism and carelessness?
 
RENEW International is working with the Catholic Climate Covenant and Greenfaith to produce a small-group resource on Pope Francis’ encyclical for parishes, college campuses, and religious communities. For more information, visit www.renewintl.org/renewearth
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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A Franciscan priest, probably in his fifties, visited our parish a couple of years ago.
 
Because of his order, I mentioned to him that I had been baptized by a Franciscan, Fr. Kilian McFall, in 1942.
 
“That must have been at St. James in Totowa,’’ he said.
 
“That was almost seventy years ago,” I said. “How did you
know?”
 
“Oh,” he said with a wry look, “we remember our people.”
 
I was stunned. I never knew Fr. McFall, because he left St. James when I was very young, but I knew about him because my mother frequently mentioned that he had baptized my brother and me.
 
His name came up in a more public way in the 1950s when a street alongside the St. James church property was changed from McKinney Place to Kilian Place. Still, ask most people in Totowa today who “Kilian” was, and they won’t know. Street names are like that.
 
In an idle moment sometime after my conversation with that friar, I did a Google search on Fr. McFall’s name, feeling certain that nothing relevant would turn up. But the search led to a page, devoted to Fr. McFall, on the web site of the Holy Name Province of Franciscan Friars—a province that embraces the East Coast from Massachusetts to Florida and some overseas missions.
 
There was a photograph of Fr. McFall—the only one I had ever seen—and a biographical sketch that recounted his assignments in New York City, Totowa, North Carolina, and Florida.
 
Concerning his ministry at St. Francis of Assisi Church on West 31st Street in Manhattan, where Fr. McFall served twice for a total of more than ten years, the bio had this to say:
 
“Fr. Kilian’s kindness and good judgment in practical matters made him a popular confessor at St. Francis. He had a special compassion for the sick and spent a great deal of time visiting them.’’
 
Indeed, Fr. McFall spent the last two years of his life as a hospital chaplain in West Palm Beach, where he died in 1955 at the age of 52.
 
For seven decades, Fr. McFall was a benign if shadowy figure—someone who had touched my life in an important way and then retreated into the past. With my parents, who brought me to him for baptism, he was one of the first to nudge me toward a path of Christian faith.
 
Our lives are filled with such people some still living and some departed. We can still thank the ones who live, and we can pray for those who are gone—a practice to which the Church devotes the whole month of November.
 
Grandparents and parents; siblings, aunts, and uncles; priests, sisters, and brothers; teachers and fellow students; intimate friends and total strangers who in some way have helped us grow in faith—may we all say with the friars, “We remember our people.”
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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A member of my parish approached me after Mass and asked, “Why do you talk to yourself after you read the Gospel?”
 
Because she used the expression “talk to yourself” — which has a negative connotation — her question confused me.
 
Then she explained: “After you read the Gospel, I always see your lips moving. What are you saying?”

Oh.
 
She was referring to the prayer the priest or deacon recites: “Through the words of the Gospel may our sins be wiped away.”
 
The reason our parishioner interpreted this prayer as “talking to myself” is that the rubrics in the Roman Missal instruct the priest or deacon to say those words “quietly.”
 
I don’t know the reason for that instruction, but the prayer makes an important point about why we read or listen to the Gospel at all.
 
The words do not imply that the proclamation of the Gospel is a sacrament that imparts grace in the same way as, for example, the sacrament of penance.
 
They do imply, however, that the proclamation of the Gospel can lead to grace if those who hear it take it to heart and practice it in their lives.
 
In fact, the prayer calls to mind, perhaps deliberately, words attributed to Peter in the Acts of the Apostles.
 
Peter had healed a disabled beggar at one of the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem, and bystanders were astounded.
 
Peter asked why they were surprised at the healing, as though he had accomplished it with some power of his own; the power, he said, came from Jesus, the Christ, whom many of these same bystanders had rejected when he was among them.
 
Peter charitably chalked up their behavior to ignorance, but added, “Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away. . . ’’ (Acts 3:1-19).
 
The crowd in the temple had heard Peter’s discourse; grace would come if they were “converted” — that is, if they internalized what he had told them and acted upon it.
 
Since the parishioner asked me why I talked to myself, I have mused over the possibility that we deacons and priests are instructed to say those words quietly to remind ourselves not to feel self-important because we are assigned to proclaim the Gospel.
 
We have the vestments, the place at the ambo, and the Book of the Gospels, but it is Jesus Christ — not the raiment, not the minister, not the ambo, and not the words printed on the page — who speaks to all of us in the words of the Gospel, who calls us to conversion, and who saves us from the consequences of sin.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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tomb_of_maryToday we celebrate an event that took place at the end of the Virgin Mary’s life on earth.
 
The church believes that when that time came, Mary was taken body and spirit into the presence of God – an idea that is incomprehensible to us because it is completely outside our experience.
 
The church does not say, because it has no evidence, whether Mary died and was then assumed into heaven or whether she was taken while she was still living, but the church has taught for many centuries that God would not allow the woman who bore the Christ child to undergo the corruption of the grave.
 
This was formally defined as Catholic dogma by Pope Pius XII in 1950.
 
The document the pope issued had an impressive name: Munificentissimus Deus—the most benevolent God.
 
And the church identifies Mary with the woman described by the author of the Book of Revelations: “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”
 
And yet the woman—or, rather, the girl we read about in the gospel passage proclaimed at Mass today, a girl rushing to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, didn’t have any of those trappings of glory.
 
On the contrary, she was as simple and obscure as she could possibly be, and she had every reason to believe that she would stay that way.
 
But simple doesn’t mean naïve.
 
Simple doesn’t mean simple-minded.
 
Simple doesn’t mean ignorant.
 
In fact, it may be because she was such a simple person whose mind wasn’t cluttered up with ambition and greed and suspicion that Mary had such clear vision.
 
There’s a great deal of meaning in Elizabeth’s remark to Mary: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.’’
 
Mary was a unique human being in a few ways.
 
She was conceived in her mother’s womb without the stain of original sin.
 
She conceived a child through the direct action of God’s Holy Spirit.
 
And she gave birth to that child who had within him both the nature of humanity and the nature of God.
 
No other human being can make these claims.
 
But still, Mary was a human being, and she had to cope with these extraordinary circumstances by using her human faculties.
 
Elizabeth says “blessed are you who believed” because Mary had accepted God’s will, as she understood it, through the exercise of her own free will and her Jewish faith.
 
And that didn’t end with the birth of Jesus.
 
In recent years, the church and religious scholars have put increased emphasis on Mary’s role—not only as the mother of Jesus and then as the queen of heaven — but also as the first and most faithful disciple of Jesus.
 
The scriptures necessarily focus on the ministry of Jesus, but it is clear in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles that Mary didn’t just wave good-bye to her son and stay home in the empty nest.
 
On the contrary, Mary closely followed her son’s ministry, visibly identified herself with him even as he was dying on the cross, remained among the apostles and other disciples in those uncertain and dangerous days after the resurrection, and was present when the Holy Spirit infused the infant church on the occasion we know as Pentecost.
 
In doing this, of course, she set an example for us who are no less human and no more human than she was.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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PopesWhen Pat and I first set up housekeeping, we did what young married couples did in the 1960s — we rented a garden apartment.
 
One of the wall hangings we bought on our limited budget—I was earning $105 a week—was a print of an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, a profile of St. Apollonia, a third-century martyr.
 
I have to admit that this engraving, black etching on a dull green background, wasn’t the most attractive accessory we could have picked.
 
That may be why it attracted the attention of my friend Lou Caruso when he first visited us at that apartment.
 
He paused at the portrait and studied it for a while and then asked, “Who the heck is this?”
 
“That’s St. Apollonia,” I said with feigned indignation. “Have a little respect.”
 
“Huh,” Lou said. “They don’t care who they make saints these days!”
 
He was joking, of course, but his observation evokes a common misunderstanding concerning saints—namely, the notion that the Church “makes” them.
 
When Pope Francis canonizes Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II on Sunday, he won’t be making them saints—he will be declaring the Church’s conviction that because of the way these two men lived they already are spending eternity in the presence of God.
 
Both men devoted their lives to service in the priesthood.
 
Angelo Roncalli, Pope John, obediently served the Church, accepting even positions he did not want; he took steps to save the lives of many Jewish refugees during World War II; he launched the rapprochement between the Catholic Church and Judaism, and he convoked the Second Vatican Council that promulgated unprecedented reforms in the Church.
 
Karol Wojtyla, Pope John Paul, studied for the priesthood in an underground seminary during the Nazi occupation of Poland; he protected many Polish Jews from the Nazis; he took part in the Second Vatican Council and made important contributions to two of its major documents—the Decree on Religious Freedom and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World; he advanced relationships between the Church and other Christian denominations and non-Christian faiths; he was influential in the collapse of Soviet communism in Poland and elsewhere in Europe and in the demise of dictatorships in Chile, Haiti, Paraguay, and the Philippines; he was an outspoken critic of official racial discrimination in South Africa; he actively campaigned against mafia violence in Italy; he was the first pope to oppose capital punishment and he upheld the Church’s teaching against abortion and assisted suicide.
 
Of the 265 men on the chronological list of popes, John and John Paul will be the seventy-ninth and eightieth to be canonized. The canonization process has begun for 16 others.
 
But other men who have served as popes and who led exemplary lives may be enjoying the Beatific Vision even if we haven’t been—and may never be—notified.
 
The formal process with its “blesseds” and “venerables” and “servants of God” is not for the benefit of those who have died and gone to heaven.
 
That process is for the benefit of those of us who still have our feet on the ground.
 
It provides us with, shall we say, certified examples of holiness—people such as Katharine Drexel, Elizabeth Seton, and Louis Martin and Celia Guérin—a deeply spiritual married couple who were the parents of St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
 
But we may presume that there are millions of saints whose names we do not know, whose names may not have been known beyond their own communities, but who spent their lives trying to act according to the will of God as it stirs the conscience of every human being.
 
It was the same with those millions as it was with the two popes: it was no institution but rather their submission to God’s will and their response God’s grace that made them saints.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Pope_Francis_First_SpeecAmong the things that fascinated me in my young life were the objects from Italy that were strewn around my grandmother’s kitchen.
 
There were calendars, leaflets, prayer cards, icons, and illustrated books about exotic places such as Rome, Naples, and Pompeii.
 
One of those items was a small hard-covered book that contained black-and-white photographs of Pope Pius XII, who was elected in 1939, three years before I was born.
 
On the cover of this book was a profile portrait of the pope, who appeared to be severe if not imperious.
 
For most Catholics in those days, the pope was a remote figure.
 
Popes rarely left the Vatican and never left Italy. They were seldom the subject of news stories in American media, and their pronouncements were formal and obscure, comprehensible only to academic minds.
 
In a way, this almost forbidding atmosphere around the pope seemed appropriate to me, because it went well with the triumphalism that was part of Catholic identity.
 
My conviction that ours was the one, true Church went beyond the assurance and direction it should have given me; it extended to dismissal of other expressions of Christianity and other religions in general.
 
I wasn’t alone in that attitude; in fact, my generation was conditioned to think that way.
 
But over the next six decades, the atmosphere gradually changed.
 
The warm personality of Pope John XXIII, the influence of the ecumenical council that he convoked, overseas travels introduced by Paul VI, the demystification of the papacy begun by John Paul I, the profound impact on individuals and nations of John Paul II, and the pastoral insights of Benedict XVI—all coinciding with the rapid advances in communications—made the pope more a part of everyday life and made the Church a more open and less formidable institution.
 
And then he came.
 
One year ago, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope and began with the simple words “buona sera.”
 
The unpretentious tone of his first appearance as Pope Francis set a pattern that changed not only the accoutrements of the papacy—where the pope lives, what he wears, what he drives—but, far more importantly, the manner in which the Catholic Church addresses its own members and the rest of the world.
 
The Church, he says, must resist the temptation to turn inward but instead should go out like the father in the parable and meet those with whom it differs.
 
The Church, he says, should set an example of showing mercy before passing judgment.
 
The Church, he says, should take the risk of leaving its sanctuaries to find the poor where they live.
 
The Church, he says, should administer the sacraments as agents of healing, not as instruments of punishment.
 
The Church, he says, should think deeply about the place it has provided for women and about its ministry to young people, divorced people, single parents, gay people, and families of every configuration.
 
People at large, he says, should adopt these same principles of open-mindedness, mercy, hospitality, and justice—should shake off the lure of consumerism and live as though we share rather than own the goods of this world.
 
Pope Francis has upheld all of the fundamental teachings of the Church, but with his gentle and plainspoken message about how we treat one another he has captured the attention of people around the world in a way that no pope before him has done.
 
All of us, I am sure, have heard acquaintances—Catholics, non-Catholics, non-Christians alike—remarking that they “really like this pope.”
 
But in only a year, Pope Francis has given all of us a lot more to think about than the fact that he is humble and accessible and at times even funny.
 
If he has been the easiest pope to understand, he has been, for that very reason, the most challenging.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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A name that has come up several times since Pope Francis was elected is that of Father Pedro Arrupe.
 
That’s because the pope has said that Father Arrupe, who was also a Jesuit, is one of his role models.
 
Father Arrupe was ordained in 1936 after he and all Jesuits had been expelled from Spain by the fascist government.
 
He served in Japan, where he was accused of espionage, thrown into prison, and kept in solitary confinement.
 
He had studied medicine, and he helped care for hundreds of those injured when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
 
After that, he devoted his life to the most poor and helpless.
 
He wrote that the objective of Jesuit educators must be, as he put it, “to form men and women for others; men and women who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbors.’’
 
Father Arrupe was elected superior general of the Jesuit order in 1965, and he travelled all over the world visiting Jesuit ministries.
 
On one trip, after he had celebrated Mass in a poor village in Latin America, Father Arrupe was approached by an enormous man whose disheveled appearance made the priest nervous.
 
The man said he had something at home that he wanted to give to Father Arrupe, and Father Arrupe reluctantly went with him to a house that was barely standing.
 
The man ushered him inside and asked him to sit on a particular rickety old chair.
 
From that spot, Father Arrupe could see the sun setting.
 
The man said, “Look how beautiful it is. I didn’t know how to thank you for what you have done for us.
 
“I have nothing to give you, but I thought you would like to see this sunset.’’
 
Father Arrupe was a heroic figure who set aside his ambitions so that he could give all his energy and attention to those who had the least.
 
He set an example that challenges even the pope.
 
But what of the penniless man in a poor village in Latin America—a man who had no learning, a man who was never called to leadership, a man who at first caused the saintly priest to shy away, a man whose name is not on the lips of popes.
 
He, too, set an example.
 
He said, I have nothing to give you.
 
And yet, he realized that there was something he valued: a view of the sunset that was unique, and therefore priceless, because it could be seen only from that chair.
 
And when he shared that with Father Arrupe, he shared everything he had.
 
We’re called by Jesus to imitate this man, to ask ourselves, and to answer honestly, what we have to give to those who are in financial or emotional or spiritual need.
 
Maybe I’m called to sell everything and join a missionary order and volunteer for service in some troubled land, and risk disease, starvation, or a violent death.
 
Or maybe I’m called to think about what I spend my money on before I decide that I can’t help the church or the first aid squad or the fire company or Habitat for Humanity.
 
Or maybe I’m called to make a point of speaking kindly to that neighbor who annoys me; to ring the doorbell at that group home and ask if there’s anything I can do to help; to step forward when I know the parish needs a substitute teacher; to donate blood when all it takes is an hour of my time.
 
The folk singer Arlo Guthrie often says that in a perfect world a person would have to make a great effort to make any kind of a difference, but in the real world, everyone has the capacity to do something to make it better.
 
It didn’t take much to make a difference for Father Arrupe.
 
After his experience in that village, he wrote this about a man he had once feared: “I have met very few hearts that are so kind.’’
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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Holy InnocentsI have always thought of red and green as the colors of Christmas, but a Jesuit writer has set me straight.
 
I recently read in a homily that the Christmas season is far more complex than greeting-card images suggest, and that a sign of that complexity is the variety of liturgical colors that the Church uses during this time.
 
The unsigned homily appeared in a Jesuit blog (Whosoever Desires).
 
The subject was the Memorial of the Holy Innocents, observed on December 28, in which the Church recalls the children who, according to Matthew’s Gospel, were killed at the order of Herod the Great.
 
The evangelist writes that Herod was incensed when the magi who had spoken to him of a “newborn king of the Jews” failed to return after visiting the child Jesus in Bethlehem.
 
Afraid that this new king was a threat to his power, Herod is said to have instructed his soldiers to kill every male child in the vicinity of Bethlehem who was two years old or less.
 
Scripture scholars and historians debate whether this incident ever occurred.
 
It was not reported by any contemporary source outside of the Gospel, not even by the historian Flavius Josephus who did write about Jesus and John the Baptist and about other atrocities committed by Herod.
 
Some authorities believe that may be because there may have been fewer than two dozen children in Bethlehem who fell under Herod’s order.
 
Others have speculated that the author of the Gospel may have been drawing a parallel in which the creation of Adam and the crime of Cain was counterbalanced by the birth of the “new Adam” — Jesus — and the crime of Herod.
 
We may never know for sure, but the Jesuit homilist says that the story of the innocents fits into a pattern:
 
“If you include … the colors of Advent we have the purples of penitence, the blush of gaudete joy, the white of the star of David. And the red, yes, the red of the blood of the martyrs. All of this transpires over a period of a few weeks. This is not the seemingly unrelenting white of the fifty days of Easter. The Advent and Christmas seasons have a panoply of colors—and of experiences. Elizabeth, once barren, now conceives. Mary, unwed, yet betrothed to Joseph, also conceives. There’s no unalloyed joy in that annunciation. In one gospel passage, John the Baptist leaps for joy and then later on he languishes in prison.
 
“On Christmas day the whole world exults in joy over the birth of a child, then, typically, the next day we Christians remember the blood of the first martyr to die on behalf of our faith (St. Stephen). On Christmas day, we remember a child born on an inky dark night pierced by a searing star, then only a few days later we remember the slaughter of a host of children—we wear the color of the blood of martyrs too young to know why they died the vicious death they did.’’
 
The point is that while it is true, as the carol says of Jesus, that “his law is love and his gospel is peace,’’ it is also true that he was born into a complicated world, a world in which evil is real and persistent.
 
The good news is that God did not abandon us to evil. On the contrary, the meaning of the Nativity is that God joined us in this complex world to give us what we need to overcome evil — his intimate friendship which we encounter in his word, in the sacraments, in prayer, and in those to whom we reflect “the wonders of his love.’’
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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In June of 1949, my brother and I took part in the wedding of Tom Thumb and Jennie June.
 
It was a performance of a type that had been popular in schools since the “real’’ Tom Thumb — three-foot-eight entertainer Charles Stratton — married similarly diminutive Lavinia Warren in New York City in 1838.
 
At our school, eighty five kids from the lower grades were recruited to portray the bridal party, guests, musicians, and minister in this pee-wee extravaganza.
 
I still have the program, and I recently realized something about it that had escaped my notice for more than sixty years — the order in which the guests were listed.
 
The names were not arranged by social rank, so to speak, nor were they presented alphabetically.
 
The first folks listed were the president of the Parent-Teacher Association and her spouse — an understandable choice since the PTA sponsored the “wedding.”
 
The next three names — listed before the principal, the Board of Education, the mayor, the police chief, and the fire chief, were the three school custodians and their wives.
 
That’s where my brother and I came in. He played custodian George Schmitt, and I played custodian Archibald Brown. For the record, Michael Kramer played custodian Charles Dunkerley.
 
When I noticed for the first time how these names had been presented, I momentarily thought that it was curious, but then I remembered how those men were regarded in that school and in our town.
 
Far from looking down on the nature of their work, the community considered it indispensable — the difference between keeping the school operating and locking its doors.
 
We kids heard those men referred to only as “Mr. Schmitt,’’ “Mr. Brown,’’ and “Mr. Dunkerley.”
 
If it were possible for me to meet them today, I wouldn’t think of addressing them any other way.
 
Their place at the top of the guest list at Tom Thumb’s wedding resulted from a respectful attitude that Jesus urged everyone to adopt and one that he demonstrated in his own life.
 
There was a sign of this even at the birth of Jesus, when the first folks to visit him were shepherds, people of low rank, perhaps, when measured by education or wealth, but people whose work was to protect one of the most important commodities in that economy.
 
Jesus also provided an example by choosing among his closest companions fishermen — again, not people of high stature but people whose labor provided one of the staples of the Palestinian diet.
 
St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us, too, that Jesus was critical of those who, because of their education and positions of authority, lorded it over other members of society.
 
And the Gospels tell us again and again how respectful Jesus was toward the people he met, whether they were known sinners such as Zacchaeus and the woman found in adultery, people with power and authority such as Jairus the synagogue official and the centurion whose servant was ill, or ordinary people whose origins were similar to his own.
 
This is a lesson that has been reinforced by Pope Francis, whose words and behavior challenge the rest of us to enter each human encounter with an attitude of mutual respect.
 
See Christ in the face of each person: It’s not just a religious ideal but a profound implication of the incarnation in which God dignified not just the pious and the proud but human nature itself.
 
Charles Paolino is a member of the RENEW staff and a permanent Deacon in the Diocese of Metuchen.

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