Branching Out Blog

The Everyday Gospel: The Holy Name

Posted by Charles Paolino on Nov 8, 2023 6:00:00 AM

A parishioner once asked me why I frequently nod my head during a liturgy. For a second or two, I didn’t know what she meant, but then I realized she was referring to a slight bow any time the name of Jesus was mentioned.

This is a gesture that was engrained in me during religious education in the 1940s and 1950s. It was so engrained, in fact, that I am only sometimes conscious that I am doing it.

Perhaps because it was presented to me in this context, I have always associated that gesture with St. Paul’s admonition to the Christian community in Philippi that God had bestowed on Jesus “the name that is above every name” and that, at the mention of that name, “every knee should bend, of those on earth and under the earth….”

I was thinking about this recently, prompted by the Diane Keaton movie Pom in which, before I fell asleep, I heard—at least twice—characters casually respond to some situation by blurting, “Jesus Christ!” I’m old enough to remember when that would not occur in a movie or television show; now, it is commonplace and, thanks to cable channels and streaming, that includes television.

I also remember the often-told story in our family that my grandmother went to see Gone with the Wind in 1939 and, because she heard the word “damn” twice in that film, never went to a movie again. In fact, there was a kerfuffle in the movie industry over the use of that word. The censors objected to it, but the movie code was amended before Gone with the Wind was released. “Damn” was allowed because it had been used in the original work—Margaret Mitchell’s novel.

From our point of view in 2023, banning the word “damn” might seem like overkill. In fact, banning words at all—whether in movies, television, or song lyrics—is no longer in vogue.

The name of Jesus and “damn,” however, are in different categories. In a perfect world, movie makers would recognize that the Holy Name is just that, “holy,” to billions of Christians who regard Jesus as divine and their Savior. In a perfect world, something—let’s say charity, respect, cultural civility, good manners—would mitigate against the use of that name, in entertainment media, as a curse.

However, not only do we not live in a perfect world, but we live in a world that in some ways is increasingly vulgar and indifferent to, when not antagonistic toward, religious ideas. Figures such as Jesus are not only disrespected in many quarters, but they are often ridiculed. So, it would be idle for us to expect more sensitivity from producers or script writers.

We also live in a world in which the profane use of Jesus’ name in everyday speech has been commonplace for many years, which is why it found its way into movie scripts in the first place. In that environment, our best response is to continue being respectful of the Holy Name ourselves and avoid entertainment properties that routinely profane that name.

With regard to others, if they are close to us and especially if they are young, we can gently call their attention to what might have become a habit rather than deliberate blasphemy. And, being Christians and therefore confident in God’s grace, we can pray for those who abuse the Holy Name and for the day when the world be renewed and, as Paul wrote to the Philippians, “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”


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Topics: RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, The holy name

The Everyday Gospel: In Search of Mary (Clone)

Posted by Charles Paolino on Oct 16, 2023 6:00:00 AM

Not long after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I asked an adult group at my parish if they would like to visit a mosque. The unanimous response was positive, and I arranged for us to spend a Saturday afternoon at an Islamic center that had been established about 30 years before.

            The imam and members of the congregation spent several hours with us; explained the architecture of the building and the content of worship; frankly discussed the attacks, and served us a catered lunch.

The imam said that groups like ours regularly visited the mosque and that an elderly Jewish woman once told him as she was leaving, “I was physically afraid to come here. Now, I know better.”

I am not naïve. I know that there are two billion Muslims in the world, and they are as varied in their opinions and behavior as are the two billion Christians. But my experience at that mosque and at other mosques and synagogues I have visited demonstrates what should be obvious, that the fact that people have fundamental and even unreconcilable differences doesn’t mean that they can’t live together in a civil society.

I’m thinking about this because of the conflict between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas. That’s not going to be resolved by a Saturday afternoon visit and a tray of baked ziti. At my advanced age, I don’t expect it to be resolved in my lifetime. Even if Israel were to eradicate Hamas, the tension between Israel and the Palestinian people would remain.

That might sound like despair, but it is not. I am realistic about the history and nature of that conflict, but I am not pessimistic about human nature.

The afternoon of the mosque and the war in Israel and Gaza are thousands of miles apart, but they exist in the same reality and are carried out by people who share the dignity and the potential that come from being made in the image of God.

We can’t intervene between Israel and Hamas nor solve the issue of a Palestinian state, but we can refuse to allow our relationships to be infected by the intractable divisiveness that has so far frustrated attempts to bring peace to the Near East.

Movements like Hamas do not draw strength only from their internal motivations but also from encouragement they receive from outside, even from our own neighbors.

We can and should pray for peace, but we also can reject stereotypes and help build a culture of mutual understanding and acceptance, hoping to create a world in which those who inspire and support hatred and violence are drowned out—.or, please God, rediscover their humanity.

We have our model in Jesus, who ignored ages-old taboos in his interactions with gentiles and Samaritans and lepers. He meant for us to imitate him. Peace will not begin with Israel and Hamas. If it doesn’t begin with us, where will it begin?   


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Topics: Marian devotion, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, Mary's House

The Everyday Gospel: In Search of Mary

Posted by Charles Paolino on Sep 4, 2023 6:00:00 AM

While we were visiting Turkey recently, we followed in the footsteps of Popes Leo XIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI to the place reputed to be the last home of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is now a small stone chapel on Mount Koressos near the ancient town of Ephesus. The chapel was erected on the original foundation of a structure said to have been the house that the apostle John constructed for the Blessed Mother.

The history of this place is too complicated for me to repeat here, but one might say that it begins with the episode reported in the Gospel of John in which Jesus, from the cross, tells the apostle, “There is your mother,” and the narrative adds that from that moment John took Mary “into his home.” From that exchange and the fairly reliable tradition that John was banished by Roman authorities to Patmos in Greece, many have surmised that he brought Mary with him and settled her on the mountainside, away from Romans and other troublemakers. Residents of a nearby village have believed that for centuries, and they have venerated the spot as Mary’s last home.

The weight of expert opinion on subjects like this, however, leans toward the idea that Mary spent her last years in Jerusalem and was buried there on a spot now marked by the Church of the Dormition. The Vatican has approved the chapel near Ephesus as a place for Catholic devotion—witness the visits by four popes—but the Church has not taken a position on the authenticity of the site.

 Clearly, the crowd we found at the chapel was not concerned about this controversy. They—and we—were part of a constant stream of pilgrims who find their way to “Mary’s house” where they are ushered through the single room in a matter of moments. It takes so much effort to get there, and it’s over so quickly, that some might wonder if it’s worth it.

Perhaps that question answers itself, at least for those who are motivated by devotion to the mother of the Savior. Perhaps it is enough that they take time out on their journeys to find this remote spot where, in their hearts, they are close to Mary.

As the visitors stand in the long queue, they naturally chat with members of their own parties and with strangers. We did that too, striking up a conversation with a young couple from Piscataway. Imagine! We’re from Whitehouse Station, and they’re from Piscataway, and we meet in this place, five thousand miles away. Yet, considering the attraction, spending a moment, in our hearts, in the intimate surroundings of Mary’s home, perhaps such meetings are inevitable.

As folks finally reach the entrance to the chapel, they stop chatting. There is a hush as they step into the room almost gingerly, as though afraid to break something. Most touch the stones, assuring themselves that they are really there. Most, in their own ways, may have something to say to the Blessed Mother.

Did Mary live here? Whether or not she did, her love for us and our love for her was enough to bring us to this mountain, to leave the world outside even briefly, and to pray, “Hail Mary, full of grace!”

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Topics: Marian devotion, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, Mary's House

The Everyday Gospel: Mary Magdalene

Posted by Charles Paolino on Jun 9, 2023 6:00:00 AM

For more than 40 years, I made my living by knowing other people’s business. Since I got out of newspaper journalism, however, I have tried to know only as much as I need to know—or, perhaps more accurately, as much as people want me to know.

I was thinking about that recently while I was reading Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History by Philip C. Almond, professor emeritus of the history of religious thought at the University of Queensland, Australia.

As the title implies, Almond explores the many ways Mary has been imagined and presented over the centuries. Necessarily, this includes the idea endorsed by Pope Gregory the Great that before her encounter with Jesus Mary was a prostitute. The pope, in a sixth century homily, drew this conclusion by identifying Mary Magdalene with the “sinful” woman described in Luke’s Gospel who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. He also took the reference to Jesus ridding Mary of seven demons to mean that she had dabbled in all seven of the deadly sins.

This practice of identifying one literary character with another is called “conflation” and, as Almond describes in detail, Pope Gregory is hardly the only person to engage in it. Speculators over time have found Mary Magdalene to be the same person as Luke’s sinner and also Mary of Bethany—the sister of Lazarus. Modern scholarship has debunked these ideas.

Traditions have thrived about where Mary Magdalene went and what she did in the years after the Resurrection, about where she died and was buried, and about where her remains have been transported by relic enthusiasts.

The notion has also been developed that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and that she bore him a child and that the Church has been at pains to keep this a secret. The marriage myth was famously disseminated in recent times in Dan Brown’s novel “The DaVinci Code” and the film based upon it. Besides being disrespectful, such works run the risk that gullible people will take the stories as true and that cynics will use such fiction to demean the Church and the Christian faith in general.

The fact is that all the information we have about Mary Magdalene is in the gospels. To put it another way, all the information we need about Mary is in the gospels. Luke’s Gospel informs us that Mary and two other women, Joanna and Susanna, accompanied Jesus as he traveled through Palestine and provided financial support for his ministry. All four evangelists report that Mary was the first witness and the first herald of the Resurrection. She remained faithful to Jesus to the end. She went to the tomb, she encountered the risen Christ, she proclaimed the news to the apostles.

These accounts of the preeminent role that Mary played in the gospel story are remarkable both because it was inconsistent with the cultural and religious norms of Jewish society for women to accompany a group of men not related to them, and it was out of character for writers in that time and place to assign to a woman such an important role as Mary played.

We Christians can save our curiosity for movie stars and other celebrities. Mary Magdalene, as she is presented in the gospels, is all she needs to be, an example of faithfulness and courage. In those qualities, she is a model for us to imitate. By virtue of our baptism, we are called to do what Mary did, to proclaim to the world, without embarrassment, fear, or hesitation, that Jesus Christ has risen and that he lives among us, in his word, in our hearts, and in the Eucharist. May we live up to her example.

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Topics: Mary Magdalene, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino

The Everyday Gospel: And he shall reign

Posted by Charles Paolino on Nov 18, 2022 6:30:00 AM

One of the memorable images among the events surrounding the death of Queen Elizabeth II was of a woman kissing King Charles on the cheek as he greeted members of a crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace.

The woman, a Cypriot named Jennifer Assiminios, later told the press that she had asked permission to kiss Charles and that he had granted it.

Although Elizabeth had established an emotional bond with many of her subjects, it did not exhibit itself in anything as intimate as a kiss. So perhaps, by accepting that one kiss, Charles nudged the monarchy a little way off of its traditional distance from its subjects.

Not being British, I have no opinion about the British monarchy either as an institution or, for that matter, about the endurance of monarchy in the modern world. I once asked a chemist in Denmark why such a progressive country still had a queen. He said, “Well she is Denmark, isn’t she?” and I suppose that was as good an answer as any.

Many countries have long since dispensed with their kings, queens, and emperors, but there are 44 sovereign states in the world that have monarchs, including 15 that recognize the British monarch as their own. In a few of these places, monarchs have absolute power; in a few, their role is largely symbolic. And in some countries, the king or queen shares the responsibilities of government with an elected body, a parliament or legislature.

Abdullah bin Hussein, the king of Jordan, has gone out of his way to have personal contact with Jordanian citizens. More often, though, kings prefer to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually distant, separate, apart from their subjects, That’s not our King.

As Americans, of course, we have no monarch, but as Christians we have a “King of the Universe” as we will again proclaim Jesus this weekend.

While we have the greatest respect for Jesus and try to live in keeping with what he taught us about love of God and love of each other, we do not have to keep our physical or psychic distance from him. On the contrary, Jesus invites, urges, all of us to approach him in the most intimate way possible.

Jesus is the king who, during his life on earth, made a point of touching people whom others would rather not touch ¾ and that was a clear sign of the relationship he wanted to have with all of us.

This why the Church, Pope Francis in particular, and the American Catholic bishops during the current three-year “Eucharistic revival,” stress the importance of each Christian having a personal encounter with Jesus -- an encounter that occurs in our prayer life, when we speak to Jesus as the loving friend he is, and in our liturgical life when we come in physical contact with him in the Eucharist, in his body and his blood.

In the prophecy of Daniel, we read about the Messiah, “He received dominion, glory, and kingship; nations and peoples of every language serve him.”

That is a legitimate image of Jesus, the Christ, who is the Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity—who is God. But it is indispensable to our Catholic faith to always keep before us, too, the words of the author of the book of Revelation who describes Jesus as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” but in the next breath as “him who loves us.’’

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Topics: RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, Jesus Christ the King

The Everyday Gospel: On the Road

Posted by Charles Paolino on Oct 6, 2022 6:00:00 AM

During the summer, John Monahan, a permanent deacon of the Diocese of Metuchen, died as a result of a motor-vehicle collision. The initial report was that the driver of a car carrier had run a red light along a busy New Jersey highway. I knew John, and I can say that this loss—to his family, his community, and the Church—is incalculable.

On several occasions since that happened, I have seen drivers run red lights; in one case, the driver in front of me narrowly missed being “t-boned” by a driver who ignored the signal.

Not long after those incidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that more than 9,500 people had died in motor-vehicle collisions in this country in the first quarter of this year. That was seven percent more deaths than in the same period last year and the most motor-vehicle deaths in the first quarter of a year since 2002.

I am not surprised by those statistics. Despite my advanced age, I still drive to work four days a week along Route 22 between Whitehouse Station and Plainfield, New Jersey. And every day, I seen drivers speeding, weaving in and out of lanes, aggressively entering a highway despite “yield” signs and common sense, following too closely, rushing through amber and red signals, and cutting off other vehicles, including semi-tractors that weigh tens of thousands of pounds. In one episode, I was driving at or slightly over the speed limit and could tell when I glanced in my rear-view mirror that the woman driving close behind me was impatient. Finally, she passed me on the shoulder and, a few hundred feet down the highway, pulled into a Dunkin Donuts where, I guess, her coffee was getting cold.

I presume that most of these drivers are at least nominally Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus all of whose religions teach that the common good supersedes individual desires. But even if they believe that in the abstract, they apparently don’t think it applies to their driving. But states impose and enforce traffic laws precisely in order to protect the common good.

This is a disconnect that affects not only driving but every aspect of life. In our case, as Christians, we presumably believe that we should love our neighbors as our selves. But a driver I often see from my kitchen window who routinely drives past a stop sign as though it weren’t there is not concerned about a neighbor who might be backing out of his driveway or walking her dog or riding a bike in that vicinity.

When I was a newspaper editor, there was an incident in which a police officer gave a county prosecutor a summons for speeding. The prosecutor publicly objected that he was on his way to a murder scene. I calculated that if he had been driving at the speed limit, he would have arrived at his destination—where, not incidentally, the victim was already dead—about four minutes later than if that officer had not stopped him from speeding. That is usually the case when drivers speed or run red lights or otherwise behave as though their time, even three or four minutes, is more important than other people’s safety.

We’re not on the road alone. Let us love one another.


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Topics: love of neighbor, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, driving responsibly, the common good

The Everyday Gospel: We have to do that much

Posted by Charles Paolino on Aug 17, 2022 6:00:00 AM

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Topics: good works, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino

The Everyday Gospel: The Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

Posted by Charles Paolino on May 28, 2022 6:15:00 AM

Note: In some dioceses, the celebration of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord is transferred from the traditional date, 40 days after Easter, to the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles

(Chapter 1:1-11)

This reading describes the episode in which the risen Jesus, who had appeared alive to his apostles on several occasions, finally disappears. The author reports that “he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their sight.’’ The apostles, as one might expect, were dumbfounded, having never witnessed or even imagined such a thing. Then, the account goes on, two men in white confronted the apostles and asked, “Why are you standing there looking at the sky?” The men went on to say that Jesus would return, which is part of our faith. That abrupt question—“Why are you standing there looking at the sky?”—didn’t imply that they should go back to their former trades and wait for Jesus to reappear. On the contrary, it implied that they should get busy spreading the word that Jesus had conquered sin and death, was alive, and was inviting all people to encounter him and carry on his work of healing, generosity, and justice. It’s the same invitation he extends to us.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 47)

This is an exuberant psalm that urges those who believe in God, “clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.” God has given us existence itself, life, the earth and everything in it, and he has given us spirits that will live forever. Do we believe this? No wonder we should clap and shout!

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Topics: RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, The Ascension

The Everyday Gospel: Catholic Ed - Quo vadis?

Posted by Charles Paolino on Apr 14, 2022 6:00:00 AM

When I was beginning my senior year in a public high school, my mother mentioned that my father would be pleased if I attended Seton Hall University.

Sixty years later, I still don’t know why that was Dad’s preference, but it’s an indication of how indifferent I was as a student that, based only on my mother’s remark, I applied to, was admitted to, and attended Seton Hall.

It didn’t take more than a few days for me to realize that I wasn’t going to sleep walk through four years at The Hall as I had done in high school. Everything about the two experiences was different.

For example, in high school, I schmoozed with as many teachers as would tolerate it, creating personal relationships that I imagined would influence grades. At the Hall, I saw most of my instructors for only one semester, and then only in class. There was little opportunity for a con artist.

Also, the curriculum in my high school in the late 1950s probably hadn’t changed much since the late 1940s. It wasn’t particularly challenging, which explains, in part, how I graduated.

At Seton Hall, I was required to take courses in disciplines that I hadn’t known existed. With only a semester instead of a whole academic year to master the material, the urgency of the situation quickly became clear to me. I realized in short order that the high school more or less had to keep me, regardless of my grades—The Hall not so much.

Somehow—maybe for Dad’s sake—I became a student and, in a way, I have been a student ever since. And yet, beyond shocking me into the rigors of scholarship, my time at Seton Hall affected my life in an even more important way; it made me a more mature Catholic.

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Topics: RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, Catholic education

Hear the Word: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Posted by Charles Paolino on Nov 6, 2021 6:00:00 AM

A reading from the First Book of Kings

(Chapter 17:10-16)

Like many passages in scripture, this one delivers messages in layers. One layer has to do with the immediate circumstances of the prophet Elijah. This prophet had invoked the wrath of Ahab, king of Israel, who had married a Phoenician woman, Jezebel, and turned to worship of Baal. Elijah, on God’s instructions, declared that, until Elijah said otherwise, there would be a drought in the land. Also on God’s instructions, Elijah sought out the widow mentioned in this passage while hiding from Ahab.

The lesson more immediate to us, however, is found in the humility and generosity of the widow, a Gentile, who risked her life and the life of her son by giving Elijah something to eat. Jesus would call attention to this incident as a sign that God’s mercy extends beyond Israel—a radical idea at the time. (Luke 4:26) Moreover, Jesus calls his disciples—that’s us—to the same level of generosity, which we see demonstrated again in today’s gospel reading.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 146)

“The Lord secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry …. gives sight to the blind …. Raises up those who were bowed down …. protects strangers.” God’s own mercy is magnified by the extent to which we participate in it. So many people are without homes or food or health care. So many are marginalized, neglected, mistreated, only because they are “other”—they speak a different language, wear different clothes, or have a different complexion than the dominant population. It’s an enormous problem, but ours are the lips, hands, and feet with which God can address it. 

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Topics: humble life, humility, RENEW International, The Everyday Gospel: Deacon Charles Paolino, meek and humble of heart

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