Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Iraq War Is Over -- Sort Of

Captain James, the son of the Bellameys in the Upstairs Downstairs BBC series comes home from World War I disillusioned. He knows the war is a massive criminal waste. He is at his wits’ end to process his bitterness. But when dear Rose, the upstairs maid, loses her fiancĂ© and her only hope for a life of her own to the war, Captain James feels constrained to comfort her with the ancient lie. She can be proud; her beloved died a hero’s death for king and country. He can not tell her the truth. It’s too hard for her to hear.

Imagine President Obama addressing the troops at Fort Bragg as US combat forces withdraw from Iraq. Could he have told the truth: the invasion was the most grievous criminal act in international law, a crime against peace itself? Can he tell more than four thousand families that buried a son or daughter or spouse or parent it was all in vain, and worse, a criminal plot to control the natural resources of another country? Or the tens of thousands of families torn apart by PTSD suffering veterans? And what of the Iraqi victims? NPR and Reuters count the Iraqi dead in the tens of thousands. For shame! Multiply that by tens! Hundreds of thousands Iraqi dead, more than a million if excess morbidity is factored in. Between five and six million Iraqis have been driven into exile, many of them impoverished, unemployed in neighboring countries. For them the war is not over. The Christian community, Chaldean Catholics in the majority, a church that traces its origins back to St. Thomas, has been drastically reduced.

Iraqis were the best educated people in the Arab world. The education and the health care systems, once among the finest (and free), are in shambles. Professionals have fled in such proportion as to constitute a brain-drain. Baghdad is in ruin, with neighborhoods cordoned off from each other by road-block and razor wire. After the 1991 bombing, Saddam Hussein was able to get the electric grid up and running in six months. After eight years, the US leaves Baghdad with six hours electricity a day. Basra, Haditha, Fallujah will not soon forget the crimes committed against their civilian populations, nor quickly forgive. For them the war is not over.

It has been the Catholic Worker tradition to contrast the corporal works of mercy with the works of war: to feed the hungry as opposed to destroying farms and foodstuffs, to shelter the homeless as opposed to destroying cities, towns and villages, and so on. Consider the spiritual works of mercy as well, again opposed to the works of war. Instruct the ignorant? No! Lie, deceive them! The first casualty of war is always truth. Counsel the doubtful? No! Draft them, in the present instance through an “economic draft.” Comfort mourners? Only those on “our” side. Reproach sinners, the perpetrators? You might be fired, or even jailed if you put your body where your mouth is. Bear wrongs patiently, forgive offenses? Hardly! Revenge! And pray for the living and the dead victims of “our brave fighting men and women”? Not to mention them! If you must, pray for them but quietly, not out loud, not in the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass. The Church thus becomes complicit.

Imagine President Obama making a clean breast of it all and calling for reparations and national repentance! Imagine our bishops taking the Holy Father at his word and doing the same. Meanwhile, the Afghan war goes on and the warlords now take aim at Iran. Fast and pray! 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Learn to Read the Bible, Learn to Pray

4 Advent B #11

2 Sam 7, 1-5. 8b-12. 14a-16
Ps 89
Rom 16, 25-27
Lk 1, 26-38

December 18, 2011
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Tom Cornell

This wonderful story, the Angel Gabriel and the young Virgin Mary calls to mind so many beautiful paintings of the Annunciation. What really happened that day in Nazareth? If there had been a movie camera in Mary’s room at the time recording the scene, what would it have captured? Mary was deep in prayer, so deep that she had this Annunciation experience in her innermost soul. It was real. She understood and she said yes to God’s will for her, and for all of us. Even if a shining guy with wings doesn’t show up on the film, we have to picture it, and so we do. ¬

How rich we are, we Catholics. The most beautiful music ever written, the most beautiful statues and paintings, the most glorious buildings are ours, poetry and accumulated wisdom; and yet there’s more to the spiritual treasure each one of us has within, the very image of God. I know about poverty, probably better than anyone in this congregation. I’ll spare you the details. Our family was the poorest we knew. But we were happy. We had an Italian mother and family and the Christian faith and St. Peter’s Church down the block with stained glass windows and Christmas carols, even in public school! We were rich! Cold, but never hungry, and rich beyond measure. Some people say that religion is an opiate. It’s not just an opiate, to ease our pain, this faith. Survey after survey shows that people who pray are happier, healthier and better educated than those who don’t, and live longer.

I was trained as a high school teacher, so I think of the young. Most of them know more about science and accounting and any number of things than they know about our Catholic faith. Too often, when challenges to faith confront them they are ill prepared. You can’t get what you need, my dear young people, you older ones too, you can’t get what you need to bolster and deepen your faith from Sunday sermons alone, as excellent as they are in this parish. You have to read, you have to study, and you have to pray. You have to learn how to read the Bible or you’ll be subject to ridicule. And you have to learn how to pray, I mean how to pray deeply.

Let me tell you a story. A young woman friend of mine was living with a jazz musician in Harlem. He was quite well-known, and one of his jazz albums was dedicated to her. One night the two of them drank more than was good for them. The next morning, Mona woke up with a hangover. She went to a nearby drug store for Alka Seltzer. It was Saturday; she had the day off so she thought she’d just settle back in bed with a book. On the paperback rack she spotted something that looked interesting, a book with dancing girls on the cover, and champagne bottles and bubbly glasses, and a file of hooded monks in the background approaching a church of some sort. So she picked up The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton’s story of his life in the fast lane, his conversion and his becoming a Trappist monk. By the end of that book, Mona was converted herself, joined the Catholic parish at New York University and quit her job at Esquire magazine to come to work with the Catholic peace movement for much less pay. That was a generation ago. We are still in touch. Read anything by Thomas Merton. Or any good spiritual writer, Martin Laird, Basil Pennington, John Main. But read! You have to learn to pray and to experience the Mystery in silence. Then you will be prepared for anything.

Another story: the late Professor A. J. Ayer at Oxford University in England did his best to undermine his students’ religious faith, if they had any. Two of them were friends of mine. Professor Ayer argued that propositions like “God exists” and “God does not exist” are equally meaningless. The only statements of facts that are in fact, fact, are those which reflect concrete experience. We have no concrete experience of God so anything we say about God is nonsense in the literal sense of the word. One of my best friends fell for that line. Leon’s faith was destroyed. He went on to a successful academic career but he was really impoverished, poor in the deepest sense of the word. My other friend, Wilfred, let Professor Ayer’s argument roll off his back. He had an advantage in life though: his father and mother were Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. You may have heard of them. They owned a Catholic publishing house. Wilfred grew up with some of the best minds of his time around the kitchen table. He was on first name terms with Hilaire Belloc and Ronny Knox. G.K. Chesterton was his godfather. He knew that there are more ways of experiencing reality than putting it in a test tube, weighing it on a scale and fixing it in time and space. He had experienced God in the only way possible, by God’s own gift and by receiving it in nature and Scripture, in music and art and poetry and story and especially in the people he met, in a lecture hall or a soup kitchen or on a city bus.

In the end, by the way, Professor Ayer had an unexpected experience, a “near death” experience, as they call it. He wrote a little essay about it, “What I Saw When I Was Dead.” He claimed he saw a tunnel, and a light at the end, and that he felt a sense of welcoming, and in one account, the presence of “a divine being.” From then on, the professor said that he could no longer, with absolute certainty, say that there is no such thing as life after death. Good for him! But bad for all the many students whose faith he had destroyed.

God is good and merciful. God may see Professor Ayer as a man who intended to do good but was mistaken, tragically wrong, but in good conscience nevertheless. Wherever he is, I wonder, does Mr. Ayer regret, does he feel sorrow that he has impoverished so many by undermining their belief in God? We take with us into the next life what we have made of ourselves here in this one. Will all that loss weigh on him for all eternity, a never ending sorrow? Or will Christ at the last wipe away those tears too? Let us hope.

I know that God has care of us, from experience. I can have no doubt: too many blessings, it can’t be chance. I have to thank him. To do otherwise would be to throw back in his face so much beauty, so much love. At every step of my life he has been there, at every turning point, at every step where faith might have faltered or failed, there he was, even in darkest days of grief and bewilderment when he seemed to be hiding. He was there, not surprisingly in Monica, or a saintly pastor, or a teacher, even on a soup line and in a prison cell and on a city bus.

The Quakers say there is that of God in every one. We say the image of God is in every one. We adore God in prayer and in the Blessed Sacrament. What if we saw clearly the image of God in the beggar? Might we not fall down on our knees and worship right there in the street?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's a Beautiful Church


Ez 34, 11-12. 15-17
Ps 23
1 Cor 15, 20-26. 28
Mt 25, 31-46

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
November 20, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

When is the high point of the Church year? It’s Easter, Holy Week and Easter. That’s when the New Testament story, the story of Jesus, comes to its fulfillment. Everything that comes before leads up to Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and everything after helps to explain what it all means. The Church year ends this week and begins again next Sunday, recalling the events of the Gospel story. And interspersed are the celebrations of the saints.

I know that in this church no Gospel text has been preached on more often than today’s on the Last Judgment and “the least of these my brethren.” So I’m going to skip it. Archbishop Dolan has asked us preachers to stress love of Jesus and love of the Church in these days. I did Jesus last month. It’s all about Jesus, first and last. Now, why love the Church? There’s plenty to love and plenty to cause us wonder. The Catholic Church is the largest voluntary association of people on earth, in all of history, and the oldest ongoing institution in the world, along with the Orthodox Churches of the East. In two thousand years’ time, over so vast an area with so many people, we’ve had the opportunity to make just about every mistake conceivable. It’s no wonder there have been scandals. There was a time, in the mid-15th century, when the Vatican was a scandal, and the term “whore of Babylon” was not inappropriate. So why love this corrupt institution?

First of all, the Church is not corrupt, not in itself. Some of its representatives have been, yes! But the Church remains the Mystical Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit has never, will never desert us. “The gates of hell will not prevail.” Members might fall, some very badly, but the Church remains what it is, bringing Jesus in word and sacrament to us. If it were not for the Church not many people would have ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Lord and Savior, King of the Universe. How many of you recognize the name Gilgamesh, the hero demi-god of the Babylonian creation myth? Not many because there was no organization to carry on his memory, no Church of Gilgamesh, as it were. Jesus would be lost to history too were it not that his followers kept together and developed, from New Testament times, the basic hierarchical structure of the Church, with bishops, priests and deacons, the same structure throughout the far-flung ancient world and the same today.

So here we have the Bible stories every Sunday revealing God’s plan of salvation. Then there are the saints. If we have villains, we have the most marvelous heroes too, the saints. Their memories, their stories, their feasts, are strategically placed throughout the year. Their lives tell us what authentic discipleship is all about. Their stories are often sanitized for mass consumption and dumbed down. The details of their lives are censored to suit certain constituencies. Take Saints Francis and Anthony, for instance. Francis was very controversial in his time. He rocked the Church and the state. We don’t hear much about that. He not only excoriated wealth and privilege but the political life of his day. His rule for the Third Order forbade lay members from bearing arms. Hundreds, then thousands then tens of thousands of men joined the Third Order in Italy to avoid military service. The princes, the powerful people of the day, didn’t like that at all. They pressured the Pope and that rule was dropped. They had their way. Money talks!

St. Anthony was a hell-raiser too; he wasn’t just the sweet guy walking around in a brown robe with the Baby Jesus in his arms and a big white lily. He excoriated the bankers of his day. They called him, "Il Martello, "The Hammer." If he were here today he’d be down at Zuccotti Park in New York City, with Occupy Wall Street! He had the Gospel on his side so the bishops had to take him seriously. At his insistence they condemned usury at a Church synod, usury – that’s banks ripping people off. Did you know that the Church today has taken the same stand, essentially in line with Occupy Wall Street? We can be proud. These guys weren’t saps! Our church is truly a champion of the poor and oppressed and of peace.

We just celebrated the feast of Saint Martin of Tours. As the son of a pagan Roman army officer, Martin was forced into the army. The persecution of the Church was already over by his time, and Christianity was now the state religion. But when Martin was baptized he refused further military service and sat out the next war in a prison cell. He was later released. Then he cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar. He became a monk and later a bishop. St. Martin is counted patron of soldiers and patron of conscientious objectors as well. The patron and model for parish priests is the Cure of Ars, Saint Jean Batiste Vianney. He was an army deserter. So was Lieutenant Joseph Ratzinger.

Don’t misunderstand me. Those who protect the freedom and security of their fellow citizens honorably in uniform deserve our respect and support. But when their patriotism and bravery are abused , when they are sent to unjust and useless slaughter, we must protest in the name of God. Patriotic rhetoric will not make up for the abuse of our soldiers or comfort them when they can not resign after four and five and six deployments because there are no jobs for them back home, and no health insurance for their children if they leave the military.

We should think of the saints as members of our family and ask their intercession with God for our needs. The Archdiocese of New York has petitioned the Vatican to open the Cause of Dorothy Day for canonization as a saint, and the Vatican has agreed. It’s in the works. Cardinal O’Connor, then Cardinal Cooke and now Archbishop Dolan have been eager to advance her Cause. The Dorothy Day Guild met last Tuesday at the Chancery Office to plan our next step. For Dorothy to be beatified she needs a miracle. It looks as if we have one, in Texas, a cure of a brain cancer. She needs at least one more for canonization. Pray for a miracle, one miracle in particular.

You may remember I told you four years ago, in 2007, of a trip I made to Rome to present a young man to Pope Benedict, Joshua Casteel. Joshua had been a West Point cadet, then a US Army Arabic language interrogator at the infamous Abu Graib prison in Iraq. And there he read Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity and converted to Catholicism. He was released as a conscientious objector to war and to military service, with an honorable discharge and full veterans’ benefits. He has been admitted to the Veterans’ Hospital in Chicago with cancer, 31 years old, cancer of the lung, 4th stage, metastasized! Pray for a cure through the intercession of Dorothy Day. It will take a miracle. Joshua’s faith is strong. His parents followed him into the Church. I saw him last spring, at the Riversides Church in the City. He told he had taken the previous year off to nurse his father through his last year, a cancer victim. He is strong, strong in faith.

This is a beautiful faith, and a beautiful church, a beautiful family, and like any other family, with a rascal or worse here and there, but a Mother Theresa, a Damian the Leper, an Ignatius Loyola, a Francis Xavier, a Therese of Lisieux, a Dorothy Day, a Francis, a Clare and an Anthony. They are our examples. They give us heart.

The world we know today is faced with more grave threats than ever before in history, threats to our very existence. If we are to deal with climate change, global warming, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with endemic poverty and the just revolutionary claims of the world’s disinherited, know that the Catholic Church is a voice of sanity in the chaos. We have all we need. We have the Book and the table and we have examples to show the way, Dorothy Day not the least among them. We can take heart. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Things That Are God's

29 Sunday A #145

Is 45, 1. 4-6
Ps 96
1Thes 1, 1-5b
Mt 22, 15-21

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
October 16, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

“Is it lawful to pay the tax to Cesar or not?” His enemies were trying to trap Jesus and denounce him, to Jewish patriots if he said yes or to the Romans and the Temple authorities if he said no: Jesus gets out of their trap by answering, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” What might these words mean for us today? Whatever they mean, it’s all about Jesus. It’s not about Caesar or government or citizenship or even faith or personal responsibility: it is about all these things but seen through the lens of Jesus himself, his life, his words, his works.

Try to picture him and hear his words as if you were there. The rosary is meant to help us do just that, from the Annunciation to his Passion and Death and Resurrection. We let our fingers do the counting as we picture the events. What did Jesus look like? Make your own image, as you will. It doesn’t really matter what Jesus looked like. If it did, then Matthew, Mark, Luke or John would have told us. Make him the pale-faced, blue-eyed, flaxen-haired Anglo-Saxon you see on the walls of the YMCA if that helps you. I see a Jew, a young man grown into full maturity, with jet black hair, and a good size nose set between large, gentle brown eyes. His face is framed by a short black beard. He is dark from the desert sun. He’s average in height, lean but strong, and he stands straight and moves deliberately. He has an easy way with children; they flock to him. He knows hard work by the look of him. Men respect him. Women find him handsome. He is reserved but not at all distant. He doesn’t chatter. When he speaks people listen, and he looks straight at you, and into you.

Today, Jesus and his companions are in the Temple area. Crowds have gathered. Word had spread of this new young preacher and healer, a cousin of John the Baptist. He had upset the tables of the merchants in that same Temple courtyard, and he had upset the Temple authorities even more. The Roman governor, Pilate, wanted peace and quiet, the peace of subservience. The authorities had considered arresting Jesus before but they were afraid of the people’s reaction if they did; they might riot.

Jesus uses a harsh word for those who would trap him: hypocrites, not condemning all scribes or Pharisees, mind you, but the ones who do not practice what they preach. For this he is seen as a subversive. The Temple priests have reason to fear. Jesus’ teaching is subversive. Jesus’ teaching will always be subversive to any social system that exploits the weak for the advantage of the strong. “Blessed are the poor, the meek, the humble; they shall inherit the land!” “Not if we have anything to say about it!” say the strong. Today too; it’s always been the same.

The chief priest Caiphas will say, “Better that one man should die than that the whole people perish” (Jn 18,14). He has a point, but he is wrong. It is never right to commit evil that good may come of it. But Caiphas fears the Romans will come down hard if there is any hint of rebellion. That’s what the Roman did, whenever there was a threat to the Empire, without mercy. Mercy, compassion, was seen as a weakness by the ancient Romans and Greeks, emasculating. Only the God of Abraham is merciful. For the rest, mercy is not a virtue but a fault to be got rid of.

Most peoples of the Roman Empire were glad to have the protection of the Roman army. They were honored to have their gods set up in the Pantheon in Rome. Not the Jews! But Jesus was not concerned with the Roman Empire, nor any empire. His eye was set on the kingdom of God. And so he taught his disciples to set their eyes on what is to come, for the world as we know it is passing, and to pray “Thy kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven,” and to live the kingdom here and now.

Sometimes Jesus’ sayings were hard to take, “Turn the other cheek,” “Walk a second mile,” “Do not resist evil,” “Forgive seventy times seven,” “It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” But the people loved him. Lazarus and Mary and Martha loved him. People of means as well as the common folk found that he touched their hearts as no one had before. Jesus did not preach politics, the politics of accommodation or resistance or revolution. He preached the peace of the kingdom of God and his justice. Justice and peace often seem at odds with one another in this world, but in the kingdom of God justice and peace embrace. Jesus’ goal is that kingdom. His tactics are prayer, intimate union with God in the depths and silence of the human heart, the works of mercy curing and teaching, and self-control, self-denial, even unto death. For this world is passing away.

The things that are God’s are the judgments of conscience. Conscience is that quiet voice that reminds us of the right path when we are tempted, reason distinguishing right from wrong in accordance with the law of God. Conscience is an active search for the good and the right. It’s not just “what I feel.” A lot of people seem to think nothing is wrong if you don’t think it’s wrong. That’s wrong! Some things are always wrong, no matter who does them or for what reason, like killing the innocent. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it most beautifully:

“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. … (M)an has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is his very dignity; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of every person. There he is alone with God, whose voice echoes in his depths (Gaudium et spes #16).

Everyone has a conscience, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists, believers and non-believers. But for the Christian there is one thing more. That is the person of Jesus Christ, the very revelation of God. The words and the example of Jesus: these make all the difference. From our earliest youth we are taught to look to Jesus as our truest, most constant friend. Through our years we see Jesus as the invisible guest at the table, our companion on the way. “Stay with us a while. Evening draws near….”

The things that are God’s? Love him with all your heart and soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, for Christ’s sake. Then the things that are Caesar’s will fall into place. 

Sunday, September 18, 2011

We Don't Get What We Deserve

25 Sunday A #133

Is 55, 6-9
Ps 145
Phil 1, 20c-24. 27a
Mt 20, 1-16

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
September 18, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

It’s been a year since I’ve been able to speak to you from this spot. It was shingles, a severe case of shingles. And after the shingles cleared up, neuralgia set in, nerve pain where the shingles had been. The pain is enough to leave anyone limp. It’s still there, but not as bad. There’s a vaccine now to prevent shingles. It costs a couple of hundred dollars. Medicare will pick up much of the cost. You don’t want to go through this. I shouldn’t complain, really. I was young for a long time, 76 years. Now, all of a sudden, I’m old. At 77 I suppose it’s time. Get that shot! Now let’s take a look at today’s readings.

Today’s Gospel reading is not a recommendation for the reform of labor law. (By the way, have you noticed that politicians use the word “reform” when they really mean “weaken” or “destroy” in talking about Social Security or Medicare? But that’s another matter.) Here in today’s Gospel we have a parable of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven.

The owner of the vineyard stands for God. The laborers are all of us. God keeps looking for more laborers all through the day. Some of us came to the vineyard early. Or rather, we were brought to baptism as infants and grew up and were confirmed in the Faith and never abandoned it. Others, though baptized, never really appropriated the Faith until later in life. They were baptized but not evangelized. Still others sought baptism as adults or even as old folks at the verge of death, coming to belief literally only at the last. I think of an old uncle of mine, long gone, Uncle Lawrence, Zio Laurienz’. He went to church three times in his life, and twice they had to carry him in, for his baptism and his funeral. He made it on his own for his wedding, at age 14! He was a skeptic and a cynic; he mocked the Church and the priests and all of us faithful who supported them. But at the last I pray that he held his hand out to Jesus, as Peter did when he was sinking, and asked for mercy. Did he get it? Let us hope so.

“Seek the Lord while he may be found,” Isaiah warns. While he may be found! We must not presume.

“He is near to all who call upon him,” sings our Psalm. “He is kind and merciful… compassionate to all his works… near to all who call upon him.”

Paul was touched by God mightily on the Road to Damascus, thrown from his horse. Then he was so filled with energy and enthusiasm for the Faith that he, more than any of the other Apostles, spread the Faith throughout the Mediterranean world. And yet he so yearned for the kingdom that he could write, “I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ… . Yet it is more important that I live for your sakes. Conduct yourselves, then, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

In today’s parable all the workers get the same wage no matter how long they worked. This is a metaphor for entrance into God’s kingdom. Is that fair? In God’s economy it is! Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve? Would any of us be jealous or complain if we, who have born the heat of the day, faithful all our lives, were to find Uncle Lawrence at the Lord’s banquet table in heaven? I’d be overjoyed to see the old rascal! So we pray for our dead, that at the last they held out their hand to the Lord. We can pray now for them then because with God there is no time.

There is one startling sentence in this reading that deserves a closer look. “I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?” says the master of the vineyard. No, my friends, he is not. Remember this is a parable, a metaphorical teaching device. Jesus was not giving a lesson in social justice in this story but a lesson in the infinite mercy of God. But it poses an important question. I have heard it said many times, “It’s my money. I earned it by my own hard work. I can do with it what I please! Can’t I?”

You can, brother, yes you certainly can, but you may not! Not if you wish to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Catholic Social Teaching for over one hundred and ten years has been strong and clear on this. On the one hand, all God’s creation is meant for the benefit of all God’s children. On the other hand, the Church defends the right to private property. That seems like a contradiction. How are these principles to be harmonized? By the principle of the common good. We have a right to own property, not just our toothbrushes but productive property as well, our farms and factories and shops, most definitely, and we have a right to the fruits of our labor. “Property is proper to man” (Peter Maurin). But that right is not absolute. It is limited by the requirements of the common good (cf. Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, 1891). As individuals we deal with balancing our rights and our needs with the rights and needs of others in the privacy of our own consciences. As a community we determine tax law and regulations democratically, whether to have them and how much.

One of the functions of government is the redistribution of wealth (cf. Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul John XXIII, 1961). We’ve all played the board game Monopoly. How many winners are there at the end? One! Unregulated capitalism results in money and power funneling up into fewer and fewer hands. The game Monopoly was invented by a pious Quaker lady to teach that very lesson. The problem with unregulated capitalism is that “ it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people” (G.K. Chesterton).

A just, not to say a Christian society will not allow the defenseless to fend for themselves. Twenty-five years ago, our bishops declared that all economic and social policy initiatives should take into account first their effect upon the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the young, the sick, the elderly and the unborn. Not as an after-thought, but first and above all (cf. Economic Justice for All, USCC, 1986).

God will not be outdone in generosity, and man will not be outdone in greed and selfishness, or so it would seem. But then we see acts of self-sacrificing generosity as at the Twin Towers ten years ago and our hope is renewed in the Spirit, for still “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods, with warm breast and with ah, bright wings.” (God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins). He is near to all who call upon him.

It’s so good to be back. Twenty-three years ago, when I was ordained a deacon, I didn’t realize how much it would mean to me to proclaim the Gospel and to break open the word of God with you. It is a great privilege, one I don’t deserve. But neither does anyone else. There are others in this congregation who might hear the call to diaconate or to priesthood, or to the religious life as a sister or brother. Pray for them. None of us is worthy. But God’s grace and mercy are infinite. We don’t get what we deserve. Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

As We Forgive

September 11, 2011

24 Sunday A #130

Sir 27, 30. 28,9
Rom 14, 7-9
Mt 18, 21-35

Deacon Tom Cornell

It was unimaginable yet we saw it with our own eyes. My fellow Catholic Workers in New York City went to our roof only a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center when the first plane struck. Most of us saw it on TV, over and over and over again. They came down, the Twin Towers, they just came down, in smoke and ash and flame, and nearly three thousand souls. It was unimaginable, unforgettable, horrible. We all felt it, an insult to our nation, to our pride, as it was meant to be. Can we forgive such a crime against our people, a crime against our country, a crime against humanity itself, a crime against God? A crime! Not an act of war! When we refer to a “war” against terrorism, remember that the word “war” is used as a metaphor, as in the war against polio or the war against small-pox. To combat crime, we call upon our police and courts, not upon the army!

It does not dishonor the dead or excuse this crime in any degree to ask why they hate us so much. It isn’t our freedoms they hate in the Arab and Muslim worlds. That’s silly. They don’t give a hoot in hell about how we order our lives, unless it impinges on how they must live their lives. This is not the time or place for a history lesson, but the gross injuries the West, especially France and England and this country have inflicted upon the Arab and Muslim worlds have been egregious, going back to World War I. We may choose to ignore or forget them but they do not! They don’t care about our freedoms. But we care. We have to care. And about our maimed and dead.

First of all we care about the dead and injured and their families, the workers in the Towers and the firemen and police who lost their lives trying to save others. These people put their lives on the line every day for us. Here in Marlboro we know our police and firefighters. They are our neighbors and friends. That’s not often the case in the City, where I live also. There was a moment in the City when people came together and actually talked to one another on the subways and the street. It didn’t last long, but that loss brought us all together, for a week or so. As we recovered our equilibrium, feelings of anger, resentment, revenge began to surface. It’s only natural. But then the words of today’s readings from the Book of Sirach hit us: I didn’t choose these readings. They are assigned by the Church for the Latin rite throughout the world. They are assigned for this day in the Common Lectionary that many Protestants use as well. They are Providential for our condition this day of remembrance.

“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…. Should a man nourish anger against his neighbor and expect healing from the Lord?”

The Psalm verse is, “The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion.”

Then in today’s Gospel we have the parable of the official who was shown mercy but did not show mercy and Peter’s question to Jesus, “How often must I forgive, seven times?” “No,” Jesus replied, “not seven times but seventy times seven.”

And just before Communion we recite that most dangerous of prayers, the Our Father. Dangerous? Yes! Why? Because we beg God to forgive us as we forgive, that is, the same way, to the same degree that we forgive those who trespass against us. Do we really mean it?

To forgive is not to say, “that’s all right!” It can never be right to kill innocent human beings, never! Cardinal Egan gave us a clue when he preached at St. Patrick’s Cathedral the Sunday after the attack, that we must not give way to fear and hatred. All right! But to forgive? To forgive such a crime?

Forgiveness is hard, very hard. I thought I had forgiven someone who once tried, and failed, to hurt me very badly. I had prayed for her, over and over again. But a few nights ago I dreamt of her for the first, and I hope only time. I cursed her up and down and to hell and back in that dream! So I have to pray some more.

In the immediate aftermath of an attack, it’s natural for us to lose balance, to sink into confusion. Not everyone was confused that day. Those in high places seized an opportunity they had been waiting for, an excuse to attack and invade Iraq. They had planned, determined to do so months if not years before. Iraq had nothing to do with the attack of 10/11, but that didn’t matter. The people were confused and angry. They could get away with it. We now know without any doubt that the nation was led to war by a concert of deliberate lies. We have been paying the price for it ever since, not only monetarily. We have lost twice the number of our fellow citizens in war as we lost in the Twin Towers and many times more maimed, and we have caused at least 100,000 Iraqis and Afghans to die. They tell us we are broke, so we borrowed the money for the war! We pay the price in the loss of the good will of the international community as well.

A friend of mine was attending a wedding in Serbia when the news of 9/11 broke there. It wasn’t long after the US bombed Belgrade. My friend thoroughly expected that at least some in the wedding party would reproach him as an American and say something like, “Now you know what it feels like to be under the bomb!” But no, quite the contrary. Everyone sympathized and offered words of comfort. That would not happen today.

This is not the place to analyze the political, social and economic causes and effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now Libya. But this is the place to examine the spiritual roots of this insanity. Our problems are at root spiritual and must be met with the weapons of the spirit: prayer, fasting and the works of mercy. What pride and arrogance has blinded us to our self-justification in destroying Iraq and pursuing a useless, immoral and unwinnable war in Afghanistan? There is justifiable pride, to be sure, in our American traditions, even as they are being eroded by these very wars. Sinful pride, it is a deadly sin, puts us above the law of nations and above the law of God. “Thou shalt not murder the innocent!” Not even to avenge the innocent.

Is there another way? Let me tell you emphatically that the best thing you can do for your country is to be the best Catholic Christian you can be. And take a lesson from a good Muslim man, named Rais Bhuiyan. He is an immigrant living in Texas, from Pakistan, but he could pass for an Arab. He was in a convenience store with two Pakistani friends when a man came in, pulled a gun and shot two of them dead. He shot Rais in the face, blinding him permanently in one eye. It was to avenge 9/11, the shooter cried, saying that he was an “Arab slayer.” The man, Mark Stroman, was tried for murder in a Texas court, convicted and sentenced to death. Rais spent years in rehab, but when he was strong enough he campaigned vigorously to save Mr. Stroman’s life. In that he failed. It was Texas, after all. Mark Stroman met his fate in the Texas electric chair.

“I have had many years to grow spiritually,” Rais said. He pledged that he will spend the rest of his life knocking on every door, trying to do the best he can to see that not another human life be lost needlessly and, in his words, “trying to teach people about the healing power of forgiveness.” Forgiveness, mind you, in the name and spirit of 9/11, “the healing power of forgiveness.”

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, let us learn from our good Muslim brother. Have mercy on us and let us be healed. Amen.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Burning Coal

22 Sunday A #124
Jer 20, 7-9
Ps 63
Rom 12, 1-2
Mt 16, 21-27

August 28, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

In our first reading today we hear, “You duped me, Lord….” Another translation, the Jerusalem Bible has, “You seduced me Lord, and I let myself be seduced.” I was a grown man, 31 years old before I heard these words from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, in November 1964. Thomas Merton read them to a small group he had called to his monastery, the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Merton was then and remains now, 43 years after his death, the most widely read spiritual writer in the English language. He gathered leaders of the growing peace movement (A.J. Muste, Dan Berrigan, Jim Forest, John Howard Yoder, W.H Ferry, Tony Walsh and three or four others. Phil Berrigan showed up on the last day, with a case of beer.) American military involvement in the Viet Nam war was just beginning to heat up with US Army “advisors” on the ground. The public still supported the war but some of us felt very differently.

Merton called us to answer this question: By what right can we raise our voices against this war? Merton answered the question himself through the words of Jeremiah we just heard. To paraphrase: “You tricked me, Lord. I didn’t know what I was getting into speaking your word. I don’t want to do it anymore Lord. You’ve made me a laughing-stock. I make up my mind that I will speak for you no longer. But then it’s like a coal burning in my chest and I have to speak, to let it out.”

We did it because we had to. It was uncomfortable, even dangerous, given the temper of the times. A young friend of mine, a nineteen year old boy, had just been beaten to death on a street in Rochester for wearing the peace symbol, that’s all, the same symbol that you see everywhere now. (Graham Carey carved Ivan Johnson’s headstone. It's in a cemetery on a hill in Truro, Cape Cod, overlooking the spot where his ancestors first made landfall on the Mayflower, in 1620.) Soldiers in Viet Nam would be painting it on their helmets just three years later, when they and public opinion changed. But then, in 1965, it was another story.

We took comfort in Saint Paul’s advice we also just heard. “Do not be conformed to this age.” Don’t fall in step. March to a different drummer. “Be transformed by the renewal of your understanding so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, pleasing and perfect.”

In today’s Gospel reading we find Jesus making clear to his disciples what is before him as they approach Jerusalem, his passion and death. Peter takes Jesus aside and says no. “God forbid that any such thing should happen to you.” Jesus answers, “Get you behind me, Satan. You are blocking my way.” This to Peter! He had just entrusted the keys to the kingdom to Peter, the Rock!

Then Jesus’ instruction: “If anyone wants to come after me, let that one take up his cross and follow in my footsteps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

More than once in the Gospel we are told to take up our cross. I used to think you have to look for your cross. No, just try to live an honest life and your cross will find you, don’t worry!

In a few moments we will pray for our men and women in the armed services, especially those overseas and those who have been killed or injured in action, and for their families. Indeed, we should, and not just today but every day. And for all victims of war and for those of our soldiers who have taken their own lives. For the second year in a row now, more active-duty troops committed suicide than were killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, (in 2010, 468, this year 462 so far) the Pentagon reports. Nearly twenty percent of the troops returned from Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a Rand Corporation study. Men deployed over and over again, as often as seven and eight times to a war they don’t believe in! Every poll of public opinion says the American people want out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and no sector of our population is more against these wars than our men and women in uniform. God bless them! Support our troops! Bring them home!

Is this something we should talk about in church? Yes, because it is a matter of justice! “What it is the Lord requires of you? Only this: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6,8). Every killing in an unjust and unnecessary war is a grave sin, and in a democracy we are all responsible. God help us!

We have to say so or that word will be as a coal burning in our hearts. We can not hold it in. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?

21 Sunday A #121

Is 22, 19-23
Ps 138
Rom 11, 33-36
Mt 16, 13-20

August 21, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

Jesus and his disciples have been up north in what is now Lebanon, trying to get away from the crowds that gathered around Jesus. They needed time to think and to pray. So did Jesus. Now they are on their way south to Jewish territory. In this morning’s reading we find them in northern Galilee on their way back to Judaea where the drama will be played out soon enough. They skirt Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Philip, son of Herod and Tetrarch of Trachonitis to honor the Roman emperor. The city lies in ruins, no one lives there now. Still it is a splendid site, reflecting the glory that was ancient Rome. It was built by slaves, and maybe even Jesus had been conscripted from Joseph’s carpentry shop to work on it. Slavery lay the foundation for wealth in the ancient world and it was taken for granted as part of the human condition until the 19th Century, not so long ago in historical terms.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They answer him, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “And you,” he asks, “who do you say that I am?”

Did Jesus himself know who he was, precisely? As a little baby in the manger did he know that he was both God and man, the Incarnate Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity? Not likely! Scripture tells us “he grew in wisdom, age and grace before God and men” (Lk, 2, 52.) His self-knowledge developed. As an adolescent Jesus knew he had a special relationship to God. “Did you not know that I must be about my father’s business?” (Lk 2, 49). After his baptism by John, Jesus goes to the desert to fast and pray for forty days to discern his mission. He must not have known what his mission was if he had to discern it. And he is tempted. But he sees the right path and he sets out upon it. Even at the last, on the Cross, he calls out, “Lord, my Lord, why have you forsaken me?” Saint Paul tells us that “although he was in the form of God, he did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” (Phil 2, 6-11). Emptied himself! That is, he set aside all divine powers and prerogatives so as to live just as you and I do, as a man, a human being like any other. Otherwise, how could we men and women be called to follow in his footsteps, to imitate Christ?

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers for the other apostles. “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my heavenly Father. As for me, I tell you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. I entrust to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you hold bound on earth, it shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, it shall be loosed in heaven.”

Moments later, when Peter remonstrates with Jesus, telling him that he should not suffer and die in Jerusalem as he has just predicted, Jesus tells Peter, “Get you behind me, Satan!” This is not the only time that Peter fails. And yet Peter is always mentioned first in every listing of the apostles. It is Peter who speaks for all the others. It was Peter to whom Jesus entrusted the keys to the kingdom. It was Peter who gathered the apostles together after the Resurrection when their faith was faltering. It was Peter who was told, “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep” (Lk 21, 15-17).

There were disagreements in the early church, especially as Gentiles, more and more of them sought baptism, in Palestine but throughout the Mediterranean basin. It was for Peter to see that the other church leaders came to agreement and that they did not split up into factions and so weaken the witness to the Risen Lord.

It is our belief that the Bishop of Rome, is the successor of the Apostle Peter. The Pope is the symbol and the guarantor of the unity of the Church. That’s what he’s for above all else, to be the symbol and guarantor of the unity of the Church. Why is unity so important? In the 17th Chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus prays for the apostles and all who will come after them in faith, that “they all be one, Father, just as you and I are one, so that the world might believe that you have sent me.” Three times he prays, “that they be one” (Jn 17, 20-23). Good people, non-Christians look upon a divided church and wonder, which should I join, the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist – and there are many others. They all claim to have the truth but they do not agree one with another. And so many good people turn away.

Mahatma Gandhi, the Hindu saint, is a good example. As a young lawyer in South Africa, he read the Sermon the Mount and was mightily moved by it. He built a philosophy of action based in good part upon it, satyagraha, nonviolence or soul force. He said that if Christians acted as Jesus did, if they did what Jesus instructed them to do, then he would believe and be baptized. Gandhi freed India with nonviolence and Martin Luther King changed America with it. They believed that, if we come closer to the model that Jesus left us, the day will come when war will be as unthinkable as slavery.

That should leave us all with a question. What does it really mean to follow Jesus? 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

You Bet!

19 Sunday A #115

1 Kgs 19, 9a. 11-13a
Ps 85
Rom 9, 1-5
Mt 14, 22-33

August 7, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

Every one of us, every baptized Christian is under the Great Commission to proclaim the Good News and to build the Kingdom. The Good News isn’t just about heaven and the world to come. It’s about the world as it is here and now: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Bishops and priests and deacons proclaim the principles of Gospel justice and peace. But it is up to you, the people, the lay faithful, to apply them, so that, little by little, we advance toward the Kingdom of God and its perfect justice and peace. To do that we must know not only the principles, but the facts, the realities of our day. The Church strenuously defends the right to private property. At the same time the Church teaches that all the world’s goods were created for everybody’s benefit. Those who have must take into account the needs of those who have not and the common good of all. You won’t know the facts from a steady diet of Fox News. And you surely won’t get the principles! “It’s my money, I made it by hard and honest work and I can do with it what I want” is not a Catholic attitude unless what you want to do with it is what God wants you to do with it. Read our own Catholic New York and reliable journals of opinion from right to left and make up your own minds, remembering our Church’s often repeated preferential option for the poor, the young, the vulnerable, the unborn, the elderly, the sick and disabled, the unemployed and the unemployable, immigrants. It is undeniable that there has been a hardening, a coarsening of attitudes toward these “least of the brethren” in the past few years in our country. Make up your own mind in prayer, listening to that small, still voice that comes not in earthquake or whirlwind or thunder and fire but in a whisper, a still whisper, the voice of conscience.

Today’s Gospel reading follows last Sunday’s. Remember Jesus was shaken by the news that King Herod has executed John the Baptist. He is looking for a quiet place to rest and to pray, but he is pressed upon by a large crowd and feeds them all with five loaves and two fishes. That feeding of the five thousand ought to be enough to convince us of his truth, whether it was a physical miracle or a moral one, whether he literally made many loaves out of a few or whether, even more miraculous, he opened people’s hearts so that they opened their hidden bags of food to share. Jesus is still shaken and tired today. Again he’s trying to get away to rest and to pray. Today he walks upon water to calm the storm and rescue his disciples. At first, they think they may be seeing things, maybe a ghost. “Be not afraid,” he assures them. Then Peter calls to Jesus, “If it’s really you, command me to come to you over the water.” Jesus calls to Peter, “Come!” At first Peter sets out upon the waves with confidence. Then his faith falters and he begins to sink. Jesus extends his hand, grasps Peter’s and all is well, he is saved. Then Jesus has a word with Peter: “Oh you of little faith, why do you doubt?” Why do we doubt?

Doubt is natural, normal. If we didn’t have doubt we could not have faith either. Why is anything? Are we alone in a meaningless universe, lost in the stars? Is the universe, is God friendly, hostile or indifferent? Is a Galilean Jew two thousand years dead the revelation of God, risen from the dead, the answer to our questions, the way, the truth and the life, as he claimed? Look at the way history has unfolded. There is proof enough. Not mathematical proof, not the kind of proof that demands assent from any and all honest minds. God does not force anybody to believe. But proof enough for me, that only light can dispel darkness, only good conquer evil, only love overcome hate. Only forgiveness can cancel wrongs. It’s the Sermon on the Mount. It’s the Cross. I know. I have seen it happen, the lame walk, the blind regain their sight and see.

This is the most important hour of the week, when we hear the Word of God and are strengthened in faith by sharing his Body and Blood to go out and do his will. Those who are not here today – do they know what they are missing? Tell them! Billions of people for almost two thousand years have lived their lives for this faith and literally millions have gone to their deaths for this faith, in our own day 37 priests murdered in 2009, about the same last year and a bishop or two, and so many lay people that figures are unreliable! Is it a faith worth dying for? You bet it is! There is nothing to fear. All is well, all will be well. Christ had died. Christ is risen! Christ will come again. You can bet your life on it!