Sunday, December 18, 2016

Green Ink

On my birthday last year, you gave me poetry –
Poetry! To one so prosaic as a dad
Who naps in Shakespeare and
Truncates your self-portraits.

And there it languished at the ready, along with
Kierkegaard and Flannery
And everything else I intended to
Read or re-read,

Perched by my pillow,
Within eyeshot, your gift – concealing
As it did a message, a clue, a line of epiphany,

Which I overlooked the times I
Blew off the dust and
Flipped through the pages, your
Literary largesse.

Now, a full calendar gone by,
I’m desperate for distraction – sleep
Bats me down, repose denied – and
The stack beckons, poetry on top.

Coaxed by your green-inked inscription, I
Enter and behold a green-inked
Line beneath title. So subtle, so
Like me to miss it before: The

Ink was the gift! Hence,
Before I drift off, here
I thank you.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Required for Survival: Food & Water as Moral Default

The May-June 2005 issue of Liguorian Magazine featured an article by Mark Miller, CSsR, entitled “The Controversy Surrounding Feeding Tubes.” I sent the following letter in response. It was not printed, and I never received a reply.


The May 2005 issue of Liguorian includes several beautiful tributes to Pope John Paul II, for which I commend you. His life of love and service, particularly in his role as Pope, was marked by holiness, fidelity to Truth, and tireless efforts on behalf of the world's most vulnerable.

The quality of your memorial section devoted to our beloved John Paul II makes the brief article by Fr. Mark Miller, CSsR, on feeding tubes all the more jarring. Fr. Miller rightly refers to the Pope's March 2004 allocution making it clear that the provision of food and water – even through a tube – must always be considered a part of ordinary care. But then Miller completely undermines the weight of the Holy Father's teaching by contrasting it with the work of “other moral theologians” who see food and water as optional – depending on “context and circumstances.”

This is pure relativism and is exactly the kind of muddled moralizing that John Paul was addressing. The last paragraph of Fr. Miller’s essay refers to “no swallowing ability, no awareness, and no sensation” – an apt description of a person in a persistent vegetative state, or any unconscious state for that matter. Where Fr. Miller makes a serious error is in following that description with the phrase, “the body slowly shuts itself down in a painless process.” This would occur only if there were an underlying and untreatable pathology that would inexorably lead to death, or if the individual were denied the ordinary elements required for survival – including, namely, food and water.

That is the crucial point: When food and water are withheld such that a person dies as a direct result, the only conclusion possible is that a willful homicide has occurred. How can it be otherwise? Obviously, when the provision of nutrition and hydration are no longer serving any purpose at all, and in fact become burdensome – even to the recipient – then it may be discontinued. But such a situation was not being addressed by the Pope’s allocution in the spring of 2004; he was addressing a narrowly prescribed set of circumstances, and it seems providential that, almost exactly a year later, the exact circumstance he had referred to burst into the public eye with the battle over Terri Schiavo.

Of course consideration must be made for the particular circumstances of individual cases, but what the Holy Father did (and admirably well, in my own opinion) is to help us know the limits of what can be debated, even in the hard cases. No one is claiming that food and water must be provided at all costs until the very last breath has passed one's lips; what the Pope declared is that no one should ever die from starvation and dehydration – and that is precisely what happens when feeding tubes are discontinued in the absence of underlying pathologies that naturally lead to death.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Daily Mass

Not so much reserved,
but gravitational –
this couple near the third fall,
that one near Pilate’s bolt.

On Mary’s side,
I nestle between pivots:
the Cyrene crucifer and
Veronica’s boon.

My pivot is presence – I’m there.
Nodding, nodding, I
never assist, only
posture and perceive.

At Communion, I approach
and return – back to my place.

Attendance is sparse again today.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Of Family Mantels and the Notre Dame Basilica

Winter is a hazy abstraction and seemingly a long ways off these warm autumn days. Aside from the Christmas decorations already on display in the Dollar Tree, what’s to remind you of the coming precipitous drop in temp and the mad rush to get your presents wrapped before December 25th?

At my house, there’s a constant reminder: a neat line of small gold hooks permanently installed above our fireplace. They’re for Christmas stockings, ten hooks total – nine for my immediate family and one extra in case we host an overnight yuletide reveler. It was a bit of a pain to get the intervals between them fairly even, so I just leave them there year round. These days, they’re sporting key chains and lanyards, a rosary and, until recently, a Dr. Who necklace. It’s like a Hanging Garden of post-summer flotsam and a centrally located household Lost and Found.

Come November, though – hoo, boy! The flotsam will be excised, and it’ll be time for radical reassignment when it comes to our home’s interior décor – yours, too, most likely. For us, the fireplace mantel is key: The stockings will take their rightful place on those hooks, of course, and the mantelpiece clock, front and center, will be packed away. The same goes for all those family photos – group and individual, family and friends, school portraits, graduation shots, Baptism and First Holy Communion – carefully stacked and stowed to make room for candles, crèche, and myriad festive decorations.

It’s a temporary renovation, however. Once Christmastide starts waning in the new year, the crèche will come down and the photos will once again take their place – as much of a tradition as anything we’d been doing throughout December. And like most traditions, we don’t give it much thought – where else would we stick all those portraits and goofy snapshots?

Yet, think about your own behavior when you visit a home for the first time. If you’re like me, you make a beeline to the bookcases – what do they have and how is it all arranged? Eventually, however, even I wander over to the mantel to join my wife in perusing the photos. It’s a way of getting to know a family: Who the players are, past and present; the faces that express a family’s history and personality – who are these folks? What are they all about?

That’s what I think of when I step inside churches – especially big ones like the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame. The walls and ceiling are awash with Biblical heroes and heroines as well as saints and martyrs from Church history  – a true "cloud of witnesses." All those icons, stained glass windows, and painted images help keep the campus community tethered to its Catholic heritage, and they serve to orient visitors to what that community is all about.

Just like a family mantel.

For a guided tour of one family's connections with the Basilica's iconographic "mantelpiece," follow this link

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Getting Ready for Fundamentals of Nursing


I was listening to a "Prairie Home Companion" re-broadcast on NPR the other day, and it featured musician John Prine. At one point, he sang his own composition, "Hello in There," and I stopped loading the dishwasher to listen and wipe the tears away. That song is such a beautiful, poignant picture of old age and opportunity – a dual reminder that all of us (our parents, loved ones, me, you) will eventually reach our expiration dates, but also that now, while we're younger, we have so many chances to touch the lives of others already close to their own.

And I thought of you, because you'll be touching lives like that this fall in Fundies. Maybe you already do as a volunteer or nurse's aide. Or maybe you have very little experience with the elderly, maybe even none at all. Either way, this fall you'll be ministering to such folks and sharing your life with them – via the nursing skills you'll be acquiring in class and the lab, but especially through simply listening and being present. As you anticipate such encounters, I hope you'll consider the profound mystery they represent, for in fact they're opportunities to minister to Jesus himself (Mt. 25).

Welcome to nursing and our nursing program. I'm looking forward to accompanying you as you learn to embody Christ as a nurse-apprentice and then put that learning into practice. It will be an honor to serve as your first clinical instructor and a privilege to continue my own learning and practicing right alongside you.

Know that I've been praying for you this summer; please pray for me. See you soon!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Deus Caritas Est: A Family Response

"It's our hope that our kids grow up to be other-oriented, selfless. And that doesn't just mean going to Calcutta like Mother Teresa. It's the way you treat the teller at Walmart and the guy in the car that's driving slowly in front of you and the person at work that rubs you the wrong way."

Excerpted from a family interview with
South Bend Tribune writer Karen Rivers that appeared in her story "Local Catholics respond to the Pope's first letter" (7/20/2006). The story also featured the reactions of others to Benedict XVI's encyclical Deus Caritas Est, including our friends Brenna Cussen of the South Bend Catholic Worker and Amy Schlatterbeck of St. Pius X Parish in Mishawaka.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Once and Future Franciscan

Francis and I go way back, but I’m just now getting to know him.

When I joined the Church 30 years ago, a Catholic co-worker gave me a St. Francis medal along with a prayer card – “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace….” I’m afraid I lost track of that medal, but the prayer, representative of the Franciscan tradition, is tattooed on my consciousness. It’s my thanksgiving and renewal of self-dedication whenever I receive Holy Communion, and since daily Mass has been my habit since becoming a Catholic, I’ve probably said the Peace Prayer thousands of times – in fact, I know I’ve said it thousands of times. Similarly, the life of St. Francis and his legacy have long informed my ongoing efforts to live the Faith, and I even ended up studying theology at a Franciscan University.

Clearly, then, a Franciscan stream of inspiration has been important in my life, but there was another that came first. My sponsor when I became a Catholic was a man deeply influenced and formed by the Benedictine tradition. Jim's love for St. Benedict naturally rubbed off on me, and I’ve always gravitated to monastic traditions of prayer and spirituality. In fact, in keeping with the centrality of the Divine Office to Benedictine life, I learned to pray Lauds and Vespers before I ever learned to pray the Rosary.

Both influences, Benedictine and Franciscan, relate to the reason I went to Chicago in the first place: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement she helped to establish. Like my sponsor (himself a former Catholic Worker), Dorothy embraced Benedictine spirituality, and in time became a Benedictine Oblate – the monastic equivalent of Franciscan Tertiary. The Worker movement itself, however, was especially identified with St. Francis of Assisi, particularly in terms of his devotion to Lady Poverty, to peacemaking, and to celebrating God’s creation.

In my case, that Benedictine/Franciscan overlap is finally reaching an equilibrium as I pursue Franciscan Third Order formation. Since my Catholic conversion, I’ve maintained my love of things monastic, but I’ve never been in the right place or frame of mind long enough to associate myself with a monastery or enter an Oblate’s formation program. And since coming to the South Bend/Mishawaka area 20 years ago, I’ve developed a great affection for the Sisters of St. Francis on “The Mount” – for their apostolate of prayer along with their work in education and healthcare – yet it never occurred to me that they might become my spiritual home.

Prompted by my confessor, I finally contacted Sr. Agnes Marie, the community's liaison to the Secular Franciscan Fraternity, and I’ve begun my first Franciscan baby steps – but still carrying a Benedictine torch. In a formation session recently, Sr. Agnes Marie, said something that made everything click just right. She’d been relating some of the controversies surrounding Thomas of Celano’s hagiographical writings about St. Francis, and how those works might not have survived if the Benedictines hadn’t preserved them. I remembered, too, that the Benedictines also granted Francis the use of the Portiuncula church in perpetuity, and that Benedictine sisters gave shelter to St. Clare and her earliest followers.

The Benedictines, in other words, have long been involved in preserving and promoting the way of St. Francis, and it seems that such was the case with me. I’m grateful that, after all these years, I’ve made my way back to the spirituality of Assisi, and I’m happy to be reminded that it needn’t mean leaving St. Benedict behind. In fact, the two saints (and their spiritual descendants) seem very much at home with each other.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange. It was originally published in the June 2016 edition of Pace e Bene, the newsletter of the ImmaculateConception Fraternity of Secular Franciscans, Mishawaka, IN.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Custody of the Holy Land

Alongside the history of salvation there exists a geography of salvation.

My first encounter with St. Francis of Assisi was at Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist institution.

I was taking a Church history class, and the cavernous reality of Roman Catholicism was just beginning to dawn on my evangelical consciousness. At one point, the professor gave us an assignment to read a biography of any prominent historical Christian. I headed to Weter Library, followed the Dewey numbering system over to the appropriate shelves, and there spied a small, worn volume with faded gold lettering.

“St. Francis of Assisi,” I muttered as I plucked it from the shelf. “I think he’s the bird guy.”

I checked it out.

Now, understand that I’d been a born-again Christian since grade school, and I was well familiar with the great figures of the Old and New Testament. Also, I was acquainted with many notable Protestant heroes – the missionaries who’d given their lives to bring the Gospel to forgotten lands, the martyrs of Nazi prison camps and Communist gulags, the fearless evangelists of our own country’s frontier territories and inner cities.

But this! I was unnerved as I read – nothing could’ve prepared me for it. Francis leapt from those pages fully alive, an icon of Christ, an affront to my tidy ideals and pious stratagems. What had been posed as a simple course requirement became a face smack: here was lived Christianity – an embodiment, not just an imitation. Could it be replicated? Who would dare?

Years later, after winding my way to Roman Catholicism, I had my answer: everyone must dare, even me. The Franciscan vision of nurturing mini-incarnations of Jesus in every place and everybody is the vision of the Church, bent on making saints of us all. “Every person must walk unhesitatingly according to his own personal gifts and duties in the path of living faith,” Lumen Gentium teaches, “which arouses hope and works through charity” (39). Francis’s life points the way for living the Gospel sine glosa – without excuse. No ginger tiptoeing around the minefields of sanctification; nothing short of total transformation will do.

Is it any wonder, then, that the followers of St. Francis are so closely identified with the Holy Land? We worship the God incarnate at Bethlehem, the one who wandered throughout Galilee and worked in the shop at Nazareth, a man-God who died atop Golgotha and was buried in a cave outside Jerusalem – these things all really happened, and so they happened somewhere. “One cannot desire to identify with Jesus,” writes Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, “and neglect the place where He lived.”

This is of particular importance to Pizzaballa, the major superior of the Friars Minor in the Middle East and the Custodian (Custos) of the Holy Land. He and his community oversee some 49 sacred sites associated with the life of Our Lord, not to mention numerous parishes and a wide variety of charitable works. 

The Franciscan relationship to the Holy Land is unique and stretches back to the earliest days of the order. The Saint of Assisi established his little community in 1209, and by 1217, a General Chapter was already divvying up the entire world into Franciscan provinces, including the territories of the Middle East – the “pearl” of the order’s realms of influence.

Starting most notably with a visit by Francis himself, a Franciscan presence in and around the Holy Land has been maintained with very little interruption for nearly 800 years. In fact, the order has long represented the primary continuity of Catholic influence in that volatile region, a state of affairs formally constituted by Pope Clement VI in 1342 and reiterated by Pope St. John Paul II 650 years later.

By order of the Holy See, the “friars of the cord” have a solemn responsibility to provide hospitality to pilgrims and to “animate” the land’s sacred geography. In short, as Father Pizzaballa puts it, they’re called to “to turn the stones into ‘living stones.’” Moreover, the sons of Francis join with all other Christians there in attempting to follow Pope Francis’s call, despite current hostile conditions, “to promote dialogue, to build bridges in the spirit of the Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:3:12), and to proclaim the Gospel of peace.”

A shorter version of this essay originally appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville

In addition to contributing to the annual Good Friday Holy Land collection taken up throughout the universal Church, the faithful can further support the Holy Land Franciscans through prayer, voluntary service, and financial pledges. For more information, follow this link