Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Turning seventy five

June 1, 1947, a Sunday, I came into this world – a few weeks late. I was expected in early May. This Wednesday I turn 75. It’s been quite a life.
Last Thursday I met in New York City with two friends who graduated with me from the University of Scranton in 1970 – fifty-two years ago. One just turned seventy-five and the other will next year. 

During my visit to the US, I also visited with a high school classmate as well as cousins, one of whom turns 75 at the end of July. One joy was seeing the grandkids of one cousin – seven of them, five under three years of age. I also stayed with a friend, now a priest, whom I met in Don Bosco summer camp, probably between fifth and sixth grades. Sad to say, I didn’t connect with anyone from grad school, since I have lost track of most of them. (One of my classmates at Boston College was elected abbot of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Newark, NJ, but I didn’t get to see him.) 

My life has been quite a journey – growing up in a blue-collar suburb of Philadelphia, spending six years in a Franciscan seminary and nine months in their novitiate, studying at the Jesuit University of Scranton and later at the Grad Faculty of the New School of Social Work in New York City. 

I taught in a Catholic high school in Indiana and worked in a home for kids with problems in Scranton, while occasionally teaching at the University. 

After doing disarmament work with the Vermont Ecumenical Council for 13 months, I returned to grad school, this time at Boston College.

Before I finished the dissertation (which I eventually did finish), I went to spend almost 24 years doing campus ministry and social ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa. I also had a chance to teach philosophy and religious studies at Iowa State University about once a year after 1990.

Then, in 2007, I came to Honduras. 

In 2016, at the urging of the bishop, I was ordained a permanent deacon, the first in our diocese and the third in Honduras. (There have been two more ordained after me,) All the other permanent deacons are in the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, including a Salvadoran, ordained in San Francisco, who works in a poor and somewhat dangerous area on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. 

What’s the meaning of all this?

A few months ago, I read an extraordinary book, Being Claimed by the Eucharist We Celebrate: a spiritual narrative for priests and deacons, that helps me understand where I am, how I got here, and also opens a way to the future. Fr. Scott Detisch, a priest and seminary professor in western Pennsylvania, wrote a book for deacons and priests on the Eucharist that I believe might serve all the faithful in the effort to understand who we are as followers of Jesus, the Christ, who took, blessed, broke, and shared His Body in the Eucharist. His reflections on brokenness are particularly poignant, but what struck me was a paragraph which helps me sum up my vocation;
When we look at ourselves, what allows a man, with an already established personality and ego-identity, to step forward to be ordained a deacon or priest, when all along he has been a broken human being, fraught with faults and failings? Has another story been writing his life? In a way, yes. It is nothing less than the narrative grace of the story of Jesus Christ. which is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit at work deep inside each person who professes faith in Jesus Christ and desires to serve him in the mission of the church. That narrative grace of the 3Holy Spirit, who so powerfully transformed the apostles, seeks to powerfully transform, through holy orders and the Eucharist, all ordained servant-leaders in the church. (p. 34)
Put aside for the moment the important questions of the role of women in the church. You may want to rephrase the quote to reflect your calling. 

But note the central question: 

What story has been writing my life? 

As I look back, Christ Jesus, the Word become flesh in the poor man from Nazareth, servant of God and servant of the poor, who initiated the Church of the Poor People of God, who has given himself completely, has been writing my life.

May I let Christ the Servant continue to write my life – for as many years as God gives me.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Toward a spirituality of service - in the form a critical book review

I didn’t think it was possible. A recent book on a spirituality of service, Discovering Christ the Servant: A Spirituality of Service, by Deacon Dominic Cerrato, Ph.D., mentions the poor ten times but does not make their existence a matter of major concern. 

How is this possible? 

This type of spirituality can be disincarnate. The author may speak of a spirituality of the sacrament of the present moment, but the sacrament of the poor is ignored. As Pope Francis wrote in his 2021 Message for the World Day of the Poor, “The poor are a sacrament of Christ; they represent his person and point to him.”
This is a very brief critique that I need to develop. I admit I may be missing something in the deacon’s two books. But I want to open a larger discussion of a spirituality of service for the deacon and for the entire church. 

The spirituality espoused by the author is intent on making oneself like Christ the Servant – but I think it is a disembodied Christ with little connection with the embodied poor around us. 

I would trace the author’s error back to three major issues I have with the book.

First of all, there is little discussion of the Baptismal call to conform oneself to Christ – Prophet, Priest, and Servant-King.

This is interesting since, in an earlier work, Encountering Christ the Servant: A Spirituality of the Diaconate, he cites number 1547 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, on page 23.
… While the common priesthood of the faithful is exercised by the unfolding of baptismal grace … the ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians.
The second is that the author subordinates his spirituality of service for the laity to a diaconal spirituality.

I think he’s got it backward.

At one point he writes “…an authentic and complete lay spirituality of service is not possible today without the diaconate and the indispensable role it plays in the Mystery of Salvation.” (p. 21).

Further on he notes, “servant spirituality is both old and new. It’s old in that it draws heavily from the great Catholic spiritual traditions and is grounded in the ancient order of the diaconate.“ (p. 27).

As noted above, I see the servant spirituality is rooted in our Baptism. It is not derivative of a diaconal spirituality, though a diaconal spirituality ought to make public this spirituality and its relationship with the Eucharist.

Thirdly, hierarchalism is present, though obscurely, in the author's understanding of Holy Orders.

I understand that the Catholic Church has a hierarchy, but it’s in service to the Body of Christ, the Church, and the world. For this reason, I find the author's Establishment Hypothesis very problematic.
“Step 4: The apostles, having received this gift-of-self from Christ in the forms of the priesthood and diaconate, now gift themselves, in the forms of that same priesthood and diaconate, to their successors, the bishops. 
Step 5: The bishops, having received this gift-of-self from the apostles in the forms of the priesthood and diaconate, now gift themselves to priests and deacons through the conferral of Holy Orders. 
Step 6: The priests and deacons, having received this gift-of-self from the bishop in the forms of the priesthood and diaconate, now reveal in a distinctive and complementary manner the whole Christ (Christus totus). As a result, they gift themselves to the laity through evangelizing and the sacraments. 
Step 7: The laity, having received this gift-of-self from priests and deacons, now gift themselves in the living out of their vocations for the salvation of the world. (pp. 58-59).
In this reading, those who are ordained appear as those who give the gift-of-self, whereas it would be better to say that God gives the gift-of-self through the Church, The Body of Christ, through the ministry of the bishop, priest, deacon.

I much prefer the much more inclusive ecclesiology of Yves Congar, OP, in Power, Poverty, and the Church, p. 49:
…ordination is not only the hierarchical transmission of powers but also the consecration of the action by which the Church orders her charity and builds herself into a body in realization of the ministry that is concomitant with the state of being a Christian. To have a vocation to the priesthood, to prepare and present oneself for ordination, and eventually to receive consecration from the bishop is to be called to Christian service in a more concentrated, more specific way, to be qualified to become a leader in this service and publicly to accept its character, having first accepted it in one’s heart and striven to be worthy of it.
There is one other concern I have that I cannot at this time articulate very well. While reading both books, I find myself concerned that some of the author’s expressions might lead to a dualism. In Encountering Christ the Servant, the author, while discussing the work of John Collins, writes on page 88)
The deacon’s service is first and foremost to God rather than to the people; only in God and with His grace can he truly serve the people.
Is there really such a distance between serving God and serving the people? 


I need to study these works more – as well as two recent books that I find much more holistic: Father Scott P. Detisch’s Being Claimed by the Eucharist We Celebrate: a spiritual narrative for priests and deacons and Deacon Tim O’Donnell’s The Deacon: Icon of Christ the Servant, Minister of the Threshold. I wrote on Tim O'Donnell's book in an earlier blogpost, here

I have written this so that we can begin to reflect more on the theology and spirituality of the diaconate, especially in terms of its relationship to Baptism and the deacon’s relation to the entire People of God.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Murals beautifying Dulce Nombre 2

When I see the heavens the work of your hands…
what are humans that you are mindful of them. 
Psalms 8: 3-4

As part of the festival of murals in Dulce Nombre, many murals were painted on the sides of houses.

Some included portraits of the persons who live there but many contain images of nature or of local birds.
Other murals are scenes from the history of Dulce Nombre and faces of local people, past and present, grace the walls.
The plane that was taken through Dulce Nombre from the Concepción Copán airport.

The bus of Tato who was recently killed in his bus, while parked in Santa Rosa.

More photos can be seen at this Flickr album here.

Murals beautifying Dulce Nombre 1

“The world will be saved by beauty.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky
In the process of renovating the church in Dulce Nombre de Copán, the pastor removed the retable behind the altar and eliminated the altar steps. 

The sanctuary was revealed to have several rows of stone, about 8 to 10 feet high. The pastor had the walls washed down and the sanctuary apse painted white, while leaving revealed rows of stone.
In a series of conversations, he and I spoke about having murals painted in the apse. I had seen the work of a muralist on the natural health store of Padre Fausto in Santa Rosa which featured Padre Fausto and Berta Cáceres.
I finally was able to contact the artist, Alejandro Carbajal, and we brought him to Dulce Nombre to discuss the painting of the sanctuary. In the meantime, three persons I knew from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames offered funding for the project – without me even asking them. Alejandro began working on the murals in September 2020. Most of the work in the main sanctuary and in the two side chapels was completed in September 2021, though there was more work done in subsequent months.
Alejandro Carbajal has been involved with muralists in Latin America for several festivals, including several in Honduras municipalities. The new mayor of Dulce Nombre de Copán was interested in a festival to paint many walls in the town, mostly for the purpose of encouraging tourism. Subsequently, a festival was arranged for the last week of April and the first week of May this year.
Alejandro Carbajal at the inauguration of the festival of murals

More than fifty muralists descended on Dulce Nombre to bring bright colors and beauty to the streets. Some of the artists came for a week, many for two weeks, and a few stayed for three weeks.
The results are astounding, as the city now shines with brilliant colors.
I will write more about these murals in several more posts, together with my photos of some that have moved me.

I have an album of all the photos I am taking of the murals on flickr. You can access it here.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Philip the Deacon and Saint Nunzio Sulprizio

On Thursday night, May 5, I went to Mass in Dulce Nombre. Before Mass, I had a meeting with a few people to begin to form a committee to oversee a new project of workshops on trades for young people.

The Mass was to celebrate the feast of Saint Nunzio Sulprizio, who is remembered in one of the murals in a side chapel in the church. I also ended up preaching.
We used the readings of the Easter weekday. The first reading (Acts 8:26-40) was the encounter of Philip the deacon with the Ethiopian eunuch.
Philip was among the seven, chosen with Stephen, to serve the incipient Christian community in responding to the needs of the non-Jewish members who had felt that their orphans and widows were not sufficiently cared for. 

Other than Stephen, only the work of Philip is told in the Acts of the Apostles. He goes to a Samaritan city and is then called to accompany an Ethiopian official, returning home after a visit to Jerusalem. He reaches out to those on the margins, those rejected by the authorities – the Samaritans, an Ethiopian, a eunuch. And he brings them to faith.

The encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian is emblematic: Philip asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian official responds, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?”

Who helps us understand the scripture? Who instructs us?

We cannot understand the scriptures alone. The scriptures are spoken to a people, and we need the people, the assembly, the church to help us understand. This does not mean that one person might not be the voice through which God gives us a newer, deeper, and broader understanding of His Word. 

In this passage, Philip as representative of the community helps the Ethiopian to understand the scriptures and to lead him to baptism.

In our days we also need the community to help us understand the scriptures and the call of God in our lives – in the liturgy, in the sacraments, and through others in the community, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, catechists, delegates.

But we also need the witness of the saints to help us understand the scriptures.

Saint Nunzio Sulprizio, whose died on May 5, 1936, can help us understand the mystery of suffering, the mystery reflected in the passage of Isaiah which the Ethiopian official was reading.

Barely 19 years old this young man had experienced much suffering in his short life. 

Orphaned as an infant, his grandmother raised him and nurtured him in the faith, She died when he was nine.

A brutal uncle took him in and had him work in his blacksmith shop. He treated him brutally, worked him cruelly, and hardly gave him enough to eat.

Nunzio developed gangrene in one of his legs and had to spend four months in a hospital. Another uncle found out about his nephew’s plight and took Nunzio to stay with a friend of his, a colonel who took care of Nunzio and provided him the medical care and the love he needed.

His uncle’s friend found a place for him in the hospital for the incurables in Naples. There he prepared for and received his first communion.

In the hospital Nunzio did not sit back and feel sorry for himself. He ended up evangelizing the others in his own way, preparing some children for their first communion.

His patient suffering and his care for other sick young people show us a way to respond to illness.

He was later found to have bone cancer which contributed to his death at an early age.

Meditating on his life, his patient disposition, and his life and death we can begin to understand even better the passage of Isaiah that the Ethiopian was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. 
Nunzio suffered not only the physical effects of gangrene and cancer, but also the emotional effects of being an orphan, of being abused and maltreated. 

How many young people suffer like him.

Saint Nunzio can help us understand how to live, how to face suffering, and how to die. He can also inspire us to work for and with the ill, the victims of violence and abuse, the young who are abandoned and abused. 

Saint Nunzio was canonized in October 2018, in the same Mass where Pope Francis canonized Monseñor Óscar Romero and Pope Paul VI (who had beatified Nunzio).

Tuesday, May 03, 2022

When? A deacon's examen

Last week I took four seminarians from our diocese to Tegucigalpa. It’s a long trip – at least six hours.

A seminarian from our parish had asked me and noted that the director of this first year seminarian program would give me the opportunity to talk to the seminarians about the permanent diaconate.
The four seminarians in the first year.

I started out early, after the Sunday morning 7 am Mass in Concepción, Copán. The trip went well, faster than I thought it would, partly because we took the back road from Intibucá, through Marcala. (It is actually a better road than the other route.)

We stopped for coffee near Yaramanguila and the owner of the café treated us to coffee. I had stopped here several times before and she was grateful. She also promised to get me asparagus for my return trip on Tuesday.
We arrived. I rested a little and then went to dinner.

The director, Father Freddy, asked me to speak after dinner and, though unprepared, I spoke for a few minutes. But we arranged for me to speak for a time on Monday night.

Monday morning I went with Father Julio Cesar, a priest of the Santa Rosa Diocese who is teaching at the seminary, for Mass with the seminarians from our diocese. I ended up preaching to them.

That night I preached at another Mass, this time to all the first year seminarians.

After dinner I met with them and made a few more remarks about the permanent diaconate. But mostly I left time for questions, which were quite good. Does a permanent deacon have a spiritual director? (I may have surprised them when I mentioned that it was a lay woman.) They were interested in what I do and I was happy to share.

After I mentioned that I am a rarity, a celibate permanent deacon, they asked me about celibacy. 

But sometime during the two talks I mentioned what I think should be part of the weekly examen of life of a permanent deacon: “When was the last time I was in the home of a poor person?” And, if I had not been for some time, I needed to make an effort to visit a poor person. 

I am convinced that this is an essential question for a permanent deacon, especially in mission territory.. If we are not in personal contact with the poor on their home turf are we failing to live out our vocation? 

Pope Francis is adamant on the necessity for all disciples of Christ to serve in the peripheries, in the margins, and to be in personal contact with the poor. As he wrote in his 2021 message for the World Day of the Poor,
“We are called to discover Christ in them, to lend them our voice in their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to understand them and to welcome the mysterious wisdom that God wants to communicate to us through them.”
We can and should listen to them when they come to us – whether they come asking for material help or come to participate in the church. 

But should we get to know them in their homes, where we are the guests? And should we be in their homes just to listen and be the recipients of their hospitality? 

We come into their homes not as authorities with gifts but as brothers and sisters with the need to be welcomed. 

I would challenge all of us followers of Christ to be so vulnerable as to enter a humble home as a guest – especially those of us who are deacons.
Corn and beans drying in a house in the village where I went on Good Friday.

It isn’t easy – especially for us who want to fix things, to make things right, to be in control. 

We come not to bring something – even just to bring the Eucharist. 

We must let ourselves be welcomed. 

When we do this we might learn something just sitting there, drinking a cup of sugary coffee with them. 

We might learn what love is.

Sunday, May 01, 2022

Holy Week 2022

A late update.

In our parish we begin the celebrations of Holy Week with a parish Stations of the Cross in Dulce Nombre on the Friday before Palm Sunday. We walk through the streets of Dulce Nombre, stopping at fourteen stations, followed by Mass in the main church to celebrate La Virgen Dolorosa, Our Mother of Sorrows.

This year the Stations focused on three concerns in the parish – migration, violence, and drugs and alcohol.

Migration, mostly to the US, has devastated some parts of the parish. People pay coyotes, often an exaggerated sum of money, to get them to the US. This leaves some villages with few men. In many places, this also wreaks havoc on families. 

Violence continues to devastate the parish. There have been cases this year of murders. In addition, there is the hidden violence of domestic violence and abuse (sexual and psychological). The abuse of alcohol and the use of drugs continues to plague some communities.

Alcoholism has long been a problem. More recently, selling and use of drugs has become a problem. We remember these and other concerns, recalling how Jesus shares our sufferings and our concerns. 

Palm Sunday was cold and rainy. I had a cold but still went to the Procession and Mass in Dulce Nombre. I preached, but I didn’t walk in the procession. Instead, I rode in the car with the sound system since I felt a cold coming on.

Tuesday, I went to a rural village to visit the sick and for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. 

Thursday was busy. First of all there was the Chrism Mass in Santa Rosa de Copán. It was good to be there – and also to see a few friends. 

After the Mass (and coffee with a friend, Padre Pato), I went to a Celebration of the Word with Communion and Washing of the Feet in Concepción, at 3 pm. 

At 5pm I was in La Colonia San José Obrero for another Celebration of the Word with Communion and Washing of the Feet. They had arranged twelve chairs on one side of the church for the twelve men whose feet were to be washed. I didn’t say anything beforehand, though in the Holy Week planning sessions I’d emphasized that they should include men and women, young and old. But, after I washed the feet of the twelve men, I asked if there were any women whose feet I could wash. Four women agreed.

At 7 pm, I was in the main church for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. As our pastor, Padre German, washed the feet of twelve persons, I found myself accompanying him and drying the feet with a towel. We hadn’t arranged that, but it just seemed natural for this deacon.

Good Friday, I went to two remote villages. In the morning I went to El Higon, a small hamlet whose delegate died a few years ago. They had planned to go to a nearby village but were glad to be able to do the Stations in their small village. The people had arranged the stations on the road with small bouquets of flowers. It simple, but a moving sign of the people’s faith and devotion. 

In the afternoon, I went to Mar Azul for the Service of the Passion and the Veneration of the Cross. 

Holy Saturday is a day of rest – remembering and awaiting the resurrection. For many years, this has been a day to prepare for the Easter Vigil – by baking bread and cinnamon rolls.

The Vigil began at about 6 pm and entered about midnight. After the blessing of the fire and the Paschal Candle, we walked to the new auditorium for the Celebration of the Word, the Baptism of 29 catechumens, and the Celebration of the Eucharist. We heard all the readings and the responses to the readings were sung.

The Baptisms were held in the entrance to the auditorium. One young woman, an aspirant to the community of religious in Dulce Nombre, whispered to me, “What joy!” You could see it in the faces of many of the baptized as the paster doused them with the baptismal water. 

I got home and couldn’t sleep until about 1 am. 

I got up a little later than usual, but I arrived in time for a Celebration of the Word with Communion in a distant village.

After the Celebration I planned on going to La Entrada to have Eatser lunch with the Dubuque Franciscan sisters, bearing cinnamon rolls and fresh-baked whole wheat bread. 

The people told me that there was a back way to get to the main highway to La Entrada. I had traveled it once with the pastor, but I managed to get lost. I knew I was lost when I saw the road plunge to a ravine with fifteen-inch rocks. I turned around and started back when I came across a few people who told me how to get to the highway. They even offered to send their son as a guide. I declined the offer, but when I got to one point, I felt myself lost again. Fortunately, there were some people in a nearby stream who showed me the way out. It was an adventure. 

I arrived in time for a great visit with the three sisters and a great meal. I got home and was glad to be able to relax.

Monday morning I had two pre-marriage interviews. I did take some time off to stay at home (and wash clothes and clean the house.) Such was my Holy Week.

On the first Sunday after Easter I ended up taking four seminarians from the diocese to the seminary in Tegucigalpa – six hours away. After early morning Mass in Concepción, where the pastor had me preach, we headed out. The four are in the first year of seminary formation, which is set aside to help prepare the candidates for their studies. The public school system here is so deficient that a year is set aside to help the new seminarians learn study skills and more. Some don’t need it as much as others, but it just underlines the poor educational system here.

At the seminary, I had two chances to talk with the thirty or so first year seminarians about the permanent diaconate. There are only six deacons in the whole country. Four were ordained for the archdiocese of Tegucigalpa (and at least three of them are academics). I was ordained for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. Another deacon, José Peñate, came with his family as a missionary and has been in the Tegucigalpa area for about seven years (working in a very poor area.)

While I was preparing to speak to the seminarians, I began to realize that for me the accompaniment of the poor is a critical aspect of being a deacon. I really need to make an examen of life every week, asking myself when was the last time I was in the home of a poor person. When it’s been a while, I need to reform my life and get out and visit.

I stayed in Tegucigalpa until Tuesday. I even had a chance to meet Deacon José before I left.

The trip home was longer than the trip to Tegucigalpa. I stopped in Siguatepeque to purchase a few things – and had a double dip ice cream cone from the Mennonite Store. Just before Intibucá I stopped at a roadside stand where I bought strawberries as well as a bunch of asparagus.

I had never encountered asparagus in Honduras until I passed the same stand about four years ago. I usually stop at this stand to buy strawberries and other fruits and vegetables, but finding asparagus there was a real surprise. The woman was there with her three kids – one a few months old. The oldest (about 11) helped with my order of strawberries. I ended up talking with the woman and two of her kids. She was proud that the two older boys were in school and that the first grader loved school and was learning very easily. She was proud that he was so smart. As I drove, I asked myself, “why did I take time to talk with the mother and her kids?” My first thought was because I want to give them a sense of being important and worth listening to. But then I told myself, “You do it because you love them.” 

I also stopped at a café near Yaramanguila where we had stopped on the way to Teguc. The owner had purchased some asparagus for me, and I stopped to get it. She gave me five bunches – as a gift.

I ended up sharing two bunches with US Protestant missionaries in Santa Rosa whom I know. (I tried calling the sisters in Gracias, but no one answered.) I love asparagus but couldn’t eat that much. I had received a gift and so I too had to share. I got home after 5 pm, but I didn’t collapse until I had prepared and eaten rice and asparagus.

That’s a summary of the last few weeks. 

In all this I thank God – and the people who are so good to me.