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  • The Exaltation of the Cross
    Some time ago, I attended a workshop on Chinese medicine sponsored by Marquette University. The Chinese presenter was not only knowledgeable, but respectful of western traditions.  But the American presenter objected noisily at one point about how offensive it was to him as a healer to have the figure of a dying man hanging on the walls of hospitals.  I finally protested and asked him to stop.  Clearly, he had no idea what significance the cross of Jesus had for both the sick and the healthy members of the community, including Christian doctors and nurses. The cross is a sign of contradiction to many and always has been, although after nearly 2,000 years we are not so much shocked and scandalized by it as annoyed. But properly understood, it is the sign of our salvation, as celebrated in the hymn cited by St. Paul in the second reading.  It is a sign of life, not death.  And the first reading connects it, as does Jesus in the gospel passage, with healing.  Again this year, with the memory of the terrorist attacks of 2001 still so vivid in our minds this week, we might dwell for a moment on the lesson of love and forgiveness revealed by the cross.
    Click on Preaching above to read the homily.
    Recent Publications
    Religion on Pern? My Tribute to Anne McCaffrey
    Tribute - New Publication Smartpop Books has just published Dragonwriter, a collection of tributes to the late Anne McCaffrey edited by her son Todd McCaffrey.  I contributed a chapter about the place of religion in the McCaffrey universe, the product of many years of spirited dialog with one of Science Fiction's most beloved writers.  Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards and recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a Grand Master,  Anne was the first S-F writer to break into the New York Times best seller list.  For more information about the book, click here Dragonwriter.
    The new Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality
    In December, 2012, Bloomsbury Publishing released the American edition of The Guide to Christian Spirituality which I edited with Peter Tyler.  Thirty-two outstanding authors present a wide array of essays on all aspects of Christian spirituality from its ancient origins to future trends.  It can ordered on-line from Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.
    More on Meister Eckhart

    EckhartcoverFor several years, at the request of a number of readers, I wanted to collect and update various articles and lectures I have given on Meister Eckhart into a single volume as a follow-up to my older introductory work, Eckhart’s Way (1986), which itself was published in a revised edition by Veritas Publications, Dublin, in 2009.  The collection, Meister Eckhart: Master of Mystics was published by Continuum (now Bloomsbury) in 2011.

    Updates

    On Friday, Aug. 8, I spoke on “Meister Eckhart’s Living Wisdom” at The Lantern Intercultural Centre, Synge St, Dublin 8, Ireland.

    Quotes
    No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.—George Bernard Shaw
    Richard Woods' Blog
    Orbiting Dicta
    Insights and oversights of Richard Woods, OP

    08.04.14

    The War to End War

    Today the heads of state and representatives from the European nations who entered into the bloodiest conflict the world had ever seen one hundred years ago on this date gathered in Liege and other sites of early conflict to mark the occasion with ceremonies, speeches, and tributes. World War I was alleged to be the war to end war.  Many expected the fighting to be over before Christmas.  It would drag on in the trenches, forests, and towns of Europe and, indeed, the world, for four long, terrible years.  Millions died as mechanized, industrial warfare transformed the scope and horrors of battle.  It was the end of the old order but, equally or even more tragically, the herald of the new.

    A  century later, the world should be wiser, especially after a second World War which now seems more like a continuation of the first, and a Cold War that was its product, one that bankrupted nations morally and economically and brought the world to the edge of nuclear destruction.  But as we scan the horizons of conflict from Syria, Gaza, and Iraq to Ukraine, Libya, central Africa, and the fraught zones of East Asia, it may be questioned if we have learned anything at all.

    And yet, for all that, people still yearn for peace and those who work for peace shall be called the children of God.

    …and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. [Isaiah 2:4]

    08.03.14

    Marching Forward

    In Ulster the marching season is officially over, and this summer it came off more peacefully than most.  But on Saturday the largest parade of them all took place in Belfast – the Gay Pride parade.  Or more accurately the LGBT Pride Parade, which is in fact the largest of such events in the British Isles.  There was another in Stockholm, which was also huge and well-supported, but… Belfast?  It’s hopefully reassuring that there can be a parade in that divided city that doesn’t involve shouting, Molotov cocktails, burning cars, tear gas, and rubber bullets.

    Granted, a few staunch members of the Righteous Elect displayed banners condemning all and sundry to the fires of hell.  One banner-bearing protester described the whole business as an abomination.  That parades which extol bigotry, religious intolerance, cultural prejudice, and political suppression might be less than virtuous somehow escaped his notice.

    But such expostulations were few and the raucous, colorful march was mercifully free of violence and vituperation.  Unionists and Republicans appear to have more in common than one might suspect.

    07.19.14

    Now Look What You Made Me Do!

    By tradition of a couple of centuries’ standing as such things go, mid-July marks the beginning of the “marching season” in Northern Ireland, when members of the Protestant Orange Order don sashes and bowlers and parade up and down the streets of Belfast, Bangor, Portadown, and other sites where by custom they flaunt their historical dominance over the Catholic population.  Catholics (also known as Republicans, though the two are not coterminous) have often responded with bricks, bottles, Molotov cocktails, riot and mayhem.  The exchange has become something of a national sport or at least evokes a sense of identity.  It persists.

    This summer, however, as the World Cup saga fades from the headlines and Europe gears up for more commemorations of the beginning of the catastrophic First World War, the marching season has been strangely peaceful.  At least so far. There is plenty of violence elsewhere, however. And with the violence, recrimination.  The blame game resumes.

    Comrade Putin is wagging the finger of shame at Ukraine for causing the missile attack that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17… Ukraine is blaming the Russians.  Israeli politicians are blaming Hamas for the slaughter of Palestinian children, women, and elderly non-combatants for the lethal air assaults and ground invasion of Gaza…  Hamas is blaming Israelis for provoking them to shoot rockets, mostly harmlessly, into southern Israel… In Iraq,  Syria, and South Sudan, Christians, tribal minorities, and non-combatants are made to suffer by means of merciless slaughter and expulsions, voluntary and non-voluntary that have made the summer a record-breaker for political refugees, as if somehow it was their fault.

    Blaming victims for atrocities is probably as old as humankind’s propensity for territorial expansion, ethnic superiority, and religious intolerance.  At some point, can’t someone, somewhere stop the insanity?

    04.25.14

    Bundy’s Blunder

    Maybe it’s something about the family name, but rancher Cliven Bundy (no apparent relation to Ted) has succeeded in mesmerizing the nation (momentarily) with redneck bravado and now racism in his standoff with the federal government over unpaid rents for grazing his cattle on public (i.e., U.S. Government) land.  Sean Hannity’s riposte to Jon Stewart about Bundy’s freeloading on government range was revealing – “cows eating free government grass” — sounds like food stamps for cattle to me.  A pity, then, that Hannity doesn’t believe in food stamps for the poor.  Poor people, that is.  People that were allegedly, in Cliven Bundy’s not-so-well-chosen words, “better off as slaves picking cotton.”

    The cattle stampede of formerly-ardent Republican fans away from Bundy is all-too-revealing.  Even Hannity found Bundy’s remarks “beyond despicable… beyond ignorant.”  Not the first time you bet on the wrong horse, Sean.  Or in this case, jackass.

    04.06.14

    Bling

    Bishop-bashing has become all the rage now that the Bishop of Rome (AKA the Pope) has opted in favor of a simpler life style.  He drives his own modest car and sits on a large chair rather than a throne, although he has not dismissed the Swiss Guard or sold off any art works yet.  The recent “outrage” that greeted Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s new $2.2 million home in Atlanta is the latest item added to the list of episcopal improprieties zealously kept by the mass media.


    While the residence seems excessive by US standards in some respects, beating up Gregory seems to be a bridge too far.  Yes, Archbishop Gregory’s new house was expensive and the decision to build it with a bequest from Margaret Mitchel’s estate was a blunder, although it represents a very far cry from the $43 million lavished on remodeling his residence by Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, Germany, that got him demoted by the pope.


    According to Zillow.com, the medium home value index of the suburb of Chicago where I live is $323,200.  In Chicago, it’s $187,200.  In River Forest, the suburb where my university is located, that value climbs to $496,300 and big homes still sell for well over a million dollars.  The average listing price of a home in Kenilworth, a more affluent suburb north of Chicago, is currently about $2,304,971 – a tad higher than Archbishop Gregory’s new house.  In Atlanta itself, the home value index is currently $145,300, with a median sale price of $231,465.  Big houses go for a lot more.


    According to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman’s six-bedroom Winnetka mansion is on the market for $3.5 million, half a million more than the $2.94 million he bought it for a few months ago.  Although not quite as big as Gregory’s mansion, it boasts “6 1/2 baths, a cherry wood library, a third-floor loft, and a lower level with a fully equipped sport court, a movie theater and a wine cellar. The house sits on a one-third-acre lot.” [http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/transactions/ct-marc-trestman-elite-street--20140320,0,5107869.story]  There was no mention of a panic room, however, and Bears coaches probably need one more than archbishops do. The late great chef Charlie Trotter’s mansion lists for $2.48 million, by the way.  I doubt if any bishops seem interested in buying it at the moment.


    The trend, if such it be, toward a simpler, more “impoverished” lifestyle among the episcopates is surely a welcome development, since the average yearly income of the members of the Church (worldwide it’s about $1,000 per annum) is astronomically less than what a mansion like Trestman’s or even Gregory’s costs to operate for just a few hours.  Jesus said that, unlike foxes and birds, he had nowhere at all to lay his head.  Not that bishops should be chucked out onto the street, but how many bedrooms (and panic rooms) do they really need?


    Archbishop Gregory’s decision to sell the house and give the money to the poor is a good one.  Wonder where he got that idea?



    03.29.14

    Dog Days for Democracy

    When I bring up the subject of plutocracy in my course on Plato’s Republic, most of my students seem to think I am talking about a dog.  I might as well be, because the steady advance of the United States toward plutocracy appears to be proceeding invisibly and, well, doggedly.  One way to look at it, as Plato did, is that when the outcome of national and regional elections are decided by a few extremely rich citizens, you have both an oligarchy and a plutocracy.  “Pluto” is not merely the name of the Walt Disney dog character, or of the planetoid that was so rudely demoted because it was so small, or of the old Greek god.  It means “wealth.”

    I noticed this week that the media turned their eager attention to a fellow named Sheldon Adelson, a vastly wealthy Las Vegas casino-magnate who it appears is going to call the shots regarding the Republican Party nomination and perhaps decisively influence the outcome of the general election by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the war chests of his favored candidates.  The Koch Brothers, Richard Vigurie, and a number of other members of the .01 percent club will also be on board that train.  So far, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have not shown their hand and may not.  But the Democrats will not be lacking for support from the mega-rich.  Needless to point out, perhaps, the citizens of this fair republic never elected any of these plutocrats to any state or federal office.  It’s simpler to buy one than run for one.  Or many.

    With the infamous “Citizens United” decision, the United States Supreme court pretty well opened the flood gates of big money from corporations, while Pacs and Super-pacs favoring both sides of The Aisle have been a feature of American politics for a generation now.  But the recent elevation of a tiny minority of multi-billionaires to the ranks of political king-makers is something of a novelty.  That they have made the ascent so effortlessly is disturbing, to say the least.  It could well sound the death knell of participatory, that is, truly popular, democracy.

    In a mid-term election, voter turnout tends to be low, as this month’s primaries and local elections demonstrated all too well.  Opening the electoral process to seventeen-year-olds only seems to have meant that there is now an ever larger percentage of non-voting citizens out there.  When November rolls around at last, the fallout will be evident.

    Politicians love to end speeches by reciting “God bless America.”  Perhaps they should amend that to “God help America!” After all, we still put “In God We Trust” on our pennies, dimes, and bank notes (all of them: has anyone noticed recently?).  But as that old curmudgeon Mark Twain observed about a century ago, it’s a lie.  “If this nation ever trusted in God, that time has gone by; for nearly half a century its entire trust has been in the Republican Party and the dollar — mainly the dollar.”

    It seems that the price has gone up substantially, and I’m sure Mark Twain would understand.  Increasingly, to all appearances, the purpose of big money in US politics is to assure the .01 percenters that government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich shall not perish from the earth.  But maybe it should.

    03.05.14

    Saving Ukraine

    Diplomacy, like politics, may be the art of compromise, but so far it has not sped the Obama-Kerry plow very much in the Ukrainian crisis. Apart from some hand-wringing in London, Madrid, and Paris, not much is being done to persuade the Russian army to back off.

    Angela Merkel has proved ‘reluctant’ to impose economic sanctions on Russia, as Germany and Russia have “deep economic ties.”  As Harry S Truman might have said, “The buck stops her.”  So far the other European states, including those that border Ukraine, are also showing themselves to be equally timorous in the face of naked aggression near their vulnerable frontiers.

    For those with a sense of history, the whole business is starting to look a lot like the Sudetenland déjà vu all over again… With the leading nations of the EU playing the Neville Chamberlain role, Mr. Putin may get away with his land grab after all.

    Sen. John McCain seems to be hell-bent for war, but that’s hardly likely.  Sadly, neither are the economic sanctions that might move Putin to pull back.  At least the United States has offered $1 billion and the EU 14 billion euro to Ukraine to help ease its economic plight.  But that’s a long way from resolving the crisis.

    So President Obama and John Kerry find themselves between the rock of Merkel and the hard place of McCain, trying to work out a negotiated solution.  I suppose the job is not made easier with our troops still in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, Okinawa and other areas where hospitality has long since turned to animosity.  There’s also Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to deal with.  It’s not easy being a superpower.  But people seem to expect us to do things, even if it is hardly any of our business.

    02.02.14

    About the Children

    The Bishops of the United States declared  January 22nd a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children.  It was, of course, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that has so far survived every effort to reverse it despite the largely empty promises of two generations of politicians.

    I was struck initially by the euphemism of the title.  All children are unborn at some point in their existence.  The phrase refers rather obliquely to conceived embryos and fetuses that we call children by anticipation but who are in danger of death, presumably by abortion.  But most conceptions, about 75%, are in fact prematurely terminated by miscarriage. About 30% of all pregnancies and 15 – 20% of confirmed pregnancies also end in miscarriage.[1] Some babies are still born, and others die soon after birth.[2] Surely they, too, must be included.  Others die by accident, some by the death of the mother.  Are these little creatures to be excluded from our concern?  Hardly.  But that, of course, is not the point. It’s about abortion, and specifically about Roe v. Wade.

    Time has shown that the way to prevent abortion is not to criminalize those who resort to this awful procedure but to remove as far as possible the causes that lead to abortion, and not only abortion, but to all forms of harm that confront infants in the womb.  Still paramount among them are poverty and ignorance and the remedy is at hand – social justice and education.  But recent research has shown that while abortion rates have actually been declining along the truly poverty-stricken, they have been increasing along those who are relatively well off and well educated.  Again, economics seems to be a major factor, but it involves a different approach to economics.

    According to one report, “Abortion is most strongly associated with the fault-line of socio-economic class, across three key dimensions—income, education, and occupation. Abortion rates track closely with the wealth and affluence of states: the richer the location, the higher the rate of abortions.  ‘The abortion rate is positively associated with the share of adults who are college graduates ….  It’s also positively associated with the share of the workforce doing professional, technical, and creative work. … And abortion rates are negatively associated with the share of the labor force in blue-collar working class jobs…”[3]

    Nevertheless, it remains the case that “Today, … 42 percent of women having abortions live under the poverty line, and another 27 percent have incomes within 200 percent of the poverty line. Taken together, 69 percent of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged.”[4]

    The issue, as Pope Francis has reminded is, is not simply abortion, but the devastation worked upon women especially who are constrained to live in poverty.  The other face is that of those who are social and materially well-off but resort to abortion because of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.  And that is a spiritual issue.  Here, legislation is not the remedy.  Conversion of heart is.

    In the meantime, our focus should not be so narrow as to exclude from concern the life and welfare of living infants, of children who are deprived of adequate nutrition, health care, shelter, and the possibility of education.  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” Jesus said [Mt 19:14].  I think he meant all of them.


    [1] http://miscarriage.about.com/od/riskfactors/a/miscarriage-statistics.htm
    [2] As other nations improved this key indicator of women’s and infants’ health, the U.S. lagged, dropping to 41st worldwide in newborn death rates, behind these three countries and 37 more. one of every 233 newborns dies in the USA, far better but not as good as Japan (one in 909), France (one in 455), Lithuania (one in 385) or Cuba (one in 345)…http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/story/2011-10-03/infant-mortality-ranking-US-41st/50647658/1

    [3] Richard Florida, “The Geography of Abortion,” The Atlantic Cities. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/06/geography-abortion/1711/

    [4] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/22689931/ns/health-womens_health/t/whos-getting-abortions-not-who-youd-think/#.Ut_jRxDnZhE

    12.15.13

    Invictus: The View from Ireland

    Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest in Quna and, according to ancient tribal belief, his spirit is now free to join his ancestors, Christian and other.  The ceremonies memorably blended  tribal, national and international honors.  Cannons were fired and fighter jets roared overhead.  Four of five living American presidents (three retired) attended at least some of the services which began a week ago, as hundreds of diplomats and world leaders joined many tens of thousands of South Africans and visitors from other African states to pay homage to their hero.

    Back in the USA, when news came of Mandela’s death I was struck by the grace with which George W. Bush immediately expressed condolence and high praise for Mr. Mandela, who, it may be recalled, despised Bush’s policies.  Departing from his prepared remarks on receiving an honorary doctorate at the National University of Ireland Galway in 2003, Mandela thundered  “any organization, any country, any leader, that now decides to sideline the United Nations – that country and its leader are a danger to the world.”  This was just over two months after the attack on and  invasion of Iraq by “the coalition of the willing” led by American forces.

    Mandela did not spare his hosts, either:  “And they do so because you are keeping quiet.  You are afraid of this country and its leader.”  The American delegation at the ceremony was not well pleased, let it be said.

    Having flown to Ireland from Iraq a few weeks after the war ended, and only a week before Mr. Mandela’s remarks, I was both surprised and gratified that such a revered world figure would so brazenly denounce the U.S.-led war and its perpetrators, who we learned shortly afterwards had deceived Congress and lied to the American public about weapons of mass destruction, “yellowcake,” aluminum tubes, and  secret poison gas laboratories.  Mandela was simply ahead of  the game.

    Returning to Ireland on December 14, I was mildly surprised in the airport to see in a newspaper a snarky political cartoon contrasting Nelson Mandela and Gerry Adams in a highly pejorative manner.  In fact, not only was Mandela impressed by Adams, but both men had been branded as terrorists, both had taken up arms to attain freedom and national unity, both had renounced them and sought peace by political negotiation rather than violence.  Both had been imprisoned  for their political activities, Adams three times.  Both were denounced by Margaret Thatcher as terrorists.  And while Ronald Reagan never even mentioned Mandela during his eight years in office, he branded Mandela’s African National Congress as a terrorist group and refused to sign a Congressional bill imposing sanctions on South Africa because of apartheid.  In the end, Congress overruled the veto.  Sanctions were imposed and after intense international pressure, apartheid came to an end. It might come as no surprise that Reagan also had low regard for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mandela’s great friend, supporter, and fellow “freedom fighter.”

    As for Adams, shortly after his release from prison in 1990 Mandela invited him to South Africa where a memorable and cordial relationship developed.  Not surprisingly (except to those who cannot distinguish between “terrorist” and “freedom fighter,” as Mandela himself observed), Adams was invited to join the honor guard at Mandela’s funeral.

    No, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist (or a peacemaker) is not 1500 miles.  It’s a matter of perspective.

    10.27.13

    Snowden’s Secret, or The Cat Is out of the Bag

    While the news media in the United States were focused almost exclusively on the Shutdown, as it once had been on the Sequester (remember that?), the attention of the rest of the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe, was centered on the National Security Agency spying scandal that has finally caught up to the networks… and, it would appear, Washington, not least of all in the White House.

    Nations routinely spy on each other — even “friendlies” do it.  Israel supporters are still agitating for the release of the U.S. Naval Intelligence spy Jonathan Jay Pollard, who was convicted in 1987 for passing classified nuclear secrets to Israeli agents while working as a civilian.  No such clemency has been suggested by the Washington bureaucracy for Edward Snowden, who is still holed up in Russia. Snowden after all revealed the secret of secrecy, letting the NSA secret surveillance cat out of the bag.  The US is spying on everyone.

    Germany’s Angela Merkel was righteously offended, although David Cameron didn’t think it was all that bad to have his grocery lists and private Tweets analyzed by spooks in Langley, VA.  Madeleine Albright defended the practice, since we learn so much about our friends (and enemies) from cell-phone gossip and small talk. And that’s where our foreign policy comes from, supposedly.  It shows.

    In any event, Pollard, who placed American civilian and military agents in “extreme jeopardy,” has lots of friends who want him released and “exiled” to Israel, whereas Snowden, the whistleblower, already sits in exile for telling the truth, now indeed “a man without a country.” Despite his life sentence, Pollard may be released in 2015.  Snowden may not be so lucky.  (The Pollard Report was finally made public in December, 2012.  For additional information, see http://www.globalresearch.ca/israeli-spy-was-central-cog-in-nuclear-weapons-proliferation-alliance/5320780.)

    You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free [see John 8:32].  But not all the time, it would seem.

  • Preaching
    The Exaltation of the Holy Cross

    14 Sept. 2014

    Nm 21:4b 9
    Phil 2:6 11
    Jn 3:13 17

    Nm 21:4b-9
    Phil 2:6-11
    Jn 3:13-17

    Some time ago, I attended a workshop on Chinese medicine sponsored by Marquette University. The Chinese presenter was not only knowledgeable, but respectful of western traditions.  But the American presenter objected noisily at one point about how offensive it was to him as a healer to have the figure of a dying man hanging on the walls of hospitals.  I finally protested and asked him to stop.  Clearly, he had no idea what significance the cross of Jesus had for both the sick and the healthy members of the community, including Christian doctors and nurses.

    The cross is a sign of contradiction to many and always has been, although after nearly 2,000 years we are not so much shocked and scandalized by it as annoyed. But properly understood, it is the sign of our salvation, as celebrated in the hymn cited by St. Paul in the second reading.  It is a sign of life, not death.  And the first reading connects it, as does Jesus in the gospel passage, with healing.  Again this year, with the memory of the terrorist attacks of 2001 still so vivid in our minds this week, we might dwell for a moment on the lesson of love and forgiveness revealed by the cross.

    The cross is and will always remain the central image of the Christian faith.  It has not always been respected, and sometimes for a reason.  In 1187, the great relic of the True Cross, which St. Helena discovered in 326, was captured at the tragic end of the Second Crusade.  It was dragged behind Saladin’s horse and burned.  Only the slivers cut from it before that and distributed throughout Christendom survived.  Contrary to ill-founded claims, taken all together those would amount only to a small board.  (Some years ago a French researcher actually traced all the known fragments and calculated their volume.) And in 335, a great basilica was erected over the place where the Empress Helena unearthed the Cross, and that event led to the feast we celebrate on the 14th of September every year.

    Sadly, the cross is still viewed with fear and anxiety by many people in the Middle East, who tell their children horror stories of the rampages of the Crusaders.  In those countries there is no Red Cross to come to the aid of the ill and injured, but rather, the Red Crescent.  And in Europe and the United States, secularists periodically mount campaigns — I’m almost tempted to say “crusades” — to have the emblem removed from flags and public buildings and monuments. Historically, that is our fault, not theirs.  Like the doctor from Marquette, we too easily forget what the cross really represents.

    Christians have grown so accustomed to the image that we fail to grasp the horror it evoked among Christians, Jews, and other people for hundreds of years before and after the execution of Jesus and many other martyrs and saints.  Crucifixion was the worst and most shameful death the Romans could inflict, one reserved for traitors, slaves, and rebels.  And yet, even when the cross was still feared and hated, Paul audaciously claims — over and over again — that through the cross of Jesus Christ, God redeemed the world. What was terrifying had become a sign of hope and safety, of salvation, a sign prefigured in the mind of the first Christians by the story we just read from the Book of Numbers.

    The Brazen Serpent was a wooden pole with a brass serpent attached to it.  Even though its origin was later attributed to Moses, at the end of the eighth century before Christ, King Hezekiah had it removed from the Temple and destroyed because people were worshipping it with incense [2 King 18:4].  But in today’s gospel Jesus looks back to this strange figure as a portent of his own crucifixion.  “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the son be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”  Not merely healing, but life itself, eternal life.

    John continues, repeating himself: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his own Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The ‘so’ here means “in this way.” But in what way?  The way of the cross.  To be lifted up, as we read later in the 12th chapter of John, means to be crucified:  “‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men and women to me.’  And he said this to show by what death he was to die.” (John 12:32-33.)  And he was to die for the life of the world.

    The sign of shame, defeat, and death, became the sign of salvation, life, and triumph, the sacrament of the world’s forgiveness.  So we sing of the noble tree, the precious wood of the Cross of Christ.  But it was Christ who hallowed the cross, not the other way around, Christ, whose cruel death ransomed the human race from its slavery to sin and death by the sheer force of love and forgiveness. And still does.  “See how much I love you.”

    The cross is no less a sign of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the violence of oppression and persecution can never stifle, a love, as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748.]

    4th Sunday of Easter -- Good Shepherd Sunday and Mother's Day!

    Acts 2:14, 36-41
    Ps 23
    1 Peter 2:20-25
    John 10:1-10

    Today has traditionally been referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.  And for good reason.  The gospels read at mass in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd, the real Shepherd of Israel.  Today’s passage questions us about the quality of pastoral leadership.  I couldn’t help but relate it to the desperate search for the young school girls who were abducted in Nigeria, and a number of other recent events make this theme particularly appropriate today, not least the unprecedented canonization of two popes in the presence of two living popes.

    The readings begin with Peter’s inaugural sermon on Pentecost according to the Acts of the Apostles.  They move to the beloved 23rd Psalm and then to the first letter ascribed to Peter, which is so strikingly paschal in tone and purpose – a characteristically impetuous exhortation to new Christians to be true and faithful followers of the Lord they profess to love, much as Peter himself was challenged at the very end of John’s Gospel.

    Actually, both Peter’s sermon and the selection from the first epistle are a patchwork of texts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, stitched together to present a portrait of Christ as savior, particularly Isaiah 53:5: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.” The theme is repeated by Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  It would have been familiar to anyone who was paying attention.  At the end of the passage, the author significantly recalls Ezekiel 34: 6, “My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”

    The second reading is important in several respects, not least because it is one of the first texts that clearly refers to the elders of the community as the shepherds of the flock [1 Peter 5:2-4].  Peter also makes clear that Christ is their model as the true shepherd.  The passage ends with a curious phrase, “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” For ‘guardian’ the Greek text has episcopos, which means “overseer,” and, of course, is the root of our word bishop.  We have to be careful not to read too much back into a first century document, which stands at the beginning rather than at the end of the process of organizing an institutional church on the personal rock of Peter.  But today, just after the canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, it might repay some thoughtful consideration.

    Each year, the gospels appointed to be read today are taken from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of John, although it is not the only source of the imagery of the good shepherd.  But it is central to the Easter message, that Jesus, the true shepherd of the flock of Israel, gave his life for his sheep, so that not even one would be lost.

    This year, the focus is on Jesus as the model shepherd and what that means for us.  John multiples the images lest we mistake his intention.  But here, Jesus also contrasts himself with other leaders in words that at first sight seem harsh: “All who came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” [John 10:8]

    By way of comparison, in the Book of Jeremiah God promises, and this, surely is the point of the allusion in John’s gospel, “…I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply.  I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, says the LORD.” [Jer 23: 3-4]

    Who are those “others” who came before Jesus?  It is most likely a reference to the leaders of the people who thought mainly of their own safety and profit and in fact wound up collaborating with the Greek and Roman conquerors. But as St. Augustine would later point out, it means anyone whose pastoral care and leadership depart from the model Jesus has shown us in himself.

    In the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, the people knew as much about sheep as the good citizens of River Forest do.  Jesus may not have known much more, humanly speaking, but better animal husbandry is not the point.  All the talk about shepherds and sheep from Isaiah Jeremiah, and Ezekiel is, in the end, a way of dealing with leadership.  And the style of leadership Jesus proposes is not that of driving those we are responsible for ahead of us with a stick and dogs, using fear, intimidation, and excommunication to keep the flock in check and make them do as we want.  Rather, the image Jesus presents, whether good shepherding technique or not, is good pastoral psychology: get out in front, proceed calmly, and don’t look back too often.  But don’t get so far ahead that everyone loses sight of you.

    There is a hint in these readings about what being a good disciple involves as well, although that is not the main point.  Nevertheless, it is one that many subsequent pastors have liked to dwell on.  The best of them get it right.  Following Jesus does not mean being docile, nose-to-tail, unquestioningly ovine followers.  It means imitating Christ.  One of the greatest of the shepherds to follow in Christ’s footsteps, St. Gregory the Great, put it this way, not by chance in a homily the church selected for a reading in today’s divine office:

    Ask yourselves whether you belong to his flock, whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds.  I assure you it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. [Homily on the Gospel of John, 14:3-6. PL 76, 1129-30.]

    So whether we are leaders or members of the flock, let us pray with Pope Gregory that by following Christ in love, we will “finally reach [our] grazing ground where all who follow him in simplicity of heart will feed on the green pastures of eternity.” For there, Gregory says, “the elect look on the face of God with unclouded vision and feast at the banquet of life for evermore,” the banquet, permit me to add, that is the wedding feast of the Lamb of God.

    Tomorrow, by the way, is Mother’s Day, of course, and we could well meditate on the leadership role mothers perform in leading their little flocks to those green pastures.  Over and over, my students write in their papers and common assignments how important their moms were in instilling deep faith in their hearts. The grief and desperation of the mothers of the children of Nigeria and those hundreds of high school kids who perished off the coast of South Korea likewise serve to remind us all that it is not wide of the mark to say that often, perhaps most often, the real leader of the little flock, is the Good Shepherdess.

    Third Sunday of Easter

    Acts 2:14, 22?28
    1 Pt 1:17?21
    Lk 24:13?35

    At this time of year much of the nation’s attention is fixed, for a while, on the Kentucky Derby.  And there are usually wars and rumors of wars to excite and frighten people. This year is no exception.  But extraordinary events sometimes overshadow even sports events and international violence.  On this Third Sunday of Easter [8 April] in 2005, the world had just marked the funeral and burial of Pope John Paul II.  That single ceremony accounted for the greatest gathering of heads of states in history, the largest-ever single Christian pilgrimage as more than 4 million people gathered in Rome.  In 2011, exactly three years later, on the first of May, Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were beatified.  And we have just witnessed another extraordinary week which began with the unprecedented canonization of the two popes in the presence of two living popes, again on Divine Mercy Sunday. Vatican sources estimated the crowds last Sunday in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding area to be in excess of 1,300,000. [http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/27/popes-john-paul-ii-and-john-xxiii-saints-canonisation]

    The world will gradually let these amazing scenes to fade from memory, just as the violence in Ukraine and the disappearance of flight 370 will be displaced by other events that captivate and enthrall us for a while.  Donald who?  Sterling or Trump?  But some things do not fade.  Some things remain as an indelible impression on the mind not just of a few or even a million people, but of humanity itself. They sometimes start in very small, encounters, little noticed and even incredible on first hearing.

    The Resurrection of Jesus is not just one of those, it is above all, the pivotal event upon which history itself turns. And yet belief in the Resurrection, and everything that flows from it over the course of history, itself depends on the memories of a very few people.  Unlike the funerals of popes and kings and princesses, only a handful of frightened mourners attended the burial of Jesus.  No one witnessed the Resurrection.  But beginning with Mary Magdalene and her companions, the good news of the Resurrection of Christ began its world-transforming history.

    Simon, or as Jesus nick-named him in Aramaic, Kephas, and we know as Petros, Peter “the Rock,” stands very much at the heart of today’s readings.  The first reading is taken from Peter’s long Pentecost sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, the first public preaching of the gospel.  The second reading is from a letter ascribed to Peter himself, and while Peter does not appear personally in the gospel, he is there in an important and mysterious way.  And it’s all about the Resurrection of Jesus and how we come to faith.

    The gospel tells the story of two early disciples walking back to Emmaus, a village some miles from Jerusalem.  One of them, the fellow named Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early Christians to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. For like the Apostle Thomas, he and his companion could not bring themselves to believe the women’s report that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.  Like Thomas, they won’t or can’t believe unless they see for themselves.

    Of course, they do come to faith, after they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, after which he is simply gone.  Beside themselves with joy, they rush back to Jerusalem, which would have taken hours, and burst in on the still-trembling disciples and their companions with the news and the proclamation of their faith.  And this is where it gets interesting.

    They were saying “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!”
    Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” [Luke 24: 34-36]

    “…he has appeared to Simon.”  Familiarity may have dulled our perception of how strange that little sentence is. For we know nothing from the gospels about an appearance of Jesus to Peter.  But we hear of it again, in fact the first time we learn of it is in St. Paul’s first letter to the little Christian community at Corinth in Greece:

    I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he appeared to Kephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. [1 Cor 15:3-7]

    We know nothing about Jesus’ appearances to James, either, or, and this is especially interesting, to those 500 people who were witnesses.  Not everything has come down to us.  But the mere record of it is telling.  It tells of the faith of the early Christians, a faith founded on living encounter with the risen Christ.  But the words of Jesus in John’s gospel are even more important for that very reason:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

    Without doubt, great crowds are impressive, especially in today’s world.  Still, the immense and impressive gatherings in Rome a week ago and in years past seem a far cry from the quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus.  The gospel reminds us that these huge gatherings are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that occupy our attention in this Easter season, in breaking open the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread.  God breaks through to each of us in our own way and in our own time.  Or, rather, God’s time, when not our eyes, but our minds and hearts need only to be opened by the willingness to believe in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere and everywhere.

    THE EASTER VIGIL IN THE HOLY NIGHT

    Gn 1:1,26-31a/ Gn 22:1-18, 9a,10-13, 15-18/
    Ex 14:15–15:1/ Is 55:1-11/ Rom 6:3-11/ Mt 28:1-10

    In Matthew’s gospel, there are two earthquakes – the first when Jesus dies on the cross, and the second when he is raised from the dead. My students sometimes wonder, were there really two earthquakes?  Did the veil of the Temple really tear in half? Or is this Matthew’s way of underscoring the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus?  When pressed for an opinion, I reply that in the seismology of faith, it seems to me that there is only one earthquake, and it’s still going on.  We may never get the full data on the tectonic disturbances of the third decade of the first century, but that is irrelevant.  The impact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection remade the world and is still doing it.

    Some people will not notice, and many never have.  This year, Easter Sunday falls on the commemoration of Four Twenty, a made-up commemoration going back to the late 70s out in California when 4/20 was the police code for a marijuana bust.  With the legalization of canabis in Colorado and other places, April 20 is now Weed Day, and potheads will celebrate by getting high.  If you smell smoke, by the way, don’t panic.  It’s just incense.

    People celebrate Easter itself in various ways – I’m not sure whether there will be a parade on 5th Avenue in New York, but in many places children will roll colored eggs on sunny lawns even, sometimes, with their noses, and there will be brunches and basketball games, and early in the morning some sunrise ceremonies on beaches and in forests.  Exhausted shop clerks may sleep in, other will be forced to work in order to keep their jobs. Firemen, the police, new resident doctors and nurses and emergency workers will be on duty.

    Some people, more than usual this year, will be in mourning.  We, too, grieve with the families and friends of the school children in Orland, California, and Incheon, South Korea.  We sorrow at the deaths of the Sherpa guides on the slope of Mt. Everest on Thursday and those killed in Syria and Ukraine.  A score of young people have been shot dead on the streets of Chicago. And you will surely recall how just a week ago, on Palm Sunday afternoon, Dr. William Corporon and his grandson Reat Underwood, an Eagle Scout, were shot dead in a parking lot at a Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas, allegedly by a man who was a white supremicist, racist, and former Ku Klux Klan leader.  It was the very eve of Passover.  His victims were not Jewish, however, but Methodists.  A short time later, the same man is accused of shooting to death an occupational therapist, Terri LaManno, who worked with blind babies at the Children’s Center for the Visually Impaired, when she came to visit her mother at the Village Shalom Retirement Center.  LaManno was a Catholic. It has not escaped attention that these three Christians very really gave their lives for their friends.  Their Jewish friends.

    It is the kind of Interfaith conversation that we certainly do not want, but perhaps in some respects the world needs.  It needs to be reminded that we are all children of one God, the same God, created in God’s image and likeness, neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all — all children of One God, sisters and brothers.

    It requires faith to believe that the Resurrection of Jesus has overcome the force of sin and broken the bonds of death, because we don’t see it in the moment, perhaps not ever.  But it is not a false belief for all that.  We are reminded in the Epistle to the Hebrews that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And at the very beginning of the First Letter of Peter, itself most likely a baptismal document, we are told “By [God’s] great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

    The author concludes, “In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith– being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire– may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
    For “Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,  for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” [1 Pet 1:3-9]

    As Easter Christians we believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus, the power of sin and evil has been broken, definitively so, and that the vast energy of life has been released so that we may take up again the great task entrusted to us at the dawn of days, to be stewards of creation, and now, in these final days as the gospels have it, heralds of the good news of salvation.  For Christ is risen.  Let us rejoice and be glad.

    Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent

    1 Sm 16:1b,6-7,10-13a
    Ps 23
    Eph 5:8-14
    Jn 9:1-41 or 9:1,6-9,13-17,34-38

    It’s an election year, in case you hadn’t yet noticed.  Most people in this country seem not to have, because they did not vote in the recent elections.  After all, they were only primaries and local elections and even in November, it will only be a mid-term affair.  So much for participatory democracy.

    God, I hear, is not a democrat, and traditionalists like to point out that the Church is not a democracy.  Actually, in the beginning, right up to the Middle Ages, people elected their own bishops, including the pope in some instances, and frequently their priests and deacons.  And today in parishes everywhere Catholics are observing the Second Scrutiny of the catechumens who will be elected to be baptized at Easter.  Popes are still elected, of course, at least by the College of Cardinals.  And Israel was elected.  Everyone, we hope, will eventually be elected, for in Scripture, God’s people all the way back to ancient Israel, were called ‘The Elect.”

    Basically, “elect” and “election” simply mean “chosen.” Selected. Picked out.

    At some point or other in your life, you were probably elected to some office — class president, prom queen, valedictorian, person most likely to succeed in business without really trying, perhaps the head of a committee at work, or a position in the local PTA.  Or maybe you ran for election but were not chosen, and had to swallow the defeat with the good grace that is expected of losing candidates.

    Not all elections turn out well. The first election I ever won, the first one I can remember anyway, was in the first grade, when the girls of the class elected the boys who would play various parts in the Christmas play.  My cousin Pat was chosen to play St. Joseph, and I — well, someone had to be Herod.  I prefer to think it was because it took great acting ability to portray such a villain.  My death scene was pretty terrific, actually.  My insides got eaten by worms and I suffered very dramatically.

    Today’s readings, not so coincidentally, focus on election, on being chosen.  They also draw our attention to the cost of being chosen.

    The first reading, from the first Book of Samuel, is about the election of David to be the anointed ruler of Israel.  Although the least promising of Jesse’s sons, he is nevertheless God’s choice.  As always, God’s ways are not like human ways.  Those God elects may not be those we would choose at all.  In fact, God seems to chose people that tend to get overlooked and, from what appears to be unpromising candidates, selects women like Joan of Arc and men such as Giuseppe Roncalli who end up remaking the world.

    For Paul, such election is a journey from darkness into the light of justice and truth.  That is the second theme of the readings.  Not by accident, from the earliest times baptism was called illumination.  God elects those who are to be saved and leads them into the saving light of Christ’s presence and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.  And not only once, but at every moment in our lives when that baptismal grace acts within us.

    The Gospel chosen for this Sunday of the second scrutiny is taken from the climax of St. John’s Gospel.  It is one of the longest stories in that Gospel, and even when we read the major sections of it, the drama is electrifying.  A man born blind is made whole by the gift of sight, the ability to see light.  To see in the light.  Also from the earliest days of the church, this man was seen as a paradigm, a model of the Christian believer.  His testimony is one of the most touching stories of faith in Christian scripture.  Cured on the Sabbath, an affront to the religious authorities, his faith in Jesus ultimately costs him dearly.  To be thrown out of the synagogue was to be excommunicated, cut off from community, family, and friends.  And in all honesty, his first step towards sight seems very unpromising: Jesus actually puts dirt in his eyes.  But in the end, the man cannot deny that he sees and especially what he has seen.

    “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
    “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
    “You have seen him.  He is speaking with you now.”
    “I do believe, Lord.”

    John is putting more into this story than the scrutiny of a man born blind.  The later history of the troubled relations between Jews and Christians is reflected in the commentary on the examination of the man’s parents: “anyone who acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”  This did not happen for many years, but it did finally happen, and the two ways parted definitively.

    To be chosen by God, to join the elect community, means at least running the risk of rejection, suffering exclusion and persecution even by those we love.  But there is always some cost involved.  As Jesus reminds us, “I came into this world to divide it, to make the sightless see and the seeing blind.”

    If all goes well for us when we chose to follow Christ, and him crucified, we can be sure that something has very likely gone wrong.  And so we continue the old tradition of examining the candidates for baptism, making sure that they know what they are asking for, and are fully aware of what they may get as a result.

    And as we scrutinize those who have asked to be elected into full membership in the church, we would all do well to ask ourselves how we have measured up to the grace of our calling.  And, as they say, good luck on your election.

  • Lessons from Iraq: Dominicans, Christians , and the Future of the Country

    Lessons from Iraq: Dominicans, Christians , and the Future of the Country

    The Third Lund-Gill Lecture for 2009

    7:00 p.m. April 15

    Dominican University

    Parmer Hall 108

    Christianity is an Asian religion, born in the Middle East, developed in the Middle East, and present in what the world knows as Syria, Turkey, and Iraq two decades before St. Paul launched his mission to the European continent. We in the West are apt to forget that.

    Ancient Iraq

    Iraq, which comprises most of what was once called Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, also known as the Cradle of Civilization and the Fertile Crescent, has within its borders over 10,000 primary archeological sites, many of which have yet to be excavated and have been exposed to extensive looting after the 2003 war. Some of these date back over 7,000 years, although strangely enough only three have been designated as World Heritage sites. Nine more are awaiting UNESCO approval, including the ancient city of Babylon, where the Hanging Gardens were considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The art of writing, the first cultivation of wheat and rice, the birth of the biblical monotheism in Chaldea, near the city of Babylon – all began in Iraq. From archeological, historical, political, and theological perspectives Iraq is not only significant but profoundly important.

    Early Aramaic texts affirm that the Apostles Thomas and Bartholomew first evangelized southern Iraq on their way to India. The existence of Christian communities there by the end of the first century support the claims of a very early foundation.

    There has been a Dominican presence in the Near East since the middle of the 13th century. Italian friars were the first to reach Mesopotamia. The Dominican mission was authorized in 1245 by Pope Innocent IV. But there had been previous missions, even before the Franciscan and Dominican orders had been established and launched their efforts to win the East for Christ. At the end of the thirteenth century Marco Polo and his brothers would also journey there on their way to China. What all found is that there were already thriving Christian communities in Mesopotamia despite occasional and sometimes severe persecutions by the Persians, Parthians, Mongols, and occasionally Muslims.

    When the Dominican friars arrived in Mosul and Baghdad in the mid-thirteenth century, there had been a Christian community there for over a thousand years. Or, I should say, communities. Not that they had always been thriving – intermittent persecutions on the part of Persians, Parthians, Muslims, and Mongols periodically decimated the Christian population, but it endured. And sometimes it also increased and multiplied.

    The ancient Christian communities were distinguished by language and tradition. Almost all spoke Aramaic, as many do today, although it is usually referred to as “Syriac,” and communities were distinguished by dialects – West Syriac and East Syriac, sometimes referred to as Assyrian and Chaldean. The largest body of Christians were referred to as Nestorian, although this has proved to be incorrect. And in fact, since the sixteenth century, several of these ancient churches have been in full communion with Rome. But there are also other Christian churches in Iraq and other parts of the Near East which while having good relations with the Western or Latin Church remain distinct, principally the Syrian Orthodox Church.

    The simplified map of the Christian presence looks like this: [map here]

    If it is not easy to keep the differences and similarities of the Christian communities clear in our minds, that is hardly surprising, as Westerners generally and perhaps Americans in particular have very conflicting feelings about Arabs and Arab culture in general, and share both misinformation and ignorance about Arab Christianity and, of course, Islam.

    Tonight, not least because of time constraints, it isn’t possible to touch even briefly on all these areas, or even a few of them. So I will limit my remarks to three areas of concern and interest – my own, and hopefully, yours.

    I. THE DOMINICAN MISSION IN IRAQ – THEN AND NOW

    II. INTO THE FIRE: IRAQ AFTER THE WAR

    III. FACING FORWARD: RECONSTRUCTION AND THE PATH AHEAD

    I. THE DOMINICAN MISSION IN IRAQ – THEN AND NOW

    I will begin with a brief overview of the Dominican Mission in what we now call Iraq, but was usually referred to by the ancient title, Mesopotamia – the Land between the Rivers.

    Western missionaries including Franciscans, Carmelites, and eventually Jesuits, all came to Mesopotamia and all began missions which lasted sometimes until the present. Other orders and congregations also came, as did Anglican and Protestant missionaries. The Dominicans are still there, although for several centuries our presence was greatly reduced.

    In 1291, when the last priory in Palestine was overtaken in the fall of Acre, the thirty friars there were massacred. Their bloody habits were brought to the bazaar in Baghdad by travelers where they were seen by Friar Ricoldo of Montecroce who learned of the massacre from a monk or in some accounts a nun who may have been brought to Baghdad as a captive or a slave. But this is to get ahead of our story. A close contemporary of the great German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart, Ricoldo belonged to the third generation of early Dominicans. But as early as 1221, even before the death of St. Dominic, friars had turned their evangelical attention to the lands of the near and far East.

    The Dominican Mission to Mesopotamia

    From its earliest days, the Dominican Order was dedicated to the evangelization of pagans, Muslims, Jews, and non-Chalcedonian Christians in eastern Europe, central Asia, the Middle East, the Far East, and as far away as India and China. Language schools were founded by far-sighted Masters of the Order in the thirteenth century such as Raymond of Peñafort and Humbert of Romans.

    In 1250 Pope Innocent V saluted “the Friars Preachers, who are missionaries among the Saracens, the Greeks, the Bulgarians, the Cumans and the Syrians, the Garithians, Goths, Lyconians, Ruthenians, Jacobites and Nubians, the Georgians and Armenians, Hindus and Masilitans, the Tartars and Hungarians and pagans of other countries of the East.”

    The early Dominican travelers to the Near, Middle, and Far East were not tourists or gentle apostles of inter-faith camaraderie. Their objective was conversion, not only that of pagans but also of dissident Christians. Some, like William of Tripoli and Ricoldo of Montecroce were remarkably tolerant of the beliefs and customs of those they hoped to add to the Christian fold. Others, such as Raymond Etienne and the redoubtable William Adam, wrote more aggressive treatises, such as William’s unfortunately titled On a Method of Exterminating the Saracens. Even Ricoldo penned a Refutation of the Koran, a popular work at the time and for many years afterward. The humane and sensitive character of the man is more evident in the five letters he sent from Baghdad in 1291 after learning of the massacre of the friars in Acre.

    The names are known to us of a number of friars who labored in Mesopotamia or sojourned there en route to Persia, India, and China. Several left accounts of their travels and activities.

    There were three main missions of Dominicans to the Near and Far East, especially to engage the Tatars and Mongols, but involved some exposure to Palestine and Mesopotamia.

    The first involved Ascelin of Cremona, who left for Persia in 1245 with Alberigo Alexander and Simon of San Quentin. The second, in 1249, took the brothers André and Guy Longimeau with Jean of Carcassonne on two missions to the Mongol Tatars. Well-acquainted with the Middle-East, André spoke both Arabic and Syriac. On the first mission he carried letters from Pope Innocent IV to the [Güyük ?]Khan and on the second he delivered gifts and letters from King Louis IX of France to Güyük Khan. André was later sent on a mission to fetch the Crown of Thorns from Constantinople, where it had been purchased by King Louis IX.

    The third main mission was that of William of Tripoli (1220-c. 1280) and Nicholas of Vicenza, who after having succeeded in their work in the Holy Land set out for the court of the Great Khan with Marco Polo in 1271 with letters from Pope Gregory X. Unfortunately, on the way, as Jules Verne later narrated it, “they were made prisoners by the soldiers of the Mameluke Sultan Bibars, who was then ravaging Armenia. The two preaching friars were so discouraged at this outset of the expedition that they gave up all idea of going to China, and left the two Venetians and Marco Polo to prosecute the journey together as best they could.”

    Although he may have forfeited his chance for undying fame, William’s career was hardly over. He is remembered for a number of works about Islam in particular. His tolerant and conciliatory approach may account for why he could claim having baptized more than 1,000 Muslims.

    Other early Dominican missions followed. In 1290, John of Pistoia headed for China with the great Franciscan missionary, John of Montecorvino. He died two years into the journey, however. Another Friar, Giordano of Catalani traveled to India where he founded a church and became the first bishop of Quilon in 1329.

    Ricoldo de Montecroce

    One of the most engaging of these early Dominicans was Ricoldo of Montecroce, an Italian friar (c.1243 – 1320) who lived and worked in Mesopotamia and Syria for over twenty years. His later account simply called the Itinerary provided detailed information about Eastern Christians as well as pagan Tatars, Kurds, and Muslims. He also wrote a Refutation of the Koran. As Fr. Hinnebusch, the Dominican historian says, “His five letters sent after the fall of Acre in 1291 are a beautiful and unforgettable tribute to Dominican mission idealism.”

    After a distinguished career as a lecturer in Tuscany, Ricoldo made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1288 carrying a Papal bull. He arrived in Mosul in 1289 and attempted without success to convert the Syrian Christian mayor of the city to Latin Catholicism.

    Moving on to Baghdad, Ricoldo engaged the local Assyrian Christians, preaching against them in their own cathedral. He was allowed to build a church, but prevented from preaching in public. When Ricoldo appealed to the Assyrian patriarch Mar Yaballaha, the old man agreed with him that the doctrine of Nestorius, namely the duality of Christ was heretical. The patriarch was rebuked by his followers, but within a few centuries the breach was healed and the Syrians have been in union with Rome ever since.

    Ricoldo returned to Florence sometime before 1302, and after holding several important positions in the Order, died in Florence around 1320.

    The Pilgrim Friars

    The largely individual efforts of the friars were organized into a branch of the Order around the year 1304 under the title of the Society of Friars Traveling for the Sake of Christ, which was later mercifully shorted to the Congregation of Pilgrim Friars.

    As Fr. Hinnebusch described it, the Pilgrim Friars were “governed by a vicar general under statutes given by Master General Berengar of Landorra (-).” More flexible than a province, they had no fixed territory and recruited their men from the rest of the Order. The Congregation reached the peak of its activities about 1330, when it had missions at Trebizond and Chins, Turkey, Georgia, Turkestan, Persia, and India.

    The number of Pilgrim Friars was severely reduced by the Black Death in the middle of the century, although the Congregation continued to exist, it never regained the vigor of its early years.

    Not all the friars were evangelists. The German Dominican Burchard of Mount Zion’s description of the Holy Land, where he stayed between 1274 and 1284 before moving on to Armenia, remained the classical manual of Palestinian and Near-Eastern geography for three centuries. The Itineraries of Felix Fabri, who went as a pilgrim twice to the Near East in the late fifteenth century, describe the Holy Land for “stay-at-homes” rather than missionaries.

    The Dominicans in Iraq today

    After the expulsion of Latin Christians from the Near East at the end of the Crusades, Dominicans did not return officially until 1750, when Pope Benedict XIV sent Italian friars to reestablish a church in Mosul. Friars continued to travel to and through Mesopotamia, however, as they pursued the missionary activities of the Order. The care of the church in Mosul was taken over by French Dominicans a century after its founding.

    In order to commemorate its 250th anniversary in 2000, the church underwent extensive renovation. Ten Iraqi friars now work at parishes in Baghdad and Mosul, as well as the Center of Christian Formation in Baghdad, and publish an Arabic journal, Christian Thought. Several Dominican students are completing their studies there and in France. A new novitiate was being planned even as the War got under way.

    Two congregations of Dominican sisters were founded in Iraq in the nineteenth century, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of Tours and the Sisters of St Catherine of Siena, whose motherhouse is in Mosul. Over 120 native Iraqi Sisters belong to the latter congregation. In addition to those in formation, the sisters engage in catechesis, education, pastoral work, and hospital ministry. Several sisters are presently studying in the United States. The Presentation Sisters were located in Mosul, Baghdad, and other areas and are mostly involved in health care.

    The Sisters of the Presentation were founded in the seventeenth century by Marie Poussepin, who died in 1744. In 1897, the congregation was affiliated to the Dominican Order as the Dominican Sisters of Charity of the Presentation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Tours. Mother Marie was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 20 November 1994.

    [Photo: COMMEMORATIVE POSTAGE STAMP: In Colombia the Dominican sisters care for a colony of lepers in Aqua de Dios.]

    The first sisters arrived at the Dominican mission in Mosul in 1873. The sisters opened several schools and eventually attracted a number of young women to the congregation. These eventually became the nucleus of a new Iraqi religious congregation formed in 1877 who are now known as the Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Siena.

    Among the first sisters of the new Congregation, there were martyrs. It was the time of Christian persecution in the Ottoman empire and several sisters witnessed heroically to Christ by undergoing harsh torture and, in 1915, some suffered martyrdom.

    From the end of the first World War, the Congregation through the witness of its martyrs and the fidelity of the sisters who remained, grew rapidly (much to the great joy of their supporters) opening schools, orphanages and responding to parish needs.

    In 1928, the Pope recognized the Congregation and, in 1936, the first Iraqi Superior General to take responsibility for the new Dominican sisters was Mother Marie Mossa Hendow.

    Sr. Marie Therese Hanna, former prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine in Mosul, Iraq, recently described the toll of war on Iraqi sisters over the last 90 years. In World War I, 22 sisters were killed — seven were killed by Turks and another 15 simply “disappeared.” In World War II, many sisters perished because of a lack of food and medicine. One elderly sister died of a heart attack during the rocket attacks on Baghdad leading up to the Second Gulf War.

    At the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, the order had 30 members in Baghdad, 55 in Mosul. Today about 20 of the Iraqi nuns live in Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Sweden. Others are scattered in rural villages outside Mosul and the capital, where their lives are now endangered by extreme Muslim terrorists.

    II. INTO THE FIRE: IRAQ AFTER THE WAR

    There isn’t time here to give much than a brief synopsis of the Second Gulf War. I can recommend several books on the subject, the most recent of which that I have read is the disturbing account by Larry Diamond, Squandered Victory. A vast library on the subject is building up, however. For my purposes here, it is sufficient to note that, according to contemporary chroniclers, the war was unnecessary, unjust, and launched preemptively on the basis of faulty intelligence, erroneous assumptions, and what now appear to be outright lies developed to further a partisan political agenda. In the end, if that is not too polite a word, it cost the United States alone nearly 5,000 lives, and as much as twenty times that number of Iraqi civilians. It has absorbed three-quarters of a trillion dollars of our national treasure, which added to the cost of the war in Afghanistan, will exceed a trillion dollars within a year or two. In that respect, the Gulf War can be fairly said to have wrecked not only the U.S. economy, but a huge portion of the world economy as well.

    Just as the Second World War was effectively a continuation of the First World War, the Second Gulf War took up where the First Gulf War halted.

    Following a disastrous eight-year war with Iran, during which the United States actively supported Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 after negotiations failed over what Iraq claimed was illegal oil drilling into Iraqi fields. Without waiting for a negotiated withdrawal, the western Allies led by the United States and Great Britain launched the First Gulf War [Desert Storm] on 17 January 1991. It lasted until 28 February 1991.

    Severe economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq from 6 August 1990 to 22 May 2003[1] which crippled the country and resulted in the death of many thousands of children from malnutrition, in addition to wrecking the educational system, the health care system, and social services. Saddam Hussein was also required to dismantle any weapons of mass destruction, which United Nations weapons inspectors were able to verify, contrary to U.S. claims.

    After a build-up to war in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, during which erroneous claims were made involving Al Qaeda, supposed efforts to purchase African uranium, and the hidden presence of weapons of mass destruction, the Second Gulf War was launched on 19 March 2003. It lasted until 1 May 2003, killing thousands of civilians and further destroying Iraq’s infrastructure.

    “Mission Accomplished”

    [“Mission Accomplished” refers to a banner titled “Mission Accomplished” that was displayed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln during a televised address by United States President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003 and the controversy that followed.]

    In the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion, further extensive damage was perpetrated on Iraq’s social, cultural, and political structures. Retired General Jay Garner was placed in command of the occupational forces, but was prevented from entering Baghdad for two weeks, during which an upsurge of looting and a rampage of destruction ensured, including the (American) shelling and looting of the Museum of Antiquities and the burning of the National Library on 14 April 2003.

    On 11 May Garner was removed from his position and replaced by L. Paul (“Jerry”) Bremer, a career diplomat without Middle Eastern field experience and no knowledge of Arabic. Bremer proceeded in one stroke to dismantle the political, juridical, and military structure of Iraq, throwing the country into a period of chaos from which it has not yet emerged. It was during this period that “insurgents” poured into the country across unguarded borders and began a sustained effort to disrupt the occupation and seize control of power. Even Al Qaeda successful infiltrated Iraq at this time.

    I arrived back in Iraq on the 16th of May, 2003, and was an eye-witness to the first stages of the insurgency. I returned in January 2004 with several other Dominicans to attend the ordination of one of our young friars. By then, the insurgency has gained sufficient momentum so as to be virtually unstoppable. In any event, it was not stopped.

    In his book Squandered Victory the situation in post-war Iraq was aptly epitomized by Larry Diamond, who had been a senior advisor to L. Paul Bremer in 2004 to assist in Iraq’s political transition to democracy:

    Iraq’s economy and society had been devastated by forty-five years of authoritarian rule and, in particular, by the last twenty-four years of murder, plunder, and terror under Saddam Hussein. The dictator had plunged his country into two devastating, needless wars (with Iran in 1980-88, and with the United States in 1991), which had left some 150,000 Iraqis dead, a similar number captured, and more than a quarter of a million wounded. Dictatorship, war, international sanctions, and steady economic decline had driven millions of Iraqis into exile and had devastated the middle class; annual per capita income had fallen by well over half to about $1,000; educational and health levels had declined sharply; child mortality rates had increased several times over; infrastructure had deteriorated; and the country had piled up a staggering foreign debt, estimated at $200 billion. More than 40 percent of Iraqi adults were illiterate, and the population was very young (40 percent were under age fifteen) and growing rapidly. A young, burgeoning, increasingly urban population, in the context of pervasive joblessness and disruption of services, meant that postwar governance would confront a boiling cauldron of expecta­tions that would be difficult to fulfill. [pp. 20-21]

    Convinced that the project was marred and headed for disaster, Diamond resigned his post in April, 2004. His account is a thoroughly documented study of how in “Jerry” Bremer and his team, guided from Washington, effectively destroyed the possibility of a peaceful transition to democracy and in fact created the insurgency. For those who might prefer a faster and more visual less in nation destruction, let me recommend Charles Ferguson’s award-winning documentary No End in Sight.

    Despite the “success” of the U.S. surge in 2008, the seemingly endless and bloody civil discord in Iraq has destabilized the Middle East, particularly by prolonging tensions with Iran, and embedded the image of the United States as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim in the minds of millions of people from Morocco to Pakistan and beyond. The death toll continues to rise, especially among civilians. Refugees fleeing from Iraq to Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Jordan, as well as the United States, Canada, and Australia, has further eroded the Christian population in particular, as persecution on the part of extremist groups has escalated over the past five years.

    In his report, “Iraqi Christians under Fire,” Roger Stourton notes that

    “About 200,000 Iraqi Christians have already fled the country; they once made up three per cent of its population, and they now account for half of its refugees.

    “Erbil, in northern Iraq, has become a magnet for Christian refugees who are too poor to leave Iraq or do not want to abandon their country. It is the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government, which treats the Christians well; it is safe; and there is an established Christian community to welcome them. Many of them gravitate towards the traditionally Christian suburb of Ainkawa.”

    According to the Catholic News Service of April 13, 2010,

    Approximately 150,000 Iraqi Christian refugees live in Syria. Their circumstances are a microcosm of the approximately 250,000 Iraqi Christians who have fled their homes, settling also in Jordan and Lebanon. Nearly every family has experienced the terror of violence that has ensued since the 2003 U.S.-led military invasion.

    Based on the experiences of their fellow Iraqi refugees, many displaced Iraqis realize that only a small number are likely to be resettled to other countries by the United Nations, and the wait for such a move can take years. In the meantime, with no legal status, they remain in limbo.

    Just two days ago, a delegation of North American bishops representing the Catholic Near East Welfare Association gathered in Damascus at a center set up by the Melkite Archbishop Isidore Battikha to observe efforts being made to care for the tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees.

    One of the refugees asked the church leaders, “What can be done for Christians who are being uprooted from Iraq?”

    “I think the most important thing we can do, first of all, is to be here and to see you and to let you know that you are in our hearts,” said Msgr. Robert Stern, secretary-general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He emphasized that although the visitors represented the Catholic Church and the Vatican, “We are not politicians.”

    “Even though we live in Western countries, we cannot control the policies of the countries or the United Nations,” he added.[2]

    Given the failure of western politicians to achieve significant relief for refugees, that may not be as damning a statement as it first appears. But surely more can and hopefully will be done by the Church’s official Near-Eastern program.

    III. FACING FORWARD: RECONSTRUCTION AND THE PATH AHEAD

    I will begin the concluding portion of my talk with three points:

    First, the elections of 2005 produced a huge and surprising turnout of Iraqis both within the country and throughout the diaspora, including the Chicago area – a 75% turnout, the likes of which has not been seen in a western democracy for generations. The percentage this last March 7 was lower, 62%, and that in the face of threats of violence and hundreds of killings aimed at discouraging participation. But the percentage of eligible voters who turned out in the 2008 U.S. presidential election was only 56.8%.[3]

    Second, President Obama has announced a major troop withdrawal beginning in August of this year and ending with a virtually complete evacuation of military personnel by August of 2012 – if all goes well.

    In the meantime, third, the elections of 2010 are still being contested more than a month after the voting ceased and the toll of the dead and injured in sectarian and political violence continues to escalate.

    The road ahead for the country of Iraq will not be the smooth transition to democracy that was the dream of the architects of the Second Gulf War and which provided the map for reconstructing what they had destroyed. Not least worrisome is the fact, as Larry Diamond has pointed out, that “The sixteen Arab states of the Middle East that surround Iraq constitute “the only major cultural and regional group in the world that [does] not have a single democratic government.”[4]

    There are at least three major possibilities for a reconfiguration of Iraq in the future:

    1. A unified Republic composed of provinces – much like the present situation

    2. A federal Republic of 3 or 4 semi-independent states, as under Ottoman Empire

    3. Three or four countries divided accord to religion, ethnicity, and culture

    How any of these will ultimately come to fruition is anyone’s guess. For the time being, Iraq will remain as is, a country struggling to be reborn.

    The Future of the Church in Iraq

    At the beginning of the first Gulf War, Iraqi Christians numbered about a million. The Catholic population was mainly concentrated in the northern area around Mosul, but many lived in Baghdad and Basra. After sanctions were imposed Christians were allowed to migrate, leaving about 750,000 at the time of the Second Gulf War. Subsequent emigration has reduced that number to approximately 500,000.

    What of the Christian Churches?

    As the insurgency grew and became more radical and violent after 2004, the situation of minorities grew increasingly desperate. Christian communities that had survived for almost two millennia were targeted for terror and eviction. Churches were bombed, priests were murdered, even little girls were brutally killed on their way home from school. Archbishop Georges Casmoussa, whom I had met in 2001 and again in 2004, when he ordained Hani Daniel, was kidnapped in January 2005 but mercifully released. Archbishop Faraj Rahho was less fortunate, and died in March 2008 as a result of mistreatment or even murder after he was kidnapped at the end of February.

    In January 2005 a number of the Sisters of the Presentation left their house in Mosul and relocated to Syria and Jordan, although the community in Baghdad, where the novitiate and St. Raphael’s Hospital are located as well as a rehabilitation center for young people, has remained and the sisters plan to return to Mosul. I would be surprised if Sister Maryanne Pierre, the hospital administrator who never left her post during the War, would tolerate the thought of leaving Baghdad.

    The Dominican congregation has seven communities in Iraq, with 40 sisters who work in education, in health care at St. Raphael’s Hospital in Baghdad, and in a rehabilitation center for young people.

    The novitiate of the Dominican sisters of St. Catherine in Mosul was struck by rocket fire and car bombs. The Dominican priory was attacked several times. Attacks against Christian targets are often planned to coincide with religious holidays such as the Feast of the Assumption and Christmas. On Nov. 1, 2006, the Feast of All Saints, a large bomb explosion at 7 pm destroyed the exterior iron doors of the Dominican Church and flattened two sets of wood doors. The discharge shattered the beautiful windows of the chapel where the friars were holding evening prayer, but no one was harmed in the blast.

    Miraculously, none of the Dominican sisters or friars were injured. Then situation in Baghdad was less threatening, but no less serious. Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled the country.

    In the face of sustained persecution, it has been suggested that the ancient Christian Church in Iraq is in danger of disappearing in one generation. Although this would please the most extreme Islamists, I doubt that it will turn out that way, although the road ahead will be dark and perilous. According to Roger Stourton, Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, “has been instrumental in persuading Pope Benedict to convene a special synod on the plight of Christians in the Middle East this October.”

    I think I can say that the commitment of the Church to Iraq is solid after 1900 years. Yet I think three things can be predicted in this most unpredictable world:

    1. The Christian presence in Iraq will undoubtedly be reduced.

    2. Christians will one day be able to return to their homes as they desire.

    3. In the future, the Christian community will again contribute constructively to both the rebuilding of Iraq as it always has.

    What of the Future of the Dominicans in Iraq?

    Where Catholics are found, Dominicans are found. And as Iraq is a young nation in terms of the population — almost half are under the age of 16 — Dominicans are also young and vital. Their presence will undoubtedly assist the Christian community and the country as a whole to recover from the years of political oppression, the suffering of the people under twelve years of sanctions, and the devastation of the recent war.

    After 765 years, I suspect that the Dominican commitment to Iraq is still firm.

    Let me conclude. Recently I came across something I wrote just before the beginning of the Second Gulf War:

    After twelve years of crippling economic sanctions and constant bombardment, the people of Iraq will confront a host of challenges over the next twenty years at least as daunting as the disintegration of their society during and after the Gulf War. A UN or US-UK occupation following a successful military campaign against the Hussein regime will have to oversee the rebuilding of the already damaged material, social, economic, and political structures requisite for a minimally satisfactory life in the 21st century for 22.5 million people.

    Imposing successful solutions on a society divided by long-standing religious, ethnic, and tribal conflicts is highly unlikely. But eliciting cooperation from competing factions is also prone to grave if not insurmountable difficulties. Will Iraq become a dependency of the US-UK alliance in exchange for access to oil? Can the international community devise a plan of reconstruction that will enable the people of Iraq to participate fully in the redevelopment of their country as partners in peace, sustainable technological progress, inclusive health care, educational opportunity, equitable trade, and cultural enrichment?

    Seven years later, I find myself asking, Will Iraq survive? Yes, as it has survived for over seven millennia. But it will be a long, hard, bitter struggle, especially for the reduced Christian communities of Iraq.

    Was it worth it? The wars, the bloodshed, the destruction of heritage – the looting of the Museum of Antiquities, the burning of the National Library, the continual terrorist attacks on civilians, the constant threat of civil war, the merciless ravaging of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world?

    That is to ask, could the problem posed by an increasingly thwarted and still belligerent regime have been confronted in a way less destructive and problematic for the stability of the Near and Middle East? We now know, without doubt, that the answer is Yes.

    It is far too late, however, to do much more than identify the mistakes and blunders that led the Coalition of the Willing into such a morass – the loss of human lives on all sides, the loss of international prestige, and the loss of national treasure, not least to the United States. Far from the few weeks and 75 billion dollars anticipated by those who launched the war, the 8 years’ war and the 700 billion dollar price tag surely played a large part in bringing the American economy to its knees. War is waste, as Isaac Asimov said so many years ago, the last recourse of incompetence. And, as the continuing tally of lost dollars is showing us month by month, the seedbed of vast corporate corruption.

    We cannot undo the past, but it is not too late to learn from our mistakes. As Iraq struggles to become a nation once again, we in the United States also face a challenge: to assess and benefit from what we have learned. But, and I will leave you with this thought, what have we learned?

    [1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_sanctions

    [2] See http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1001553.htm.

    [3] Source of 2008 election results: http://elections.gmu.edu/Turnout_2008G.html.

    [4] Diamond, Squandered Victory, p. 21.

  • The Dominicans

    The Order of Friars Preachers, popularly called the “Dominicans,” was founded by St. Dominic in 1216. I joined 746 years later. In 1966, I took solemn vows in the Order, and after three more years of study, I was ordained to the priesthood. Only a small percentage of Dominicans are priests, however.

    An extended family of nuns, brothers(or “friars,” as the English pronounced the French frère ), sisters, lay women and men, and priests, the Dominican Order is found all over the world. Its headquarters is in Rome at the beautiful old church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. The main work of the members is preaching and teaching, which take many forms, from missionary work to teaching computer science.

    From the beginning, the friars have been organized into provinces for administrative purposes. There are four provinces in the United States. I am a member of the Central or Midwestern Province , named in honor of St. Albert the Great, the thirteenth-century scientist, mystic, and philosopher who taught St. Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart. I have also taught in Oxford for the English Province, at a house of studies called Blackfriars Hall , which is also a permanent private hall of the University. The present Master of the Order, Fr. Carlos Aspiroz Costa, is from Argentina.

  • Newest Member of the Household

    CairoWebThis is Cairo the Cat, who adopted me from the Anti-Cruelty Society last March, when I was recuperating from heart surgery.  He took it upon himself to make me laugh and helped get me well again. He’s a two-year-old half Maine Coon Cat, very bright, friendly, and affectionate.  And sometimes too clever for his own good.  Or mine, anyway. He celebrated his third birthday on Jan. 7.

    Family & Friends

    My immediate family, even the extended version, was originally concentrated in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I was born in 1941. We are pretty scattered now, literally from coast to coast, but manage to stay in touch by e-mail, letters, and gatherings when we can find a way to assemble as many as can travel.

    My father, James Everett Woods, died in 1986, and my mother, Margaret Corcoran, followed him in 1989.

    My older brother Jim and his wife, Pat, live in Maryland, and my nephew and nieces (Mike, Teresa, Catherine, and Shari) are located in Kansas, Washington, and Florida. Several of my cousins still live in Albuquerque, as well as outposts in Virginia, Nevada, Texas, Ohio, and Arizona. And probably a few other places. We spread out.

    My nearest housemates, geographically speaking, have been Samantha, Pas de Chat, and Shane. During the night of June 23-24, 2000, Miss Sam, also known as Samantha and the Samcat, died of an apparent heart attack, passing peacefully into the great heart of the Cosmos.

    Our great pal, Pas de Chat, the quintessential Kliban Kat (American short-hair, brindle), died on 9 August 1997. He was about 15 years old and, as I had written earlier, resembled a dignified potato on sticks wearing striped pajamas with four white socks that got him his name. (Imagine a chubby ballet dancer with four feet.)

    Both felinities came to live with me by accident. My former collie, Heather, who was a pet psychotherapist (among other things), grew desperately ill back in 1978, and I was urged by the vet to find someone or something to keep her spirits up. A friend had a friend whose cat had had kittens, one of whom was declared the perfect solution.

    So Sam was raised by a collie and thought she was a dog. Pas de Chat came to live with us when his former owners added a third child to the household and there wasn’t quite enough room for everyone. I tried to find him a good home, but he activated his allergy device and was, happily enough, returned. And stayed, even traveling with me to New Mexico for a while.

    Shane came along in 1994 as the fourth collie in my career. I confess to partiality for the breed. I hope it is because our personalities match. But as he is young, intelligent, handsome, friendly, patient, playful, and loyal, I am probably projecting. Shane eventually went to live with a fine family in Skokie, a move that I certainly found difficult but necessary because I was away from home so much. Time caught up with him, too, however, and he died in 2007.

    Animals (and plants, too) have always played a large role in my life. In larger Dominican priories, providing care can be a problem, but in smaller communities, they add a more than a touch of fun, beauty, and camaraderie. And even burglar prevention.

    The Generations

    Most of my ancestors came from Ireland, even the Welsh great-grandmothers. The Woods family (who were Protestant) settled in Missouri, where my father, James Everett, was born on a farm near Neosho in 1908. His mother was Maud Stacey, but I never knew her because she died very young during the ‘flu epidemic of 1918. (Her mother’s family name was Mathis.) I knew my granddad, however. John Orville Woods became a rancher in Clayton, New Mexico, and was also the county agronomist as well as a Methodist lay preacher. I still have his well-worn old bible, which my father inherited when “John O” died in 1969, on the same day I was ordained to the priesthood.

    My mother’s side of the family were mostly Corcorans and Powers and Brennans. “Papa Jim” Corcoran had been in the Union Army during the Civil War, family legend says as a drummer boy, because he was too young to be a regular soldier. I still have his discharge papers. He died before I was born, but I knew his wife, Olive, who remarried a Swede named Gus Thielen and became known as “Mom Thielen.” She was a real pioneer. After migrating in a covered wagon from Nebraska to Colorado well before the turn of the century, she worked as a milliner in Silverton and Leadville. Sometime around the turn of the century, she moved with the family down to New Mexico, where she ran a boarding house in Albuquerque and a small hotel in the little village of Jemez Springs in the north-central mountains. Her Sunday afternoon dinners were so famous, I am told, that people would come from hundreds of miles away to partake. Olive died when I was eighteen.

    My other great-grandparents were from Ireland – John Powers and his wife, Elizabeth Robinson (one of the Welsh women). They came to New Mexico from the Old Country in 1884 with their thirteen children, including my grandmother, Angelus, who was born while the Angelus bells were ringing. (Conscientious clerks tried to correct that to “Angela” but she was able to keep her rightful name even through immigration.) Her father, who had been a game-keeper in Tyrrellspass, was an ardent Catholic. Family lore has it that when he heard the Angelus bells ringing, even in Albuquerque, he would stop, even in the middle of the street, pull off his hat, bow his head and recite the proper prayers. The local patrolmen (all Irish themselves) would simply direct traffic around him until he was finished.

    John Powers (Nov. 24, 1837- Dec. 1, 1916) and several of his sons worked for the railroad, which came into Albuquerque in 1888. In 1910, he and Elizabeth were honored on their golden wedding anniversary by the people of Albuquerque, who had a gold medal struck in Rome with a portrait of Pope Pius X on one side and a tribute on the other.

    Angelus, my “Nana,” (1884- Nov. 22, 1957) was brought to America on a clipper ship at the age of six months, married Edward Corcoran in 1908. Ed (or “Toby” as the family always called him), ran a plumbing business where at one time or another my dad and my uncles all worked as apprentices. The Corcoran house, known to us kids as “Nana’s and Toby’s,” was the fixed point around which the family turned in the ‘forties and ‘fifties. I still return there in my dreams, although the old house has been gone for over twenty years now.

    My mother and father were both born in 1908. They met on the Fourth of July in 1933. The Corcorans were out for a picnic in the Jemez country, and as the mountains were very dry and fire was a constant hazard, the cars were being checked for fireworks by forest rangers. My future father was working that summer as a ranger with one of my mother’s brothers, Tom Corcoran, who (legend has it) arranged for everyone to be at the same place at the same time. Whatever fireworks were involved came later.

    Marrying during the depression was a difficult choice, and my parents found themselves in a variety of jobs. Prior to their marriage my mother had been a secretary with Kansas City Life Insurance Co. (Michael Crichton’s father, Kyle, worked in the same office.) But because married women were not supposed to hold salaried positions, she was fired.

    My father, who had worked as a hand at La Esperanza, a well-known dude ranch in the Jemez country, and flown a converted JN-9 bi-plane as a barnstormer, found work at a short-order café in Albuquerque and eventually as trail cook for the road crew who laid U.S. 66 across the Navajo reservation in Arizona. Later, he built the family house by himself. But just when starting up a plumbing shop in the garage, he was drafted with Toby and my uncles into the tech crew who built the secret labs at Los Alamos during World War II. My brother and I were on the scene by then. Later, Dad was drafted into the Army. Because his beloved house was “out in the country,” my parents had to sell it, and my mother, brother, and I moved into town to stay with my grandparents. The war ended before my father was shipped overseas, but we never got the house back.

    It is interesting looking back at those years in the awesome light of the nuclear age. Some of my earliest memories are of the Quonset hut in Los Alamos where we lived for several months. Sometimes we were shaken out of bed in the middle of the night by the concussion of detonators being field-tested. I remember the adults making cigarettes with a hand-cranked rolling machine, and my age-mate cousin Pat describing being chased by a bear. As Los Alamos was high in the mountains between Santa Fe and Jemez, it was certainly possible. And still is, although Los Alamos is now a small city and brown bears generally stay out of town. One of my most indelible memories from that era is of my dad saying goodbye back in Albuquerque the night he left for Fort Bliss. He and Mom could only have been in their mid-thirties, and I was all of three-and-a-half. I recall him sitting on the edge of my brother’s bed, wearing his three-piece black suit, making shadow-grams of rabbits and turkeys on the wall with the aid of a goose-neck lamp. And my mother cried.

    Later that spring, my uncle, Calvin Shepherd, worked on the high tower between Socorro and Alamogordo at a place called Trinity Flats. There on July 16, 1945, after he and the other workers had been driven away in curtained sedans, the nuclear age awoke the morning with a false dawn seen as far away as Albuquerque where I was sleeping snugly in my crib in the front bedroom of my grandparents’ house on Third Street. I remember all the bells ringing later that summer and being told by Nana that the war was over. I had heard the bells ring like that only once before. Everyone was crying, then, and I remember hearing that Mr. Roosevelt had died.

    Twenty-five years later, on July 16, 1970, I offered a Mass for Peace overlooking the site where that first atomic bomb had so altered the course of world history.

  • My Ireland - Dragonthorn

    Dragonthorn is the name of a 180-year-old cottage in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, where I retreat when I can in order to reflect, write, and unwind in a quiet, pastoral setting. Located a few miles west of the ancient fishing town of Arklow, this “home away from home” is near the Vale of Avoca [also known now as Ballykissangel!]- close to the Meeting of the Waters — the Avonmore and Avonbeg Rivers immortalized in the poetry of Thomas Moore; Avondale — the stately home of Charles Stewart Parnell; and about 20 miles from Glendalough — the exquisitely beautiful site of the Celtic monastery founded by St. Kevin in the seventh century.

    Originally, the cottage was one of the farm buildings of Shelton Abbey, the manorial estate of the Earl of Wicklow. It was used for storing potatoes and equipment and also provided a haven for the farm hands’ afternoon tea. After the death of the last Earl in the mid-1950s, the farm came under government ownership and the old buildings were used for equipment storage by the Forestry Service.  The barns and cottage were eventually put up for sale and were purchased by my friend the late Anne McCaffrey for development as a school for aspiring blacksmiths or farriers, as they are called in Ireland. Anne offered me the opportunity to redesign the cottage as a writer’s retreat. The name was the result of creative collaboration with my friends, the writer Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, and Mantas Adoménas, then a student of mine at Oxford from Lithuania. DRAGON linked it to Dragonhold Underhill, formerly Anne’s house near Newcastle, and the THORN to the brambles and briars that had grown up around the cottage in the years it stood idle. And still do!

    Stop by for a cup of tea if you are in the area. For directions, drop me a note at my e-mail address -rjwoodsop@cs.com . Cead Mile Failte!

  • A Diversity of Dragons

    A Diversity of Dragons , a partly-fictional history of dragons I co-authored with Anne McCaffrey has been lavishly illustrated by Canadian artist John Howe, and appeared in U.S. bookstores late last September from HarperPrism. ( The English edition is published by Simon and Schuster .) Illustrating the book added two years to the project, but John’s art is so compelling, I think you will agree that it was worth the wait. (It was released simultaneously in the U.S., England, and France.)

    Diversity traces the origin and development of the myth and symbol of the dragon from its earliest manifestations to its latest appearance in recent fantasy literature and science fiction. The large-format book also explores a current manifestation as Anne herself, Sean Evans, and a diminutive Irish dracologist named Epiphanius Tighe set out to investigate some mysterious events in County Wicklow. It’s available from bookstores and from Amazon.com . (The sequel, Epiphanius Tighe and the Dragon of East South Water Street , is now available from IUniverse.com’s Writer’s Choice Press. See above! )

    Harps and Dragons

    Since I was very young, I have been fascinated by harps and dragons. That may be because three of my great grandmothers were Welsh. (My ethnic ancestry is almost all Irish, however. My maternal grandmother was born in a village in County West Meath called Tyrrellspass, and all my other forebears were also from Ireland.) The Celtic harp is the national instrument of both Wales and Ireland, and the national emblem of Ireland. The dragon is the national emblem of Wales.

    When my friend Richard Hutt and I began making folk harps in the mid-seventies, we decided to call our partnership Pendragon Harps , which seemed natural enough. Pendragon was an ancient British (i.e., Welsh) title given to military leaders who organized the Christian kingdoms against invasions by Irish pirates and land-hungry Saxons and Angles who had succeeded in occupying the southeastern coast. The most famous of the legendary Pendragons were Uther and his son Arthur, who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries. (For a fascinating account of the role played by horses and horseshoes in Arthur’s campaigns against the Saxons, see Anne McCaffrey’s prize-winning novel, Black Horses for the King, published by Harcourt Brace. Anne and I also collaborated on A Diversity of Dragons , which was published by HarperPrism in 1997.)

    The Brian Boru

    Religion on Pern? My Tribute to Anne McCaffrey

    Tribute - New Publication

    Smartpop Books has just published Dragonwriter, a collection of tributes to the late Anne McCaffrey edited by her son Todd McCaffrey.  I contributed a chapter about the place of religion in the McCaffrey universe, the product of many years of spirited dialog with one of Science Fiction’s most beloved writers.  Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards and recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a Grand Master,  Anne was the first S-F writer to break into the New York Times best seller list.  For more information about the book, click here Dragonwriter.

  • Religion on Pern? My Tribute to Anne McCaffrey
    Tribute - New Publication Smartpop Books has just published Dragonwriter, a collection of tributes to the late Anne McCaffrey edited by her son Todd McCaffrey.  I contributed a chapter about the place of religion in the McCaffrey universe, the product of many years of spirited dialog with one of Science Fiction's most beloved writers.  Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards and recognized by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as a Grand Master,  Anne was the first S-F writer to break into the New York Times best seller list.  For more information about the book, click here Dragonwriter.
    The new Bloomsbury Guide to Christian Spirituality
    In December, 2012, Bloomsbury Publishing released the American edition of The Guide to Christian Spirituality which I edited with Peter Tyler.  Thirty-two outstanding authors present a wide array of essays on all aspects of Christian spirituality from its ancient origins to future trends.  It can ordered on-line from Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com.
    More on Meister Eckhart

    EckhartcoverFor several years, at the request of a number of readers, I wanted to collect and update various articles and lectures I have given on Meister Eckhart into a single volume as a follow-up to my older introductory work, Eckhart’s Way (1986), which itself was published in a revised edition by Veritas Publications, Dublin, in 2009.  The collection, Meister Eckhart: Master of Mystics was published by Continuum (now Bloomsbury) in 2011.

    Wellness: Life, Health and Spirituality
    CoverWELLNESS In this book, I explore some of the important links between physical, emotional and mental health and spirituality, including longevity, resistance to disease and greater happiness. Wellness explores a number of areas in which a vibrant and healthy spirituality enables people to live longer, healthier lives, contribute to society and avoid many of the ‘discontents’ of our hectic technology-drive, commercialised, artificial and often lethal way of living in today’s world.
    Eckhart's Way Now Available

    Veritas Publications in Dublin has just released the newly revised edition of Eckhart’s Way, an exploration of the life, times, and spiritual doctrine of the great German Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart. It is now available from Amazon.com in the US and in England.

    Celtic Spirituality: Ancient Heritage and Living Legacy
    CelticCDCeltic Spirituality: Ancient Heritage and Living Legacy explores important aspects of the spiritualities that animated the lives of the Christian peoples of Ireland, Britain, Scotland and other regions that once covered most of northwestern Europe and continues today in a variety of forms in many parts of the world – wherever necessity or adventure led emigrants from their ancestral homelands.  This 12 lecture set was recorded on CD for Now You Know Media, Inc., Chevy Chase, MD,  in Nov.   2011.
    More Tales of the Knights Templar
    Following on the big success of Katherine Kurtz' first anthology, Tales of the Knights Templar , she rounded up the team and we put together a collection of new stories called On Crusade: More Tales of the Knights Templar. My contribution is called "The Treasure of the Temple," and takes up where the first story left off. On Crusade was published in June 1998 by Warner Books in New York. It's also available from Amazon.com . (A third volume of Tales will be in production shortly.)
    A Diversity of Dragons
    A Diversity of Dragons , a partly-fictional history of dragons I co-authored with Anne McCaffrey has been lavishly illustrated by Canadian artist John Howe, and appeared in U.S. bookstores late last September from HarperPrism. ( The English edition is published by Simon and Schuster .) Illustrating the book added two years to the project, but John's art is so compelling, I think you will agree that it was worth the wait. (It was released simultaneously in the U.S., England, and France.) Diversity traces the origin and development of the myth and symbol of the dragon from its earliest manifestations to its latest appearance in recent fantasy literature and science fiction. The large-format book also explores a current manifestation as Anne herself, Sean Evans, and a diminutive Irish dracologist named Epiphanius Tighe set out to investigate some mysterious events in County Wicklow. It's available from bookstores and from Amazon.com . (The sequel, Epiphanius Tighe and the Dragon of East South Water Street , is now available from IUniverse.com's Writer's Choice Press. See above! )
    Angels: Faith, Theology, and Experience
    A 3-hour tape cassette series, Angels: Faith, Theology, and Experience , originally recorded for Credence Cassettes, is now available directly from the Center for Religion and Society, 6418 N. Lakewood Ave., Chicago IL 60626, at $15.00 plus &3.00 for postage (within the continental U.S.). It takes a detailed look at the origin, history, and place of angels in Scripture, Christian traditions, and contemporary experience.
    Meister Eckhart: The Gospel of Peace and Justice
    Available from the Center for Religion and Society for $10.00 plus $3.00 for postage in the U.S. This 1993 tape series interprets Eckhart's extensive preaching on the importance of original justice in people's lives and the achievement of inner (and public) peace.
  • Brief Bio

    I was born and reared in New Mexico, pursued undergraduate studies in Washington, D.C., New Mexico, and Iowa before becoming a member of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), a thirteenth-century Roman Catholic community of priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople. I hold the PhD in the Philosophy of Religion (Loyola Chicago, 1978), MAs in systematic theology and scholastic philosophy, and the STM (Master of Sacred Theology) from the Dominican Order. Presently, I’m Professor of Theology at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. For thirty years, I taught on the graduate faculty in the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago, taught undergraduate theology and philosophy, and in 1981 became adjunct associate professor in the department of psychiatry at Loyola University Medical School. From 1991-99 I was also lecturer and tutor at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford University and held the Dominican lectureship at Emory University in 1999. In addition to work in medieval and contemporary spirituality, I continue research in contemporary religious experience. From 2005 to 2006 I was chair of the Eckhart Society. Presently I hold the Lund-Gill Chair at Dominican University.

    On the literary front, I have written eleven non-fiction books, co-authored a fictional work on dragons with Anne McCaffrey, and published three novellas about the Knights Templar. At one time or other, I edited three anthologies in religious studies and have authored several dozen articles in spirituality, theology, sexuality, and Celtic studies. The third revised and expanded edition of Christian Spirituality: God’s Presence through the Ages , was published by Orbis in 2006. My most recent non-fiction book, Wellness: Life, Health and Spirituality, was published in 2008 by Veritas Publications in Dublin (Ireland). A revised edition of Eckhart’s Way, on the life, teaching, and spirituality of the great 14th-century Dominican mystic, was also published this autumn by Veritas. A novel, Epiphanius Tighe and the Dragon of East South Water Street , was published in October 2000 by Authors Choice – check it out at Amazon.com!

    I spend a couple of months during the summer writing and gardening in Ireland, where my family has its roots and an old stone cottage. I like animals of all kinds, Mexican food, oil and water color painting, and enjoy making Irish harps when I can find the time. I am subject to change without notice and frequently do.