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  • THE EASTER VIGIL IN THE HOLY NIGHT
    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?
    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 March 10th at 6:30 PM I presented an illustrated talk on Celtic Spirituality for Old St. Pat's Parish at the Sisters of the Resurrection provincial House, 7432 West Talcott Avenue, Chicago.
    Quotes
    Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes). —Walt Whitman
    Richard Woods' Blog
    Orbiting Dicta
    Insights and oversights of Richard Woods, OP

    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.

    10.09.13

    A Note to Mr. Boehner

    Dear John,

    The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare” to you) was passed by both houses of Congress, signed by the President, and upheld (mostly) by the most conservative Supreme Court in the past century or two.  It is the Law of the Land.  I understand that you do not like it.  Please get over it and stop destroying the economic health of the nation by your refusal to allow a clean vote on financing the government. That’s not your job. Passing legislation is.  Time to get to work.

    Your friend,

    Richard

    10.06.13

    Still the Party of No

    According to the Oct. 3 New York Times, “the 26 Republican-dominated states not participating in an expansion of Medicaid are home to a disproportionate share of the nation’s poorest uninsured residents. Eight million will be stranded without insurance.”

    Of course the Republicans are against the Affordable Care Act (AKA “Obamacare”). They opposed the League of Nations, organized labor, minimum wage legislation, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Equal Rights Amendment, the International Court of Criminal Justice, Affirmative Action, a host of environmental protection protocols (not to mention the EPA itself), the UN treaty on the rights of the disabled, expanding the GI Bill of Rights, same-sex marriage, and gun control legislation. Time to cut the Republicans some slack.  They’re just being consistent.

    09.26.13

    How to Paralyze the Government, Hurt the Poor, and Injure the US Abroad

    Elect Republicans…

    09.02.13

    Syrian Arabesque

    In the midst of the rapidly shifting debate over military intervention in Syria, a couple of quotations came to mind – “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” a remark of the great English parliamentarian Edmund Burke in a Letter to William Smith in 1795.  But then came the second thought, “First, do no harm.” Although not part of the Hippocratic oath, the injunction epitomizes the great medical code and a lot else besides.  There’s also the caveat of Hillel the Elder and Jesus to consider – “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor” – the Golden Rule. As Jesus put it, “…do to others as you would have them do to you…”  [See Matt 7:12 and esp. Luke 6:31.]  As time went on, I was even reminded of Aesop’s parable of “The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’.”  So much for the collective wisdom of the past.

    President Obama appears to be caught between Burke and Hippocrates, or more significantly today, between those who believe it is the duty of the United States to enforce international law even if it means violating international law, and those who are convinced that lethal intervention can only make the Syrian crisis worse.  Perhaps the dire lessons of the punitive Iraq War lodged in someone’s memory, stemming from the chant that Saddam Hussein killed his own people (with poison gas) and hoarded weapons of mass destruction that echoed so frequently in the halls of the US Congress and even the UN General Assembly.

    He did both, and a lot else besides, although the “Weapons of Mass Destruction” had been dismantled a decade before the 2003 war. So much for Military Intelligence and political “certainty.”  But the war was waged for many other reasons and killed many more people.  Thousands more.  And they are still dying as Iraq teeters ever closer to either civil war or total anarchy.  (When CNN recently turned to L. Paul Bremer, the Destroyer of Nations, for an opinion on Syria, I felt that the capacity for moral outrage had truly flown out the window. The irony was painfully complete.)

    For anyone who opposed the War against Iraq, the present claims of poison gas “used against his own people” and the reports of “weapons of mass destruction” evoke a chilly sense of déjà vu.  Even a cursory glance at what became of Iraq after our “intervention” ought to prompt second and third thoughts as well as considerable restraint as the Administration ponders its next moves.  The parliaments of Great Britain and France, as well as many members of the US Congress, certainly seem to think so.  Pope Francis has added his voice to a growing chorus of world leaders pleading for a diplomatic approach rather than more violence and more deaths.  Religious leaders and other vocal groups in the United States and Europe have similarly expressed  strong opposition to a unilateral punitive expedition by the United States, or even one in which France may be the sole survivor of the new Coalition of the Willing.

    Should the UN inspectors’ conclusions lend support to the accusations against the Assad regime, the seriousness of the situation may worsen, of course.  It may also turn out that rebels used poison gas as some evidence appears to indicate.  Will the Obama administration then be constrained to bomb them as well?  But which rebels?  It would be difficult, to say the least, to sort out only Al Qaeda or Iranian groups.

    In the meantime, almost two million refugees have felt the necessity to flee Syria, and over a hundred thousand people have been killed.  How selective bombing of Damascus can bring some kind of closure to this calamity is not at all evident.  Please, Mr. President, first do no more harm.

  • Preaching
    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.

    Wed. Week 3 of Lent: 26 March 2014

    Deut 4:1,5-9
    Matt 5:17-19]

    Today’s readings point us first to the promises made to the Hebrew people as they escaped from slavery in Egypt and headed toward what was someday to be their homeland.  The passage from the gospel of Matthew ends with another promise from Jesus — that whoever fulfills and teaches the Law and Prophets will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Much of the emphasis in today’s readings is on memory, or remembrance to be more accurate.  The Book of Deuteronomy was itself a retelling of the story recounted in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers that detailed the origin of the Hebrew people from their arrival at Sinai to their entrance to the Promised Land.  The title simply means the Second Law, the codification of legal prescriptions based largely on Exodus and developed after the Babylonian exile.  It was, in effect, the remembrance of the Covenant embodied in the mandates of the Mosaic Law.

    Today’s gospel, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, seems a little odd because it seems to cast Jesus in the role of a defender of absolute observance of the Mosaic Law, even to the slightest ordinance.  Yet we know from Matthew himself that Jesus was pretty loose in his observance of fine points, and later, of course, St. Paul engineered a complete transcendence of the obligations of the Law – now the former Covenant.

    Further, while upholding the holiness of the Law, Jesus praised those – the publicans and other sinners — who were regarded with contempt by the Pharisees, themselves strict and uncompromising observers of every point of the Law.  Jesus also exempts himself from legal prescriptions based on oral traditions and exhorts his followers to do the same, but he reveres the Law itself and the prophetic writings as expressing the will of God.  Observance alone cannot ground entrance into the Kingdom he preaches, especially if it becomes the occasion of condemning others and a source of pride.  Like the ancient prophets, Jesus calls for a changed heart and mind, a total dedication to God who gave the Law as a gift and a guide, but now has approached us in the intimacy of personal presence.  Salvation, like the Law itself, is a gift. That does not condone breaking the Law, but fulfilling it—bringing it to completion. In the rest of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus actually restates the ancient Law, clearly reclaiming the heart and soul of its message – love of God and love of neighbor.  Here is one greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than the Temple and even greater than Moses (Mt 12:6, 41, 42, Heb 3:3).

    Lent is a good time to remember all this, which is why the story of the Exodus and especially the great Covenant feature so prominently.  Jesus calls us not to perfect observance of legal prescriptions, but to the deeper holiness of life which is the intent and glory of the both the Law and the Prophets.

    8th Sunday of the Year in Ordinary Time

    Is 49:14-15
    1 Cor 4:1-5
    Mt 6:24-34

    In the Church’s calendar, this is the 8th Sunday of the year in ordinary time, as we like to call it.  We don’t get many of those because the first Sunday of Lent often eclipses it. The last time we had one was back in 2011.  So some of the scriptural readings may be a little less familiar to you, if you have been trying to keep up.

    As it happens, the readings are appropriate enough for this year, and, yes, election day and the primaries are approaching like the next snow storm.  We can expect more mud in the air than snow, however, as that has become the kind of thing we hear and see so much of.  Too much of. But it’s not just politics – it’s also the norm in show business, and tonight, of course, is Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one – for those steeped in the tradition of the Academy awards.  We can’t get enough of it, and if we have some awful news about actors, directors, and producers to spread around, so much the better. Sports figures, too.  Entire television programs seem to be aimed at finding out and reporting the worst about anyone.  And if you get tired of shows dissing the rich and famous and powerful there’s Maury and Jerry Springer.

    St. Paul’s commentary is very different.  He was no stranger to calumny, bad mouthing, unfair criticism, and general rash judgment.  It must have stung at times, but in the end, he could care less what people thought about him.  “Stop passing judgment,” was his verdict.  By ‘judgment,” he means negativity, condemnation.  You might detect a little echo here of what we heard from the Letter of St. James three weeks back concerning sins of speech.

    I was particularly impressed by the comment of Pope Francis when a reporter asked him about gay people in that famous candid interview.  No doubt they were expecting the usual tirade from Christians such as we are hearing more and more in Uganda, Nigeria, So. Africa, and Russia.  But what they got sounded more like St. Paul: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”

    Who am I to judge?  A thoughtful fellow I knew years ago defined a fundamentalist as someone who holds the bible up to your face and pulls the trigger.  Of course, you could also say that was judgmental.  It’s hard to get away from it.  But it’s worth trying.  Paul’s defense was his total trust in God. As we heard in that first lovely reading from Isaiah, God will never forget us.  Everyone else might forsake us, but God never will.

    For Jesus, it’s the same, not surprisingly.  Why worry about things that ultimately do not matter?  If a child suffers because she is bullied at school, it’s because she has already learned that what others say counts.  But it doesn’t. Not really.  But we have to learn that – over and over.  If God is for us, who can be against us? [Rom 8:31]. Isaiah and Jesus say the same thing: God knows what we need better than we do.  Like Paul, we should put our trust there.

    Lent is almost here.  Time to take stock.  It might be good to begin by trying to stop worrying about ourselves and judging others harshly.  Let’s get a little more God into our lives.

    Homily for the Fifth Sunday of the Year

    5th Sunday of the Year A: DU 5 Feb. 2011

    Is 58:7 10
    1 Cor 2:1 5
    Mt 5:13 16
    The passage from Isaiah we just heard sounds like a commentary on recent events.  Malicious speech is apparently nothing new.  What Isaiah didn’t have to contend with is having someone record it and play it back on Twitter.  And I couldn’t help reflecting that yesterday President Obama signed the Agriculture Bill which will provide subsidy and support for giant farming corporations and incidentally gut a large section of the food stamp program for the poor.  Congress also refused to extend unemployment benefits for the chronically jobless.  Immigration reform got kicked down the road again, too.

    It could be worse, of course, as Irish Optimists say.  We tend to hear great lamentation over the fact that the unemployment rate in the United States is now 6.6 percent.  We might consider that in Europe, the average is almost twice that.  In Greece and Spain it’s four times that figure.  In Afghanistan it’s 35% — six times higher.

    This week I also learned, closer to home, that over the last ten years, the salary of adjunct instructors in higher education was reduced by 47% while the pay of college presidents and top-tier administrators rose 35%.  It could be worse, of course.

    If you are an American worker, for instance, your salary remained fairly stagnant over the past 50 years, while the salary of CEOs rose an astonishing 1,000 percent, the folks at Bloomberg tell us.  Today the average CEO makes more than 180 times what the average worker does.  The top CEOs make over 700 times what the average worker does.   Of course, as multi-billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins reassured us a couple of weeks ago, “The 1 percent work harder.”  I’m not sure that firemen and snow-plough drivers would agree.

    A couple of weeks ago I looked up the salaries of the 50 top athletes in the world, most of whom are American and play baseball. Taken together, the total salary of these 50 men – -all men, of course – is roughly $760 billion per year.  That’s about the same as the entire Gross Domestic Product of Turkey or the Netherlands, and three times that of Ireland.  [In 2012 Floyd Mayweather, the boxer, topped the chart, pulling in a not-so-modest $85 million, without endorsements.  Last year he didn’t do as well, as Tiger Woods took top place with $78.1 million and lots of endorsements.]  The profit earned last year by the NFL, by the way, was in excess of $9 billion, on which it paid no taxes, because it is officially an exempt organization thanks to Congress.  I hope you enjoyed the Super Bowl.

    The United States tops the world in the number of billionaires, by the way, 1,426 of them  according to Forbes, having an aggregate net worth of $5.4 trillion, up from a measly $4.6 trillion in 2013.   But to misquote Senator Everett Dirkson, “A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”  The entire UK budget last year was a mere $1.2 trillion in US dollars. Ours was $1.012 trillion, a feat achieved by slashing spending on health care, unemployment benefits, and public works – big budget items in England.

    Liturgically, this is only the fifth Sunday of the Year.  Ordinary Time.  And you might be wondering why I just bored you with all those big numbers.  The fact is Pope Francis (and a lot of other people, but he gets noticed) thinks that they are very significant.  And that’s because they illustrate the vast and widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, not least of all right here in the good old USA.  Isaiah and Jesus would probably side with the pope.

    Once again, readings from Isaiah and Matthew are teamed, beginning with a passage we last heard in Lent. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.”  Matthew’s and apparently Jesus’ favorite prophet goes on to say that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus says in the gospel.  He also has a word about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook and shouting political candidates and commentators on network television, it sounds strangely apt:

    If you remove from your midst oppression,
    false accusation and malicious speech…
    Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
    And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.

    The responsorial psalm underlines the point – the just person does not fear an evil report, but shines like a light in the darkness to the upright.  More light imagery. Something Jesus will return to.

    The gospel is again taken from the Sermon on the Mount.  This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his blessing on the poor in spirit, including those who are reviled, persecuted and defamed.

    Here Jesus calls his followers the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them.  But what if salt goes flat?  The sea salt of the ancient Middle East was not highly refined and it could do that, in case you were wondering. And if his followers did lose faith, their reliance on the simple truth of his gospel, what would happen to the world then?

    Jesus then turns to the imagery in Isaiah and that beautiful psalm – their light must not go out, it is there to scatter the darkness of the world.  Jesus says our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly.  If the light dims or goes out, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder.  That’s what Pope Francis is telling us today.  We don’t have to become lighthouses – it’s enough to be a votive light.

    You might remember the children’s gospel song by Harry Dixon Loes, “This Little Light of Mine.” He wrote it right here in Chicago back in 1920. It would be a good recessional today. And if you don’t know it, find it and teach it to your kids. Sing it often to them.

    Shine, Jesus says. Let your little light scatter the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the poor and needy.  Then God’s own love and truth will shine through the darkness.  And, as Isaiah has it, “the gloom shall become for you like midday.”

  • 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.