The Racial Divide

Bishop Edward Braxton

Bishop Edward Braxton

I was speaking today with my friend, Franciscan Friar Ed Mundwiller and he called my attention to a document written by Bishop Edward Braxton of Belleville, Illinois, called The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.  

First, let me say that I think Bishop Braxton is a brilliant man.  If you’re not from the midwest you may not be familiar with him, but I first met him when he was Auxiliary Bishop of Saint Louis.  The good Bishop is a rarity in the U S Catholic Church.  He’s one of just a handful of black Bishops.  He has his share of detractors, most likely because he is an African American and because he is extremely intelligent, a combination that’s not necessarily popular in our lily white Church.

Let’s be honest, racial prejudice is not unknown in our Church in spite of Jesus’ teachings against it.  His current assignment in Southern Illinois puts him in the heart of “white country”.  He points out in his letter that there is only one African American Catholic church in the whole diocese.

Given his background, this pastoral letter, dealing with the subject of race, is extremely even-handed.  He details the recent history of young Black men being killed by white members of law enforcement, but he does it in a way that doesn’t place blame or call for vengeance.  He outlines steps that we can all take to work toward a solution to our racial problems.

I’m not going to attempt to dissect the document, mostly because I know when someone is smarter than I am and there is no reason to think that I can add anything to what he’s said.   What I am going to do is urge you to read the document and draw your own conclusions.

He begins by asking his White readers to imagine ourselves in a Catholic church where all the statues are depicted as African Americans and most of the parishioners are African American as well.  Would we feel welcome in such a church?  I know I wouldn’t.

Infant of Prague

Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague

Having said that, we have historical evidence that Jesus wasn’t Black.  On the other hand, He wasn’t European with light brown hair and blue eyes as He is most often depicted in our churches either.  We don’t know exactly what He looked like, but we know He was a Jew, as were Mary and Joseph.  He may have looked more like George Castanza.  We just don’t know.  In my church we have a great devotion to the Infant of Prague.  One look at the image of the Infant should cause all of us to say, “Wait a minute!  Is that what the Infant Jesus really looked like?”  I don’t think so.

Like I said, I’m not going to attempt to analyze the good Bishop’s letter or to point out the one or two minor points where I don’t agree with it.  Again, I urge you to take a look at the document.  It’s kind of long, about 25 pages.  It is very readable.    But it’s well worth your time, especially during Lent.  Read it.  Think about it.  Pray about it.  Then ask yourself what you might do in your corner of the world to effect change.  I think you’ll be glad you did.

Here’s the link again:  The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015.


29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

moses aaron hurPersistence.  All three readings today speak to us about persistence.  In the first reading, Moses held up the “staff of God” while his men battled Amelek and his men.  As long as Moses held his hands in the air, the Jews were winning the battle.  With the help of Aaron and Hur, Moses persisted and his army was victorious.


In the second reading, Paul urges Timothy to be persistent in his preaching whether it’s convenient or inconvenient.


And, in the Gospel, Luke tells us the story of the persistent widow.  Even the disrespectful judge will finally give in to the widow who continually “bothers” him.  Her persistence will eventually pay off.  Obviously, if asking over and over sways this human judge, our persistent prayers will be heard and answered by God.


But, even though all three readings have a similar topic, each one is different in its application.  In the Old Testament reading, Moses isn’t able to persevere without Aaron and Hur’s help.  God could have given Moses the strength to hold up his arms all day, but He didn’t.  Instead Moses had to ask for human help to get the job done.  That’s a good example for you and me.  We can pray and pray for something but God expects us to do our part.  Rather than rely on divine providence to give us what we need, sometimes we have to do something for ourselves.  A good example would be someone who’s out of a job.  He might get down on his knees and ask God to provide him with a job.  But a more prudent solution might be to ask God to give him the tools he needs to find work followed up by sending out a hundred resumes.  And, asking friends and family for help, just like Moses asked Hur and Aaron for help can’t hurt either.  Persistence in prayer combined with persistence in action will solve a lot of our problems.


When Paul tells Timothy to persevere, his slant is a little different.  He urges Timothy to rely on his knowledge of the Scriptures.  “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work.”


So, we have three different people, Moses, Timothy, and the widow, with three different problems and three different solutions.  Ask for help.  Turn to the scriptures.  Be persistent in prayer.  That’s good advice for all of us.  No matter what problems we may have, we should be able to find a solution by using one, or even better, all three.  And, be persistent in our actions.


Infant of Prague

Statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague

At the end of each mass we pray Father Cyril’s prayer to the Infant of Prague.  As some of you may know, the original statue of the Infant is in the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague.  In 1628 the statue was presented to the Carmelite friars by princess Polyxena who told them, “Venerable Fathers, I bring you my dearest possession.  Honour this image and you shall never want”.    It was placed in the monastery where devotions were offered twice each day.  In 1630 the friars left Prague and the devotions ended.  In 1631, during the Thirty Years War, the Swedish army overran Prague.  The statue was thrown into a pile of rubbish behind the altar where it remained with its hands broken off for seven years.


Father Cyril found the statue in 1637 and claimed to have heard a voice say, “Have pity on me, and I will have pity on you. Give me my hands, and I will give you peace. The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.”  Father restored the statues hands, returned it to place of honor and wrote the prayer which we pray to this day.  Did the end of the Carmelites twice-daily devotions lead to the fall of Prague?  An awful lot of people believe princess Polyxena prophesy was proven true.


Our prayer includes the words, “Mighty King, perseverance bestow on thy child; Do shield me and keep me Thine own—undefiled.” At every single mass at Saint John’s, we ask the Infant to give us the gift of perseverance or persistence.  We’ve been persistently saying this prayer for sixty-five years!  We ask Him to shield us and keep us His own.  We promise to share, not just with our friends, but also with our foes, all that is ours.  We firmly believe in His powerful aid.  We promise to live according to today’s readings.


This church has survived urban flight, a deteriorating neighborhood, and two interstate highways.  It was on the list of churches to be closed in 2007.  But, we’re still here!  We’ve hung together and we’re still going forward.  Next year will mark our 160th anniversary.  I believe the Infant watches over this church and, as He told Father Cyril, the more we honor Him, the more He will bless us.


I might mention here, just in passing, that even though I’m not of Bohemian extraction, the Irish have a great devotion to the Infant too.  A replica of the statue is often given as a gift at Irish weddings.  The Irish particularly believe that the statue has an effect on the weather and it’s often buried in gardens to insure favorable weather for the crops.  It’s worth noting that we received our statue here at Saint John’s in 1948.  He WASN’T HERE for the tornado of 1896.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.


So, we continue to pray to the Infant, and we rely on His help, the help He promised Father Cyril.  We know in our hearts, that He will be here for us, just as He promised.  Remember, Jesus never lies!  But we do have to do our part.  We make some serious promises in our prayer.  We promise to confess our sins and to deplore each and every one of them.  We promise to never offend.  We promise to suffer for Him.  We promise to share what we have with friends and foes alike.


In this week’s bulletin I wrote about stewardship; sharing what we have.  Whether it’s time, talent, or treasure, as Christians we’re all called to give back some of the gifts that God has given us.  We’re called to share with those who are less fortunate and with our fellow Christians through our contributions to the Church.

As we make our prayer to the Infant, we should all consider whether we’re doing all we can to hold up our end of the bargain.  Sharing doesn’t mean giving back from our excess, it means putting God first.  I hate asking for money.  I even hate asking for your time.  But as a minister of the Church, it is my job to remind you of your obligations.  That’s all I’m doing….reminding you of the promise you make to God at every mass.  We all have to do our part.


Another way you can share is through the various second collections we have throughout the year. 
Right now we’re being asked to help our neighbors at the Old Cathedral.  They’re in the process of a major renovation.  We have a lot in common with our friends downtown.  We both have historical churches.  Besides being houses of God, both buildings are historical landmarks.  People come to Saint Louis specifically to visit our historic church landmarks, especially in South Saint Louis.  The appearance of these buildings reflects on our devotion to God.

The big difference between us and them is that millions of people pass the Old Cathedral every old cathedralyear.  The church is surrounded by a national park.  Sitting between the Arch and the Old Courthouse, the appearance of the Basilica makes an impression on Catholics and non-Catholics alike.  The more than 3 million people who attend Cardinal games each year see it on the way to the game along with Rams fans and Blues fans.  When any sporting event in Saint Louis is on national television, they’re a good chance that it will appear on screens all over the United States, and even the world.  Every Catholic in the Archdiocese of Saint Louis has an interest in the church looking its best.  Please be generous to this special collection.


“With my friends and my foes I share all that is mine.”








The 4th Sunday of Lent–The Return of the Prodigal Son

4th Sunday of Lent

Have you ever heard the expression “no good deed goes unpunished”?  Yesterday  morning I was on my way to Saint Bernadette to do a communion service.  I was almost there when I came up on a minor traffic tie-up.  There was one car each way stopped in the middle of a block.  The reason they were stopped was because there was a dog standing in the middle of the street.


He was a big, black, bear-looking beast and he was obviously confused.  He was trailing a very long leash and it looked like he had gotten loose from being tied up.  The driver ahead of me went on when the dog had gotten out of his way but the lady coming toward me got out of her car to try to corral the critter.  I turned on my flashers and got out to help her.


She managed to stand on the leash and was trying to reel in the dog, but he was too big and strong for her.  I walked up to him and held out my hand for him to sniff, hoping he would calm down and let us see if he had a tag.  Instead of sniffing, he tried to take my hand off.  He was scared and confused and wasn’t about to let this stranger get close to him.


So, we decided it would be best to tie the animal to a tree in hopes that his owner would find him.  An hour later, when I left church he wasn’t where we had left him so I’m guessing that his owner did find him.  I pulled my hand away before he had time to bite me and apparently his owner found him and took him home.  Everybody was happy.


It made me think about life, particularly life as a Catholic Christian.  How often do we try to help others, especially when it comes to their relationship with God, and end up getting bitten?  Maybe you have a friend or family member who’s fallen away from the Church.  You gently try to steer them back and end up getting snapped at.  Your help isn’t wanted or appreciated.  They’re like that big, black, fuzzy dog.  They know they have a problem.  Something is missing.  But because of fear, or confusion, or guilt, they don’t want to be led back home.


Evan worse, in Father’s and my vocations, we have an obligation to help people find their way home.  We’re supposed to be evangelists.  It’s our job to offer help to those who need it.  But sometimes people just don’t want to hear what we’ve got to say.  They don’t want us to rock their spiritual boat, even if we see that it’s about to run aground.


That brings us to today’s Gospel, the story of the return of the Prodigal Son.  In this case, the returning son is more than happy to accept his father’s help, but it’s the other son who’s the problem.  The prodigal son has squandered his half of the inheritance on wine, women, and song while his brother has stayed at home, doing what he’s supposed to do.  It’s not hard to see why he’s jealous and resentful that dad is so excited about his missing son’s return.  Look at what he says, “‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.  But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.”


The thing that makes this parable so powerful is that we can see ourselves in it.  There are three characters; the father, the prodigal son, and the son who stayed home.  Depending on where you are in your spiritual life, you may identify with any of the three.  In fact, you may find parts of yourself in all three characters.


prodigal son bookIn 1992, Henri Nouwen wrote a book called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”  His inspiration was Rembrandt’s painting of the same name.  Rembrandt was fascinated by this story and actually painted several pictures based on it.  As a young man his painting was from the perspective of the returning son.  You could see the son’s face but not the father’s.  Later in life he did the more famous painting, the one on the cover of the book.  This time the focus is on the father.  You see his face but only the son’s back.


The son is on his knees, with his face buried in his father’s chest.  Dad has his hands on the young man’s shoulders, welcoming him home.  The boy is dressed in dirty rags and he has only one shoe.  You can’t help but see God in the father’s face.  The other son stands off at a distance.


The original painting is in Russia and Nouwen managed to pull some strings and actually got to spend several hours alone in front of it.  Rembrandt was a pretty talented guy and we can only imagine the detail and the nuances of his work.  This tiny reproduction on the cover of the book is a poor representation of what it really looks like.  It’s pretty clear that Nowen’s life was changed forever after he saw the original work.


One of the most important parts of the story is one that you and I could miss entirely.  Those of us who are parents can relate to our kids needing money.  They come to us and we help them out, not knowing if we’ll ever be paid back.  But we’re parents and we do what we can.


In Biblical times, things were very different.  Here’s how Nouwen describes it: “The evangelist Luke tells it so simply and so matter-of-factly that it is difficult to realize fully that what is happening here is an unheard-of event:  hurtful, offensive, and in radical contradiction to the most venerated tradition of his time.”

Then he quotes Kenneth Baily, who did an in-depth study of the story:

“For over fifteen years I have been asking people of all walks of life from Morocco to India and from Turkey to the Sudan about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living.  The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:

Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?


Could anyone ever make such a request?


If anyone ever did, what would happen?

His father would beat him, of course!


The request means he wants his father to die!”


I wonder if you or I would have the compassion to forgive something like that.  Not only did the father forgive him, he threw a party when he returned!


Of course, the lesson for us is a simple one.  No matter what we do; no matter how many times we turn our backs on God; no matter how many times we wish He would just go away and leave us alone, when we do come back, He’s there waiting for us with open arms.


The opposite side of that coin is that, as parents, we should forgive our children, no matter what, just as God forgives us.  And it’s not just about our children.  In a few minutes we’ll all ask God to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  We’ll actually ask God to limit His forgiveness, treating us as we treat every one else.  That’s a little scary.


And, we can’t ignore the older son.  We can see ourselves in him too.  How often are we resentful of someone who gets ahead of us even though we’ve been around longer, worked harder, and think we deserve it more than they do.


As we speak, 115 Cardinals are gathered in Rome.  On Tuesday they’ll be sequestered in the Sistene Chapel.  One of them will emerge as Pope.  114 of them won’t.  These are the Princes of the Church, the holiest of holy men.  But some of them will feel slighted.  They’re human and Satan tries his best to tempt them.  Some of them are older than the man who will be selected.  Some of them probably have more experience.  But the Holy Spirit will lead them to chose the right man.  He always has and He always will.


Today’s Gospel is very appropriate for them to consider as they go about the business of selecting the man who will lead our Church.  It’s also appropriate for  us as we begin the final two weeks of Lent.  Think about which character or characters you are in this story.


Are you repentant like the younger son.  Are you resentful and jealous like the older son.  Or are you forgiving like the father.  Chances are you’re a combination of the three.  Pray that God will give you the grace to be more like the father and the prodigal son.  Our repentance will lead to God’s forgiveness.  Jealousy and bitterness will get us nowhere.


Today is Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.  The word means “rejoice”.  As we begin this week, let’s all rejoice in the fact that we have a loving, forgiving God.  This afternoon we’ll celebrate the crowning of the Infant Jesus.  It’s a joyful occasion.  It reminds us that God chose to become one of us to save us from our sins.  If that’s not a reason to rejoice, I don’t know what is.


If you can’t be with us this afternoon, please take a moment around 4 o’clock to say a prayer of thanks for all the blessings you have received in your life.  Our prayer to the Infant, which we say after every mass, ends with these words, “That with Thee and with Mary and Joseph I’ll be, sharing joys that will last through eternity.”  Amen