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FEBRUARY 7, 2005

 

 

 

COMMENTARY

• Reflection from Aceh – why did so many have to die?

• Lent: A paradigm of the Christian life

• A time to write your own morning offering

• Manhattan church no longer a white elephant on Park Ave.

 

 

Reflection from Aceh –
why did so many have to die?

By Jim DeHarpporte

The departure room at the Indonesia’s Banda Aceh airport was crowded, smoky and heavy with humidity as I awaited my departure for the capital city, Jakarta. From the hats and t-shirts, it was easy to see that most of the passengers, like myself, were aid workers or volunteers from international humanitarian agencies and local Indonesian organizations. Some were still wearing facemasks, and I wondered if they had forgotten to remove them after visiting the devastated coast of Banda Aceh, where the smell of rotting flesh had yet to leave the air, our skin, our minds.

It had been three weeks since an earthquake on the Indian Ocean floor sent a tsunami roaring onto the Indonesian coast like a dark cloud on a clear Sunday morning. In the northern province of Sumatra, the estimated death toll numbered more than 100,000, and people continued to find bodies in collapsed houses and buildings. The roads, once arteries for the living and bustling communities, were now lined with mass burial sites and plastic bags filled with corpses.

It is hard to find words to describe the devastation. It looks as if a giant scrapper came along and cleared everything in its path – family, community, history. The bridge leading out of town was now twisted metal. I was told that 90 percent of the road that winds along this coast for more than 100 miles was destroyed; it will take years to reconstruct. The few lone buildings more than two miles inland stand like pioneer outposts in an apocalyptic wilderness.

A few days before, I had come across a couple trying to salvage their vehicle from a swamp with the help of an elephant. They had lost their daughter and had, themselves, been swept away in the waves. Sima, the mother, was pulled under several times but somehow reemerged each time long enough to take a breath. She had clung to a log for her life. By the time I met them, they had given up hope of finding their daughter, even though 100 bodies remained unidentified in the swamp. They could not go in to look, as the mud was waist-deep.

When I later visited the only Catholic Church in town, the priest, Father Ferdinand Severi, told me that 350 Catholics had been living here, many of whom were of Chinese origin and ran small businesses. Last Sunday, only six of them were at Mass. The small Catholic high school nearby was a U-shaped building that, like a basket, had collected those swept into its bosom.

Much of the city was abandoned. The shops and offices that had withstood the disaster were now closed or boarded up where the waters had ripped off the doors. Their owners were among those lying in mass graves, lost to the sea, or in flight far from the city in fear of another tsunami. We could feel aftershocks almost every night as if an evil giant, still in slumber, was about to wake at any moment.

But the earthquake and tsunami had not gutted the entire town. A few residential sections far enough from the ocean had survived. In these areas life was returning. Catholic Relief Services had established a base of relief operations and, similar to its efforts in India, Sri Lanka and Thailand, would provide food, family kits, clean water and sanitation, shelter, trauma counseling, and the means for the restoration of livelihoods. This recovery will take years.

One of the striking effects of this disaster is the powerful wave of compassion and love from people in the United States and all over the world. I was particularly moved in Southern India when a priest came from a poor parish to deliver a bag of small bills totaling 90,000 rupees (about $2,000), donated by his parishioners.

But people here, and many of us throughout the world, will never be the same. It’s hard to understand why so many had to die. The count for all the countries hit is now over 200, 000, making this an event with few parallels in human history. I wonder if the death toll would have been as high if people were not living in such vulnerable conditions.

Gathering my thoughts and bags in preparation to return home, my mind went back to Arul Mani whom I met on the beach early one morning. He lost his wife and two of his four children, and was beyond consolation. He said the only thing he wanted from us was our prayers. “Only prayers,” he repeated.

(Jim DeHarpporte is West Coast Regional Director for Catholic Relief Services. He wrote this from Jakarta on Jan. 15.)


Lent: A paradigm of the Christian life

By Brother John Samaha, S.M.

To see Lent only as a period of spiritual practices, penances, and self-imposed deprivations would be distorted and limited. Some understand Lent solely as a time of painful spiritual exercises accepted more or less willingly.

But with reflection and by following attentively the Lenten celebrations brought to us by the Church and its liturgy, we come to recognize that Lent is a parable of Christian life. We come to recognize the wisdom of St. Benedict’s admonition that the lives of Christians and of the Church “ought to be a continuous Lent.”

Lent is an important time of the liturgical year aimed at redressing Christian life. The works of Lent—prayer, almsgiving, and fasting—do not have their value in themselves, as the Scriptures proclaim on Ash Wednesday and the following Thursday and Friday. All actions have a God-centered motive and aim.

In encouraging us to a greater emphasis on private and liturgical prayer, the Church does so to help us recapture during Lent their rightful place in Christian life at all times.

Almsgiving and sharing practiced during Lent are part of a movement of conversion regarding the use of goods. Far from jealously and selfishly keeping material goods for themselves, Christians learn to possess them as not possessing them. They manage their possessions as good stewards, with constant concern for those less fortunate. The ideal continues to be relevant at any time there is a need.

Whatever value is assigned to seasonal or even habitual fasting, fasting is essentially an attack on uncontrolled appetite for earthly goods of all kinds. People yield easily to such an appetite, especially in countries where over-consumption is a matter of course.

Not to curb the search for bodily and material satisfactions is pagan. Christians seek to rectify their behavior in order to balance their everyday lifestyle in harmony with their faith and hope. The pagans think we should eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. But the dead are raised, and now we know that Christ has been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15).

The lessons from Scriptures proclaimed during Lent help us raise our eyes to God and his plan of salvation, to Christ and his mystery that brings this plan to realization, to its fulfillment here and now in the Church and in the world.

Of course, this can be said of all seasons of the liturgical year. What characterizes Lenten liturgies are the density, the wealth, and the strength of the texts. Especially challenging are the Gospel readings for Christian initiation, the selected apostolic catecheses, the remembrance of the most significant steps of salvation history.

In this way Lent proves to be catechumenal for all baptized persons and not only for those preparing for baptism.

Lent is a paschal journey because it leads us to the Easter celebrations. It has a fixed place in the liturgical calendar, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Thursday before the evening Mass.

But Christian life is wholly paschal because it is an exodus toward our eternal Father. From this point of view, Lent is a parable of the lives of Christians and a paradigm of the Church. What is experienced intensely for 40 days must give a new and enduring dynamism to our lives in all the days of the Lord.

(Marianist Brother John Samaha resides in Cupertino. He is a former staff member of the Center for Catechetical Ministries in the Oakland Diocese.)


A time to write
your own morning offering

A Morning Offering for the 21st century

O God,
You have given me life
and now I offer you myself in return.
I give you my prayers and actions, thoughts and feelings, sufferings and joys, hopes and dreams of this day.
Help me to remember You are
present through it all.
Holy Spirit, strengthen me to live the Gospel this day:
to listen empathetically
to all I meet,
to open my hands to give to those in need,
to act as balm for the broken- hearted,
to speak a word of hope,
to treasure life in all its forms,
and to build bridges of peace.
I pray also for the special
intentions of all your beloved people throughout the world.
Unite us as one mystical Body of Christ,
living as brothers and sisters,
loving and adoring you forever,
now and beyond the grave.
Amen.
—by Julie McCarty, 2004

By Julie McCarty

In the opening scenes of the movie “The Milagro Beanfield War,” a new morning is dawning in the little northern New Mexican town of Milagro. Lying in his bed, Amarante, the delightful old man played by Carlos Riquelme, opens his eyes, looks around his humble room, pushes off the homemade quilt, and struggles to get out of bed. Breathless, he shuffles across the floor, and positions himself strategically in front of the little mirror.

Seeing his own reflection, a look of surprise and mild amusement pass across Amarante’s face, and he prays aloud: “Thank you, God, for letting me have another day.” Putting on his glasses, he hobbles outside, battered coffee pot in hand, heading for the water pump.

Morning is an excellent time to thank God for giving us life and to offer our lives to God in return. Older Catholics may recall the “Morning Offering” prayer, a popular devotion begun in 19th century France, in which one offers Jesus “all my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world . . .”

Others have written similar daily prayers that offer to God all that we are and all that we do. A new book, “Prayers from Around the World and Across the Ages” (ACTA Publications), contains other prayers of offering.

Florence Nightingale prayed, “O God, you put into my heart this great desire to devote myself to the sick and sorrowful; I offer it to you. Do with it what is for your service.”
George Herbert, an Anglican priest and poet of the 17th century, prayed that he might find God in all things, and “what I do in anything, to do it as for you!” St. Ignatius of Loyola offered God his liberty, memory, understanding, will, and all he possessed.

Mary Elizabeth Sumner, founder of the Mothers’ Union in 1885, prayed
“All this day, O Lord,
let me touch as many lives as possible for you;
and every life I touch, let your Spirit quicken,
whether through the word I speak,
the prayer I breathe, or the life I live.”

Offering all we do in a given day is one way that we, the People of God, participate in the priestly office of Christ.

“For all their works, prayers and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ,” write the Church fathers at the Second Vatican Council (see “Lumen Gentium, no. 34).

They explain that these loving deeds of ordinary people are offered along with the body of Christ in the celebration of Eucharist, thereby consecrating the world itself to God.
Lent is a good time to write your own morning offering, using your favorite images of God (such as Spirit, Good Shepherd, Creator, etc.) and offering in your own words all that you do and all that you are.

Keep your prayer general enough to use everyday, but specific enough to challenge yourself to love more deeply. Trust that the Holy Spirit will weave your prayer, along with billions of other prayers throughout the world, into the perfect prayer of Jesus Christ, the mystery we call Eucharist.

(Julie McCarty, M.A.T., is a freelance writer from Eagan, Minnesota, whose syndicated column on prayer, “The Prayerful Heart,” appears in diocesan newspapers around the country. Contact her at soulwriting@yahoo.com.)


Manhattan church no longer
a white elephant on Park Ave.

By George Weigel

Of the 19,500 Catholic parishes in the United States, it’s a safe bet that none had a more spectacular aesthetic renovation last year than Our Saviour’s Church at Park Avenue and 38th Street in midtown Manhattan.

Our Saviour’s was chartered in 1955 and completed in 1959.

One clerical legend has it that the late Cardinal Spellman wanted a Park Avenue church to rival the Anglican’s St. Thomas, which boasts perhaps the most magnificent stone reredos in America; another New York tale says that “Spelly” resented the fact that the only Park Avenue church was in the hands of the Jesuits.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Our Saviour’s became, sadly, the archdiocesan great white elephant. Debts mounted, bills went unpaid, the fabric started to erode, and some began to wonder whether the church shouldn’t be abandoned despite its prime location – four blocks south of Grand Central Station in the middle of the capital of the world.

Then, six days after 9/11, a man with no small plans came to Our Saviour’s as pastor: Father George Rutler – convert from Anglicanism, graduate of Dartmouth, the Pontifical Gregorian University, and Rome’s Angelicum, EWTN personality, and one of the wittiest correspondents in the universal Church.

What had been a parish of midtown daytime transients and weekend dowagers quickly began to attract flocks of 20- and 30-year-olds. Children were once a rare sight at Our Saviour’s; last year, 52 baptisms and almost 50 weddings were celebrated there.

The parish had never produced priestly vocations; it now has more seminarians than any other in the archdiocese. Substantial funds were raised to cover overdue structural renovations and the parish, long beset by deficit budgeting, was put into the black.

But Father Rutler wasn’t through. At the Metropolitan Museum, he had seen a medieval reproduction of an icon of the Christos Pantokrator, Christ the Universal King – and it occurred to him that Our Saviour’s would benefit by something like it. But not just any something.

For what Father Rutler commissioned, and what has now been sensationally completed by an Irishman and a Korean (converted by Father Rutler, of course), is a 24-foot tall Christos Pantokrator based on the great icon of that style at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mt. Sinai.
What I once wrote of the St. Catherine’s icon is just as true, now, of the luminous apse of Our Saviour’s, Park Avenue:

“The Christos Pantokrator is an image of Christ in a typical iconographic pose, full-face toward us, the Lord’s head surrounded by a golden corona or halo, his left arm clutching a jeweled Bible to himself (the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, holding the Word of God, the Holy Scripture), his right hand raised in a gesture that is both greeting and blessing, the thumb and ring finger touching (in acknowledgment of the two natures united in the one person of Christ), the index and middle fingers crossed (in acknowledgment of the instrument of salvation).

“The colors are impressively rich: gold and ivory, lavender and vermillion. But it is the Holy Face – majestic, calm, strikingly masculine – that draws us into the icon and into an encounter with the Lord himself.

“It is one face, for Christ is one. Yet the iconographer, by painting a face with two subtly different expressions, has drawn us into the mystery of God Incarnate, the Son of God come in the flesh. For all its humanity, we see – perhaps better, we sense – that, while this is a truly human face, it’s unlike any face we’ve seen before.

“He is in time, in one dimension of his face, but beyond time, in another. He is like every other human person, i.e., a person of time and space and history; but he is also transcendent, eternal. We meet him in his humanity; he draws us into his divinity.”

The white elephant of Park Avenue has become a vibrant center of Catholicism and an embodiment of the unity of truth and beauty.

(George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.)

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