A Reflection for Holy Week

As my friends know, I am a die-hard Anglophile.  To quote Dr. Frasier Crane, “There’s no greater Anglophile than I.  I have all my suits made at Savile Row.  I spell ‘colour’ with a ‘u!’.”  To that end, it should not surprise you that I made sure that I watched today’s address of Her Britannic Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, to the people of Great Britain.  With the exception of her annual Christmas address, this is one of only five times that The Queen has addressed the nation.

As she began her address, I was hoping that Her Majesty would give us some sort of “pep talk”, perhaps sharing with all of us a sense of fear and worry, or even how the Coronavirus pandemic has hit close to home with the positive diagnosis of her son, the Prince of Wales.  Alas, I was disappointed.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that I was “underwhelmed”.  However, my feelings took a turn toward the end of the address when she spoke about her very first broadcast in 1940 (before she acceded the throne), at a time when the world was dealing with another great crisis: the Second World War:

We, as children, spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety.

Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones. But now, as then, we know, deep down, that it is the right thing to do.

The Queen has witnessed much in her long life: war, peace, tragedy, joy.  She is a woman borne by duty to serve her people.  Her speech was never meant to be a pep talk.  Rather, its purpose was to instill in us the instinct that we must “Keep calm and carry on” because the situation will improve.  As she concluded her address, Her Majesty said:

We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.

We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.

I suspect that it was no mere coincidence that this address was given at the beginning of Holy Week, a time when Christians throughout the world recall the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  For so many of us who practice the Christian faith, we have been forced this year to observe Holy Week in a different way.  The calendar and the journey remain the same, but our practice and devotions are different.  We cannot gather in church as a community.   I must admit that this is very unsettling for me, especially as somebody who is so deeply involved in the preparation and execution of the liturgies of Holy Week.  I want to be doing something, but I can’t.  I am experiencing that painful sense of separation that The Queen spoke about, but I know, “deep down, that [staying home] is the right thing to do.”

Earlier today, I read a sermon written by Monsignor Ronald A. Knox, an early twentieth century convert and apologist, titled “The Triumph of Suffering”.  In it, he compares the life of the Church and the individual Christian to the life of Christ.  He speaks about the trials that our Lord faced and the trials that we face.  “Yet as our Lord delivered himself”, he writes, “so he delivers his Church; so he will deliver us – he has promised it, and his promise cannot fail.”

I read Knox’s sermon in light of what the world faces today.  We are in the midst of a global pandemic.  More than 1.2 million people have tested positive for Coronavirus (surely the numbers are higher, but many have not been able to get tested) and some 65,000 people have died.  This is a terribly frightening reality.  We have been forced into the seclusion of our homes and have been urged not to go outside, for fear that we may contract or spread the virus.  We live in a time of great uncertainty.  However, we will overcome this trial and our lives will return to normal again.  “Better days will return.”

Monsignor Knox concludes his sermon:

The providence that watched over our Lord in his helpless infancy, the providence which he trusted so utterly amidst the dangers which surrounded him, has watched over his Church all through the ages, will watch over us when all hope seems lost and all prayers unanswered.  The eternal God is our refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

As we begin our observance of Holy Week, we know how the story will end:  Jesus Christ will overcome the grip of death and we will rejoice and be glad.  Deep down, we all know that we will overcome the pandemic, but the immediate future is uncertain and scary.  However, God is watching over us and his promise to do so is unfailing.  “The eternal God is our refuge.”  Keep calm and carry on.

Be still and know that I am God

During the first week of Lent, I made a three-day silent retreat at a monastery in upstate New York. It was the first time I had made a retreat since high school days and the first time that I endeavored to make a silent retreat. When I arrived at the monastery, I asked the guest master if he would take my iPhone for the duration of the retreat because, while I knew I could keep it turned off most of the time, I knew that the temptation to occasionally turn it on and check messages and e-mail was too great that I would succumb. The first day was tough. What was I missing back in New York City? Who is trying to text or e-mail me? Eventually, that anxiety passed as I surrendered myself to God’s will, hearing him say to me, “Be still and know that I am God”. Those three days were a real gift. Each day had a structure for me: prayer (both communal and individual), reading (spiritual and pleasure), recreation, and sleep. In addition to the monastic community, there were about ten others on retreat. We didn’t speak to each other, maybe a nod as we passed each other on the staircase. The silence offered me an opportunity to hear some voices within that I thought were gone, but in reality I had only muted them. I returned home refreshed and renewed. It was a great start to Lent, a Lenten journey that I need to make.

When I was on the train back to the City, I began to catch up on the goings on in the world, as I had been spared them, thank God. I learned that Bloomberg and Warren had withdrawn from the Democratic primary and that Biden and Sanders remained. I also learned that Coronavirus had now spread to the United States and that there were patches of diagnoses on the East and West Coasts. What none of us knew then was how our lives were going to change so drastically in the next ten days. A week later, dioceses across the USA were suspending the public celebration of the Mass for an indefinite period of time. When the Archdiocese of New York canceled Mass, I began to realize that this wasn’t just going to be a suspension of a Sunday or two: our beautiful observances of the Easter Triduum were very much in jeopardy.

The idea of isolating for a period of time is a frightening one for me. However, I have begun to think about treating the period of isolation as an extension of my retreat. Each day needs structure and a plan, otherwise I might stay in my pyjamas and binge Netflix. My day begins and ends with prayer and there’s time for prayer during the day. I have specific tasks to accomplish each day. I have time to read. It’s also very important that I make time to turn off the TV or radio and get away from the computer screen. Despite the isolation, it is also crucial to do some sort of physical activity. Gyms are closed, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a walk or a jog. (Central Park isn’t far from my apartment.) It means that I can use the time at home to learn how to finally do a push-up or two. Above all of that, the one thing that is most important for me is to maintain periods of silence. For in that silence, I hear the “still, small voice of God”. That voice tells me to be still. In that my fears and anxieties are subsided and regardless of what happens in the next few weeks or months, everything will be okay.

A few thoughts on prayer

Does your Lenten GPS need to recalibrate?  If we’re honest with ourselves, I think we can all answer “yes”.  Lent is not a time to be perfect.  It is a time to recognize and embrace the imperfection that is the nature of our humanity and better appreciate that there is always room to grow deeper in our relationship with God.  Lent should be about spiritual progress, not spiritual perfection.  If you’re like me, you may find that it is often very difficult to pray.  Sometimes it’s a question of finding the time to pray – how can I possibly fit it into my busy schedule?!  At other times, it’s the quandary of how to pray.  Sure, we can all say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the disciples of Jesus also struggled with prayer.  They were human, after all!  Remember when Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and he found his disciples asleep?  “Could you not [pray] one hour with me?  Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.” (Matthew 26:40–41)

I have found success in my daily routine by waking up about fifteen minutes earlier each morning and dedicating that time for prayer and meditation.  I do this before checking my phone, Facebook, e-mail, etc.  Some mornings are easier than others, but it’s the effort that matters most.  I spend a few minutes in reflection, thinking about the day ahead and asking God for the strength and courage to do the right thing throughout the day, especially in those areas of my life where I may find difficulty.  I then take a few moments for quiet meditation.  I aim for three to five minutes.  It may seem an eternity, but it gets easier.  I conclude my prayer with something more structured: I recite the Divine Office, but the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, or some spiritual reading works, as well.  Here’s where the Our Father, Hail Mary, and the Glory Be may come in handy.  At that point, I’m ready for the day and I have allowed God to be a part of it.  If you’re struggling with prayer, try to create a structure that works for you and see how it goes. Smaller steps yield to greater progress.

My Prayers for This Week

One of the responsibilities of my work is to prepare the Universal Prayer, or the Prayer of the Faithful, for the parish community.  Often, I compile intercessions from different resources, including the Roman Missal; other times I compose my own prayers based on the needs of the community.  This week, there are two prayers that I felt were important intentions:

For our President, that he may work for justice and protect the rights of every human being, and that our country may be a safe haven for all.

For those who were killed this week in Florida, and for all victims of gun violence, that we may promote unity in seeking to build a society marked by peace and eliminate tragedies caused by senseless gun violence.

This Monday, of course, is Presidents’ Day.  We need to pray for our elected officials, regardless of whether we voted for them or whether we agree with them or not.

Words escape me as I think about the tragedy that took place on Wednesday in Florida.  While prayer is not the only thing we can do, it should hold pride of place.  The shootings that take place in schools, churches, and other public areas are mind-boggling and evoke sadness and anger.  Why do they happen?  How do we prevent them from happening again?  How many more tragedies will it take for our elected officials to take real action?

Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving

As a Lenten discipline, I’m hoping to write a bit more.  Here is the first of such efforts.

During the season of Lent, Christians are called to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In the Gospel appointed for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1–6, 16–18), Jesus admonishes his disciples, saying, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.” Often, we make Lenten resolutions that are broken rather quickly and the point of the spiritual journey of Lent is lost.  If you fall down, get back up.  Don’t let a slip up throw you off course.  We’re not saints.  Some of these suggestions are things that can done with friends and family, and most, if not all of them can be done on your own.

Prayer: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.” Attend daily Mass, even if it’s but once a week. Pray the Rosary during your commute. Read the Bible. Pray the Stations of the Cross.  Recite the Divine Office.  Go to confession. Spend ten minutes each day in quiet prayer and meditation.

Fasting: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of universal fast, but we need not limit fasting to the minimum requirements. “When you fast, do not look gloomy.” I once read in a Lenten sermon, “Forget the bit about doing without sugar in your coffee. That isn’t an act of penitent self-denial: it merely spoils a decent cup of coffee!” Find the areas in your daily routine where you can strip down. Fast from something that is a vice in your life: perhaps it’s Facebook or Twitter, Netflix binging, or too much television. In its place, create a virtue: use the time that you would spend on your smartphone or in front of the computer to read a book or spend quality time with a friend or loved one, either in person or talking (not texting!) on the telephone.

Almsgiving: “When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret.” Not all almsgiving has to be a financial sacrifice. There are countless opportunities for volunteer service. Consider volunteering with a charity or spend an afternoon at a soup kitchen. Prepare a home cooked meal for a homeless shelter. In your parish, volunteer for a ministry. If you want to make a financial offering, think about the poor, those in our country who have been displaced by a natural disaster, or immigrants and refugees in need of assistance.  Make a difference.

If we do just one thing in each category throughout the season of Lent, we will reap the benefits of this spiritual practice and grow in holiness. “And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

When Tragedy Strikes at Home


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Patriots’ Day has always been a very memorable day for me. Observed as a civic holiday in Massachusetts, it commemorates the anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, the start of the American Revolutionary War. As a child, there would be a routine to the day that would be repeated year after year.

My father and I would set our alarms for 4:30 a.m. and, by 5:00 a.m., we were on the road, driving to Lexington to watch the re-enactment of the battle there. I recall Paul Revere riding his horse to the Battle Green, calling out, “The British are coming!”, followed by the Red Coats marching into town. Shortly thereafter, the shot heard ’round the world indeed marked the start of the Revolution.

After the re-enactment, we would walk to a nearby church for a pancake breakfast. By 9:00 a.m., we were back home, where we rested and prepared for the next event of the day, heading into Downtown Boston to watch the thousands of runners participating in the Boston Marathon.

My mother was an avid runner and she ran the Boston Marathon twice in 1988 and in 1990. As we watched the race, she would point out certain marathon celebrities, among them, Johnny Kelley, a man who ran the Boston Marathon for more than fifty consecutive years (well into his 80s) and Dick and Rick Hoyt, the father/son duo, where the father would push his handicapped son in a wheelchair for the entire 26.2 miles.

The Boston Marathon now brings nostalgia for me, especially after my mother’s death in 2010. The tragic events that took place yesterday afternoon only added to my sadness, especially since I, as a native Bostonian, share a deep connection with the marathon.

After returning home from a lunch on the Hudson on a beautiful spring afternoon, I received a text from my youngest brother, Daniel, asking if I had heard about the explosion at the finish line of the marathon and to tell me that my father and younger brother, Tim, were but a short distance from the finish line at the time of the explosion. They were safe, unharmed, and were rushing to safety. At that point, the depth of the tragedy began to sink in. I was able to stream one of Boston’s local news stations and remained glued to the television throughout the day. When I retired around midnight, there were still very few facts: three were dead and about one hundred were injured. Who is responsible for this action and the motives behind it were not yet known.

Waking up this morning, I learned the sad news that an eight-year-old boy from the neighborhood where I grew up was one of the three who died yesterday. His father was running the marathon and he was at the finish line with his mother and siblings. One of the pictures of young Martin Richard struck me. It was taken after his First Communion. The background was all too familiar to me: the steps of St. Ann’s Church in Neponset, my home parish, where I received my First Communion and Confirmation, where I served as an altar boy, a lector, and, in high school, as Director of Music and Organist. If it wasn’t enough for this tragedy to happen in Boston, it strikes even closer to home knowing that one of the victims was an innocent, happy young boy “from the neighborhood”, a characteristic of so many of us who grew up there. While it may be described as “tough”, Dorchester is anything but that right now. The neighborhood is deeply grieving a young man whose future was horribly ended yesterday. In times of tragedy, neighbors open their homes to each other, because we’re all family.

As I write, we still don’t know who did this or why he/she/they did it. It is never easy to comprehend why people commit such graves acts of evil. It is even harder to grasp when we have neither the who nor the why.

However, Bostonians, indeed all Americans, will not succumb to this act of terrorism. We will grow stronger because of it. In a telegram to Boston’s archbishop, Seán Cardinal O’Malley, Pope Francis “prays that all Bostonians will be united in a resolve not to be overcome by evil, but to combat evil with good.” Bostonians will do just that.

The City of Boston is a sad place today. Amidst the sadness, however, there is both charity and love. Where charity and love abide, God is ever there.

Ubi caritas et amor, Maurice Duruflé (1902–1986)

Where charity and love abide, God is ever there.
Christ’s love has gathered us into one.
Let us rejoice and be pleased in Him.
Let us fear, and let us love the living God.
And may we love each other with a sincere heart.