Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Aug. 30, 2015

"What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?" -- Deuteronomy 4:8

“What great nation has statutes and decrees that are as just as this whole law which I am setting before you today?” — Deuteronomy 4:8

Aug. 30, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B. Readings:

1) Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8

Psalm 15:2-5

2) James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27

Gospel: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23


By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

The singsong voice still echoes in my head all these decades later: “We missed you at church Sunday night.”

Simultaneously, I still hear my mental translation: “Shame on you for not going to church on Sunday night.”

I was a teenager and the singsong voice was that of a youth group leader. I accepted the implied criticism since it came from an adult, and so I felt guilty for not showing up at the Sunday evening service — although, for the life of me, I didn’t understand why I had to go to church twice!

That small, Southern Christian church was hardly the only community where members press extra “requirements” on each other as proof of faith. Religion itself is about expressions of faith, so naturally people are going to sometimes confuse outward signs of reverence, discipline or commitment with actual attitudes of the heart.

In some people’s minds, the signs grow into conditions necessary for salvation: saying your prayers every night; never missing Mass — or the collection basket; for some traditions, abstaining completely from alcohol; the list goes on.

People — and churches — tend to put obligations on us beyond what God asks. Unfortunately, it leads to misunderstanding, unnecessary guilt and misplaced resentment. For example, when I taught a confirmation class, a candidate once asked, “If you don’t receive the sacraments, will you go to hell?”

In today’s Scripture from Deuteronomy, Moses describes God’s law as just and whole, and tells the people that they should not add nor subtract from God’s commandments. In the Gospel, Jesus warns against overemphasizing human traditions that distract from the fundamental truth to which God wants us to aspire. Instead, Jesus calls us to examine our hearts for greed, malice, licentiousness, envy and other evils that lead to acts more harmful than not going to confession. In fact, healthy church communities offer some enhancements that become human traditions — Bible study, devotional practices, special prayers and teachings — that help us understand and follow God’s commandments.

When offered and received as help, not requirements, these human traditions can heal and form our hearts and draw us closer to the heart of God.


What are some traditions, practices and disciplines our church community gives us? How can they distract us from the core of our Christian faith? How can they enhance our ability to follow God’s commandments?

Remembering Phil Hartman

hartmancoverformarksblogEarlier this year, while leafing through a catalog of remaindered books, I spotted a book titled “You Might Remember Me: The Life and Times of Phil Hartman,” by Chicago Sun-Times journalist Mike Thomas. The title comes from a signature line uttered by Troy McClure, whose character Hartman voiced on “The Simpsons.” McClure, a washed-up actor, was reduced to introducing educational films thusly: “Hi, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from ‘Christmas Ape’ and ‘Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp.’”

I bought the book, based largely on the strength of a telephone interview I had conducted with Hartman a few weeks before his shocking murder by his wife, who later committed suicide in their home.

It took several months and several other books to go through first, but I finally read “You Might Remember Me.” In one sense, it’s tough reading a biography whose ending you already know. But, about two-thirds of the way through the book, as the narrative slowed down to provide more detail into the last months, weeks and days of Hartman’s life, I grew curious. Had my interview with Hartman been found and used by Thomas? It may seem difficult for readers of this blog to believe, but Catholic News Service is not often regarded as a go-to destination for celebrity interviews.

I thumbed through the index. No sign of my name. Oh, well. Then I looked for “Catholic News Service” in the index. And voila! Seeing where it was, I skipped 40 or so pages to get to the material to see how Thomas had used it.

“Strangely, in light of his long-lapsed Catholicism, he conveyed a seemingly renewed sense of religiousness,” Thomas wrote, “or perhaps he was merely tailoring his words for the publication as he tailed his act for a specific venue.”

Had Thomas sought me out, I would have told him there was no tailoring going on. The phone interview was supposed to have been conducted in April 1997, but a representative of NBC -– where Hartman was starring in the sitcom “Newsradio” — called to reschedule, as Hartman was not going to be available on the original date. NBC had made the pitch for a phone interview to boost the marginal ratings of “Newsradio,” and noted Hartman’s Catholic upbringing.

On the rescheduled date, Hartman called at the assigned time. I asked him how he was, and he said, “Fine.” I asked him what had prompted the rescheduling. “My father was sick,” Hartman replied. I then asked how his dad was doing. “Oh, he died,” Hartman said. I conveyed my condolences, and Hartman launched into an entirely unprompted soliloquy about life and death and the hereafter.

“Our faith prepares us for what lies ahead, and tells us that it’s a mystery to us, and we tremble before that mystery,” Hartman said in part. Moreover, he spoke in slow, measured tones, slow enough for me to be able to capture every word he was saying even without the aid of a tape recorder.

“Faith has guided me to believe it’s a rebirth. We are set free from this mortal coil, and we’ll see wonders beyond our imagination. We’ll get close to the Creator. I’ve believed that all my life even when I’ve questioned other aspects of my faith. I’ll be there with my father in heaven,” Hartman said. I remember needing to ask no questions.

When Hartman was done ruminating about life after death, the interview shifted to more conventional topics. One question I particularly delighted in asking him was: “If I was Rosie O’Donnell, and you were a guest on my talk show, and I pulled a couple of album covers you had designed out from under my desk, which two LPs would they be?” Hartman chuckled at the scenario, then answered with an album by the folk-rock band Poco and the intertwined “CSN” logo used by Crosby, Stills and Nash on their 1977 album.

When the interview was over, I told my editor, Julie Asher, what had transpired over the phone. I knew I had my lead. And it was a good story, one to be proud of.

Three weeks after the interview, I came back to my cubicle from lunch to see a sheet of paper torn off the Reuter newswire resting on my chair: Phil Hartman, wife dead in murder-suicide. I audibly gasped. A new story had to be written. All the comments Hartman had made about his father took on added resonance with his own death.

And therein lay a conundrum. Celebrities are no less immune than the rest of the population to having grown nominally Catholic. Hartman was no exception. Just how nominal it had become, one could only guess, since dead men tell no tales. Brynn Hartman, who likely had shot her husband in a drug-fueled state, turned out to be Hartman’s third wife. Author Thomas in “You Might Remember Me” reveals that Hartman’s first wife had two abortions while married to Phil. Hartman’s family insisted on a Catholic funeral for their son and brother. They got one, at a chapel in the cemetery where Phil and Brynn were interred.

Hartman’s life and career were far too short. “You Might Remember Me” brings all that back home.



Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Aug. 23, 2015

"Decide today whom you will serve. … As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." -- Joshua 24:15

“Decide today whom you will serve. … As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” — Joshua 24:15

Aug. 23, Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle B. Readings:

      1) Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b

      Psalm 34:2-3, 16-21

      2) Ephesians 5:21-32 or Ephesians 5:2a, 25-32

      Gospel: John 6:60-69

By Sharon K. Perkins
Catholic News Service

St. Augustine, fifth-century bishop and writer of the “Confessions,” is often quoted as saying to God, “Our heart is restless until it rests in you.” St. Augustine knew himself — and the condition of the human heart — very well.

In spiritual life, as in most things, we often are attracted by novelty. Like the tribes of Israel who were drawn to the spiritual practices of their Canaanite neighbors, we get easily distracted and forget the great works that God has done for us.

Joshua understands this and brings the tribes at Shechem to a moment of clarity. Given the options of serving the gods of the Amorites, the former gods of their ancestors or the God who delivered them from Egypt, Joshua makes them choose — today — whom they will serve.

Jesus has given his followers a difficult choice as well — a “hard saying.” Having stated that he is the “living bread that came down from heaven,” Jesus knew that his disciples would be forced to either accept or reject him, and the results would be mixed. The moment of decision brought an end to the novelty that attracted them to Jesus in the first place. In fact, the Gospel tells us that “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Similarly, St. Paul’s teaching to the Ephesians on marriage offers a challenging choice for our age. “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is hardly the counsel heard amid the cacophony of designer gown boutiques, honeymoon resorts, glossy magazines and reality TV shows through which the wedding industry provides a steady stream of novelties designed to make marriage look exciting and new. When the novelty of the wedding is gone, what happens to the marriage?

In our search for fulfillment, we are constantly met with an entire menu of options, and many of them satisfy — for a little while. St. Augustine knew this as well, having tasted all of the novelties and attractions that life had to offer him.

But the psalmist invites us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” What many dismiss as old-fashioned, tedious or unexciting brings us to abundant life. Like St. Augustine, we experience the Lord as “beauty ever ancient, ever new!”


What novelties or distractions in your life have dulled your taste for the goodness of the Lord? How can you choose to allow the Lord to fulfill the restlessness of your heart?

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Aug. 16, 2015

"For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink." -- John 6:55

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” — John 6:55

 Aug. 16, Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B. Readings:

1) Proverbs 9:1-6

Psalm 34:2-7

2) Ephesians 5:15-20

Gospel: John 6:51-58


By Jeff Hedglen
Catholic News Service

A friend of mine once told me he didn’t believe that the bread and wine of holy Communion are really the body and blood of Jesus. He said the difficulty for him ultimately was that he could not get past how the bread and wine still taste like bread and wine after the prayers of consecration.

I didn’t know how to respond. Luckily, I was studying for my master’s degree in theology at the time, so I took this question to my professors.

What I learned is this: Everything that exists can be thought of in two ways. First, there’s “substance” or that of which something is made. Second are the “accidents,” a philosophical term meaning the look, feel, taste and texture of something.

For example, the “substance” of a Hershey bar is sugar, cocoa butter, chocolate, soy lecithin, vanilla and some artificial flavors. (I looked it up.) The “accidents” are smooth, creamy, sweet, chocolaty, wonderful and mouthwatering.

If the Eucharist were in the form of a Hershey bar, during the eucharistic prayer the substance of the bar would change from sugar, cocoa butter, etc., to the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. But the accidents (smooth, creamy, sweet, chocolaty …) would remain the same. So even though it still tastes like chocolate, it is actually Jesus. The same is true for the bread and wine.

We’re so used to a world in which “what you see is what you get” that it is often hard to come to terms with the mystery of the Eucharist. It was no different in the time of Jesus, as we see in this week’s Gospel.

But Jesus makes a bold statement when he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Then, in case anyone thought he was speaking metaphorically, he adds, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

Jesus loves us so much that he gave us his body, blood, soul and divinity so that we could connect with him on an intimate level and receive strength from this connection.

Thus, every time you receive the Eucharist, what you see is not what you get. What you see is a little round wafer of bread and common wine. What you get is Jesus!


How has your belief in the Eucharist grown over time? How would your explain the Eucharist to a non-Catholic?

In poem, Iraqi refugee recounts pain of abandoning homeland on Ninevah Plain

Throughout August, tens of thousands of displaced Christians in refugee camps in Kurdish-controlled Iraq are marking the first anniversary of their exile following the fall of the Ninevah Plain and its villages to Islamic State forces .

Mr. Matti, an Iraqi refugee, and his wife pictured in Iraqi Kurdistan. (CNS/Sahar Mansour)

Mr. Matti, an Iraqi refugee, and his wife pictured in Iraqi Kurdistan. (CNS/Sahar Mansour)

Among them is Abo Remon, a 60-year-old man from Bartellah who is also known to refugees as “Mr. Matti.” Before the invasion, the married father-of- three had a good job in the communications sector. He now lives in the Al-Hikma center in Kaznanan, one of 120,000 people waiting in patience for their eventual liberation.

He has written a poem in remembrance of the tragedy that changed the lives of the Christians of Iraq so dramatically.

His poem laments the exodus of his people from their ancestral homes and it recalls the names of the holy places they left behind. It was written in Arabic but it has been translated into English for Catholic News Service by Sahar Mansour, a refugee from Mosul who now lives in Ankawa, Iraq.

The poem loses something in its translation, but readers can still sense the pain and sense of loss. It refers to four regional monasteries abandoned in the flight from Islamic State: Mar Behnam, Mar Matti, Mar Shmoni and Santa Barbara.

Here, we reproduce it in full.


On this day last year we went out of the Ninevah Plain,

from the monastery of Mar Behnam and I went with my family to Alqosh.


We left everything behind us, we did not think even for a moment that we would leave without return,

we would think of (it) as a crisis a few days and (we) will return,

and no matter how long-term will not be delayed more than a week, or a month ….

We did not think about days of no return trip,

we did not leave our homes and our property,

but we left all our memories there,

we left our churches to storks nesting on the domes and above the silent bells,

Be reassured stork, and no one will bother you when building your nest,

even bells are silent and no one rings them.

We are reassuring stork because the owners left the house

Maybe one day return or may not come back forever …


We left our ancestors alone under the ground with the unit,

We left our souls there, and live today without souls here …

In exile … Yes, it’s exile,

Continue reading

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings Aug. 9, 2015

"I am the bread of life." -- John 6:48

“I am the bread of life.” — John 6:48

Aug. 9, Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Cycle B. Readings:

1) 1 Kings 19:4-8

Psalm 34:2-9

2) Ephesians 4:30-5:2

Gospel: John 6:41-51

By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

Several years ago, a young friend of mine was convicted of a crime.

Sam always was — and is — your basic “fine young man.” A thoughtful son and brother, he was a very good student and responsible part-time employee while working his way through college. However, he got drawn into a moneymaking enterprise that was illegal.

He was sentenced to two years in a program set up specifically to rehabilitate first-time, nonviolent offenders at a facility far from home. It would involve group and individual counseling as well as physical labor.

The court allowed him to live with his parents for several months between the time he was sentenced and the date he was to report to the detention center. It was a dark period for Sam as he felt a great deal of shame, remorse and anxiety about what would happen to him over the next two years.

His father was a regular attendee at 6 a.m. daily Mass and, with his life upended, Sam began to go along. He was much like Elijah in this week’s first reading who lay under a tree feeling defeated until an angel encouraged him to rise and take nourishment — and then take more.

Sam, too, rose each morning in the early hours when he could sit quietly in the one place where he felt accepted for what was good in him. There he received the nourishment of Jesus in the Eucharist every day until he had to leave to begin serving his time.

At the detention center, Sam realized how much he needed the daily bread of Christ’s life, so he attended Mass whenever it was offered. Like Elijah, Sam needed strength for the difficult journey he had to make. What he chose for sustenance was “the living bread that came down from heaven.”

It enabled him to see the importance of his own life. He did everything that was asked of him in the rehabilitation program and returned home healthy and ready to move ahead.

Filled with the confidence of Jesus’ presence within him, he was at peace about his future because he was fortified — not once but continually — by the bread that would give him strength and life forever.


When have you felt truly strengthened by Jesus as the bread of life? How do you experience nourishment through continually receiving the Eucharist?

Saturday audiences and new head of Vatican health service

VATICAN CITY — Two pieces of small, but interesting news came out of the Vatican Saturday.

First, Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, told Vatican Radio that during the jubilee Year of Mercy, which begins Dec. 8, Pope Francis will add a general audience to his schedule one Saturday each month.

The pope already holds the audiences — open to the public with a free ticket — on Wednesdays except in July and when he is traveling.

(CNS/Paul Haring)

(CNS/Paul Haring)

“Clearly the general audience is an encounter Pope Francis likes a lot,” Archbishop Ganswein said. “You can see it.”

“The faithful see and hear the pope; there is direct contact — for many it will be the only time in their lives,” the archbishop said.

The second bit of news was an announcement that Pope Francis has named an endocrinologist to be the new director of Vatican’s Department of Health and Hygiene, a fully-staffed and comprehensive national health service for the Vatican.

Dr. Alfredo Pontecorvi, the new director, teaches at the medical school of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and its Agostino Gemelli hospital in Rome. He replaces Dr. Patrizio Polisca, a cardiologist who has held the job since 2009.

Dr. Patrizio Polisca, former head of Vatican health service, in a 2011 file photo. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Dr. Patrizio Polisca, former head of Vatican health service, in a 2011 file photo. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Usually, the head of the Vatican health service also serves as personal physician to the pope and travels with the pope on foreign trips. But the office of personal physician to Pope Francis was not included in the announcement of Dr. Pontecorvi’s appointment.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters they would have to wait until September to see who would be the doctor traveling with Pope Francis to Cuba and the United States.

However, he said, Dr. Polisca will continue to serve as personal physician to retired Pope Benedict XVI, who has a pacemaker.


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