Are the heavens calling you?

There’s a whole universe to discover if you just look up: planets, nebulae, star clusters, rare naked-eye comets, even the moon and the sun.

Since I was a kid, I’ve explored the sky as much as I could. With my modest six-inch reflector telescope I undertook hours of personal observation as a teenager. I grabbed all sorts of astronomy books from library shelves and eagerly awaited each month’s copy of popular astronomy magazines.

Father William Stolzman of St. Paul, Minn., examines a meteorite with a magnet during the Vatican Observatory's Faith and Astronomy Workshop in January. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

Father William Stolzman of St. Paul, Minn., examines a meteorite with a magnet during the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s Faith and Astronomy Workshop in January. (CNS/Dennis Sadowski)

So in January, when I had the chance to attend the Vatican Observatory Foundation‘s third annual Faith and Astronomy Workshop in Tucson, Arizona, I jumped at the opportunity to meld my astronomical interests with my profession.

For four days I joined about 20 priests and educators exploring the heavens and listening as they discussed their understanding of the universe and the beauty and mysteries of God’s creation.

Evening — and for some of us, early morning — observing sessions revealed deep sky objects we had never seen before. We followed, naked-eye, Comet Catalina for several mornings as it made its way northward in the sky from our observing site in North America on its return trip to the Oort Cloud in the icy region of the solar system.

Now Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, and his staff are inviting priests and parish educators to apply to attend the next workshop, set for Jan. 16-20 at the Redemptorist Renewal Center on the edge of the Arizona desert.

There will be ample opportunity for night sky observing — weather permitting, of course, which in January in Tucson shouldn’t be a problem. Brother Consolmagno is scheduling talks by astronomers, planning lab sessions, organizing field trips to astronomical sites and building in lots of time for prayer, reflection and conversation.

The cost is $750 and includes four nights at the center, all meals and workshop expenses. Participants will receive books to use back home and ideas and memories from which to build an astronomy outreach effort for parishioners and students.

The deadline for applications is Sept. 30.

 

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, Sept. 4, 2016

"The corruptible body burdens the soul." -- Wisdom 9:15

“The corruptible body burdens the soul.” — Wisdom 9:15

 

Sept. 4, Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Wisdom 9:13-18b

      Psalm 90:3-6, 12-17

      2) Philemon 9-10, 12-17

      Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

 

By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

In the Gospel today, Jesus reminds us that we can’t be his disciples, genuinely imparting his message and spirit, unless we are detached from our possessions.

OK, we think, we can eschew materialism and strive not to be influenced by the endemic consumerism of popular culture. We can share what we have with others. Yes, we can do that and so become effective disciples.

But what about the “possessions” that we think of as our daily bread: job, income, home — the things that provide our basic security? Becoming separated from those things can make it hard to listen and attend to God’s Spirit.

I saw it happen to a close friend of mine, a professional, when circumstances created a serious, unexpected reduction in his income. Approaching the end of his career, he saw his savings depleted and retirement plans dashed.

Suddenly, he felt that everything he’d worked for was lost, and he was overwhelmed by fears about his future. He could hardly think rationally.

Most of us have experienced a situation in which an unexpected crisis hits and lays us low.

Often it can be so defeating that we can’t feel God’s presence or hear the gentle guidance of Jesus within us.

Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom describes the difficulty. “The corruptible body burdens the soul,” Wisdom says, explaining, “The earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

It’s not so much that we are materialistic but that our concerns about even basic material matters hinder us from looking into our souls for answers from God. Jesus wants us to let go of those matters that weigh down our ability to follow him.

My friend eventually let go of his fears, accepting the fact of financial insecurity, and trusted God to carry him forward.

Wisdom notes, “The deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.”

We hate uncertainty and insecurity. Think of the panic that ensues when one’s hard drive crashes “with all my stuff on it!”

Jesus calls us to carry our cross, not our stuff. He asks us to carry our uncertainty and insecurity and trustingly follow him. That’s the cross he can help us carry.

QUESTIONS:

When have you been so overburdened by earthly matters that you were unable to seek Jesus’ guidance? What are the “possessions” that have the greatest hold in your life?

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, Aug. 28, 2016

"Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God." -- Sirach 3:18

“Humble yourself the more, the greater you are, and you will find favor with God.” — Sirach 3:18

 

Aug. 28, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Sirach 3:17-18, 20, 28-29 

      Psalm 68:4-7, 10-11 

      2) Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24a

      Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

By Sharon K. Perkins
Catholic News Service

The American storyteller Mark Twain is credited with the saying, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Essentially, Twain is insisting that “words matter.”

Sometimes examining the historical origins, or etymology, of a word can provide valuable insights into its meaning.

Take the word “humility,” for example. If you trace its history far enough, you can find that it is based on the Latin word “humus,” or “earth.” To be humble is literally to be “down to earth.”

Almost all of us can think of a person who, despite his celebrity or social stature, is admired because of his humility. To say of a famous personality, “She’s so down to earth!” is to pay her a compliment implying genuineness, approachability and unpretentiousness that are powerfully attractive to others.

Jesus chose to emphasize the importance of humility in today’s Gospel parable at the home of one of the leading Pharisees of the town — where, oddly enough, the dinner guests were jockeying for positions of honor at the table. He highlights the paradox that such seeking of favor and prestige inevitably leads to disgrace and embarrassment, while choosing to humble oneself carries the potential for exaltation. (Although the words both spring from the same Latin root, I think I would choose “humility” over “humiliation” any day!)

Jesus’ parable wasn’t only instructional — it was prescient. His own freely chosen death on the cross was the ultimate act of humility, leading not only to his own exaltation at the right hand of the Father, but to our own lifting up.

In great humility lies great power, for it dismantles the walls that keep our hearts closed to love. Humility changes moralizing to loving example and mere proselytizing to authentic evangelization.

Put another way, it’s what “folk evangelist” Johnny Cash advises in song:

“Come heed me, my brothers, come heed, one and all/ Don’t brag about standing or you’ll surely fall./ You’re shining your light and shine it you should/ But you’re so heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good.”

QUESTION:

Describe a person you know who is humble and “down to earth” despite his or her greatness. How can your own humility of thought, word and deed attract others to Christ?

Word getting around that Sept. 1 is World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation

Pope Francis a year ago declared that Catholics would join their Orthodox brothers and sisters and other Christians to formally mark Sept. 1 as the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation.

This year awareness of the day is gaining momentum as church groups and faith-based environment advocates have instituted a series of prayer services and programs for Catholics in particular to observe the day.

Nuns join climate justice activists at a plaza in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 29, a day ahead of the start of the U.N. climate change conference, known as the COP21 summit, in Paris. (CNS/Simone Orendain).

Nuns join climate justice activists at a plaza in Manila, Philippines, Nov. 29, a day ahead of the start of the U.N. climate change conference, known as the COP21 summit, in Paris. (CNS/Simone Orendain).

“Sept. 1 is huge because it is the first time in our Catholic liturgical calendar we have an official day for creation care,” said Tomas Insua, coordinator of the Global Catholic Climate Movement. “It’s a massive opportunity to start getting ‘Laudato Si” deeply imbedded in our Catholic mindset and the life of the Catholic family.”

The day opens what numerous Christian communities are calling the Season of Creation that runs through the feast of St. Francis of Assisi Oct. 4. Christians are invited to pray and care for God’s creation over the five-week period.

The Sept. 1 day of prayer originated when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople instituted a similar day of prayer for the Orthodox Church in 1989. It has gradually expanded to include much of the Christian world.

Meanwhile, the Washington-based Catholic Climate Covenant has developed its own program for the St. Francis feast day. The educational program is called “Dial Down the Heat: Cultivate the Common Good for our Common Home.” You can see a video about the program here.

Dan Misleh, Catholic Climate Covenant executive director, said it is designed to bring diverse people together to in a civil dialogue on climate change in a time of political polarization and to find common ground to protect Earth by thinking about ways to use less energy so “we put less CO2 into the atmosphere.”

“We need to be thinking about how do we create the space for people to have civil dialogue as opposed to people shouting at each other,” he told Catholic News Service.

A kit on the program is available from the Catholic Climate Covenant website.

Insua knows that much work remains to create awareness about the day “because the vast majority of Catholics still have no clue that Pope Francis instituted it.”

Having a longer period, a season, helps, he said.

“By definition, it’s ecumenical,” Insua added. “In the Catholic agenda of ecumenism this is a very concrete way of coming together with other Christian churches.”

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, Aug. 21, 2016

"I come to gather nations of every language." -- Isaiah 66:18a

“I come to gather nations of every language.” — Isaiah 66:18a

 

Aug. 21, Twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Isaiah 66:18-21

      Psalm 117:1-2

      2) Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13

      Gospel: Luke 13:22-30

 

By Jeff Hensley
Catholic News Service

The final part of the Gospel for this week speaks of an event many of us are looking forward to with eagerness. Jesus says, “And people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

Having lived a pretty privileged first-world life, I’m not looking to rise in the rankings in the kingdom of God. But it has also been my privilege to know many people — despised because of their poverty and their lack of education — who will.

My wife has the added privilege of working with the poor in the form of refugees and immigrants who have literally come from the east and the west, the north and the south: from Africa, Asia and from all of Latin America.

They come here with hope and a vision to achieve a new life free from fear and free to earn a living that will sustain them and their families.

Though not all are virtuous to a fault, most of them have grown up in families where they were nurtured and protected. However, some fight against deeply dysfunctional family dynamics that caused them to live on the streets in their home countries. But they do fight their circumstances, and my wife and her co-workers at her school assist them, offering them a hand up through education, kindness, empathy and simply the presence of a listening ear.

Many, though not all, are believers. Some follow the Hindu and Muslim faiths.

Many of them will someday be among those our Savior greets in eternity in the kingdom of God, where, having experienced life in this world among “the last,” they will everlastingly experience life in the kingdom among “the first” as they recline at the table with our Lord.

QUESTIONS:

Who do you know whose lives in this world would put them in the category of “the last”? In what way are you looking forward to seeing them experience life among “the first” in the kingdom?

Volunteering with Mother Teresa’s nuns: ‘Getting right in the dirty of things’

Lay missionary Eloisa Greenwald volunteered at Shanti Dan, home for women and girls with disabilities. (CNS photo/courtesy Eloisa Greenwald)

Lay missionary Eloisa Greenwald volunteered at Shanti Dan, home for women and girls with disabilities. (CNS photo/courtesy Eloisa Greenwald)

By Anna Capizzi

What is it like to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata?

Thousands travel to Kolkata, India, each year to give their time helping the order of sisters Blessed Teresa founded to “satiate the thirst of Jesus” by serving the poor in the slums of India.

Anyone can volunteer. And you don’t have to make prior arrangements — just find lodging in advance and apply for a tourist visa. The sisters hold orientations three times a week for new volunteers.

Volunteers come from all over and might not necessarily be Christian or even religious. Some are curious about Mother Teresa’s work and just “want to do some good,” said Joe Reciniello, who has served in Kolkata six times.

Upon arrival the “cacophony of noises, smells and sights” struck volunteer struck volunteer Renee Roden, who volunteered in 2013 for two months with University of Notre Dame’s International Summer Service Learning Program.

Missionary of Charity Sisters chat in alley near the motherhouse in Kolkata, India, before afternoon prayer. (CNS photo/courtesy Victoria Vissat)

Missionary of Charity Sisters chat in alley near the motherhouse in Kolkata, India, before afternoon prayer. (CNS photo/courtesy Victoria Vissat)

Navigating through the chaotic, dusty streets thronged with people, “poverty hits you in the face, right along with discomfort,” said Eloisa Greenwald, a missionary with Catholic Christian Outreach, who volunteered for three weeks in 2015.

Volunteers find it difficult to see so many families and individuals sleeping along the road and “even more difficult to understand the greater complexities of poverty” and not become “desensitized,” said Jenna Ahn, who spent two summers volunteering.

But this is why volunteers come: to tend to the unwanted, the forgotten, those on the margins of society.

The day begins with Mass at 6 a.m., followed by a simple breakfast of chai tea, bread and a banana. The sisters sing a “thank you” song for departing volunteers and send everyone off with a prayer for the day’s work.

Volunteers pray before the tomb of Mother Teresa and ask for her intercession. (CNS photo/Victoria Vissat)

 

The volunteers split into groups and travel to the different homes the sisters have throughout the city. Each home has its own apostolate, a specific purpose.

At Shanti Dan, the home for women and girls with disabilities, Ahn spent mornings with the girls “singing, dancing, mediating, working on nonverbal modes of communication, learning colors and numbers, watering plants in the garden.”

“Over two years, the girls at Shanti Dan taught me so much more about love and acceptance than I could ever repay,” said Ahn.

Other volunteers assist with manual labor. To do laundry by hand “hit me hard,” Greenwald said. “You’re getting right in the dirty of things — carrying buckets of water, wringing out loads.”

While most volunteers typically can’t converse in Bengali or Hindu, they still find ways to communicate. “We would try to learn their name,” noted Levi Rash, a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students who spent five weeks there in 2015.

Rash’s group visited Titagarh, a leper colony Mother Teresa founded on the outskirts of town. Weavers there create the sisters’ saris and blankets for the sick and dying.

When Rash’s group arrived, the weavers “started working even harder, weaving the looms” to show us “the worth they had as humans.” The sight reminded him “that every single person has worth … and they should be cared for and loved as if you were loving Christ.”

The sisters allowed Dani Bell, a medical student on a five-week mission with Creighton University’s School of Medicine, to work with women they had brought in off the streets.

The most moving part of her trip, Bell said, was when she spent hours “hunched over one woman pulling dead pieces off her skin that maggots had eaten away. She was emaciated and barely alive. I remember looking in her eyes and telling her she is safe now.”

Flower petals on Mother Teresa’s tomb spell a different message each day for those who come to pray. (CNS photo/Christiana Molnar)

Flower petals on Mother Teresa’s tomb spell a different message each day for those who come to pray. (CNS photo/Christiana Molnar)

After the morning shift, volunteers break for lunch and a much-needed nap. The afternoon shift ends with evening eucharistic adoration. Volunteers then depart for dinner and are free to choose their own evening activities

During their time there, volunteers get a sense of the spirituality and personality of the Missionary of Charities.

Roden described the sisters as “tough,” yet “so full of joy.” The strength and will of the sisters to love and help others “simultaneously puts me to shame and inspires me to be better.”

Like their founder, the sisters are straightforward. When Susan Johnson volunteered in 2011, she told the sisters she missed her six children back in New Jersey. Instead of comforting her, the sisters offered a challenging response: “These children here need you more right now.”

For all volunteers, the experience is transformative. “I’ve always known it was important to serve the poor,” but there “I realized how much help was actually needed,” said Greenwald.

To go to Kolkata takes careful planning and spiritual preparation. But a response to Christ’s words “whatever you did to one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” is possible anywhere.

As Mother Teresa said, go “find your own Kolkata.”

Word to Life — Sunday Scripture readings, Aug. 14, 2016

"There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished." -- Luke 12:50

“There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” — Luke 12:50

 

August 14, Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

      Cycle C. Readings:

      1) Jeremiah 38:4-6, 8-10

      Psalm 40:2-4, 18

      2) Hebrews 12:1-4

      Gospel: Luke 12:49-53

 

By Jean Denton
Catholic News Service

I live at the edge of Appalachia, where I’m awed every day by the beauty of the mountains. But despite a sense of serenity, I know the scene before me is not at peace.

The paradox of the Appalachian region is well-known: Its natural beauty and rich culture belie a continuing struggle with environmental exploitation and poverty.

An inspiring, ongoing story I covered as a reporter for my diocesan newspaper was the work of the church advocating for justice in Appalachia. Over recent decades, much of that mission has been carried out at the grass roots by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, an active group of religious and laypeople living and laboring with the people, lifting a prophetic voice against such degradation as mountaintop removal, industrial pollution and myriad social problems that come with endemic poverty.

The Holy Spirit is at work among God’s faithful people there, characteristically stirring up conflict. Characteristically?

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asks, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on earth?”

On the contrary, he states, he intends to set the earth on fire, bringing division and, yes, that can mean conflict even among our brothers and sisters in Christ.

A stark example is the struggle for justice in Appalachia, alive with Christ’s Spirit as the members of the church grapple with their differences of opinion on environmental issues.

Members of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia last year applauded Pope Francis’ encyclical on the global threat of climate change. The pope’s words appeared to speak directly to conditions in Appalachia as he described the critical depletion of the earth’s natural resources and its particular impact on the poor.

But the response of some local dioceses differed from the committee’s. They disagreed on the environmental and economic impact some of the document’s proposals would have on the region as well as on how to address the problems it raised. Nevertheless, the committee encouraged all the bishops of Appalachia to engage the church in the concerns and conflicts raised by “Laudato Si’,” even though the conversation may be contentious.

So it is with many issues our church faces, but in bequeathing his Spirit to his disciples, Jesus baptized us in fire and calls us to work through the conflicts to accomplish his will.

QUESTIONS:

How would you describe the attitude of Jesus in this Gospel? When have you witnessed the Spirit of Christ working through conflict?