Theology of Carla Tortelli

I was blessed to spend last week as one of the spiritual directors for the Pontifical North American College’s pre-ordination retreat. I was humbled and deeply impressed by the sincerity and generosity of the young men preparing for ordination to the diaconate next week. I thought I’d share the homily I gave on one of the weekdays during the retreat. The Gospel for the day was:

The mother of Jesus and his brothers came to him
but were unable to join him because of the crowd.
He was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside
and they wish to see you.”
He said to them in reply, “My mother and my brothers 
are those who hear the word of God and act on it.”

Luke 8:19-21

Many years ago, in the previous century, before streaming, when you could watch TV on one of three different channels–then four with Fox and maybe Channel 9 if you adjusted the antenna just right–there existed a neighborhood bar in Boston where everybody knew your name, and they were always glad you came because, well, troubles were all the same.

At that bar, Cheers, there worked a waitress, Carla Tortelli. Carla was a hardboiled Sicilian who didn’t take guff or prisoners. Carla was a Catholic, but she was not, let us say, in the running to be the mascot for the year of mercy.

Boston, 2014

On one episode of Cheers, Carla’s son decided to become a priest. Carla was thrilled because according to her belief, a priest’s mother automatically went to heaven. The rest of the episode, Carla behaves like a monster–spilling beer on the mailman Cliff Claven, being even more crass toward her customers than usual–because she can. She has a get-into-heaven-free card.

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What was the father thinking?

Homily for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C).

Here’s another homily from my year as a deacon, this one given at St. Bridget’s and St. Charles Parishes on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, places from which I have many warm memories.

I have looked forward to this morning for a very long time.  As many of you know, last weekend I was ordained a deacon in Boston.  I learned to be a minister of the Gospel here on Rosebud and all of you were my teachers, so I wanted my first weekend as a deacon to be here with you.  And God has answered that prayer.  As you can imagine, Paul’s letter to Timothy speaks to me.  Paul is writing to his friend and assistant Timothy and he’s marveling that God has trusted him to be a minister of the Gospel even though he himself was a sinner.  And after all his years of experience, Paul expresses the Gospel message with a single powerful sentence:  “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.”  

Lakota crucifix, Sioux Spiritual Center, Howes, SD

So if there’s anyone here who’s not a sinner, I’m sorry, you’re in the wrong place.  Go have brunch.  I don’t have anything to offer you.  The Catholic Church is like a big AA meeting for recovering sinners.  We even begin each Mass by acknowledging that we are sinners: “I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…”  As in AA, we’re here because we know we can’t overcome sin on our own; we need a higher power.  

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What is wisdom?

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C).

I’m back to my day job in Rome, so this week I’m posting a homily from 2016, given the day after my ordination to the diaconate.

Ordination to the diaconate 2016, St. Ignatius Church, Boston, MA

Today’s Gospel reading is perhaps the single most unfortunate passage in Scripture to have to preach about to a congregation consisting mostly of family members, so we’re going to work our way up to it by starting with the Old Testament.

The Old Testament reading is from the Book of Wisdom.  You’ll be happy to know that I took an entire course on the Biblical wisdom tradition and have prepared a brief 45-minute summary as an introduction to the homily.  We can skip all that, however, if you will consider for a moment the question of what it means to be wise.  

To understand what wisdom is, it can be helpful, first, to think about what it is not.  Wisdom is not the same thing as being clever; we probably know people who are clever manipulators, for example, but not really wise.  Wisdom is not the same as knowledge, as knowing lots of facts.  Teachers know that there’s a difference between a student who memorizes what he hears and then regurgitates it, and a student who actually thinks about what she’s learning.  Wisdom is not the same thing as being educated.  If you’ve been in school as long as I have, you realize that there are some very foolish people with PhDs.  And we all probably know people who didn’t receive much education who nonetheless we’d consider wise because they had a sense for people, a sense for what was right and wrong, a sense for what really matters in life. 

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Etiquette for heaven

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Years ago, one of my college friends—who remains among the best judges of character I know—gave me as a gift a book by Judith Martin, otherwise known as Miss Manners.  I said, “Miss Manners, huh?  Is this a hint?”  And she said, “Yes.”  

My friend has assured me that my social skills have improved over the past 20 years, but, more than that, the value of the book is that Judith Martin—who is an elegant, witty writer—explains the reason why we should care about manners.  We might think that manners are about things like what to do with all the extra forks at a fancy restaurant, but Miss Manners reminds her readers that the fundamental purpose behind all manners is to facilitate harmonious relationships with other people.  It doesn’t matter how fancy you are; if you make your guests or your hosts or your friends or your acquaintances feel uncomfortable, then you’re being rude.  

The best definition of justice is “right relationship.”  Manners are not the only thing that goes into right relationships, but they are one way of making interpersonal justice a little smoother. Fundamentally, having good manners means being considerate of other people.

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A Church of all nations

Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Not long ago, at dinner in my community in Rome, which houses Jesuits from maybe 30 different countries, one of my brothers from Columbia was talking with one of my brothers from Poland about the different things people eat around the world, and he mentioned hearing that in parts of Asia people eat dog meat.  And another of my brothers from the Philippines, who is normally very quiet, looked up from his plate and said, “Oh, yes, very good,” and then he went on with his meal.  

Altar of St. Francis Xavier, Gesù Church, Rome

There is no more diverse an organization in the world than the Catholic Church.  Not only do Catholics come from different countries and races and language groups, but the Church includes saints of different historical periods, the great cloud of witnesses mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews last week.  The martyrs of first century Rome, of seventeenth century Japan, of 20th century Spain and Mexico, and, in our still-young century, of Turkey, Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, France and elsewhere could not have been more different culturally or socially, yet they all shared a belief in Catholicism so strong they were willing to die for it.  People have indeed come, as the Lord says, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south to the table in the kingdom of God, around which we gather this morning.

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Weight-lifting on the Assumption

Homily for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

If you are looking for an appropriate way to observe today’s Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may I suggest weight-lifting.

Today’s feast is a celebration of strength.  The strength we celebrate today is more than that shown by Olympic weightlifters—though it includes a little of that—more than the moral strength of a figure like Rosa Parks—though it includes that too—more than the geo-political strength projected by a squadron of B-21 bombers—though that’s not absent either.  Add to all of these the strength of a cosmic force—like the gravity of the sun or the moon tugging at the tides—and you get an idea of the strength we’re dealing with. 

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Not peace, but division

Baptistry, Florence

Homily for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Politicians frequently claim to be uniters, not dividers.  If you wanted proof, therefore, that Jesus was not a politician, look no further than today’s Gospel: “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Political promises of unity, of course, come cheaply; sometimes they simply mean, “If you disagree with me, I’ll accuse you of being a divider.”  In today’s Gospel reading, however, Jesus makes a move never recommended by any political consultant: he preemptively accuses himself of bringing division.  Other than the desire to put centuries of future homilists in a very awkward position, why would Jesus do this?

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Baptism, before and after

Homily for the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Today’s three readings can be read as something like before and after photos.  Not, however, photos advertising a particular diet, plastic surgery, or hair cream.  The middle reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, mentions one of my favorite subjects, baptism.  The first reading and the Gospel give us the before and after of baptism.  

But before we get into the evidence of baptism’s effects in these before and after readings, take a look again at how St. Paul describes the first sacrament in Colossians: “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”  Baptism means both death and life.  It means participating in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus, dying with him in order to rise with him.  You may already have heard me say that I think we lose something if we only think about baptism in terms of babies and don’t remember the way that the sacrament was celebrated in the early Church.  Then baptismal fonts were below floor-level and deep enough for adults being baptized to step down into and be fully immersed.  

Ancient Christian baptistry, Naples

Baptisms, in other words, were really dramatic events.  In Colossians, Paul uses dramatic language—the bond of our guilt, he says, is obliterated and nailed to the cross.  In Rapid City, we know the dramatic effects of water.  After a dry and scorching week, we remember that water brings life.  But we also know that in 1972 this city was destroyed by flood—in fact, this church was built here after the original St. Isaac Jogues was washed away.  The Bible uses two very different sets of images to talk about baptism: the water represent both the tomb, because it means being buried with Jesus, and the womb, because baptism is a second birth.  

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Abraham’s promises

Homily for the sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

This morning, I want to talk about Abraham.  For many of us, perhaps, Abraham is like one of those distant relatives your grandmother mentions occasionally but you’re never quite sure how you’re related.  Fortunately, it’s easy to see how Abraham fits into the family tree.  He’s at the top—Abraham is the patriarch, the father of the Jewish people and also, according to the New Testament, the father of us all in faith.

Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

We find Abraham’s story in the book of Genesis.  He lives in that period in history after the fall, when the sin of Adam has left humanity existentially disoriented.  It’s the era of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, Noah and the Flood—man is lost, and every turn he makes only worsens his desolation.  When I was in the Peace Corps, I was once heating a bucket of water with an electric coil, which was, shall we say, not up to OSHA standards.  And without noticing that the plastic safety handle around the coil had melted, I picked it up and gave myself a shock.  And in the moments after the shock, everything was fuzzy, and I couldn’t quite tell what had happened or what I was doing—so I picked it up and shocked myself again.  And that’s kind of what original sin did to mankind.

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Pentecost Homily

The feast of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart because I presided at my first Mass on Pentecost Sunday. This year is the fifth anniversary of my ordination, so, for kicks, I dug up my homily from that Mass and thought I’d repost it here. A lot has happened since that day, yet in some ways it still feels like yesterday…

Pentecost Sunday 2017, Marquette University chapel

I’ll begin with homework.  Today’s first reading from Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost, but it’s just the beginning of the story of Pentecost.  So on your i-Phones on the drive home, pull up Acts of the Apostles and read all of chapter 2.  (Unless you’re driving.)  

Now, since in my 22 years of formal education I have noted that occasionally students don’t do their homework, I will go ahead and tell you what happens in Acts 2.  The part we heard this morning takes place after Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven.  One thing I don’t think we realize when we talk about Easter is how disoriented the disciples were even after Jesus rose from the dead.  The Resurrection doesn’t immediately bring understanding to the disciples.  If you read all of John 20, the chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken (extra credit), you’ll note that even after the Resurrection there’s still disbelief, confusion, and fear.  Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener.  Then, when she realizes who it is, she won’t let go of him—to the point that Jesus has to tell her, “Stop holding on to me.”  After the horror of the crucifixion, we can understand why the disciples would be fearful and why Mary Magdalene wouldn’t want to let Jesus go.  But Jesus says he has to go to do something necessary for the disciples.  He promises that when he has ascended to the Father, he, with the Father, will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.  

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