Tuesday, April 9, 2019


This column first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Comboni Missions
Joy or Humbug?
Pope Francis and the Missionary Church
 


Recently a dear, old friend of mine, a “good Catholic” who deep down in his American soul thinks I am a little bit of a heretic, but loves me anyway, told me over a good shot of single malt Scotch that he had just become a great-grandfather. We celebrated. New life is a source of joy.

Not everyone agrees. Joy? “Humbug!” groaned some other, more “realistic” acquaintances of mine later that evening. Will this child remember 2019 as a good time to be born? Look at the state we are in!

I did look. And I cringed. We live at a time when it seems to be perfectly OK to lie and insult others, when the poor, the sick, and the elderly are persecuted by the privileged; when defenseless refugees are treated as invading aliens; when Church leaders are less than prophetic; when white privilege is raising its ugly, racist head; when we hold the record on the sale of weapons and toxic fuel; and ridiculing science is a political game. Humbug, is it?

Not for a second! For one thing, great-grandpa and I have survived some pretty horrible times ourselves over the last 80-plus years and we still think that a new life is a joy forever. But, above all, didn’t Jesus, with the signs of his wounds very visible on his resurrected body, say: “I came that you may have joy, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11)?

As the rigors of Lent make room for the joy of Easter— and you can’t have one without the other—I find solace in the presence of Pope Francis at the helm of the Church. If there is a theme that stands out in his teaching, it is the reminder of the “joy of being” and the delight we find as missionaries in taking this joy to the periphery, the outer limits of the world. Francis is a constant reminder that if the Church is not missionary, it is not the Church. That mission is called the Good News and that, as Sirach says: “The fear of the Lord (namely, faith) will bring you hope and joy.”

Just take a look at the pope’s writings. The language is simple and brimming with Christian optimism. Read
the titles of his main documents:
The Joy of the Gospel, on our common Christian mission
The Joy of Loving, on the wonders of family life in all its diversity
Laudato Si’ (St. Francis’s hymn of joy) on the wonders and beauty of creation as it was handed over to us to protect it and improve it
Rejoice and Be Glad, on our path to holiness.

In these documents Pope Francis reminds dour Church legalists that “we shouldn’t throw the laws of the Church at people as if they were stones.” Get it? Be gentle, understanding, patient, and merciful. After all, our faith is a joy, not a test of endurance. The Church is a “field hospital” rather than a refuge for the elect. The Eucharist is a healing intervention of God rather than a reward for the perfect. Wow! If we were beginning to gasp for oxygen, our lungs are now bursting with it.

Now, some of you will say: “It’s funny you should mention these documents, because, mostly, we never even heard about them. Do we live in the same century, or even in the same Church?” Good question. It was the question that whirled through my mind when I came back from Europe not too long after the election of Pope Francis. Why so much enthusiasm, interest, and praise over there and an almost total ignorance and indifference over here in the United States? When was the last time you heard a sermon on Pope Francis’s teaching on welcoming the stranger, on climate change, on the various facets of a pro-life stance (it’s all or nothing), on getting away from a 9-to-5 pastoral routine and being shepherds 24/7? Why do we close churches in poor areas, the “peripheries” next door to us, in favor of megastructures run like businesses in comfortable, middle- and upper-class surroundings?

One day, while crossing the lake of Galilee, Jesus reminded his disciples: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of the Herodians.” Of course they did not get it then. I worry that some Catholics do not get it today.

The leaven of the Pharisees is the sum of poisonous words, or activities of members of the Church, hierarchy and laity, who shout humbug at the Pope of Joy. These are the Catholics who would like to turn the Church into a museum of Christian antiquities. By 2019 indifference to Pope Francis has turned into open hostility, often sponsored by rich and very white conservative institutes, by “new” religious congregations with dubious backing and medieval customs, by some seminaries’ rigor mortis where one would expect youthful enthusiasm, by nostalgic moaning over past popes, who were great, of course, but are...past. The Spirit, we should remember, lives in the present and was sent into the world “to make all things new.” Rejoice!

The leaven of the Herodians includes those politicians who poison the table of the poor, of the meek, and of the peacemaker to gorge themselves on the ill-gotten harvest of the seeds of division they have planted. This kind we will always have with us, just as mosquitos during the summer. Joy-killers, one and all. As my friend’s great-grandbaby grows up, we will need to provide youthful, honest, forward-looking politicians who will concretize joy by implementing our pope’s prophetic message. They may not do it because of the pope, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Some see similarities between Laudato Si’ and the New Green Deal recently introduced in Congress. Can we see the similarities, or are we blinded by prejudice? Life on the planet is at stake. Life is Joy.


Fear not, little child. Some of us socially minded Catholic “heretics,” living Pope Francis’s legacy, will have your back, teach you to live by mercy rather than by the law, and practice the joyous wonders of Matthew 5:1–12 and Matthew 25. This is and will always be the mission we have been called to.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

This article first appeared in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of COMBONI MISSIONS magazine


“Church Mice” are not the Church
 
Comboni Fr. Filomeno Ceja visits parishioners in San Luis Peten, Guatemala
I have been writing for mission publications since I was 25. That’s 56 years ago. Lots of things have changed since. There has been, however, one constant factor. All through, every time I wrote about the human condition (Jesus’s condition, by the way) and what to do about it, I have received letters labeling me a “commie,” a heretic, and worse. In Uganda, in Idi Amin’s days and under the goons that followed upon his demise, I even received death threats. Not that it changed anything! 

That people adverse to the Christian message would launch these attacks is to be expected. Surprisingly, however, some of these letters and social media messages come, to put it in St. Daniel Comboni’s words, from “the crooked ideas of good people.”  The general advice from these tunnel-vision Christians can be summed up in: “stick to religion and keep out of politics.” 
“Politics” meaning anything that does not smell of incense. This type of advice comes from what I like to call, Church Mice. And evidently they are here to stay.

Let me explain. A Church mouse is the Catholic who believes that our Mission is to “convert” people, baptize pagan babies, give handouts to those “poor people down there,” and love them as long as they remain “down there.” Above all, stick to Churchy stuff. Don’t you dare get out of the sacristy or go one step beyond the “Thou shall not” approach to life so universally enshrined in the Ten Commandments.  Keep the law and play it safe. 
But I say to every Church mouse: you may have missed the boat. God does not really care about your $5 million church building and all that goes with it. God cares about what you do when, having performed your religious duty there, you go out into the wicked world. That’s where the living Church has always been in the course of history pioneering health care, education and, in more modern times, even workers unions and independence struggles.

You were told, but I tell you…”
Jesus came to set the captives free
Two thousand years ago, Jesus, the son of God became an earthling like you and me. There were no clanging bells, lighted candles and burning incense holders when he came. In fact, it all took place away from the temple and the hypocrites who lived there. He was born among shepherds, who occupied the lowest rung in Israel’s society’s ladder. The event was so low-key that God himself had to provide the music: “Glory to God in the highest,” God’s angels sang. THAT was the beginning of our salvation. Meanwhile, where the Law ruled, the king was plotting how to murder a bunch of innocent children.

Jesus began his public ministry as an itinerant preacher by changing water into wine to save a young couple’s wedding feast. Then he started curing people, at times even on a Saturday. Scandal, heresy, unlawful, that’s what it was! It didn’t fit into any of the mental categories of the Temple mice. They were puzzled, so Jesus explain what he was up to. 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18) Then he added that he came to “make all things new” and kept on telling us: “You were told, but I tell you…” And in case there were any doubts, Jesus left us the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). Faith means new life for all, not moldy rubrics for the perfect.

The Field Hospital
Jesus came to redeem the world by standing with the poor, by fighting oppression and opening our eyes to the wonders and dignity of all created things. No incense, no choirs of angels, no pomp and circumstance, no earthly power. Even our prayer will be sterile if it is not backed up by our actions. In Pope Francis’ words, there is no room for clericalism or privilege, because the Church is not the castle of the elect, but “a field hospital” for a wounded humanity. 

So, if you consider yourself a Christian, stop grumbling about missionaries who are endeavoring to live like Christ by being out in the market place, on the battlefields of humanity, in the gutters with the oppressed. Pope Francis never ceases to remind us that God calls us “to go out to the margins of society.” It may not always be a pretty place, but that is where the gift of hope and solidarity are most needed. This is not doing politics. This is Christianity 101. How do we do it?

Integral development
Forget about the handouts to the poor as a permanent solution. We preach the risen Jesus by engaging in anything that restores the dignity of human beings. So instead of dumping frozen turkeys on the poor at Christmas, it may be more effective in the long run to identify and oppose the causes of poverty in our economy, our society and governments. The children starving in Yemen, victims of a bloody war we fully support, may be a case in point. And again the desperate masses crowding our borders because of how we have helped to create their poverty, come to mind. As Christians we have to stand by them. So opposing wars, the sale of weapons, and bans on desperate people wanting to stay alive are very Christian endeavors. Fighting toxic fumes and toxic policies are Christian endeavors.

Solidarity
God’s gifts are not for keeping, but for sharing. Promoting human dignity, namely God’s image, by following the Beatitudes is one such gift. True Christians plunge into the world well aware that we do not have the monopoly on goodness. We, therefore, are more than happy to join forces even with people who may not share our views/beliefs 100% and would feel uncomfortable meeting in our sacristies. We must go out and embrace their share of goodness. They may be the “thousand points of light” the late GHW Bush was talking about, social workers in our inner cities, Islamic charitable clubs, Buddhist pacifist groups, Jewish organizations, youth groups, UN humanitarian agencies, the little church down the street, neighborhood organizers. 

Don’t be jealous, share your light with the light of believers and atheists alike. God is good, all the time. God does not do politics, but God requires justice, not just your baptismal certificate.




Friday, December 21, 2018


 I published this in the past, but now that I have a Blog, I want it as part of it as a rather unique celebration of the Christmas Season

A Bizarre Christmas Celebration
In December 1990 I led a troupe from RAI/TV-1, the national Italian TV channel, on an expedition to document the work done by the Comboni Missionaries in Kalongo, North Uganda.

LRA Rebels near Kalongo
As it turned out, we were headed for trouble. On December 17, while driving through the bush to reach the landing strip where our rented Cessna was waiting, we were ambushed by about 50 Lord Resistance Army (LRA) rebels. Shots were fired into the vehicle, but the situation was defused thanks to the driver’s and my knowledge of the local language and customs. Nobody was killed, but the rebels kidnapped George, my cameraman – returnable in three days, so they said – so he could film their exploits.

After shipping off the producer and the tapes, I decided to stay behind to face hostile local authorities and to begin the long wait. Sure enough, on December 20 George was found wandering along a dusty road, tired but free. People took him to the Uganda Army base in Kitgum where I was also summoned. Once there, we were summarily accused of having made up the whole story, loaded on a helicopter and, as far as the rest of the world knew, disappeared into thin air. By night time we were being held under heavy guard at the army’s headquarters near Lira.

We were placed in what was left of a small house. The walls were riddled with hundreds of bullet
Well guarded
holes, there was no glass on the windows and no front door. We were issued a thin mattress and a blanket, a chair, a table with only three legs and a candle. Twenty heavily armed soldiers were sent to guard us. They showed up with an impressive array of AK-47s, two heavy machine guns, a bazooka and even an anti-aircraft gun. As I chatted with them over the eight days of detention, I realized that most of these youngsters had grown up in our mission schools and fondly remembered those days as the only happy times of their young lives.

Captain Peter ruled our days. He informed us that we were being protected “while our chiefs sort it all out.” Then he made a fatal mistake. He told us publicly that we were “guests.” In the local tradition, a guest is sacred and I decided to take full advantage of it. Every day, I “kindly” asked for anything that came to mind: reading material, toiletries, other simple stuff. The important this was that I had regained some control over my life and George’s. It worked!

A cake and Christmas bliss
On Christmas Eve things began to look up. Two CIDs showed up with a gift. It was a cake from Sr. Alba, the principal of the Aboke School for Girls. Stuck in the cake there was a note: “We finally know where you are and we are praying for you.” The cake emboldened me as I gave my daily list to Captain Peter. I felt that we “needed” a portable altar to celebrate Christmas Mass, a radio to provide Christmas music and a bottle of wine to accompany the cake. We had been on a diet of goat meat, plantain mush and tea. His emissaries must have headed straight for one of our missions, because by evening my wishes had been granted and we had all that we needed.

In the evening, Giorgio picked up some charcoal from the soldiers’ fire and drew a life size nativity
African Nativity
set on the bare wall. We then filled the bullet holes with rhododendron flowers (the guy with the bazooka helped me pick them). Around midnight, when all was quiet and our guards were snoring under the trees, Giorgio and I sat at our three legged table propped up against the wall, sang “Oh come all ye faithful” ever so softly and celebrated Christmas Mass at the flickering light of a 2” wax candle. It was a very emotional and down to the bare bones, intimate celebration. We then uncorked the bottle, cut the cake and continued to celebrate. At 7:00 am, when our “guardian” came to inspect the premises, we offered him a glass of wine and a piece of cake.
First Class to Rome with the crisis manager of the Italian Foreign
Ministry
By then, my Comboni brothers in Kampala had alerted the Hon. Paul Ssemogwerere. As a Ugandan refugee in the USA in the days of Idi Amin, he and I had become very close friends. By 1990 was second in command to the president of Uganda. He knew
I was in the country and he was anxious to have me meet his children. But, when all of this took place, he was out of the country on a state visit to Libya with Uganda’s President. He managed to cut the visit two days short for my sake. Upon their return, a presidential order for our release was issued and on December 28, we returned to Kampala in an embassy car with flags flying, went through the Entebbe airport VIP lounge and flew home on a first class ticket to Rome.
 Once in Rome, I shaved for the first time in two weeks, slept for 12 hours straight and then went home to celebrate my “return to life” with my family. Oh, what a Christmas it was! ***

Wednesday, October 10, 2018



This column first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Comboni Missions
Aliens: The Truth Is Out There

Recently someone asked me to write something from a “personal, missionary perspective” to explain the increasing opposition to “aliens” in our country. Actually, the fact that the word alien is used gives you a good idea of the prejudice behind the question. Since this is personal, I will limit my thoughts to mid-America, which is where we live. It is the America I know best. And because the perspective is missionary, it may shake you up.

Our past
Let me start with a quote:

“When the hordes of other lands are permitted to come here, as is the case daily; when ignorance, poverty, crime is allowed to land upon our shores and be transformed, hardly without ceremony, and with no time to learn the nature of our institutions, into what is called the American citizens-when these things are done, it is time that good men lifted their arms and sounded their voices against the abomination.” (The Know-Nothing: and American Crusader, July 15, 1854)

The “hordes of other lands” were the German and Irish Catholic immigrants. It echoes the feelings of John Jay, first chief justice of the Supreme Court, warning against “Catholic alien invaders:” “We should build a wall of brass around the country.” A wall, imagine that!
By 1924, a quota system was invented to keep Italians and other undesirables from coming to damage the WASP system. Change German and Irish into Latinos, Syrians, Muslim, and you have the 2018 version of the American xenophobic, racist streak. It’s in the genes!

Why is America such an easy prey for xenophobia? Mine is not a scholarly answer. It comes from being a foreign-born WWII survivor with sixty years of experience in mid-America and an entire missionary life spent covering the globe. 

Lack of Information
Courtesy UN photo
First of all, the average American’s ignorance about the world is staggering. For a large portion of mid-America, the world is divided into two parts. One is the “over here,” where we live. The other is the “down there,” where the rest of humanity lives. It’s Us over here and Them down there. Given a world map, too many of Us can’t find the countries belonging to Them. 
 These countries have a history that explains why they are who they are, just like us. Some, like Syria and Iran (Persia), go back thousands of years. Others, like Iraq, Israel, Libya, and Saudi Arabia are the results of world wars and oil wars. Some of these countries do not like us because we have negatively meddled in their own affairs, Iran being a case in point. 

Others among Them insist on wanting to come north. Nowadays, many are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. There must be a reason, right? They are fleeing the results of local corruption and of our own military and economic oppression that has included and often still include, genocide, death squads, gangs, and land-grabbing. We reap what we sow. If you think I am making this up, Google some of this stuff. Just to get you started, look up Rios Montt, convicted of genocide, and his love affair with Ronald Reagan and Pat Robertson, and see what comes up. 

More could be said, but I am just trying to whet your appetite. 

Lack of Personal Experience
By the time I was nine, I had already seen and survived more action than some of our people in uniform will ever see: air raids, crossing bombed railway bridges, Panzers rolling into town, Nazi occupation, Resistance underground activity, and hunger. In third grade, posters in my classroom did not teach us how to cross the street. They had pictures of hand grenades, mines, booby traps, and other deadly devices we were taught to avoid. Perhaps that’s why I strongly sympathize with Syrian refugees and the survivors of Guatemala’s genocide and Salvadoran death squads. 

Courtesy UNHCR
By the grace of God, mid-America lacks this experience because when we fight a war, we prefer to go and blow up someone else’s country, either personally or by proxy. Your neighborhood was never bombed while your kids were in school and you were at work, nor did you have to risk being blown to bits as you ventured across town to go scavenging for food. You and your children never stood against a wall with submachine guns pointed at you. You never had to walk downtown to see the rubble of what was left of it.

The refugee families knocking at our door have seen it all and worse. You need to learn how to practice sympathy and solidarity.

The Triumph of the Irrational
Ignorance begets fear and fear begets hatred. If we do not know Them, we are likely to be afraid of them. That’s when a demagogue can play on our fears and turn them into hatred. In our case, the last few years have exposed the smelly underbelly of White society’s xenophobia and given it a voice. In today’s America, people who are not white and comfortable feel the danger and the uneasiness.

What Now?
Is there a solution? We need an enlightened social system that will build bridges of understanding, so that we may realize that Them and Us belong to the same family. 

As Catholics, we need to move away from a model of Church that’s run as a mostly male, mostly white management corporation. We need a prophetic Church that will stand up for all life and speak up for those “alien” minorities such as Muslims, migrants, and any other endangered group. 

And what about our very own “not so white” brothers and sisters? When it comes to immigrants from the South who settle in our parishes, do we love them as equals or do we simply tolerate them? Faced with our shrinking, greying congregations, and the youth we have surrendered to megachurches, does the thought cross our leaders’ mind that the American Church of the future is knocking at our doors and it will not be White? Embrace it or shrivel. ■



Thursday, September 27, 2018

THIS TOO SHALL PASS!


It has been a while since I wrote anything in my blog. I needed time to fully recover and to do some thinking. Either that or I was too lazy or a little dispirited to want to set anything into print. Dispirited, you may ask? Why would I feel low just at a time when I have been given a new lease on life?
If I didn’t know any better, I could blame it on the times we are in. Old folks tend to do that.

After all I just turned 81 at a time when it seems to be perfectly OK to insult minorities and people who are “different” from you, when lying by the highest authority in the land is a daily occurrence, when the poor, the sick and the elderly are persecuted by a privileged, mostly white and male elite, when taking revenge on someone who dared “to be President while Black” goes unchallenged, when our Church leaders have often being too busy to “defend” some petty rights and the “structure” rather than the poor, the migrants and the persecuted. Living in what is for the most part a white male dominated, management style, complacent Church is not conducive to enthusiasm, either. And the daily repetition that we are in “The Trump Era” is enough to turn one to drink. Enough said.

Forget the “dispirited” part. I am, in fact, very hopeful about the future, but I needed something to hook my thought on, like an historical perspective. I got it last week.

A dear friend of mine, a “good Catholic” who deep down in his American soul thinks I am a heretic, but loves me anyway, told me over a good shot of single malt Scotch that he had just become a great-great-grandfather. Later that evening the thought came to me: what will the world be like when this child turns 80? Will 2018 or any one person’s “Era” have a special meaning for him? Probably not.

For all that’s worth, I base myself on my own growing up experience. I was born in Italy in 1937. At that time Mussolini was the DUCE (all caps, please), the head of a new Roman Empire, adored by millions of Italians, respected by other European powers, personally envied by Adolf Hitler. His quotes inflamed the populace, spurred colonial armies, and were printed on a thousand walls. Endless bliss, power and glory were in the future.
Ah, by the time I turned eight the immortal DUCE had been dead four months, his legacy forgotten and his name was mud. I grew up in a newly minted democracy and the rest is history, as we like to say.

Panta Rei, everything passes, the Greeks used to say.

The same will happen to the newly born of 2018. Eighty years from now I doubt the average American will remember that Trump was ever president (perhaps as an oddity in our history, perhaps for his Tweets?) and that we thought the current stream of evil engulfing the country would have an everlasting effect. In the end, cooler and wiser heads will prevail, new challenges will arise, borders and alliances will have changed, people will have a better understanding of the Universe we are in, someone’s country will be (or want to be) #1 and there will be new struggles to be faced.

And socially minded Catholic “heretics” will still live by mercy rather than by the law, and practice Matthew 5, 1-12 and Matthew 25.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

FRIENDS AND BUTTERFLIES
  
People travel far and wide to enjoy the world’s countless wonders. As it turns out, sometime the most beautiful things are just around the corner. The locals are likely to ignore them until someone from out of town comes along and… we discover our own backyard. 

This is what happened to me yesterday. My dear friends Judy and Chris came up from Louisville to check on me and be sure I am on my best behavior after open heart surgery (I am). It was a beautiful day and we drove to Eden Park to see the Great Monarch Butterfly Show at the Krohn Conservatory. The last time I had been there was in 1998 when my niece had crossed the Ocean to come to visit.
The three of us had a wonderful and peaceful time. Mercifully, at Krohn's there are lots of places where one can sit down and let these wonderful creatures come to you. There were butterflies of all sizes, ages and colors fluttering all over the pavilion. Children and adults alike tried all kind of tricks to have one of them land on their hands, head or clothing. It was fun watching people just as much as it was watching the butterflies.

We decided to sit down near the flowers and leave the initiative to the critters. Eventually a large one came to rest on Chris’ jeans first, before settling down on Judy’s little paper holder. And there it sat for the longest time. It needed a rest just like me. It was older, a volunteer explained, the edges of the wings were a little frayed and it only had three legs. We sympathized!

There were lots of other wonderful and eye-filling surprises: marvelous orchids, the rain forest, desert cacti, the Japanese pond with red fish yea long, a waterfall and comfortable benches everywhere, thank God.

We covered a number of other spots and had an abundant meal of what is commonly referred to in the States as “Italian food.” But above all, we enjoyed our old friendship going back to the 1950s. It doesn’t get any better than that: friends and butterflies on a comfortable bench in the shade.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

VARIATIONS ON A GOOD FRIDAY STORY
I'll do it! I'll do it!
 March 2016, Good Friday celebration in San Luis Petén, Guatemala.

The highlight of Good Friday in San Luis, as in most Guatemalan towns, is the live re-enactment of the Way of the Cross as part of a long procession during which the statues of Jesus, His Blessed Mother, Mary Magdalen and the Apostle John are carried over beds of flowers, color sawdust, and even fruit. All the people of the town take part in it either as actors, carriers or spectators.

The youth organizations were in charge of the live Way of the Cross, putting their heart and soul into creating a realistic scene at every station while following a very precise script.

Then it happened. The narrator intoned:  “Fifth Station, Simon of Cyrene is made to carry the cross.” On cue, a “Roman officer” shouts the order to his cohorts: “find someone to help Jesus of Nazareth carry the cross!”

But before the “soldiers” had time to grab the reluctant “helper,” a voice rose from the crowd: “I will do it! I will do it!” and, to everyone’s surprise, a young country girl came forward and picked up the cross.

She faced the “soldiers” and stood her grounds. And the Way of the Cross moved on to its deathly conclusion refreshed by this simple and spontaneous act of faith and compassion.

It lifted my soul.