Sunday, October 29, 2017

“The Slathering of Oil” A Reflection on the Dedication of the Conventual Church of Our Lady of The Angels

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix pours Chrism Oil onto the altar of the
new Conventual Church of Our Lady of the Angels, Franciscan Renewal Center
(also popularly known as "The Casa"), Scottsdale, AZ

This reflection was originally published in OFM.FYI, the newsletter of the Province of St. Barbara.

Friar Michael Weisshaar (d. 1996) used to welcome Friar Regis Rohder (d.1983) at the Casa’s front door in the early Seventies with a peck on the top of his head and a giggle: “Kiss a relic!” His parking lot is now a shrine. We buried relics under the floor of a new sanctuary there. Our senses were filled with the smell of chrism and flowers and billowing sweet incense. It is not easy on the Catholic imagination to undo what we witnessed on Francis Day at the Casa this year. Recent decades have seen so many sacred buildings of our country closed and abandoned to “profane use.” But as a bishop slathers chrism across the mensa of a new altar and permanently stains the walls with it, something changes inside of us.  Something often messy is dedicated as well. Vestments and new altar cloths were ruined with permanent oil stains, ruined like all of us, and dedicated at the same time, perhaps, to a humanity made more sacred.

I didn't want to concelebrate; to sit in habit among the friars felt enough. A question by a Lutheran pastor I studied with at the Chicago Theological Union lingered across my thoughts: “I don't understand you Catholics. If the Lord Jesus was not worried about spilling his Sacred Blood on the garbage dump of Calvary, why are you worried about spilling the blest chalice on a “chrismed” altar? “ But we are. Obsessed sometimes. And sometimes we appear “picky” about the proper rites for dedicating things. But these things “baptize” a building of stone and steel with water and oil and sacred Word. It was good, too, to be among the friars, hearing Bishop Olmsted applaud our kind of Franciscan church-building and rebuilding. Even with our personnel issues, he noted, the three Phoenix Franciscan centers continue to invigorate his diocese. After all, the friars have sought to do “good church” here since our Marcos Di Niza first trudged through this desert looking for gold… more than three hundred years ago.

At that moment of slathering the walls and altar table, we were all one. Not liberal or conservative church people any more. All of our diocesan leadership were there: the bishop, vicar of clergy, vicar general, chancellor and deans… and even a few the “New Franciscans” of the Phoenix diocese. We have done battle recently on the question of what face of the Church do we want project in central Phoenix. Here, we the “older” Franciscans who brought the Gospel to Arizona so many hundreds of years ago became a temporary sea of brown. Our way leans more often toward the human, the messy and the proximate. This seemed to charm as well in the context of ancient rites.  In some important way, in the slathering oil, the illuminating of the walls and the dressing of the altar, we were just the Body of Christ, doing business.

The anti-Trump demonstrations just a month ago left the friary and the century-old Basilica of St. Mary’s full of tear gas. We friars had stepped away from the crowds that evening to pray vespers and to anoint Fr. Luis for his surgery the next day. It was a wild juxtaposition - the chanting rage of the crowds at an inhumane national administration and the slathering of oil. We friars there “did church” and attended to the crowds from our front steps. To “church” is a verb, after all. Maybe by doing it well on the steps we reduced the violence in those angry streets. The moment became intimate, graced and blest. Slathering and chanting kept coming to mind as the bishop anointed that altar of Our Lady of Angels.

Our guests did not seem to be bothered by the Casa hand waving and “alleluia” signing. We were just the Body of Christ doing its thing - epiclesis. Dedicating spaces and lives by invoking the Third Sacred Person of the Trinity.  Calling on the Spirit to enter our world and heal its violence and self-centeredness. To present a human face of Church, that is our vocation here.

We friars don't build new buildings often anymore. The recent history of St. Barbara has been in the adapting of old ones to new purposes. But here we saw a building changed from being an impressive piece of architecture to a sacred place for worship. I remember the words over the doors in the old St. Anthony Church in San Francisco:  Ecce Domus Domini Firmiter Edificata/ This is the House of God firmly built!  Or better yet, this is the House of the People of God - on the road, living messes and messy lives. Trudging along on our way to Jerusalem and Calvary. Together.

Friar Michael Weldon is a Friar of the St. Barbara Province. Ordained a priest in 1981, he has served as vocation director, pastor, theology school professor, author, and consultant for parish reconfiguration process.  In 2014, he began his current assignment as Rector and Guardian of St. Mary’s Basilica, Phoenix, AZ and Adjunct professor of Pastoral Studies at the Franciscan School of Theology in Oceanside, California. 

Franciscan Friars
Office of Vocations
1500 34th Ave.
Oakland, CA 94601
Phone:  (408) 903-3422

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Franciscans = Great Lovers

"Death of St. Francis" by Giotto, Bardi Chapel, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy
This reflection was given during a Transitus service commemorating the death of St. Francis on October 3, 2017 at St. Francis Mission Church in Elfrida, AZ. 

A friend of mine once asked me, “Can you pick one word to describe what Franciscans are all about?” At first I wanted to say, “Humility!” But then I thought, “That won’t be a very humble thing to say.” So I paused and thought hard. Then it came to me: Lovers! We, Franciscans, are great lovers! I will explain why in a minute. But to understand why, we need to go back to the man who started it all: St. Francis of Assisi.

Francis was born around 1182 in a small Italian town of Assisi. He was the son of a cloth merchant, in a family that had money. Francis had no problem spending his time and money for food, drinks, and parties. He liked being the center of attention. To gain more fame, he wanted to become a knight, going to battles and win an honor for his own name. Unfortunately, during one such battle, he was captured by the enemy and imprisoned for a period of time.

There are many versions of what happened next. Some said God talked to Francis in a dream. Another said he heard Jesus talking through a crucifix. But they all seemed to agree on something: Francis went through a profound conversion. I personally like the version that came from Francis’ own writing. In what is called his Testament, he wrote:
“The Lord gave me, Brother Francis, thus to begin doing penance in this way: for when I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I showed mercy to them. And when I left them, what had seemed bitter to me was turned into sweetness of soul and body. And afterwards I delayed a little and left the world.”

Francis, in his own word, attributed his conversion to an encounter with the lepers. At that time, lepers, people who were sick with leprosy, were considered outcast. They had to move out and live outside the city. Nobody wanted to do anything with them. But it was this experience that turned Francis’ life around. He began to embrace them as his brothers and sisters. Not only that, he embraced all God’s creation, like the sun and the moon, as his brothers and sisters too. We heard that in the song earlier. He considered all of them brothers and sisters because he was able to see that we were all created by God in Jesus Christ. We are all related. We are all brothers and sisters of Jesus.

And because we all came from God, Francis loved everyone and everything. He saw the world as good, just as God saw all creation as good in the story we find in the book of Genesis. He loved the world because he believed that was the reason God created everything. The love of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit was so great that it poured out into the world and everything in it. And God the Father sent his only Son first and foremost because God so loved the world. Christ became human because he loved us and wanted to be with us. That was the primary reason. Not to condemn us because we’ve been bad. Not to fix us because we’ve been broken. But to show how he loved us.

Francis fell in love with this kind of loving God, and he also fell in love with all God’s creation.
So what now? Who is Francis for us today?

If we want to really follow his footsteps, then, like Francis, a conversion is in order. Are we able to see God as someone who loves us unconditionally, or do we see him as a judge that watches everything we do, waiting for us to make a mistake and punish us? Do we see God as forgiving or do we want him to punish everyone whom we don’t like? Do we see others as brothers and sisters or as competitors, as those who don’t deserve our love or attention, as resources to be exploited?

The world we live in can seem so dark sometime. We are faced with sickness, with deaths in the family, with the breaking of relationships, with political turmoil among our elected officials, with natural or human-caused disasters and tragedies. But if we share the faith that Francis had, that this world is fundamentally good because it was created by God as such, then we can be the ones who wake the world up and help others to recognize their innate goodness. If we are convinced that God so loved the world, then we can be the channel of God’s love to others, especially to those who have been outcast, rejected, and condemned by our society.

My prayer is that tonight, you feel inspired by the example of St. Francis. My hope is that you too can be Franciscans, not necessarily wearing a brown habit, but as people who will bring about peace, reconciliation, justice, goodness in this world. Our world today is in desperate need of love more then ever. I hope that you too will be inspired to become lovers - great lovers - of God, of others, and of all creation. Amen.

Sam Nasada, OFM received his Master of Divinity degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Oceanside, CA this past summer. He is currently part of a new initiative of the Province of St. Barbara: a small intentional community near the Arizona-Mexico border that is focused on contemplation and helping those in the margins. He hopes that this experience will help in his formation to become a priest who will not be afraid to, borrowing a term from Pope Francis, "smell like his sheep".

Franciscan Friars
Office of Vocations
1500 34th Ave.
Oakland, CA 94601
Phone:  (408) 903-3422