Friday, October 13, 2017

All Are Invited


Dear Friends,

A current practice among engaged couples is to send out postcards announcing their coming nuptials some months before the event. An FYI, but not a new concept.

In ancient times, kings also announced the approximate time for a family member’s wedding banquet weeks or months in advance. The exact details of the banquet were given at a later date. To say yes to the advance invitation and no to the more proximate invitation was considered an insult.

In the Gospel for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, which we celebrate today, those who heard his story knew what Jesus was talking about, namely, the sacredness of a wedding invitation. Sacred. As usual, though, Jesus’ story featured a twist and had a second deeper meaning (Matthew 22.1-14).

The audience for whom Jesus intended his parable was the Jewish Community of his day. Ages before, they had accepted God’s invitation to be his chosen people – his special guests at the banquet of the Kingdom of God. Isaiah describes the preparations of God for that mountaintop banquet in today’s first reading. In it, we find the tender presence of God and the total satisfaction and delight of the people at the banquet. (Isaiah 25. 6-10a)

But later, when Jesus came to announce the banquet of God was at hand, some of the Jewish rejected the proximate invitation to the joy of that table.

In the parable, one invited guest decides to work his farm instead of coming to the banquet and another chooses to attend to business. These would-be guests didn’t go off drunk. They didn’t perform criminal acts or forget the date. They simply did not value the invitation or take it seriously. They chose something else. God was not a priority in their life.

There’s a second, startling thing about this story. The king, having been refused by one potential set of guests, sends his messengers out to the highways and byways to bring in the good and bad. Yes. That’s what it says: the good and bad. Even one of this new round of guests does not value the invitation by refusing to put on the wedding garment which the host provides.

No one is excluded from the invitation. We might exclude some, like Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas sniper or other notorious figures. We might even exclude people we don’t like.  But they are all invited.

Sometimes we believe that we ourselves are excluded because we’ve had an abortion or are in a second unblessed/civil marriage or because we’ve been involved in a questionable business deal or because we’ve been told “You don’t belong!” But we are not excluded either. The invitation is for us, too.

As this week unfolds, let’s ask ourselves: Who am I in the story? Am I the servant messenger of the king, inviting others to the wedding feast? Am I the one who chooses something else – good as it may be – something that keeps me away from God’s banquet? Or am I one who has been invited because others refused to come? With whom do I identify and what does this mean for me?


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, October 6, 2017

Words Matter


Dear Friends,

At the same time as Pope Francis was in Columbia during late September, the Vatican issued a new document from the pope – a motu proprio, that is, a document written on his own initiative. In this document, Pope Francis announced a change in Canon Law which would return the process for approving translations of liturgical texts back to national bishops’ conferences rather than the Vatican. We might not think so, but this is an important change, which will allow the formal language used in our current celebrations of Eucharist to give way to language consistent with our lives today.

Words matter. Some words convey intellectual content and some words touch the heart and reflect our deepest selves. Words can draw us closer to God and things divine, or not. The culture in which we live also makes a difference to what words convey. In so many ways, words matter.

The Constitution on the Liturgy, the first document of the Second Vatican Council, called for our Eucharistic Liturgy to be in the vernacular, so that the faithful (you and I) could celebrate Christ’s self-gift to all with “full, conscious and active participation.” Any of us who were in the pews in 1973, as well as the priest-presiders, knew what arduous work it was to make the switch from Latin to English, but the effort made us experience Eucharist in a deeper way. It also became clear that the first English translation of the Roman Missal needed to be followed by a more polished, life-touching version. The International Commission on the English Language produced a beautiful new Mass text for use beginning in 1998, but Rome rejected this translation and had another translation prepared which we began to use in 2011.

Here is the Opening Prayer for the Feast of All Saints, as translated in each of these three time periods. I offer them here for you so you can get the “feel” of each way the community is encouraged to pray, and what we might look forward to. Try praying each of these out loud and hear how they feel.

1973                                                      
Let us pray…                                                        
Father, all-powerful and ever-                         
living God, today we rejoice in the                  
holy men and women of every time               
and place. May their prayers bring us            
your forgiveness and love.                                
We ask this…                                                                                                        

1998                                                      
Let us pray…                                        
All-holy and eternal God,                              
you have given us this feast                         
to celebrate on one day the                         
holy men and women of every                    
time and place. Through their                      
manifold intercession, grant us                     
the full measure of your mercy       
for which we so deeply long.                        
We ask this…                                                    
                                               
2011
Let us pray…
Almighty, ever-living God,
by whose gift we venerate
in one celebration
the merits of all the Saints,
bestow on us, we pray,
through the prayers of so
many intercessors, an
abundance of the
reconciliation with you
for which we earnestly long.
Through our Lord….

It will probably be five to 10 years before our faith communities have a new Eucharistic translation that speaks to our hearts, but we may see glimpses of it before then. Even to know it is coming is an encouraging thing.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 29, 2017

Respecting Life

Dear Friends,

The first Sunday of October is designated throughout the American Church as Respect Life Sunday. Often in people’s minds, “respect life” is synonymous with and limited to standing against abortion, and sometimes euthanasia, though it really has to do with life issues from womb to tomb. As I was casting about for a way of talking about this topic in a reflective way, a thought in the Editor’s Note of The Atlantic for this month caught my attention. Jeffrey Goldberg was talking within a political context about the “democratic norms of restraint, moderation, forgiveness, and compromise.”

And I thought – those are not just political norms, they are important words, important attitudes in our faith lives as well. Restraint, moderation, forgiveness and compromise pertain to how we approach and work through the critical moments of our lives as we interact with others. They are words that require the discipline of unruly parts of our thinking and action. More than unruly, when we refuse to be restrained, moderate, forgiving and willing to compromise, we act out of a self-righteousness that bespeaks self-satisfaction, and a self-centeredness that disrespects the other.

How ungodlike that is.

Others get trapped in our judgments and self-appointed dominance and sometimes others die as a result or perhaps some part of them dies. To respect life means “Don’t trap people.” In the Eucharistic Prayer of the Maronite Rite, the wording of the Lord’s Prayer helps us understand what this means: “Let us experience the same freedom from our mistakes that we allow others to experience,” the community prays. Let others live. Let them make their own choices. Work with them in whatever ways possible.

God, the giver of all life, calls us to life. Let’s accept other human beings for who they are as well as the creatures of earth. Respecting life means honoring all life everywhere and at all times even the lives of those that are wrong-headed, wrong-hearted and dangerous. At the same time, we think of plants and animals to provide our food. We are called to be God-like in choosing how we access the food that we eat.

Choosing life/respecting life is about standing with leaders who seek to eradicate poverty and whatever causes untimely death. Both Genesis and Pope Francis remind us to ask ourselves: Who is my brother? Who is my sister? We see the devastation of people’s lives on TV. We take in the pain of it all momentarily, but then we are on to the next thing. Since some things seem too big for us to handle in our small worlds, we do nothing or little. The problem is indifference to the lives of others.   

Respecting life begins when we develop and sustain an attitude of respect toward our brothers and sisters nearby as well as far away. Then acting in a respectful way becomes more doable.

~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 22, 2017

Appreciating God's Creatures

Dear Friends,

During the height of Hurricane Irma, several small dolphins got washed up on the gulf coast. Two members of a TV crew tugged them back to their watery home, while a cameraman filmed the rescue. A week or two before, in southeast Texas, rescue squads saved household pets from death – bedraggled looking cats and dogs were spirited away. Meanwhile, on the vast King ranch, cattle instinctively moved to higher ground, but had no food, so hay was flown in. Intuitively, human beings save animals from dire circumstances whenever we can. Their presence in our world is more than a backdrop for human drama. In an interview after she wrote “Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God,” Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote ”the beasts have their own relationship with God, apart from us, as creatures of God whom God also loves. It’s not all about us.”

Animals, from earliest times, have had an important place in the lives of human beings, not just as sources of food and clothing, but as sources of joy, learning, companionship, healing and wonder. Job 12.7-8 reminds us “Ask the beasts, and they shall teach you; or the birds of the air, and they shall tell you. Or the reptiles on earth to instruct you, And the fish of the sea to inform you.”

You and I, our predecessors and contemporaries have been nudged to value animals, domestic and wild, by perceptive interpreters of the animals of our world. Chief Seattle, addressing the US government in 1854 reinforced our connectedness with animals; “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.” The American naturalist Henry Beston challenges us to “have a wiser and perhaps more mystical concept of animals…They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

Environmental respect, justice and wonder have long been part of the writings of Catholic bishops and popes, but these ideas have yet to catch fire in people’s hearts. We have yet to realize that this way of thinking about the beasts is not an add-on to faith, but part of the very path of faith we travel. “Exult, all creation, around God’s throne” we pray at the Easter Vigil. Even as we say these words, we don’t fully recognize how all creation participates in the Resurrection of Jesus.

October 4, the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, is a scant 10 days away. In preparation for the feast, why not use these days to heighten our appreciation for the beasts with whom we share the earth. Go to the zoo, check out the Southeast Asian quail that play underfoot at the Lamberton Conservatory, feed the fish at Powder Mills Park, watch National Geographic or WXXI programs on animals. Tell remembered stories of seeing animals interacting with various species and one another.

The American author Barry Lopez invites us to do our part in reestablishing an atmosphere of respect for the complexity of animals’ lives and give up trophy hunting, factory farming and laboratory experiments that cause animals to suffer unduly. This respect could even help us feel revivified as a species.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 15, 2017

To Stay or To Go

Dear Friends,

Over the last few weeks, our whole country has watched residents in flooded areas of Texas and Florida be called to make a decision: to leave their homes or to hunker down, to walk or drive away or to cling to all they have come to value as their own. In short, to stay or to go.

One reason we have been absorbed in their stories is because they are our own stories. Throughout history, people like you and me, indeed, whole communities have been asked to decide whether to stay or go. Within the last 25 years, the people of Hong Kong (1997), in the face of a pending return to the control of mainland China, had to decide; the people of Scotland in a referendum (2015) had to decide whether or not to leave the British Commonwealth. Most recently, all of Britain had to decide whether to leave the European Union (2016).

Individuals have had to decide whether to leave a marriage, a job, their church which they have found less than welcoming, their homeland, their plans, their pets, their remembered safety and security.

To be faced with that decision – to stay or to go – is to stand on a threshold, to be called beyond ourselves as we have been. The deepest call is to be faithful to our heart, to our God and to the values which we know to be life-giving. How can we cross that boundary? Will we have the strength to do and to become anew?

Most of the time, people in these frames of mind or situations don’t have the luxury of a long time to think, and have to rely on their store of learnings, understandings, intuition, orientations, values and relationships to see them through. At times, no one asks us out loud whether to stay or go. We just hear it in our hearts. But sometimes the question is public, so that our responses can stir others to thought and decision as well.

To my mind, the most vivid biblical moment where the question – to stay or to go – is public occurs in Chapter Six of John’s Gospel. Jesus tells his listeners that He is the bread of life, the living bread. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. (Jn. 6.53)” Murmuring followed, and many of his disciples concluded, “This is a hard saying; who can accept it? (Jn. 6.60)” Jesus watched many walk away and then said to the Twelve “Do you also want to leave? (Jn. 6.67)”

There it is. Will you stay or will you go? Will you walk with me or not?

Thankfully, Peter spoke words of belief on behalf of all of them, and hopefully for us all well.

That is the clue when we are standing at our own personal thresholds. Dare to believe God first. Include and embrace the community in the decision in some way. Dare to go forward without clarity but with confidence in God and our choices nonetheless. “Another road will take you into a world you were never in. New strangers on the path await, new places that have never seen you will startle a little at your entry...May you travel in an awakened way” (John O’Donohue, To Bless The Space Between Us).


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 8, 2017

"What Do You Want Me to Do for You?"

Dear Friends,

Years ago, a psychologist friend of mine said that the most important thing we can ask someone in need is, “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s so much easier to do something we want to do or to presume we know what the other needs. My most vivid example of getting it wrong was an incident that took place years ago at St. Mary’s Church, where I was a staff member. One of our regulars at weekday Mass was a very senior woman named Brigit. Brigit was Irish-born and most of us found her speech hard to understand. She mumbled for one thing, and sounded as though she had pebbles in her mouth. Brigit wore the most raggedy shoes imaginable. They were sneakers, open and frayed across the top. Concerned Mass-goers said to me, “Get Brigit new shoes. We’ll pay for them.” I did. Brigit seemed grateful, but within days, the sneakers looked the same as the previous pair. Then it came out. We had not really asked Brigit why her shoes looked as they did. Turns out she had painful bunions, and the only way she could tolerate her shoes was to alter them. We had missed the point entirely because we thought we knew but had not asked.

In Mark, Matthew and Luke, Jesus asked before acting. The three incidents are similar, involving one or two blind men, and in the third case, a blind man named Bartimaeus. Each attracted Jesus’ attention, but Jesus did not presume to help them before they stated their desire. “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer came with conviction. “Master, I want to see.” (Mark 10.51) The implicit became explicit.

In recent weeks, two dramatic stories have borne out the importance of someone inviting others to act in the spirit of Jesus’ words to the blind men, who could be understood as anyone needing help. In the Christopher Nolan film, “Dunkirk,” Winston Churchill called the British fleet of fishermen and pleasure boats that made their home along England’s southern shore to rescue as many British soldiers, stranded, backs against the sea on the beaches of Dunkirk. Once called, the fleet made its way across the Channel to bring home as many as they could. The members of the fleet were not without danger, but the effort went forward so that these soldiers would once again see Britain and stand on its soil.

The other dramatic story is more current. Called by authority to put all boats to the rescue effort in southeast Texas, the Cajun Navy arrived from Louisiana – men with their memory of Katrina still fresh. Once there, the Cajun army asked those they came to rescue, “What can we do for you?” They saved the lives of people and pets, not without danger to themselves.

We really don’t need a disaster or a war to make active in ourselves the example of Jesus of how to initiate generous service to others. We live with family, neighbors, friends, and newcomers to our land who all, at some time or other, need to hear those words from us. “What do you want me to do for you?” Rather than hide behind our locked doors, or avert looking into the eyes of others, we need to ask and then to act. Now is the time.

And then there are the times we are the recipients of the question, the need. Be ready to tell it clearly and be grateful for the ones who have come in the name of God to help.


~Sister Joan Sobala

Friday, September 1, 2017

Creating the Future

Dear Friends,

On this Labor Day weekend, let’s put our life’s work – whatever it is – into a God-context.

The local Rochester folk heroine, Hattie Harris, once said something that has stuck in my mind: “Be ashamed.” She said, “be ashamed to die until you have done something life-giving for the community.” Hattie was 101 when she died (08/11/98), honored by young and old alike. People recognized that she lived her words, but her own work of a lifetime in influencing politics and urban life for good was unfinished, just as Moses’ work was unfinished as he died gazing at but never entering the Promised Land.

Still strong at 120, Moses died on Mt. Nebo, in modern day Jordan. Moses, who had led his people for 40 years of struggle through the desert, Moses, who had climbed Mt. Sinai, saw God and received the Commandments, Moses, who trusted God, was not permitted to cross over the Jordan.

“We, too,” says author Tom Cahill, “shall die without finishing what we began. Each of us has in our life, at least one moment of insight, one Mt. Sinai – an uncanny, otherworldly, time – stopping experience that somehow succeeds in breaking through the grimy, boisterous present, the insight that, if we let it, it will carry us through life.”

Stop and think what your own mountaintop experience was and how it gives you courage and energy to go on. Think, if you will, of what you have worked to achieve, where you have added your talents to create the new, what future you build on your past and present. As we take on tasks which are bigger than our lifetimes, we need not be saddened by the apparent lack of completion. Here is how theologian Reinhold Niebuhr puts it: “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history, therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing that we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone, therefore we must be saved by love.”

Faith, hope and love are the God-works in us waiting to be released into the next generation. They are the spiritual tools that God has given us to offer succeeding generations a world that is less violent and profane, more true and loving.

You might be tempted to say as I have been tempted to say “Who- me? I’m little. I don’t have any great influence. My world is small.” Wrong! We are the inheritors of a very large world, and the co-creators of a very large future in which God lives with us all.

Despite our reluctance to see who we are and what we can offer others, God calls us, stirs up in us desires and hope for justice and peace in our day. God wants us to add our piece – our own wonderful, tender albeit tentative piece to the creation of the future. Believers over the centuries have kept their eyes fixed on Jesus to learn how to do this. On this Labor Day weekend, let’s pledge to do the same.


~Sister Joan Sobala