Tag Archives: Catholicism

God and Caesar

Dear Folks,

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, as Jesus says in our Gospel this week: Matthew 22:15-21. Christians cannot ignore the government and how it runs, but must remember there is a higher authority. We are called to follow the law except when it requires us to break God’s law in the slightest way. St. Thomas More was a faithful Catholic, who tried to follow the law, and when it became impossible to do his job and be faithful to God, he resigned from his job. The king did not let that lie and had him executed. His final statement was: “I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”Christians are called to exercise our voices as citizens, not because we seek to force others to follow our faith, but because our faith, properly practiced, gives us a deep sense of human good, and a sensitivity to the cause of human flourishing and to the lives and dignity of all people, especially the marginal.For many years since the forming of the United States, many Christians worked to abolish slavery, impelled by their Christian faith. Those who were pro-choice about owning slaves said that such people could believe what they wanted, but should not force their Christian beliefs on others, and the government should not interfere with such decisions. Many thought the abolitionists did not understand the complexities of the issue, and should be focusing more on other moral concerns. There were, of course, other moral concerns to deal with at the time, but this issue was special: It explicitly set aside a group of human beings as not being worthy of human rights, and so could be treated in a way we would object to being treated ourselves. Those who tackled the issue changed the course of history, and we now regard them as heroes. As we look back, we do not admire those who were personally opposed to slavery, but did not want to force their beliefs on others. In our current situation there are important issues that call for a serious response, but the solutions are not obvious, and people of good will might disagree. We need to do something about violence, but good people can have different ideas about whether more gun control laws will do more good or more harm. We need to care for the poor, but we can disagree about how to best do it. We can agree we want everyone to have access to health care and disagree about how best to do it (more government administration or more free market solutions?) Eight years ago Bishop Barron did a very interesting YouTube video called “Bishop Barron on Paul Ryan and Catholic Social Teaching” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq8KRIkGtLQ. It talks about striking the balance between the values of solidarity and subsidiarity, and how different takes on that balance can lead good people to differ on how we best help the poor, and what role government might play in it. That said, if we use that as an excuse to do nothing, we will answer to God for it (Matthew 25: 31-46! Could Jesus have been any more emphatic?).We need to find a way to improve our system for processing immigrants. We need to ease and heal race relations, and deal with violence in the streets. I have written some thoughts about these issues, but it seems that much (most?) of the conversation is about saying how bad the situation is, sharing slogans, and assigning blame. I’m not seeing nearly as much rational discussion about how to move things to a better place. I think it would be helpful to tone down the rhetoric, cool the anger (James 1:19-20), hear each other’s concerns, and try to work together. It might be helpful to be careful about believing what we hear, because sometimes the narrative can get ahead of the facts. In our society, we have a right and a responsibility to help move our country to a place that better promotes flourishing for all people. Blessings,Fr. Jim

Ministry of Healing Relationship

That all May be One

Dear Folks,
In our Gospel today, Jesus talks about dealing with conflict in the Church. He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking directly about how to do Church, so I figure Jesus thinks this
issue is especially important. I have addressed conflict resolution before, and will do it again, because I think this is a huge ongoing issue for the Church, for the nation and for the
world. I think it is worth spending time on it. We see so much anger and hate in our society, and it seems to be getting worse. There is much talk about racial reconciliation. I think
part of the solution is to develop our own reconciliation skills.
The first thing Jesus talks about is going directly to the person with which you have the issue. It can be tempting to go to other people and tell our side of the story to garner
sympathy, hoping to collect people on our side. It is crucial to resist and come to the person directly.
I think just as important is how we approach. How would we want someone to approach us when we are wrong? We might be tempted to say that we would never do such a thing, but
we can easily overestimate how well we know ourselves, and underestimate our ability to mess up in ways that can hurt people. To deal with these issues requires humility and
charity. It requires truly loving those people with whom we disagree. Only if we approach a conflict with sincere love for the other can we be doing the work of Christ. To suggest to
people they are wrong can cause pain, but it can still be loving. If we are approaching in love, we want to cause the least pain possible, and have the best possible chance of doing good. It is necessary but not enough to tell the truth. We must be intentional about seeking to make the situation better. We need to be aware of our anger and pain, but not ruled by
them. One of the problems these days is people venting anger for the sake of venting anger, and not directing their efforts toward solutions.
There are some Scriptures worthy of meditation. James 1:19 teaches us to “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”
“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not leave room for the devil (Ephesians 4:26-27).” “No foul language should come out of your mouths, but only
such as is good for needed edification, that it may impart grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has
forgiven you in Christ (Ephesians 4:29-32).”
“Do not return evil for evil, or insult for insult; but on the contrary, a blessing, because to this you were called, that you might inherit a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).” “But even if you
should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an
explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who
defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame (1 Peter 3:14-16).”
I have recommended Ann Garrido’s book Redeeming Conflict before. There are many books on how to deal with conflict, but I think if a lot of people have a common set of principles and a common vocabulary, that might make conversation easier.
Where in our lives can we begin?
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Parable of Two Armies

flint ak47

Imagine if you will two armies meeting in battle.  One is armed with flintlock rifles and swords and they are highly skilled with them.  They have had extensive training and practice.  The other army is armed with M-16’s, AK-47’s and rocket propelled grenade launchers, but haven’t a clue how to use them. They don’t know how to load or cock them, never mind how to clean them.  Which army is going to win?  I suggest the Catholic faith and its principles are not doing better in the marketplace of ideas is similar: we have the better message, but the world is marketing theirs better. Many people have a very negative understanding of Catholicism, and of Christianity in general, because those who say only the negative, and often distort the reality, are so much more effective that we have been getting the word out.

When the Church began, a small handful of people with no resources but the Gospel story and the grace of God were able to change the world forever.  The surrounding culture was extremely hostile; they thought following someone who had been crucified was the dumbest thing they had ever heard, and they held to highly decadent values.  Nonetheless, the mightiest empire that the world had ever seen was helpless to stop the Church from growing.  We have all the resources that the early Church had and more.

When most Catholics are taught the faith, we not been taught to be evangelists.  We have been prepared to be customers in the Church.  Even in the seminary, we were not really taught how to spread the faith to others, but rather how to deal with people who already believed. Much of the way we are taught to talk about the faith only makes sense to those who already accept its basic premises.  Furthermore, many, many Catholics stop learning about the faith after twelfth, eighth or even second grade, so they never learn the faith on an adult level.  But, they keep learning in other areas, so that faith falls behind.

We know that Jesus, the Son of God, became man and died on the cross to save us from our sins.  Okay, but what does it mean that He is the “Son of God”?  What does dying on a cross have to do with saving us from our sins?  Why do we need saving? What does it mean to save us? What is “sin” anyway and why does it matter?  When if we can’t explain that in language that they can understand, it is not going to make sense to them.  We are so used to our religious language, we have not learned to talk about this stuff without it.

Many people were raised Catholic and have left because they think it doesn’t make a lot of sense, or doesn’t make a lot of difference.  I’ve talked to a lot of them, and if I understood Catholicism the way they did, I wouldn’t be Catholic either. I wouldn’t be Christian at all.  They can have some strange ideas, and say terrible things about the faith (like, “so you believe that God put us here to guess the right religion, and if we guess wrong he will burn us in fire forever and ever, but he loves us.”). Whatever they were taught growing up, this is what they absorbed. It is futile to get mad at them for saying such things.  We need to focus our energy on getting the faith out more effectively.

We have work to do.  We need to understand our faith story better, and we need to learn to express it in ways that the world can find compelling.  If what we claim to believe is true, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most powerful transformative force in the universe.  We just need the will and the skill to do it, and the world can be transformed.  Our weapons are the Word of Truth and loving action. God wants us to succeed.

Love and Baloney

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Love and Baloney

Imagine a young man and a young woman.  They have very little money, but he goes out into the fields and collects some flowers.  He makes them baloney sandwiches and puts them in a paper bag.  He spreads out the picnic on newspaper, and says to her, “I love you more than the sun, the moon, the stars, brook trout and the Green Bay Packers. Will you be with me for the rest of our lives?”  She melts.

Now, it is their fiftieth anniversary.  Even though they live in an upscale condo in the center of a large city, he drives to the country and picks wild flowers.  He makes baloney sandwiches, and puts them in a paper bag.  He spreads newspaper on the table, and says to her, “I love you more than the sun, the moon, the stars, brook trout and the Green Bay Packers. Will you be with me for the rest of our lives?”  She melts.

Someone who didn’t know the history might say to him, “Are you crazy? Your fiftieth anniversary, you could easily afford roses and catering, and you do this?”  It is the connection to the history of the relationship that gives it meaning that it would not otherwyse have. In relationships, rituals, signs and symbols can have a power beyond what they are because of what they mean. (I suspect he also took her out to a nice restaurant, but that is another story.)

In religion, there are a lot of signs, symbols and rituals. Many who don’t know their meaning will disparage them and say they have nothing to do with God.  Many times they are practiced by those who don’t know or don’t care about their meaning, and then they fail in their purpose, and can even do harm (see I Corinthians 11).

There are many who say that a personal relationship with God is something separate from religion, and that they love God but have no use for religion.  I suggest that they either do not understand how ritual, structure, sign and symbol can be a key part of a relationship, have never been taught the meaning of these activities, or experienced people who went through the motions without attending to what they meant.  A kiss is meant to be a sign of affection and caring.  If someone gives you a kiss and then treats you like garbage, that sign is worse than useless.  It even does harm.

Many have left the Catholic Church or are minimally connected because they have not experienced it as a powerful encounter with the love of God. However, if they could only understand that every aspect of the Catholic faith is about encountering, walking with, and loving God.

A next step is with the book A Biblical Walk through the Mass by Dr. Edward Sri, or even his video study program:

http://ascensionpress.com/t/category/study-programs/the-mass/biblical-walk-through-the-mass

And that’s no baloney.

Unholy Holes

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Many years ago, I heard the story of a beautiful summer day in a downtown, when a truck pulls up to the side of the road. Two guys get out and dig a hole. Then two other guys get out and fill in the hole.  They get back in the truck and drive forward twenty feet.  The first two guys get out and dig a hole, and then the second two guys fill in the hole.  This goes on for a while. Finally, people ask, “What is going on?” They said, “We work for the city. The guy who plants the trees is sick today.”

You can have a lot of activity without accomplishing your primary purpose.  This leads to a key question for Church work: Are we fulfilling our primary purpose?  Having a lot of good activities does not, in itself, answer the question. Of course, to do that it would help to know what that purpose is.

I have asked a number of practicing Catholics “What is religion?”  Many have a hard time coming up with an answer.  Some say it is a belief.  Some say it is a set of practices. Is that all it is?

I suggest that religion at its core is a love relationship with the God who loves us very much.  Everything is about that.  A love relationship is different from anything else that is, and nothing can substitute for it. A collection of beliefs and tasks is much, much less than an all-transforming love relationship.

Some people have told me that their relationship with God is one thing, and their religion is something else.  But then what is religion?  If it is not our relationship with God, then why do it?  If we do it to please God, to express our love, devotion and obedience to Him, to encounter Him, then is it not our relationship with God? There may be aspects of our relationship with God that are informal and don’t directly involve Church, but I suggest that in religion there is love relationship with God, and there is nothing else.

According to Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples, only 60% of Catholics believe in a personal God at all, and most Catholics are not certain that they can have a personal relationship with God. If so few Catholics understand what I had thought was the most basic of truths about the faith, then how well have we been communicating the faith?

If we are bringing people into the Church and getting them involved in activities, that is good. But if we are not leading them to an all –transforming love relationship with God, then I suggest that we are not fulfilling our central function. Our tree planting guy is sick.

According to Forming Intentional Disciples, only 30% of those raised Catholic in America are currently coming to Mass once a month or more.  Maybe people have stopped coming because they have not found the Church to bring them to a love relationship with God. In any case, these numbers suggest to me that we need a serious re-examination of how we look at Church and how we do Church. What do you think?

Day 13 in Rome

Day 13, Last day to wander around Rome

Piazza dei Populi

Piazza della Republica

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Via di Quattro Fontani

Rome is thick with history and art.
The Church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Capuchini

The Capuchins, of course, have a lot of history in Rome. After all, they got a drink named after them (what kind of drink do you want named after you?). This church is most famous for its crypt with its arrangements of the bones of deceased Franciscans.   These bones have been stacked and arranged artistically requiring the bones of thousands of hours of work. (They didn’t want pictures taken. More info at:  http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/santa-maria-della-concezione.)

I am reminded of the St. Katherine’s monastery at the base of Mount Sinai. They had a building with bins of skulls, bins of leg bones, etc. The idea was to have no personal monument on earth. We remember that on one (on earth) knows where the body of Moses is buried. Here we have no lasting city (Hebrews 13:14). Nathaniel Hawthorne visited this crypt in Rome and found that it dragged down his faith, and he needed blue skies to recharge it.

I’m surprised he would react that way given that his most famous work “The House of Seven Gables” is not the cheeriest text.

One can also question of that is a proper way to treat human remains. However, it speaks of people who were comfortable with their own mortality, and with mortality in general. The museum shows a painting of St. Francis holding a human skull. We remember the admonition of St. Benedict to keep our mortality daily before our face, and the old adage, “Time flies, remember death.” Longfellow wrote, “Art is long, and time is fleeting, and our hearts, though stout and brave, still like muffled drums are beating funeral marches to the grave.”

Perhaps that is to teach us to take ourselves less seriously, for our stay here is so brief while at the same time take our work more seriously, because history is so much larger than we are, and marks that we leave (recognized as ours or not) can affect people for a long time.

When they were laying the first bricks on the Palatine hill, what were they envisioning? It is hard to believe they were planning on an Empire that would last a thousand years, and then leave tools that would help the building of what followed.

Of course, it took the work of countless people, whose bones have long turned to dust, to make that happen. On the one hand, the large number of people involved makes the contribution of each a smaller part of the whole; on the other hand, the gathering of so many contributions made the effect of each last longer and reach farther. I was given to understand that one of the early symbols of Rome was a bundle of sticks, suggesting that bound together they were so much stronger than each individually.

I would also suggest that the effect of our contributions is not merely cumulative, like the value of pennies in a jar, but one can build on another, like supports on a bridge. St. Ambrose encouraged St. Augustine, and both were influenced by St. Paul. Was there a teacher, a parent, or an uncle that gave St. Paul critical encouragement or support that moved him to the path of being zealous for God or strong in learning?  How do you weigh the total effect of that unknown person?

The Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria was even more beautiful than most. My first reaction was, “I want one!” There were some excellent sculptures including the famous Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila.

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The Church of Mary of the Angels and Martyrs was large with many large works of art. One wing was dedicated to prayer (the rest to tourism).

While I was there, Mass happened and a small group participated.

Of course, that brings me back to the central point. The greatest treasures are not the buildings, the sculptures or the paintings, but the faith and devotion of the people.

This is the end of my Rome trip.  Next post will take this blog in a new direction.

Day 12 in Rome

Tuesday Oct 15

Day 12 in Rome

You know you are in the area of the Jewish ghetto when you see ads for kosher food.

It was a small area and it didn’t take long to find the Synagogue and Hebrew Museum. (they didn’t want pictures taken, so see more at http://lnx.museoebraico.roma.it/w/?lang=en).

There was also a place that had schwarma, but it was not lunch time. (I’ve wanted to try schwarma ever since the Avengers movie.  I later found a place in Grand Rapids that served it.)

The history of Judaism in Rome involved a lot of persecution by Christians, including some bizarre practices. Jews were confined to a ghetto, forced to wear distinctive insignia on their clothing and banned from all the professions except money lending and selling used clothing. Sometimes thing got better and sometimes worse. There were mentions of some  great defenders like Gregory the great who gave orders that Jews “were not to be persecuted” (score one for Gregory the Great), but there would come a time when things would get bad and then worse, and all of Gregory’s ideas would be forgotten. We have made a lot of progress in the latter half of the 20th century, but can we say “never again”? How can we say for sure that the wind will not turn again in a century or two or five? The council of Nicea certainly wanted to wipe out Arianism for all time. They did not succeed. Heresies never really die. They did, however, cement as much as possible onto the consciousness of the Church that Jesus, a man, is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through whom all things were  made (got the point?). This did as much as they could to set us on the right course and give as many tools as possible to those who would fight this error in the future.

*The first principle to hammer home is to trust the power of the Gospel story. If we trust in that power, we focus our energy, not on attacking those who think differently, but doing a better and better job telling our story in word and action. Does anyone think we do not have room to grow in how well we share the power and beauty of the Gospel story?

2nd principle: While anyone persecuting anyone is bad, and persecuting people in the name of Christianity is a special horror, there is something uniquely bizarre about Christian anti-Semitism. Folks, we worship a Jewish person!

We have received countless treasures from Judaism. That itself should give us cause to look upon the Hebrew people with reverence. They are related to our boss.

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Palatine

The Palatine, the oldest part of Rome, almost 2800 years old, setting part of the stage for western civilization.

The Circus Maximus was a place of entertainment and violence.

Circus Maximus

Circus Maximus

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What will our place look like in 2800 years? What legacy will we leave?

The Coliseum: one of the greatest entertainment centers Rome has left us: a lot to see and to imagine. On the one hand, people could get a break from the stresses of life. On the other hand, bread and circuses while the empire crumbled.                                                            Coliseum1.jpg[1]                                  Coliseum2.jpg[1]

Yes, I was really there

Yes, I was really there

Where does our empire stand? Are we scapegoating anyone now? Are there some group that are acceptable to mistreat while we are distracted from central issues?

Canticle for today: Isaiah 2: 2-5

Is there a nicer way to end the day than eating gelato looking at the copula of St. Peter’s Basilica? Can’t really do that in Michigan.

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Day 10 in Rome

Sunday October 13

Day 10 in Rome.

Church of the Holy Spirit in Sassia

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Piazza de La Scala.

http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=piazza+della+scala&view=detailv2&&id=8553525ED3F8B8DB9DD1216E140B9BAEC972C5E6&selectedIndex=2&ccid=HWPkiKR1&simid=608047763519047546&thid=JN.hYOj5sbAOOvJJ%2f2XO5fh7A

Here is the Church of S. Maria de la Scala.

Café Aristocampo do la Scala has a drink called a Garabaldi (Campari with orange juice). Forget statues, what kind of cocktail would you like named after you?

Santa Maria en Trastavere

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Lots of Gold mosaic. (I did not get a good interior shot, so see one at https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/52/Santa_Maria_in_Trastevere-inside.jpg)

Saw the monuments of Giuseppe and Anita Garibaldi and their fight for the republic.

Giuseppi Garabaldi

   Giuseppi Garabaldi

Anita Garabaldi

Anita Garabaldi

It seems they were fighting French who were trying to restore the temporal power of the pope. It is sad that such a prized part of Italian history would involve such a dimension of negativity about the pope, but I think it is good that the pope was separated from the role of secular ruler. Temporal power brings added temptation to egomania, and even more importantly, temptation to trust temporal power to build the kingdom, rather than trusting the power of the Gospel Story.

We seek to influence the structures of society by the power of the Story.

Psalm for today: 19

Day 9 in Rome

Saturday Oct 12

Day 9 in Rome

Perhaps I have been too worried about finding the right place to eat. There seems to be a formula for finding a good restaurant in Rome:

Step 1: Find a restaurant.

Step 2: Eat there.

At least, this has worked for me.

When I get back, I will be facing brown rice, tofu and chicken breasts.

People trying to sell tours of the Vatican museum paint such horror stories of waiting in line trying to get a ticket. The wait was just about an hour, and then 16 Euros and I’m in and free to wander.

There is so much art here. I’m not focusing so much on information as taking in the beauty.

Many, many picture and carvings focused on telling the story, mostly Biblical stories, though some of later saints. Beauty was put in the service of impressing the Christian story on people’s minds and hearts.

I’m very glad I took the tour of the Vatican Museum, and I’m very glad I came back by myself.

Such an investment in the telling of stories.
Relationships are communicated in stories. A large part of knowing people is knowing their stories.

How well do we know the stories of our faith?

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Those who know the stories will recognize the images:

The sacrifice of Isaac

The bronze serpent in the desert

The Annunciation

St. Lawrence (with grill)

St. Peter (keys)

St. Paul (book and sword)

Bartholomew (knife and empty skin)

Coronation of Mary.

There are some pictures of contemporary Church figures with Biblical Saints and some pictures of Bible stories with the characters wearing contemporary clothing surrounded by contemporary architecture (contemporary with the artists, not the Biblical figures). This shows that the Bible stories are timeless, as well as rooted in a specific historical time, and we are a part of the story.

Why does the Vatican Museum have ancient Egyptian art, so many Greek and Roman statues including Emperors and pagan gods?

To share the Gospel story we must be lovers of the human story, for the story of the universe is the story of salvation, and if we are to share the human story with the human race, we must know the human story. There are some things, however, that work against the project.

Hundreds of the Greek and Roman statues have inscribed in bold red letters “Munificent Pio VI PM” or something like that. It is either someone seeking to butter up the pope or the pope himself feeding his own voracious ego. Either way, it is not good.

There seem to be two basic errors when encountering the Gospel story:

  1. I am not part of the story, or
  2. The story is about me.

In St. Peter’s square there are so many references to Alexander VII. Of course, when you are pope in the middle ages or renaissance, the temptation to think “It’s all about me” must be enormous.

Raphael did some good stuff. I especially liked his transfiguration and coronation of Mary,

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but best of all was one room, on one side The School of Athens, and on the other, Disputation on the Holy Sacrament, actually about the triumph of the belief in the Real Presence. My response is: “I want one.” Ah, well.

Schoolathens.jpg[1]    Disputation.jpg[1]

Could never take enough pictures here. Thank heavens for the internet.

Psalm for today: 115

Day 7 in Rome

Thursday 10-10

Day 7 in Rome

Church of St. Phillip Oratory (Chiesa Nuova).

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I’m getting addicted to these marvelous churches. What am I going to do when I get home?  The ones in Michigan are beautiful in their own way, but not like this. There’s a little chapel with the body of St. Phillip Neri. In a glass case. We don’t have things like this in Michigan.

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The Church of St. Andreas della Valle

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St. Andrew is the patron of the diocese of Grand Rapids.

I came just as Mass began in a side chapel.

I wish I had learned my Latin responses better.

During the consecration, the priest held up the host and I was aware that simple white host was infinitely holier than all the buildings combined. The true power of the churches is as vessels of the work of Jesus.

Church of Gesu again.

It is not as breath – taking as the first time, perhaps because the sun is not shining the same way through the windows, or perhaps because I have seen it before and am getting accustomed to it. Ah, well, nothing that is of the earth can be a permanent thrill. When I got to the second glorious mystery of the rosary it occurred to me that earth the glories appear briefly, and then leave us to tell the story.

Church of St. John Lateran.

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Oh, my.

The Cathedral, the mother church of the whole Catholic world. The literal Chair of the Pope, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome.

Twelve foot high statues of the apostles.

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So much history here.

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Unlike St. Peter’s the original was not replaced, but when it was broken was repaired. Modification were made, so it bears the stamp of many hands and many eras, sort of like Catholic culture.

There are many pictures and sculptures, some of stories of popes and the Church, most of Bible stories. Ultimately, the beauty is at the service of the Gospel Story.

St. Mary Major.

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Oh, yes, more of the same.

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It is good.

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Octopus salad. Why can’t we get octopus salad in the Grand Rapids area?

Wearing a dark shirt: this calls for spaghetti.

There are a lot of beggars on the street. I feel bad, but I have learned to question whether giving them money is the best way to help the poor. This, of course, means that I had better do something to help (no, I’m not going to tell you what, at least not today).

Psalm for today: 90.