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Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; I Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46

Our sacred authors have a unique problem: how do they conjure up images of God which accurately represent their experiences of God? They presume no matter what picture they surface, it’s not going to do total justice to the God they know. Some aspects of their images work, others fail horribly. The author of the Song of Songs, for instance, discovered a parallel challenge when he compared his lover’s hair to “a flock of goats streaming down from Gilead,” and her nose to “the tower on Lebanon that looks toward Damascus.” I don’t think she appreciated every aspect of either image.

In spite of the “limping metaphors,” our sacred authors present us with three distinct images of God in today’s liturgical readings: a shepherd, a new Adam, and a king.

Deeply affected by the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel hopes for Yahweh to directly break into Israel’s salvation history and shepherd his/her dispirited people. They’ve been aimlessly wandering around for far too long. They’ve no other leader but Yahweh. “I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered . . . I myself will pasture my sheep; I will give them rest, says Yahweh God.” Unless Yahweh steps in, they’ll be left to a dog-eat-sheep world. God is their only hope.

Paul, on the other hand, reflects on the impact the risen Jesus has had on his friends in Corinth. It’s as though the Apostle has read about President Roosevelt’s plans for a “new deal.” We’re all starting from scratch. Just as Adam got us into the mess we’re in by bringing death into the world, the risen Jesus – as the new Adam – has turned everything around by bringing life into our everyday experiences. What we once thought inevitable, the risen Jesus has destroyed. He/she’s created a whole new “game” with a whole new deck of cards.

Yet, on this day of all days, the divine image on which we’re most concentrating is that of king. Today’s gospel pericope is one of our most frequently used passages of Scripture, especially employed during funeral liturgies. It’s always comforting to reflect on how the deceased discovered the risen Jesus in his or her life by caring for the helpless in their midst. But today it’s also important to reflect on how the Jewish biblical image of king revolved around caring for the helpless.

Historians remind us that on their 12th century BCE entrance into the Promised Land, those former Jewish Egyptian slaves didn’t immediately set up a monarchy. Instead, as the book of Judges narrates, the 12 tribes formed themselves into a loose-knit confederation. Only when that confederation no longer met their needs did they begin discussing the possibility of a king.

But it would be a unique king, quite unlike the kings reigning in the countries surrounding Israel. Those monarchies were created to protect the rights of the high and mighty. Yahweh’s kings, on the contrary, came into existence to defend those who had no clout. The high and mighty could take care of themselves. In Israel three groups of people always had legal access to the king 24/7: widows, orphans, and resident aliens. Given the customs of the ancient world, none of the three had anyone – except the Israelite king – to plead their cause.

That’s why Matthew’s Jesus, given the image of a Jewish king, identifies with the helpless in our midst: the poor, the refugees, the imprisoned. He not only pleads their cause, he becomes one with them. Whenever we care for any on that well-known list we eventually discover we’ve been caring for the royal, risen Jesus. The most surprising discovery we’ll experience at the pearly gates. We’ve actually became royalty ourselves by helping the helpless.


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Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

Today’s Third-Isaiah reading only makes sense when we understand that our biblical writers believed people thought with their hearts, not their minds. (Feelings, on the other hand, originated with their kidneys, not their hearts.) So when the prophet accuses his people of “hardening their hearts to Yahweh,” he’s actually charging them with closing their minds to Yahweh. Since they don’t expect anything from God, they don’t even think about God. “There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” Though Third-Isaiah knows Yahweh is on the verge of helping those recently released from the Babylonian Exile, God can only do what people permit God to do. How does one go about getting someone to recognize, “You are our father; we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” Anticipation of God’s actions plays a big role in experiencing God’s actions.

Not anticipating and recognizing God’s actions can even apply to the gifts God gives us. That’s one of the reasons Paul of Tarsus is forced to write I Corinthians. Though the Apostle begins his letter by praising the community for “not lacking any spiritual gift as you wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” things go downhill from that point. Some individuals believe the Spirit has given them specific talents for their own sakes, not recognizing how each of those gifts was intended to meld together to build up the body of Christ for the common good. They’re certainly blessed, for instance, with “all discourse and all knowledge.” But some are using their knowledge and discourse to tear Christ’s body apart.

What a shame to have hearts so hardened to the risen Jesus that we can’t appreciate the gifts which are meant to help us carry on her/his ministry. How can we remain “firm to the end” when we don’t understand in what that end consists? It’s our end, not my end. Jesus’ followers are working out this end together.

Perhaps the best line in all three readings is the Gospel Jesus’ warning, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Those who strive to become other Christs are obligated to create a unique frame of mind. Though we “catechism-trained” Catholics were deliberately given the impression we pretty much had everything all together – and had put it into one book for safe-keeping – that’s certainly not the mentality of our Christian sacred authors. Thankfully they wrote Scripture, not catechisms.

Mark’s Jesus directs his call for watchfulness to a community still expecting an imminent Parousia. Yet the command to be alert goes far beyond just looking for Jesus’ Second Coming. The story he tells demonstrates how constantly being on guard is an essential part of our faith. As servants of the risen Jesus, we never know when the “master” is going to break into our lives. There’s no such thing as a sacred place, time, or person who can prepare us for such an encounter. The fact that it happens makes the place, time, or person sacred, not vice-versa. If we’re not continually attentive, we’ll miss what, as Jesus’ servants, we’ve been uniquely trained to experience.

Perhaps we’ve been so occupied with learning “faith stuff” that we neglected to learn a faith “mentality.” We might have just created lots of religious, absent-minded “professors;” people who know all about the facts of their faith, but aren’t alert enough to know what’s actually happening in their faith around them.

Too bad those catechism facts simply served as a sleeping pill. Maybe what we need now is a little more biblical caffeine in our faith.


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Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; II Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

The first words of today’s first reading are some of Yahweh’s most exciting biblical words. “Comfort, give comfort to my people says your God.” It’s the initial verse of Deutero-Isaiah’s famous 16 chapters. Our faith has never been the same since the ministry of this unnamed prophet. Isaiah 40-55 introduces a whole new way of looking at God working in our lives, a perspective on Yahweh that can only have arisen during the darkest days of the Babylonian Exile. A new situation demands new insights. Fortunately, the prophet was up to the challenge.

Not only does Deutero-Isaiah announce an end to the 50-year exile, but the reason he gives for knowing it’s finally over is the key to all his oracles. “The mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” When any Israelite demands to know how he’s certain they’re going home, he simply responds, “Yahweh has given his word.”

Though the Chosen People had known about God’s word long before the Babylonian Exile, this particular prophet puts that word at the center of their faith. Once Yahweh speaks, it happens.

This emphasis on the power of God’s word deeply affected later biblical authors. Scholars, for instance, are convinced the Priestly author of Genesis’ first chapter had a copy of Deutero-Isaiah in front of him when writing his unique creation myth. Unlike Genesis 2, God doesn’t get down on God’s hands and knees and form man from the mud. God creates only by saying, “Let there be!” Quickly followed by, “And so there was!” God doesn’t even break a sweat.

Without God’s word, there’s no creation.

Even the last writer of the Christian Scriptures, the unknown author of II Peter, falls back on that word. One of the few still holding out hope for Jesus’ Second Coming in the first years of the second century CE, he assures his readers, “According to his (Jesus’) promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” If he’s said it, it’s got to happen, no matter when it’s going to take place.

But almost 100 years earlier, John the Baptizer, as a member of the Dead Sea Scrolls community, fell back on a “repunctuated” version of Deutero-Isaiah as assurance that Yahweh was soon to break into the Chosen People’s history. “Prepare the way of Yahweh, make straight his paths,” he proclaims.

Though we Christians believe John’s speaking about Jesus of Nazareth, scholars tell us he has no inkling this simple Capernaum carpenter is actually the divine person he’s looking for. After all, Jesus is one of his own disciples! How could someone so common actually be so special?

These same scholars are convinced the “put-downs” John says about himself in reference to Jesus were put into his mouth by Christians dealing with the fact that, in the beginning, John was actually better known and more highly regarded than Jesus. Followers of Jesus are the ones who believe, “One mightier than I is coming after me,” not the Baptizer.

In some sense, the historical John’s misplaced belief in Yahweh’s word is simply an example of limiting that word to just the circumstances with which we’re familiar and comfortable. The late Marshal McLuhan often encouraged us to go through life looking out the car’s front window instead of constantly glancing in its rearview mirror. It’s easier to encounter what’s already been instead of what’s going to be.

Even if we follow God’s word, we must always appreciate it’s a constantly evolving, constantly new word. Change is an essential part of God’s nature. No matter how we’ve understood that word in the past, we’re now expected to deal with it in the present and the future.

Perhaps John the Baptist can demonstrate how best to accomplish that.


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Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Part of your remote preparation for today’s readings might be to rent the 1998 movie Simon Birch. It’s the story of a young boy with dwarfism who is convinced God made him for a “special heroic purpose.” Though almost everyone – including his pastor – tries to talk him out of his fantasy, the ending of the movie eventually proves his conviction had been correct all along. Though the plot might seem somewhat “hammy,” today’s sacred authors certainly connect with it.

Paul states it clearly: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy.”

His community in Thessalonica understands that “holy” doesn’t mean pious, describing the way you hold your hands or raise your eyes heavenward when you pray. Holy simply means “other,” distinct from those around you, just as God is other from every other person around him/her.

One of the characteristics which makes us unique is the conviction that God has given each of us, like Simon Birch, a specific purpose in life. That assurance isn’t an essential part of our personality just because we’re followers of Jesus. As we hear in today’s first reading, Third-Isaiah had that belief 500 years before Jesus’ birth.

“The spirit of Yahweh is upon me,” he proclaims, “because Yahweh has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners . . . .” The prophet’s life is consumed with God’s plan to help the helpless. If Yahweh is going to bring the world “justice” – good personal relationships – that justice must start with Third-Isaiah’s personal relationships with others, something he’s convinced he’s specifically called by God to carry out. It’s a major part of his holiness.

According to the four Christian evangelists, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth, no one in salvation history has a more unique purpose in life than John the Baptizer. He’s the precursor of Jesus the Messiah. As John the Evangelist tells us in today’s gospel pericope, he’s the one who prepares the way for the one who comes after him, the one whose sandal strap he’s not even “worthy to untie.”

Yet as I always remind my students, scholars are convinced Jesus’ first followers seem to be the only people who eventually believed this special precursor had that mission. Historically, John himself most probably never understood that to be his God-given role in life. It’s possible he went to his death convinced he’d failed in his mission; to help people experience Yahweh in their daily lives. (Sound familiar?) I presume only after reaching heaven’s confines was he finally able to put all the individual pieces together.

Holy people face a daunting problem; though they believe God’s designated them for a specific purpose in life, they rarely know what that specific purpose is. Perhaps that’s why Paul reminds the Thessalonians that they constantly have to “hang loose.” While they’re waiting for that purpose to show itself, they must “. . . in all circumstances give thanks . . . not quench the Spirit . . . not despise prophetic utterances.” (The latter implies they must always be open to surfacing God’s will in their lives.) Meanwhile they’re to “. . . test everything, retain what is good, and refrain from every kind of evil.”

Paul simply tells his community they’re to spend their lives becoming other Christs; no one could be holier. Yet even in Gethsemane the historical Jesus argued with God about his purpose in life. If God’s Son had to wait until Easter Sunday morning to definitely appreciate his life’s purpose, who are we?

Most of us have at least a few more years to go.


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II Samuel 7:1-5, 8b-12, 14a, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

I presume we’re all doing a lot of gawking at Christmas decorations on this last day before Christmas. Places that were rather plain a couple days ago have been beautifully gussied up for our annual celebration. Of course, we’d better “look quick;” some decorations – especially the commercial ones - will be gone in less than 48 hours. That’s what happens when one gets involved only with the externals of things. Fortunately our faith revolves around internals, especially our own internals.

In a sense, David discovers this in today’s first reading. As king, he can change a lot of things. One thing he’s planning to change is the place where the Ark of the Covenant resides. Over 3,000 years ago that famous mobile shrine was housed in a tent.

That wasn’t by accident. As I just mentioned, the Ark was built to be movable, available at a moment’s notice to be carried wherever needed. Sporting poles along each side for easy transporting, it never was intended to be “put in concrete.” Yet, until Nathan the prophet shows up, that’s precisely what David plans to do.

Nathan informs him that Yahweh’s more intent on building David and his family into a “house” than in dealing with the externals of where God’s shrine resides. Yahweh wants to change people not buildings, no matter how easy it is to measure one’s faith by the number and size of the latter.

Paul, convinced the “obedience of faith” is why Jesus originally came among us, certainly didn’t have buildings in mind when he ended his letter to the Romans with today’s well-known doxology. The faith of the risen Jesus revolves around how we remake ourselves, not our physical environment.

No gospel person, except Jesus, does this better than Mary of Nazareth. Through the centuries we’ve created apocryphal gospels that have made her a saint from birth, and even proclaimed doctrines which have her immaculately conceived. Yet our evangelists never attach such a pre-existing personality to her. Luke gives her just one unique characteristic: she hears God’s word and carries it out.

That characteristic doesn’t seem to have been something she perfectly had from her conception. I presume, like all of us, she had to grow into such a frame of mind. But she certainly developed that quality deeply enough that she was open to God working in her life even in the unique situation of discovering she was virginally pregnant.

Of course, we presume after Gabriel’s visit, who wouldn’t do what God wanted? She didn’t have a choice.

Just one problem: I don’t know any Scripture scholar who takes angelic annunciations literally. Every serious student of Scripture realizes angelic encounters are literary devices which our sacred authors employ to help us understand the meaning of certain events. Annunciations are for our sake, not for the sake of the biblical people who receive them.

We presume it took the historical Mary – and Joseph - a long time to understand her pregnancy’s significance. The actual realization of that event most probably didn’t happen until years down the road. Perhaps only after Jesus’ resurrection! (In the meantime, I can only imagine the pair’s table talk!)

It’s easy to focus on externals; much more difficult and complicated to alter what’s down deep inside us. Jesus of Nazareth’s ministry taught us that faith revolves around the latter. Nothing else is worth our time and effort.

The late Cardinal John Wright once asked, “What would happen if we simultaneously destroyed every church-owned building? What would we do? What would become of our faith?”

At that point we might actually discover in what listening to God’s word and carrying it out really consists. If nothing else, it would certainly hasten the process.


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Eucharist During the Day

Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18

No matter how much I try to put it out of my mind, I frequently think of “White Christmas” today; not because I’m sentimental about old-time Christmas songs, but because I teach Scripture. I often use it as an example in my courses.

Few noticed the song when Bing Crosby first sang it on his Christmas radio show in 1941, nor when it was put into the 1942 movie Holiday Inn. According to music historians, it only took off because so many soldiers were away from home at Christmas during World War II. As the war went on, its popularity continued to grow. Twelve years later a movie was made named White Christmas, and by now, it’s the number one best-selling song of all time. We only go back to its origins today because of its later history. Its eventual importance transformed the way we look at its beginning.

In many ways, the same thing happened to Jesus of Nazareth. We wouldn’t be celebrating Christmas today if he hadn’t eventually risen from the dead. Though we don’t have as many days off from school for Easter as we do for Christmas, there’s no way Christmas is as important for Christians as Easter. Jesus’ birth wasn’t even celebrated in the church for the first several centuries. (On the other hand, I presume Easter was commemorated the first year after the initial event.) December 25 was chosen not because it’s the actual date of his birth, but because of the later Roman pagan practices the church was trying to replace at the time. I won’t even get into the non-Christian origins of Christmas trees, lights, exchanging gifts and mistletoe. About the only specifically Christian tradition we have is Francis of Assisi’s Christmas crib, and it took almost 1,200 years for that to come into existence.

The problem is that Christmas without Jesus’ dying and rising isn’t a Christian feast; we’re forgetting what happened in order to make Jesus’ birth exceptional. Many of us can sympathize with a baby born in difficult circumstances, but never look at that baby as more than a baby, rarely noticing how his eventual dying and rising demands we also imitate his death and resurrection.

We can certainly echo Deutero-Isaiah’s proclamation that the feet of one who brings glad tidings are beautiful, but if we’re followers of Jesus of Nazareth, our initial faith proclamation has nothing to do with Christmas, but with Easter. Our ancestors in the faith became conscious of his death and resurrection long before they even thought about his birth. His dying and rising are the glad tidings they handed down to us.

In his famous book, The Birth of the Messiah, the late Raymond Brown is careful to explain Jesus’ “messianic moment:” the point at which Jesus actually became God. Most modern Christians follow the theology John puts forth in today’s gospel. Jesus is God from all eternity. The Word exists “from the beginning.” Our only question revolves around when that divine person became “flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

But, as Brown points out, a belief in Jesus’ preexistence as God only develops toward the end of the first century. Before then, beginning with Paul, who in Romans 1 seems to contend Jesus became God when his Father raised him from the dead, our sacred authors have different opinions, opinions I don’t have time or space to explore. Yet today it’s enough simply to know Jesus’ birth is a lot more complicated than just staging a grade school Christmas play. As the author of Hebrews states, God has spoken to us through “partial and various ways.” Perhaps even through a process similar to how Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became the all-time best seller.


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Sirach 3:2-7, 12-14; Colossians 3:12-21; Luke 2:22-40

One of the most difficult things for some Catholics to admit is that no Christian biblical author seems to argue that the “contemplative life” is the ideal way to live one’s faith. That doesn’t prove such a life style isn’t valid – electric lights aren’t in the Bible either – but it often overlooks what our sacred writers actually contend is essential to the way we’re to live out our faith. Perhaps that’s why we should carefully listen to today’s three Holy Family readings.

In both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures true faith revolves around how we relate with others. Though we’re to have a correct relationship with God (or the risen Jesus), the first step in forming that relationship is to connect correctly with the people around us – especially those closest to us: our family.

Like you, I grew up with ridiculous holy card pictures of the Holy Family, usually depicting Joseph sawing a piece of wood, Mary spinning wool, and the boy Jesus playing on the floor with miniature crosses. (I presume the parents of any child engaging in similar behavior today would immediately make an appointment with the nearest child psychologist!) The image is as far from real life as it would’ve been had the artist included zombies in the room.

If, as Luke states in today’s gospel pericope, the newly born Jesus eventually “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him,” his maturing must have paralleled our maturing. During that formative period, some “things” work; some don’t. There’s probably as much hit and miss in the holy trio’s relationship as there are in our relationships. This is especially true if you remember what I said about the historicity of angelic annunciations on the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Everything Joseph and Mary (and perhaps even Jesus) later learned about their special bond wasn’t known by them at the beginning of that relationship.

We’re especially grateful for the nitty-grittiness of today’s first and second readings. Sirach, for instance, probably speaks from personal experience when he counsels his readers, “Even if (your father’s) mind fails, be considerate of him; revile him not all the days of his life.” Nothing is more frustrating than trying to communicate with a loved one experiencing dementia. Were it an option, I imagine some caretakers would gladly volunteer to spend a few months in a cloistered convent or monastery. Yet our sacred author leaves no wiggle room. How we go one on one with others is an essential part of our faith.

After 2,000 years of “hit and miss” I presume most married couples – especially the wives – would challenge the advice of the writer of Colossians, “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands, as is proper in the Lord.” The Pauline disciple responsible for this letter is certainly coming from a different environment than the one modern Christians normally encounter. After reflecting on human relations over the centuries, most followers of Jesus would honestly testify that basing a husband/wife relationship on subordination isn’t the best way to imitate the risen Jesus. Some things work; some don’t.

But it’s important in all relationships to have hope.

Scholars presume Simeon and Anna were constant fixtures in the Jerusalem temple. They probably asked for parental permission to hold each child that came in for the purification rituals. Both spoke about what this child could one day become. They believed every newborn had the possibility of developing into someone who’ll give “glory” to Israel.

Of course, that will only happen if the child’s parents are willing to endure the pain – the sword – which comes from forming deep relationships with one another and their child. No matter how high our hopes, eventually every family must “return to Galilee.”


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Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

“We Three Kings” certainly isn’t an appropriate hymn for the feast of the Epiphany. If Scripture scholars had their way every “kingly” crib statue would be ceremoniously smashed during today’s liturgy – immediately before the homily.

Why do we encourage such a violent ritual? Because the idea of royalty visiting Joseph and Mary’s Bethlehem home completely turns the evangelist’s message upside down.

Matthew’s well-known narrative commemorates a visit not of kings, but of despised people. The confusion happened when the original Greek text was transliterated into Latin; the word magoi became magi. The Greek magoi refers to sorcerers or magicians; the Latin magi signifies kings or high potentates.

Counter to us Latin-rite folk, Greek speaking Christians always kept the gospel’s original meaning. For instance, the famous mid-6th century Byzantine mosaic of the three Bethlehem visitors in the basilica of St. Apollinaris in Ravenna depicts the trio wearing magician outfits not royal robes.

Once we transform sorcerers into kings, Matthew’s theology goes down the biblical tube. The evangelist includes this narrative in his Jewish/Christian gospel to point out that the most unlikely people, using the most unlikely means, can often surface Jesus in their lives more quickly than likely people following likely means.

According to Exodus 22:17, sorcerers are to be killed on sight. Among other abominations, they follow stars and heavenly bodies to surface God’s will in their lives. Nothing could be further from biblical faith. (Though few have noticed, the 1940 Academy Award winning song - and Disney mainstay - When You Wish Upon a Star is roundly condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures.) Yet these pagan magicians eventually find Jesus while Herod, the Jew, refuses to even go down to Bethlehem. God obviously works in strange ways.

Though Third-Isaiah reflects, in our first reading, on non-Jews one day becoming Jews, he never goes as far as Paul’s conviction that Gentiles as Gentiles can become Christians. That unexpected discovery certainly makes the faith of Jesus an exciting experience for the Apostle. As he tells the Ephesians, “. . . Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” In other words, “No one can predict how God’s going to work in our lives.”

That conviction was one of the original insights fueling the restoration of the catechumenate. Most of us remember the old days when possible new members simply went to a series of “convert classes.” After a couple months of having the priest fill their minds with Catholic teachings, the students took a simple true/false exam, easily passed, and were welcomed into the church either by baptism or profession of faith.

The restored catechumenate, on the other hand, begins not with the candidates receiving gobs of new information, but by encouraging them to reflect on what has already happened in their lives to bring them to this point. The presupposition is that God’s been working with and in them long before they and their sponsor walk into the parish hall. Following Matthew’s magoi theology, no two discovery stories are the same.

I once read an article explaining why John Henry Newman’s canonization was taking such a long time. One of the reasons for the delay came from the Vatican commission’s refusal to include anything in the process that had happened to Newman before his admission into the Catholic Church. Obviously the powers that be were convinced God began working in the life of the author of “Lead, Kindly Light” only 12 years after he penned those famous lyrics, in 1845 when he became a Catholic.

Perhaps we should create a Scripture service to be used immediately before the first catechumenate or canonization session begins, consisting just of today’s gospel reading.


This essay comes to you from FOSIL, The Faithful of Southern Illinois,
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