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Protecting Children and the Vulnerable

Brothers and Sisters

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

I am writing this on the day after the verdict was handed down in the murder trial in Minnesota. It seemed the whole country was watching. It is another moment in which all of us are invited to examine our attitudes toward all our brothers and sisters. It is a moment, again, of racial awareness.

Catholics have been as racist as anyone else in our history. Years ago some Catholic institutions owned slaves. Some Catholic schools and seminaries did not allow the attendance of African American persons. Some Catholic parishes had segregated seating, relegating Black people to the rear of church or perhaps to the choir loft.

This history does not need to stir guilt in us today, but we don’t need to deny this history. But in the face of current events, we are invited again to examine ourselves, our thoughts and feelings, in the light of Matthew 25. Do we indeed see Christ in all our brothers and sisters in the human race?

We don’t need to deny anything or make excuses. If we find ourselves failing in that sibling love, then we can turn to God for mercy and try to take a better path.

Easter Season

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

Each year as Easter comes along, it occurs to me that we know quite a bit about dealing with day-to-day problems, sickness, suffering of different kinds. But who among us can relate to Resurrection from our own experience?

And yet that is the high point of our liturgical walk through the Church year, the way we Catholic Christians mark our pilgrim journey. We are now called to celebrate fifty days of Easter Time.  Here “celebrate” does not mean jumping for joy or throwing lively parties. Though one could choose to do that! But we celebrate by allowing ourselves to be open to the presence of the Risen Christ.

The key to this, I believe, is in looking at what is in front of us and letting it reveal Christ, reveal new life. On the morning of the Resurrection in the Bible, Mary Magdalene sees Jesus and thinks he is the gardener. Then he speaks her name and the light of recognition goes on. What do we see? Whom do we see?

It is for us the ancient Christian task of recognizing the presence of God hidden in what we see and experience: the person we meet, the grocery clerk, the doctor or nurse, the little child, spring flowers, returning birds. The list could be endless. We gaze at what is ordinary and let it become amazing.

This is the work of poetry and music and all creativity, including cooking a good meal! We allow ourselves to be amazed as we look and look again at the “ordinary” things and people around us. Happy Easter!

Time

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

I am fascinated by the perception of time. Time seems to move fast or slow, depending on our experience. Earlier this week someone expressed surprise that next Sunday is Palm Sunday already. How can that be? Where has Lent gone? Lent is a common example of time passing quickly or slowly. At Ash Wednesday Lent seems a long time ahead of us. But often Holy Week approaches with a certain suddenness, especially if we feel we didn’t do enough “for Lent.”

Time really doesn’t exist. There is no “thing” called “time” floating around in the air. By custom, we have decided to measure our human journey with clocks and calendars.

Looking backward, time may have seemed to pass quickly. But it is remarkable how long a minute can seem, for example, as I am standing at the back of church, waiting to walk in for Mass.

Teachers of prayer and meditation invite us to focus on the present moment because that’s all we have. Of course, the present moment is hard to nail down because it keeps changing! The danger is, if we look too much to the past, it can trigger unnecessary guilt or regret. If we look to the future, we can worry about things that may never happen.

We live in time. We walk through time. But in any present moment is where we are to pay attention to our own thoughts and feelings and to the presence of God.

Seeing Jesus

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

In the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent, some visitors approach the disciples and ask to see Jesus.  When they tell Jesus this, he does not seem to respond directly, but starts talking about his “hour” and the things he will have to do. He also uses the important image of the seed falling to the ground to die in order for new life to come forth.

He is talking about himself and what will happen to him. But maybe that is how we are to “see Jesus.”  We see him in doing what he has to do.  We watch him as he faces his accusers and accepts their verdict.

We all would like to “see Jesus.” And that is a part of our spiritual experience — not to see him as a man standing in front of us, but to see him in his works and see him in the people around us.

We are to see him also in the “hours” that we face: those things that happen to us, often unexpected, in which we are something like the seed falling to earth and then bringing forth new life.  We die and rise many times in a symbolic way before our final departure from this life.

“We want to see Jesus.” Yes, we do.  We keep watching, searching, allowing ourselves to see him especially in the persons around us.  We see him in the events of our lives, perhaps when we would least expect to find him.

Lenten Gospels

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

As Lent comes around each year, I recall the lesson I learned some years ago. I was already a priest for about 30 years, and this struck me as new knowledge. It was always there, but how would I know “unless someone shows me?”

This is about the Gospel passages we use in the lectionary for Lenten weekdays. Starting with Ash Wednesday and going through the first three weeks of Lent, our Gospel readings are from the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. They are lessons in discipleship: things we are to learn and do as followers of Jesus.

One author points out that the Gospel teachings are ideals that most of us will never fulfill. He says that is good for us: we fall short and recognize our weakness and our continued need for a Savior. He talks about “compunction,” an old word that is related to “puncturing.” Our egos are punctured as we recognize the grace and mercy of God are gifts, and that we are not finally in charge of our spiritual lives.

Then, beginning with Monday of the 4th week of Lent, the Gospel readings are from John, focusing on the person and the mystery of Jesus Christ. We center on our relationship with him as we move closer to Holy Week and Easter.

I find that to be a handy outline for my own prayer and reflection on the scriptures for Lent. I pray that we all grow and deepen in our relationship with Christ.

Who Are We?

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

After the recent attack on the National Capitol, several people said “This is not who we are.” Well, if “we” means everybody, all the citizens, then in part, at least, it is who we are. Some of “us,” our brothers and sisters, decided to resort to force to challenge the peaceful transition of power. This peaceful transition has been a hallmark of this country.

There have been other contested elections, leading to some underlying anger I am sure, but none of the parties resorted to violent force to try to change things. There is something stirring in “us,” the people, that is unhealthy and dangerous.

Among other things, there seems to be an ever-present streak of racism in this backlash. Historically, there have been other occasions when people of color or ethnic minorities seemed to be gaining some deserved power in society, where there has been a white backlash against them.

Who are we? We who claim to be Christian and followers of Jesus are to see all people as our brothers and sisters. How are we doing? It is again for each of us to look deep inside and see if there are roots of fear and prejudice.

If I am white, how really do I feel about people of darker skin? If I am of dark skin, how do I feel about white people? (Some fear might be understandable.) If I am a man, how do I feel about women gaining more of their deserved freedom and power? We could go on to thoughts about religion, sexual orientation, or other designations.

When people say “this is not who we are,” we are called by Christ to examine who we truly are, and look to him for guidance, wisdom, and healing.

Baptism of Jesus

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

We close the Christmas Season with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. I’m sure, as this day comes along each year, some people ask, “Why would Jesus have to be baptized?” Traditionally we have connected baptism with the removal of “original sin,” as well as our entry into the Church. Also, in the Bible the baptism of John is called a “baptism of repentance.” In view of all of this, why would Jesus have to be baptized?

First of all, there is no “have to,” no necessity in Jesus being baptized. We should see this event as symbolizing something that God, in Christ, chose to do. It continues what we have been celebrating at Christmas time: Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus came to be with us in our human experience. And so he asked John to baptize him as a way of showing that he is truly with us.

Our way of being with Jesus begins with our baptism. Jesus was proclaimed the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased. We share in that: each of us is a beloved daughter or son of God. It is important to truly believe that. We have value simply in being human beings, sons and daughters of God. In difficult moments maybe we forget that, or lose sight of our basic value.

Whatever our experience, Jesus stands shoulder to shoulder with us on the journey. That is very much the meaning of why he participated in the baptism of John.

The Sign of the Cross

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

We are in the beginning of a New Year. It is the custom of Catholics to begin and end many things with the Sign of the Cross. I believe that it is good for us to stop and take a look at things that are very familiar to us. There is a danger that they might become too familiar, and easily passed over.

I suggest that when we make the Sign of the Cross, we do it consciously and deliberately. Sometimes, to see the gesture made by some people, we can apply the joking phrase, “the swatting of flies!”  We must not judge, of course, but we can observe.

At the baptism of a child, parents and godparents are invited to sign the child on the forehead with a Sign of the Cross as a way of welcoming the child into the Church. So we are signed with the Sign of Christ from the beginning. It is also a reminder that our bodies, and not only our spirits, are to live in service of Christ in the world.

In normal times, when we enter the church building, we use holy water and sign ourselves as a reminder of our baptism. And so we ought to consciously and deliberately touch our forehead, our chest, and our shoulders, reminding ourselves that, as Christians, whatever we do, it is done under the Sign of the Cross of Christ.

St. Joseph

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

One of the central figures in our Christmas celebration is St. Joseph. Yet in the Bible we read no word that he spoke. We are simply told some things that he did.

He is called a “just man.” One way of describing justice is that it involves “right relationships,” giving each person what is due him or her. Joseph is called “just” because of the way he treated Mary when faced with the puzzling situation of her pregnancy. Of course, he gets some divine help through a dream. “Do not be afraid to take Mary,  your wife, into your home.”

I do not get direct messages in dreams or from angels and so I don’t know what this was like for Joseph. But he got the message and followed it. He basically became the protector of Mary and Jesus. He was also probably a practical man, a carpenter, used to working with his hands. So, just, practical, hard worker, loving father: not a bad person to get to know.

From a few lines in the Bible, a great tradition of devotion has developed in the Church. And now Pope Francis has decided to dedicate the coming year to Joseph: a time for all of us to reflect on our experience. How are we doing at justice: treating each person with respect? How are we at paying attention to the subtle hints of the Holy Spirit in our decision making?

How are we at caring for and supporting the people close to us? St. Joseph, be our guide.

The Child Inside

By Fr. Tom Zelinski, OFM Cap.

In the “secular” seasonal song, “The Christmas Song,” it says, “So I’m offering a simple phrase, to kids from one to ninety-two . . .” and it goes on to wish us a Merry Christmas. “Kids from one to ninety-two” includes just about everybody. All us kids.

It seems to me that the things that touch us about Christmas tap into feelings and memories that begin in childhood, where we first learned about Christmas. For children, it starts with the externals: Christmas trees, lights, Santa Claus, “getting” presents, cookies, candy. But if our family was at all religious, soon the basic meaning of the day is woven into the whole picture: the birth of Christ.

Much of my feeling of Christmas is about music, starting with the classic carols. My Mom played the piano and I can still remember the carol book she used at the piano. I imagine I sang along. But there is something nostalgic about Christmas music, especially the religious kind, which tugs at me, and I never tire of it. I’m sure this tugging taps into childhood memories, as well as experiences I have had since.

I would guess that, as we get older, we can become a bit jaded, and tend to set aside “the things of a child.” I would caution against that. I suggest that, at Christmas time, when we get a vague feeling of nostalgia, warmth, a touch of joy, that we pay attention to that and give in to it. Such thoughts and feelings can lead us to further thoughts of the birth of Christ into humanity, and a call to express the Christian qualities of kindness, charity, good will, and true caring for others.

Our world badly needs those expressions toward all our brothers and sisters. They are childlike, but also mature in the best sense.

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