Thursday, June 14, 2012

June 13: Feast of St. Anthony of Padua… and Lisbon!

In medieval times, it was not uncommon to designate a saint by the place where they were born into eternal life, rather than their actual birthplace. Hence, Saint Anthony (1195-1235) , who died in his adopted city of Padua, will be forever connected with that place in the minds and hearts of devotees. Except for the people of Portugal, that is. They understand that, despite the residence of the major part of his relics in Italy, Anthony was, is, and will forever remain their hometown boy made good: Anthony of Lisbon! In honor of their saint, the people of Lisbon have constructed a relatively small, but no less imposing Baroque sanctuary in honor of St. Anthony, placed within close proximity to the city’s (XIIc) cathedral. Adjacent to the sanctuary is a recently opened museum and exhibition space. An imposing contemporary cast statue of St. Anthony is placed in front of the entrance, but the real treasures of the shrine lie within its basement. Several narrow flights down into the crypt, one approaches the tiny and cramped chapel marking the birthplace of this remarkable saint. The actual relics on display are few, but that is of scant importance to the throngs of pilgrims, many of them older women from Portugal, Spain, and Italy, who throng by the busload to the site to pray for the saint’s intercession. The sanctuary is currently maintained by a trio of Portuguese friars who live in a small convent located in an upper story above the actual church. I spoke with one of the friars, Fray Albertin, who welcomed me warmly to the site. We chatted a bit about the situation of the Franciscan order in Portugal today. It certainly appeared to be very much like that in North America: willing friars, burdensome commitments, shrinking numbers, aging confreres, and few vocations. Still, places like this sanctuary of St. Anthony, continue to thrive. Secular Franciscans operate the gift shop and other lay volunteers assist visiting pilgrims. The friars on hand make themselves available to show hospitality and offer a listening heart. St. Anthony of Lisbon is famously known for his ability to help one in finding lost articles: “Tony, Tony, look around. Something’s lost and must be found.” Unfortunately, he has not yet protected visitors from the swarms of professional pickpockets who lie in wait at the tram stop in front of the shrine. The gentleman with whom I was visiting had his wallet snatched within seconds. That said, in regard to his shrine in Lisbon, he has certainly been doing his job, however. In the sanctuary of St. Anthony of Lisbon, the ‘lost’ among us continue to ‘find’ welcome, hospitality, and help in his hometown.

Down by the Bayeux (Tapestry, that is)

Our group arrived in Bayeaux from Cherbourg early on a Sunday morning. The town’s celebrated tapestry museum hadn’t opened yet, so, in the meantime, we headed for the cathedral just a few blocks away. Bayeux is a graced and fortunate community. Remarkably, it is architecturally intact, little changed from its ancient foundations. Relatively remote, it has never held any strategic importance militarily. So both the town and its cathedral have been spared the kind of devastation experienced in other parts of Normandy throughout history, the most recent manifestation of which was the D-Day invasion of World War II. Upon entering the church, one immediately experiences a sense of surprise and delight. Contrary to expectations, this Gothic interior, at least, is warm and inviting, bathed in light instead of ominous shadows one might otherwise anticipate from such a medieval structure. Its pillared columns really do soar heavenward. The effect is astonishing: majestic, jubilant, justly proud. While meandering around the sanctuary on my own (and quietly snapping a few forbidden photos in the process), I noticed the cathedral’s rector, who was dashing about simultaneously welcoming people and trying to organize the liturgy. His sacristan just shrugged, sighed, and grinned: “He is always like that. Always.” When I introduced myself to him and mentioned to him that I was a priest visiting from the United States, Fr. Lauren Berthoult immediately invited me to concelebrate the Mass with him. “When does it start?” “Right now!” Oh. Thereupon, I was immediately shown into the sacristy to find an alb big enough to cover my jeans and t-shirt and long enough to hide my Adidas sneakers—and voila! Let the Mass begin. It was Pentecost Sunday so the place was packed—even after the tour groups (including my own) had been shooed away from the sanctuary for the time of worship. I sat behind the high altar a bit dazed, looking in amazement over the sizeable crowd and thinking to myself: “Is this supposed to be post-Christian Europe where the pews are empty and the faith is just fading away?” The liturgy was wonderful: the people were engaged and responsive; the small, but well-trained choir of eight voices led the congregational singing with confidence. Father Lauren preached, greeting the assembly in French, English, and German and speaking movingly about the power of the Spirit in our midst this Pentecost. The parish was particularly grateful, he said, for the children receiving their First Holy Communion, for the group of young people confirmed in just the past week, and for the young man to be ordained a transitional deacon in the coming week. Oh, and for the three families (presented at the end of Mass) as well, who had brought their children for baptism that day. From the line of people edging up to greet their pastor at the end of Mass, it was easy to see that he is a popular and well-loved leader. I asked an American woman who was living in the area if this had been a typical Sunday liturgy. Yes, she told me, but not only that. Apart from the liturgy, the people in the parish were really active and involved in multiple outreach efforts: to the poor, to young people and students, and to other faith communities. As I turned from her, I recognized our local escort, a gentleman of French Muslim of Tunisian background. Not only had he come back to claim his errant charge, but he had actually stayed for the entire service. “I love the Mass,” he told me. “I feel the presence of the Divine there. My wife is a Catholic and so we take our children to church and also teach them to observe the customs of their Islamic heritage as well. We trust that they will sort things out for themselves as they get older.” The group had a free period, so I slipped into the Tapestry Museum to view the millennium-old embroidered depiction of the Battle of Hastings (1066). And I am so glad that I did. The cloth is in remarkable condition, having miraculously escaped the depredations of both the French Revolution and Nazi occupation. The colors are vibrant and the narrative, engaging. A frieze depicting resilience and vitality—a vitality which continues unabated in the contemporary faith of the people of Bayeux.//

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Welcome to Corpus Christi, Scotland

Well, not literally, that is. But we are all called as a Christian people are called to be the ‘corpus Christi’—the Body of Christ in our world, aren’t we? So, people can be the ‘Corpus Christi” in Scotland as well as they can in good ol’ Texas. So, welcome to the town of Lerwick in the Shetland Islands. Population: 10,000. The northernmost urban settlement in Britain—in fact Norway is a lot closer than the next city (Aberdeen), about 12 hours by boat to the south. As soon as I landed here yesterday (um, please don’t ask how I got here.), I took out my IPhone camera and started chasing for steeples. It’s always a good way for me to orient myself in new and strange places. And besides, I really am a bit of a church mouse at heart. After passing through some slender, concrete-lined alleyways and climbing lots and lots of stairs, I finally reached the top of the town. Here were the Methodists. Over there the Presbyterians. And that large church in the middle? Not a church at all, but a civic building. Oh, and on the side, the narrow roof topped with a tiny stone cross must be, well, I’ll be darned, sure it is—the Catholic church in town. I approached the still freshly painted- bright red-- front door of St. Margaret’s (as in, St. Magaret, patroness of Scotland). Locked. No matter, took a few pictures of the grounds. But just as I was passing the parish house, I spotted someone: “Hello, are you a priest by any chance? Really? Great! So am I.” Within minutes, I welcomed to tea by the pastor, Father Anil Gonsalves—native of Goa, India, five years’ ordained, and resident of Lerwick for two years. We ended up touring the church and taking a long, leisurely walk around town for the next hour. As we looked around and I stopped unannounced every so often to take some tourist photos, Fr. Anil told me about his life and ministry here in this remote settlement: Catholics are only a very small minority—not more than 250 people in total—on the island. But the parish is vibrant, with lots of young families and kids. Last year St. Margaret’s celebrated its centenary. Old bills got paid off (deep sigh of relief), the women’s group stitched a handsome antependium for the main altar, and a generous donor provided some strikingly contemporary stained glass windows. (On closer examination, I spotted—yes, depictions of oil rigs and platforms sharing space with traditional pastoral scenes. This is the petroleum-blessed North Sea, after all). Fr. Anil was enthusiastic and impassioned about his parish. People were really beginning to get more involved. Church attendance has been growing; good participation at parish events. Increasing ecumenical cooperation (last year’s joint Christmas carol program brought to St. Margaret’s townspeople who had never been in a Catholic church before). There are plans and dreams for animating the youth, and even a possible trip to Rio for World Youth Day in 2013. Parishioners Bernadette and Mary Rutherford are going to a remote village in Uganda for a month of volunteer ministry and collecting children’s things to distribute. Of course, the town has its real problems as well: isolation, underemployment, a daunting climate (a sweltering 48 degrees this bright June day) all tend to breed anxiety and depression. In their wake, drugs and alcohol have also made their way to this hauntingly beautiful edge of the world as well. Lerwick, Shetland (Scotland) is also a far ways away from Fr. Anil’s hometown in Goa. And from clergy colleagues as well. But he keeps busy and balanced with sports (tennis, badmitton, squash), daily hikes, and (his own) home-cooked meals to which different parish families are invited on a weekly basis. Contact and support among confreres takes the form of prayer and support meetings every six weeks at different venues in the diocese. And then there’s the annual to touch base with family and friends. St. Margaret’s in Lerwick may be small and geographically remote, but it is as alive and vibrant as any urban parish I’ve ever experienced. Here, in the cold and sober North, there is a warm and welcoming family of faith—with a future full of hope. Website: Email:

A Future Full of Hope... In Pockets Full of Miracles

Earlier this year, our Franciscan province of St. Barbara, which represents the Friars Minor (ofm) of the western United States, met for its triennial chapter (or congress). We chose as our theme, “A Future Full of Hope”, taken from Jeremiah (29,11): “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your well-being… and a future (full of) hope.” This simple motto calling us to renewed confidence in God has continued to echo as a resounding theme in statements from our leadership, in our regional meetings, and in our gatherings at home ever since. We think about it often and pray over it as we struggle with the very real and difficult challenges that confront us in community life and ministry. Somehow that same mantra keeps ringing in my own head and heart as I have started out on a three-month sabbatical this summer in between assignments. I keep asking myself—what and where are the signs of a future full of hope in our Christian community and world these days-- when so much of our life appears to be fraught with stress, loss, and insecurity? So I’ve been on a personal treasure hunt this summer, deliberately asking to be shown signs of hope and resilience in my travels. And, on a daily basis, I believe, I have been shown wonderful things so far. Signs of tremendous faith, energy, and creativity-- not in large monumental structures or momentous gatherings, but rather more often in small, often obscure and overlooked “pockets full of miracles” that give one hope for the future. From time to time this summer, I’ll be writing about some of these places and experiences—not always in a neat and orderly fashion, I’m afraid, but as I’m able to take some time to reflect upon them a bit. I’m also trying to get back on track with this blog, which I have had to put aside for all too long now. Thank you for sharing the journey with me. And I hope that my brief observations may in some way spark your own interest, observation, and commitment. For my part, I really do believe that, in spite of and in the midst of everything, our loving God really and truly does offer us a future full of hope.—ct