Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – October 4, 2015 – Respect Life … All of It

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B) – October 4, 2015 – Respect Life … All of It

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Both our church and civic calendars today draw attention to similar concerns: respect for life, opposition to domestic violence and keeping the memory of St. Francis of Assisi alive. (Francis is one of the eight newly written icons in St. Vincent de Paul church)

The gospel is a counter cultural challenge to marriage as it is experienced in this country. That the divorce rate in the United States has been declining over the past thirty years is no consolation to men and women whose marriages have ended in divorce.

Further, for divorced Catholics, the thought of remarrying without an annulment can create anxieties with regard to their participation in the life of their church. The strong language attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel requires a careful reading. What was the cultural context within which he is quoted?

Jesus was responding to a test from the Pharisees. He referred to the Law of Moses which allowed divorces based on the initiative of the husband (Deut. 24:1). According to biblical scholarship Jesus actually sought to raise the social status of women and protect their rights from an unjust culture slanted toward the pleasure of the man. (Remember women were considered to be the “property” of the man.) In doing so he was reestablishing the original creative act of God, calling for harmonious relationships or an indivisible union of mutual companionship. [1]

From the Mediterranean cultural perspective, whenever a divorce occurred the men in that society were shamed and dishonored including the wife’s father, brothers, or other significant men in her family. “Hence the basic purpose of the commandments in ancient Israel was to head off feuding which led to bloodshed. The idea was to maintain internal societal harmony and stability.” [2]

According to scripture scholar Brendan Byrne it is not helpful to dwell on what is apparently prohibited in this gospel but on what it commends — marriage between two people is the “most intimate expression of a commitment, companionship and intimacy embracing the totality of life.” As the first reading reminds us it is not good for anyone to go it alone.

And there is something else. Jesus did not use his insight into God’s original purpose of marriage as a way of punishing people. Many have wondered about the penalties that a religion like ours imposes upon our own members who, in good conscience, are seeking spiritual sustenance and support when they need it most. Often it is a moment when it is clear that their best marital intentions are not working out and it is time to move forward.

Just maybe the “New Testament grants to the Church the authority to make concessions that are pastorally necessary” without entirely compromising traditional teachings. [3] That’s what Jesus was doing in this gospel — “acting as a merciful healer.” [4] It seems to be the way Pope Francis acts.

The recent papal authorization to speed the annulment process is encouraging. The final results of the Synod on the Family, which began this morning in Rome, will be published in due time.

The report undoubtedly will tell us more regarding the institutional church’s position about the role of marriage and the family in society. Hopefully it will also outline kind and merciful ways for church ministers to help those who are struggling to develop wholesome, life giving partnerships.

One parishioner, Angela Warner who directs our food panty, reminded me that the word “divorce” is not just applied to marriage but all relationships. We ask ourselves from whom or what are we estranged because of our reluctance to form new relationships or to accept life giving cultures and practices that break down barriers and celebrate diversity? For example:

How we divorce ourselves from others because of their race, ethnicity, class, religion or language.

How relatives divorce themselves from one another over some disagreement or past grievance.

How women and girls are divorced from the opportunity to equal rights, getting an education or becoming community leaders.

How children living in poverty are divorced from their families, thrown into prostitution rings, become victims of human trafficking.

The list can be longer. I invite you to talk about it with others at home, in the dorm, in the car or at work.

Last week while Pope Francis was in Philadelphia the Global Citizen Festival was happening in Central Park, New York City. The theme? “We are not a generation of bystanders.” It is a good nudge for us to do something about mending some of the broken heartedness in our world.


1. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 157 ff.

2. Pilch, John The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press. 1996. pp. 142-144.

3. Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today. (Liturgical Press. 1984, Revised Edition, pp. 352-353.

4. Kaveny, Cathleen. “Mercy for the Remarried: What the Church Can Learn from Civil Law” in Commonweal, August 14, 2015, p. 15.

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Homily – 27 September 2015 – A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Homily – 27 September 2015 — A Bridge Over Troubled Waters

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Every so often an event happens, a person comes along, that makes us pause in our lives, to think and talk to each other about what really matters in life. The visit of Pope Francis is one of those occasions. Many of you have followed his apostolic journey and have your own comments and opinions. I am privileged to have this chance to share some of mine and how I thought of our parish as I listened to the Pope.

There is little doubt Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air. We are moved by his humble demeanor, his non disparaging speeches, his warm smile and his focus on lifting up marginalized people to dignity. For the Pope all people matter as does our common home.

The title pope is derived from the Latin word Pontifex and means bridge builder. One of this Pope’s constructive tools is a concept known as integral ecology. He puts issues of human rights, the environment and economic justice all under one umbrella. He believes that care for our fragile planet is synonymous with caring for one another. These urgent concerns require undivided attention to assure there is a future for our children and people of all ages especially often forgotten elderly persons.

In addressing Congress he reminded us that political activity must promote the common good of all persons and be based on human dignity. This activity he claimed requires a spirit of solidarity and commitment. He graciously pointed out how four well known citizens of our country took action to assure that all people regardless of sexual orientation, class, race, creed or religion could live out their dreams without fear of rash judgement, prejudice or denial of religious and personal freedoms.

The Pope reemphasized these remarks in his speech at Independence Hall on religious liberty and immigration. “It is imperative that followers of various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and respect of others.”

There is a lot for us to think about in light of these papal nudges for living in a better way. This weekend in our parish we draw upon the memory of our patron saint, Vincent de Paul. In his lifetime France had serious problems: inflation, falling wages and rising taxes. Religious divisions at that time resulted in bloody wars. It was acceptable practice for Catholics to kill Calvinists and to be openly anti-Semitic. In this context Vincent and co-worker Louis de Marillac built bridges to ease the pain especially for those who were most vulnerable.

Today we keep St. Vincent’s memory kept alive by working in the food pantry, sharing resources and love with RISSE, [1] ministering to those in prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, supporting our sister parish in Panama and innumerable unnoticed acts of kindness toward one another. Here in this parish we do our best not only when we gather to worship God but also by our cooperation with other agencies in the Capital District.

The Pope urged the United Nations General Assembly not to be satisfied with merely identifying problems, making to do lists, drawing up proposals or even writing checks. He encouraged the members to take action, to stop environmental degradation which causes human degradation. He called upon all of us to lead lifestyles that do not deprive others of the same goods and opportunities that we cherish.

In his homily at the liturgy in Madison Square Garden the Pope called  us to be purveyors of “A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others.” This afternoon our young brothers and sisters will learn about building relationships, tearing down walls that divorce people from greater opportunities in life. We imagine our youths will discuss not only those issues that they worry about but also the concerns the Pope encouraged all of us to ponder.

In the first reading today we heard how God shared the spirit given to Moses and Miriam with other people in the tribe. Moses wondered wouldn’t it be nice if all of God’s people were prophets. (The word “prophet” here does not mean someone foretelling the future. It means, rather, someone who tells it like it is.) The disciples in the gospel were not of the same mind. They were suspicious of others outside their club who were also doing good work. Jesus encouraged them to understand that good deeds are welcomed no matter who carries them out. It was an “invitation to the disciples to look away from their own distinctiveness and privilege to find goodness wherever it exists.” [2]

Jesus’ mission grew out of an apocalyptic worldview. His prophetic sharpness was derived from the seriousness of the issues at stake. This is the same agenda that Pope Francis has. The Pope said “It is my duty to build bridges and to help all men and women, in any way possible, to do the same.” I think the Pope was talking to all of us — to be prophetic, to care for others, to be bridges over those troubled waters that drown people in oppression. It is a call to take action to lift the lowly up out of despair and lead them to new horizons filled with hope and mercy.


1. Refugees & Immigrant Support Services of Emmaus, Inc. is housed in St. Vincent de Paul church.

2. Byrne, Brendan. A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2008) 153-155


Homily – 13 September 2015 – I Am Because You Are

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time  – I Am Because You Are

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The recent discovery of the skeletons in the South African Rising Star cave system has created a lot of excitement for scientists. The species naledi has been classified in the genus homo to which we humans belong. Some researchers already are saying it could change the way we think about our human ancestors. Could it also change the way we think about one another?

In today’s gospel Jesus asks his disciples “who do you say I am?” Peter answers “you are the Christ” which means the anointed one. In Hebrew it means “messiah” or the liberator of a group. Jesus is quoted as using the phrase “I am” a lot in the bible. I am bread, light, shepherd, gateway, vine, truth, life.

Curious about the words “I am” and what they might mean for us today I learned another South African piece of information. The words “I am” also mean “you are.” I am because you are! This concept, known as ubuntu, emerged in the 19th century and developed as a world view for South Africans when apartheid was legislated in the early 1950s. It literally stands for human-ness or humanity toward others. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said ubuntu means “I am human because I belong, I participate, I share.” Nelson Mandela wrote “Ubuntu does not mean that people should not enrich themselves. The question therefore is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to be able to improve?” Ubuntu then is a philosophy of interdependence.

Jesus sensed he would soon face a trial and be executed for crimes against the Roman state. He challenged his listeners to continue his mission, to take up the same cross. That cross for us is not so much a reminder of what happened to Jesus but a symbol of local and global injustices. It stands in our midst in this church prompting us to respond, to pick it up, if you will, and carry it together.

The current tide of refugees migrating to Israel and Europe is a huge global problem. It challenges the notion of “I am, You Are.” Countries are erecting physical, cultural and political walls to keep people out. President Obama announced that our country will accept 10,000 refugees from Syria next year. This is a gracious but small gesture for a country that has yet to fix its own broken immigration laws.

Sometimes these situations are so overwhelming we do not know what to do? Yet we know from our experiences that humans do rise to the occasion to help people in need. This past July 2015 a New York Times article reported that when many lives are at stake we will and should feel more empathetic and do more to help. 

The same studies however point out that we play favorites, that our empathy is dampened when it comes to people of different races, nationalities or creeds. Empathy, the writers report, can be a source of moral failure that will have to yield to reason if humanity is to survive.

The second reading is attributed to James the brother of Jesus. It is a ethical exhortation based on oral traditions and was probably addressed to those who oppressed poor people with acts of greed and power. It reminds you and me that faith flourishes when coupled with good works.

Later this month we will celebrate the memory of our patron Vincent de Paul. Historically we have created opportunities in this parish that connect faith and good works. Traditionally we all try to do something.

The astonishing discovery of the skeletons in South Africa, in what seems to be a burial vault, suggests that primitive beings were capable of ritual behavior and maybe symbolic thought. One scientist, Prof. Lee Berger exclaimed, “We are going to have to contemplate some very deep things about what it is to be human.” 

The finding in that Johannesburg cave reminds us that we have much in common with our primitive ancestors and all human beings. Maybe our dependence on one another is what Jesus meant when he said “I am.” As Christians we identify with that revelation. I am because you are.

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Homily – 5 July 2015 – Spreading God’s Mercy in the Public Square

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 5, 2015 – Spreading Mercy: A Church in the Public Square

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A few weeks ago I had the chance to attend the French oratorio “Joan of Arc at the Stake.” [1] In his review, Anthony Tommasini called Joan an illusive and innocent figure who loved God and country. Even though she helped to save France from the unjust clutches of England she was burned at the stake. Joan of Arc was made a saint in 1920.

This weekend we celebrate independence from a tyrannical King George III. The protests, the battles and convictions of our nation’s ancestor’s were dangerous, visionary and prophetic.  And as we know the ideological principles and laws stated in our Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and our Constitution are not yet fully realized. 

Consider how long it has taken for the inalienable rights of all people to become law. Consider there is still no guarantee that these laws will be upheld. Power, greed and self-righteousness stand in the way. Apparently, working for justice alone is not enough to bring about equal dignity for all humans? Are there any other strategies?

Theologian Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote that the mercy of God is the essence of the gospels and the key to Christian living. [2] Kasper describes mercy as “God’s free and gracious turning toward the human person with care.” If we Christians believe that God’s brand of justice is mercy, if we are benefactors of this mercy, how do we share that free gift with others? 

The scriptures today are familiar to us. People with prophetic visions and voices are not always welcomed in their own communities. When his own people questioned his authority Jesus was quick to reply. He reminded them how their ancestors did not heed the prophetic wisdom of Ezekiel. Jesus was rejected not only for what he said but also for the mercy, the forgiveness and love he showered upon people suppressed by civic and religious leaders. Yet another and more contemporary model of such mercy is found in our collection of icons — Dorothy Day.

Historian David O’Brien called Day one of the most influential figures in the history of American Catholicism. Founder of the Catholic Worker Movement she challenged civic officials to create programs for people in need. She criticized the Catholic church for abandoning Gospel principles by not showing mercy and forgiveness toward enemies. The icon of Dorothy Day is looking at us asking what injustices do we protest in order to spread the mercy of God?

One finding in a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey said we Americans agree that protesting unfair treatment by the government makes the country better. Emulating the saints depicted in our church many parishioners are active in the public square. In one example, some of you participate in the Moral Monday protests at the Capitol. You have rallied to change laws that are immoral and unfair for the average citizen.

Mercy and love alone are not enough. They require action. We plant trees with branches that hold up all peoples. We learn to survive by respecting nature, animals and each other. We seek ways to renew the face of our own church to keep it relevant. We work to reshape systems that are unjust and oppressive. Our mystical garden is a global one. We labor in this vineyard to bring about what we believe to be the kin-dom of God.

Americans disagree on what it means to be American. Catholics disagree on what it means to be Catholic. Painful societal issues continue to divide us. Religions struggle to maintain a credible voice in cultural affairs. There is, however, a common ground we share with other faith traditions. Fortified by God’s mercy and forgiveness, we can be prophetic in the public square, voices of faithful people calling for liberty and justice for all.


1. Performed by the NY Philharmonic Orchestra. Music by Arthur Honegger. Libretto by Paul Claudel. Marion Cotillard starred as Joan.

2. Kasper, W. Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. Trans. W Madges. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2014) p.43


Homily – 28 June 2015 – Renewing the Face of the Church

Homily for June 28, 2015 – Renewing the Face of the Church

Click here for today’s scripture readings

“Equal Dignity.” These two words taken from the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage express what we heard also in the first reading from the Book of Wisdom. Everything and everyone that God created is good. The creatures of the world are wholesome … in the image of God’s own nature God made them.

The implications of the historic events that took place last week require patience, study, conversation and sensitivity. How, together as a nation and as a people of God, do we respond to racial violence in the United States? How do we respond to the new law governing same sex marriage declared by the Supreme Court?

In his eulogy at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney President Obama said for too long we have been indifferent “to the way past injustices continue to shape the present.” He surmised, the amazing grace of God moved people to forgive and bond together in their grief and hope.

The people of Charleston SC are examples of healing and unity. We are challenged to change our attitudes about issues that divide and hurt us. The cries of the LGBTQ community to be treated equally and with dignity have been heard. However, a mixed response to the new law is already evident. Will we allow an amazing grace to guide us and heal us?

Today’s gospel tells two tales of healing and faith. Although there is no biblical reference to Jesus actually curing someone from disease he was a healer. Scripture scholars help us understand. John Pilch wrote that through healing people regained a sense of value in their lives and resumed their rightful place in society. Australian Brendan Byrne suggested, “It is a genuine exercise of faith that brings about the release of divine power.”

One of the saints in our icon collection, Kateri Tekakwitha, is a good example of healing power. An outstanding miracle was attributed to her intercession. A relic, a piece of Kateri’s bone, was placed on the body of a young boy with a flesh eating bacteria. The next day after months of fruitless health care the infection stopped its progression. No scientific or medical explanation; just the amazing grace of God at work again.

The image of Kateri in our church is looking at us this morning. Can we approach questions of equality and dignity in ways that heal? Two weeks ago I spoke of growing strong trees with branches that sustain all of God’s creatures. Last week I discussed surviving on this fragile planet by treating nature, animals and other humans with respect. This week, can you and I think of ways to renew the face of our church?

Some say we are a church that is divided and broken apart on many issues? Same sex marriage is one of them. Some people leave our church because it denies them dignity or seems irrelevant to their lives. Others are hopeful and stay because the church is slowly showing signs of change.

Our parish of St. Vincent de Paul has been evolving. In addition to our increased presence in the public square most notably here we have rearranged ourselves for worship. Gathered in this circle of friendship and faith we affirm our equal presence at this holy table and that each of us presides over this meal. This ecclesiastical change is no less revolutionary than what we have witnessed this past fortnight on a national level.

In a 2013 speech Pope Francis said: “Let us accept others; let us accept that there is a fitting variety, that this person is different, that this person thinks about things in this way or that — that within one faith we can think about things differently.” The pope continued, “Uniformity kills life. The life of the Church is variety, and when we want to impose uniformity on everyone, we kill the gifts of the Holy Spirit.”


Homily – 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 21 June 2015 – Weathering Storms: A Christian Survival Kit

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time B Cycle – June 21, 2015 – Weathering Storms: A Christian Survival Kit

Click here for today’s biblical texts

How can we explain the suffering endured by Job in the first reading when Job clearly was a just man who walked with God? How can we explain the violent and senseless killing of nine faithful church members who clearly believed in the mercy and justice of God?

The shootings in Charleston South Carolina were carried out by a young man who apparently felt threatened by people who were different from him. He harbored deep hatred toward the “other.”

Methodist Pastor Adam Hamilton wrote to his congregation last week, “a part of our human condition is paranoia and fear. The more we feed them the more fearful we become. We then need to separate ourselves or protect ourselves from them or actively find ways to destroy them.”

The psalm this morning describes people who are thankful for God’s care and protection from stress. During our liturgy we plead with God to protect us from all fears and anxieties. How, then, do we explain God’s apparent lack of concern in devastating situations. How do we respond?

Last week some members of our parish and I were at Coxsackie Correctional Facility for a bible study program. One inmate stood up and reiterated the question that is on everyone’s mind. If God is present to us and promises to protect us how could such a Godless act take the lives of good people … in a church nonetheless. Here is how I tried to answer it.

God does not leave us alone during tragic events. Rather, an evil action such as those church killings or the holocaust or any act of torture and terrorism ignores God’s presence and becomes an agent of destruction. Natural disasters are not acts of God. Evil actions carried out by human beings are not the work of God.

Last week I talked about strong trees with many branches. There, all of God’s people can find safety, sustenance and salvation. I am reminded here of the phrase in our Eucharistic Prayer that says God loves the human race and continues to walk with us. However, while praying to God for guidance and assistance we cannot always wait for God to intervene or tell us which way to turn.

The Rev. Emma Akpan of the African Methodist Episcopal Church said she would like to pray for Charleston, SC but cannot. “Prayer doesn’t seem like enough, she cried. I need action. I need change.”

We have the freedom to make choices. God seems to be absent only when we will God to be absent. When we do not recognize the presence of God in our lives and in the lives of others all day long, all week long, we risk making serious mistakes that affect our lives and those of others.

Here’s a good example. As we know last week Pope Francis released his encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’  — “Praise be to you.” The title is taken from the Canticle of Creation written by St. Francis of Assisi — one of the saints chosen by you to be in our collection of icons.

The encyclical frequently refers to St. Francis as an example of care for vulnerable persons. Francis is a model of the inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for poor people, commitment to society and interior peace. There is much to ponder in this encyclical but I want to point out an important thread known as “integral ecology.”

To be morally good and just, economic development must consider people’s need for freedom, education and meaningful work. The pope said confronting the climate crisis will require a “deeper, spiritual transformation of society, replacing consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.”

Throughout the encyclical Pope Francis argues that everyone and everything is interconnected — to God, to creation, to one another. Job was punished not because he was a bad guy. He was being tested to see whether or not his sense of justice included others or was self-centered.

We do not know when the end times will be. We do know that if we want to partake in the beauty and grace of God’s creation, if we want to assure that every one else, including our children, will be able to live without fear and enjoy with equity this fragile planet of ours, we would be wise to take action to protect it and all of its inhabitants.


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