Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily for Pentecost: Many Voices One Spirit


Pentecost C – May 23, 2010
Acts 2:1-11, Psalm 104:1, 24, 29-30, 31, 34, I Cor 12:3b-7, 12-13, John 20:19-23
Read today’s biblical texts.

Some Catholics used to carry a card that said, “I am a Catholic. In case of an emergency call a priest.” Wouldn’t it be interesting if today there were a card that said, “I am a Catholic Christian in love with humanity and I’ve got work to do. Hurry up. Dial 911”? Such a card, given at baptism, would remind us that we Christians, throughout our lives, are dedicated to the mission God entrusted to us.

Pentecost, the finale to our Easter season, is a day to look forward as the young church did at the end of the first century. In John’s gospel we find Jesus saying good bye to his youthful but insecure followers. He reminded them that their mission, which is ours, is to set a good example for others, to tell them good news, to baptize and nourish them, to heal and forgive, to unify them together on various issues that usually tear us apart. It was an overwhelming agenda. Good thing Jesus assured them that a powerful Spirit would come to help.

In the first passage today we hear Luke’s story about the post Resurrection followers of Jesus. Bursting at the seams with faith and new hope, they could no longer be contained and took to the streets. They were outsiders trespassing on the status quo. With hearts full of fire and fear they preached to Jewish pilgrims during the harvest festival called Shavuot. The native tongue of the disciples was Aramaic – a northern dialect of the Hebrew language. However, as the story goes, everyone who listened to the disciples heard them in their own tongue. This text points to the potential of the gospel to speak to all peoples in many languages.

It did not take long for the burgeoning church, discouraged by persecutions but energized by this new Spirit, to realize the members had to work together if they were to survive. In the second reading today Paul told his listeners there are different forms of service, no one is better than another, and the Spirit works in all of them not just a select few. That Spirit cannot be contained. What is going on today in our lives that could inhibit the Spirit from speaking to us in diverse voices?

One campaign that deserves our attention on this Pentecost Sunday is the English Only Movement. It maintains that English should be the only language used in the United States. Today English has been adopted as the official language in 30 states. New York is not one of them.

Some commentaries say that a common language is a good way to resolve conflicts amidst diverse racial, ethnic and religious groups; it is a tool for social mobility and economic advancement. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that English only is a threat to civil rights, educational opportunities and free speech; that it insults the heritage of cultural minorities. [1]

Language is one of the ways humans communicate to express what is held deeply in our consciousness. The beauty of any language is found in its dialects and nuances; the different ways it is employed by writers, composers, poets and children. Trying to get everyone to speak one language mars the beauty of the human family.

Today we are linked with different voices from all across the planet. The internet gives impetus to the notion of globalization where economies, ideas, politics and cultures converge. No religion can afford to be parochial in this climate. Our church is a “sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of the whole human race.” [2] To survive in this age we have to find ways to reach out to all of God’s creatures, celebrating and elevating the unique gifts of a people called to holiness.

Many years after the first Pentecost our church continues to do good work in all sectors of life. There are times, however, when we struggle with our identity and our influence. Returning to the status quo of yesteryear, defending ourselves from outsiders and new ideas, may not be good investments. We need a good dose of the fire and wind power that rallied our Christian ancestors. They respected their traditions but boldly carved out new avenues for the future.

Speaking in and listening to native tongues helps us realize that diversity on this tiny planet is the norm. It is a healthy way to unite nations and religions. Our calling card is similar to those carried by the first Pentecost Christians who celebrated plurality. Maybe an answer to the English Only debate in this country will come from a mighty and holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit … renew the face of this earth!

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1. Crawford, James, (Ed.) Language Loyalties: A Source Book on the Official English Controversy (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992)

2. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (no.1)

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7th Sunday Easter Homily: Yoga and Union With God


Easter 7C – May 16, 2010 – Yoga & Union with God
Today’s Biblical Texts

The Hindu god Maharishi Patanjali is considered to be the Father of Yoga. 1 [1] One of Patanjali’s sutras (or rules) describes sin as an obstacle to one’s ultimate union with God. It suggests that rather than spending energy feeling guilty about human imperfections a person could consider sin as an opportunity to turn back to God. Our own commandments tell us to stop doing whatever separates us from one another and from God. Prayer and meditation can help. According to Patanjali one way to reach oneness with God is to practice yoga.

There is one problem, however. Catholics have been led to believe that the Vatican absolutely opposes any “new age” methods of centering prayer like yoga. Two Vatican Pontifical Councils have issued a Christian Reflection about New Age spirituality. 2 [2] Although that Reflection discourages what it calls self-serving spiritual practices there does not seem to be any specific prohibition against yoga. [Read also the two Presentation Papers]

Today’s scriptures offer us the chance to focus on establishing union with God and others. The obvious question is how do we go about doing so? Is faith enough? We all have that. How about charitable works? Yes, sometimes. Saying the rosary? Hmm. Can’t find your beads? How about sitting still for 30 minutes each day? Yah, right. We could follow the example of Stephen in the first reading. He testified that he saw Christ and God united in heaven; but then he was martyred. Nah, not your style.

So how does someone become one with God much less united with one another? The gospel reading is known as the priestly prayer of Jesus Christ. Knowing his life was about to end we hear Jesus, at a final supper, thanking God for the gift of the believers who followed him. The first part deals with us here on earth. Just what is expected of us as we strive for perfection in our own lives and those of others? We are called to work for unity. The second part points us to our destiny. Ultimately everything we do in the name of Christ here on earth positions us to be united with God forever. 3 [3] Living to become one with God is our goal.

Can new age spirituality be so harmful to Christians who are focussed on Christ? One of the aspirations of new age religions is to connect with the cosmos and tap into the power of nature through meditation. In doing so a person senses a oneness with creation and everything and everyone in it. The second reading this morning refers to Christ as the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Our religion teaches that before the universe began Christ existed with the Creator God and the Holy Spirit. To find ways to connect with this Cosmic Christ is a healthy and holy practice.

It seems that the Pontifical Councils are concerned that new age religions emulate the values of a modern culture based on freedom, self reliance and relativism; that the practices are too self serving and can diminish the focus on Christ as the center of our lives. That Reflection admits that the widespread attraction to pre-Christian or Eastern religions does present a challenge to Catholicism today. It encourages Christians to stay the course and be faithful to the teachings and spiritual practices of the Church.

Fair enough. Whatever can make us more cognizant of each other’s rights, whatever can alert us to care for the planet, whatever can induce a respect for diversity is bound to bring us closer to God.  We Catholics are known to be a Christo-centric sacrament of unity. 4 [4] We cannot dismiss the strength of this common bond. We cooperate with one another in education and works of social justice. In our liturgies, we absorb God’s Word and share the Eucharistic meal for nourishment. That’s why it is such a joy to welcome our young sisters and brothers to this banquet this weekend ….

Our Christian Tradition holds many things in common with other religions. The desire to be one with God is one of those ideals and is bound to make us better human beings. Spiritual disciplines that help us focus on Christ and our place in God’s universe and, at the same time, bring us peace of mind and body, are good for us.
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1. Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood, Christopher, Trans. How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali (Hollywood CA: Vedanta, 2008)

2. Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age” The Pontifical Council for Culture & The Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue.

3. Fuller, Reginald H. Preaching the Lectionary: The Word of God for the Church Today (The Liturgical Press, 1984 Revised Edition), p. 439-440.

4. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, No. 26


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Ascension Thursday Homily


Ascension of the Lord C and Our Lady of Fatima – May 13, 2010
Homily at the closing liturgy of Spring Enrichment 2010 in the Diocese of Albany

Today’s Biblical Texts. Note the second reading was Ephesians 1:17-23.

In 1917 three shepherd children witnessed a series of apparitions in Fatima, Portugal. It is a well known event. The messages they received from the Mother of God dealt with predictions, requests, warnings and promises. In an official statement called The Message at Fatima the Vatican said such apparitions are found throughout history and go to the heart of human events. They play a part in the unfolding of history. 1

The theological commentary on Fatima continues to say the purpose of such visions is to mobilize the forces of change in the right direction. The visions were not fantasies, mere expressions of the imagination. Rather they were experiences where the soul is touched by something real, even if beyond the senses.

Today the church calendar marks the Ascension of the Lord and Our Lady of Fatima. It is also the end of another Spring Enrichment experience in our Diocese (Albany, NY) — three events full of imagination and wonder. Were the disciples who saw Jesus being lifted up into the clouds imagining something or were they being touched by an encounter with the post-resurrection Christ? Are all of us merely continuing our education this week or are we experiencing a potent vision for the future Church?

The Ascension story is not about a historical moment. It is part of the Easter event and was a manifestation of the risen Christ like other post-resurrection apparitions. Andrew Greeley once wrote that Catholics go to church to hear such stories about the unimaginable. Storytelling always carries a message that can be useful in life. However, sometimes the story is so compelling, so believable, we never get beyond it to discover its true meaning. Further, how do these narratives invite us to tell our own stories?

Our lives and our imaginations are not isolated but shaped by political, social, and cultural events. Some scholars believe Luke wrote about the Ascension because the experiences of the early church were constantly being readjusted by history and current events. 2 Both of Luke’s volumes were written sometime between 80 and 90 CE after the Jewish-Roman war (66-70 CE) and after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Those were anxious times for the early Christians who thought Christ was returning soon.

It was not to happen and so Luke’s story continues the Easter experience with another apparition and then points to the future mission of the Church. 3 He was saying OK, it looks like the Christ is not coming back and so, in the face of fear, we have to get on with our mission; there is much work for us to do.

Conditions were also challenging for the citizens of Portugal in 1917. There was a shortage of food; there were riots in the streets; the Portuguese troops were fighting in World War I (40,000 soldiers were sent to France one month before the first vision at Fatima); construction workers went on strike; and Parliament was overthrown at the end of the year. Portugal needed a vision for the future. Perhaps the innocent shepherd children were imagining a better country, a more peaceful world, through the intercession of Mary.

Today we ask who among us is imagining a brighter tomorrow in our country, in our church? Disappointment, cynicism, mean spiritedness are partners against reason, integrity and civility. Immigration, health care and respect life issues wear us down and tear us apart. In our church we ponder our future. Demographic shifts have forced us to close churches and schools. Shortcomings in the governance of the church have caused many to leave. There are anxieties about who will be our leaders in the future. What do we imagine lies ahead for us, the people of an Amazing God? 4

There is good news for our church in an age when Facebook and Twitter networks, the megachurch and the unchurched demand our attention. The Conciliar call to universal holiness may not have completely bridged the divide between hierarchy and laity. However, it has helped us celebrate a baptized priesthood of women and men, ordained or not; people full of gifts, talents, and a firm desire to be coworkers. Like the teachers in the early church, and even like the children in Fatima, catechists today are essential witnesses in the unfolding history of the church and society. This often thankless ministry of witness demands long hours of prayer and preparation; it also requires that we nourish one another with mental, physical and spiritual sustenance.

We know our mission is to instruct others, first from the heart with stories of faith, and then from textbooks. We witness to others to empower them with the Spirit God. The passage from Ephesians this morning begins with a prayer “May God give you a Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” The Easter event gave the disciples an exciting vision for future glory. The faith-filled Fatima children in their devotion to Mary had hope for the future. Now it is our turn to imagine the possibilities for society and the church. Let us replace low morale, cynicism and skepticism with a new Spirit, a new energy. If the evangelist Luke were standing here he might say to us — there is much work for us to do, so let’s get on with it.

1 The Message of Fatima. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Vatican.

2 Reginald H. Fuller. Preaching the Lectionary:The Word of God for the Church Today (The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition) pp. 88-90, 366-367, 436-438.

3 Fuller, ibid.

4 Amazing God is the theme of an upcoming experience of evangelization and reconciliation in the Diocese of Albany


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Sixth Sunday of Easter Homily: Mother Church


6 Easter C – May 9, 2010 – Mother’s Day – Mother Church
Today’s Biblical Texts

A few weeks ago former White House speech writer Peggy Noonan wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal about how to save the Catholic Church. She said it needs new blood and should let younger generations … rise to positions of authority within a new church. Most especially and most immediately, she wrote, the Vatican needs to elevate women.

Noonan’s bold but not unreasonable proposal makes us wonder what if the decision makers in the Vatican were women? It would certainly be a different church. After all, since the beginning, Mother Church has been governed by men. Sure from time to time there have been extraordinary women who influenced powerful male clerics. However, the administration of Mother Church still to today is patriarchal. Consider that down through the ages each dogma and doctrine affecting the faith and morals of all members of Mother Church has been decided and promulgated by men.

The first reading today features a controversy in the very early church over whether converts to Christianity had to abide by the Mosaic laws of the Jewish faith. The larger question had to do with exactly what laws were Christians expected to follow to be members in the church. Some members were upset by the laws, causing them great trouble. The leaders at that time — Peter, James, John, Paul, Barnabas, Titus — met in Jerusalem where they came up with a compromise. Although new members did not have to follow the old laws there were some rules to abide by. One wonders what might have been different if women had a voice during that first century Apostolic Council?

Fast forward to our own time. Very few women were present at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. As observers, they were not allowed to speak much less vote. There seems to be no record in the history of Mother Church when a woman would have had the chance to cast a vote on matters affecting the life of church members. A good example today is the Apostolic Visitation of Women Religious in the USA. One wonders if anyone asked the Sisters if they needed to be investigated. What might have been different if women had a voice during all those Councils and Synods dealing with the life of the Church? What an irony in a Church called Mother.

The church has been referred to as Mother ever since the late first century. St. Clement of Alexandria [1]  loved to call the church a Mother who nourishes her children. St. Cyprian of Carthage [2] wrote the mother church extends her branches over the whole earth in fruitful abundance … by her womb we are born; by her milk we are nourished; by her spirit we are animated. Such beautiful images were used to describe our church as a Mother. Yet, this Motherhood is governed by men.

Like any human institution the Church will be defined by how well it relates to its members and those outside its walls. The charge to treat everyone kindly, equally and with respect, with tender love and care, is found in today’s gospel. The text is part of Jesus’ farewell address at his last supper before he was killed. Sadly, he told his followers he would not be with them much longer but they should not worry. God, Abba, would keep them going because of a mighty and holy Spirit. He then broke the bread and shared the wine asking everyone present not to forget him.

Today we are so pleased to welcome our young brothers and sisters to this supper of communion. They join us at the holy table for the first time. We hope it will not be the last. Now they depend on us, the grown up church, to nurture them in the name of God. Because they are the future of our church they will soon begin to nourish us. That’s how the sacraments work. They are celebrations of the never ending experiences of God in our lives not to be held as secrets or personal possessions but to be shared with others. These young children are here today because their parents and families and catechists shared faith, a gift from God, with them.

The Spirit Jesus promised is alive in Mother Church today if even, at times, she seems silent. She, the Spirit, is an advocate for a new kingdom on earth; she, the Spirit, is a teacher who helps us see things in new ways; she, the Spirit, is a healer who repairs old wounds; she, the Spirit, is a cheerleader inspiring us to succeed in all we do; she, the Spirit, is a lover of humanity without compromise. This Spirit and the Church are vessels brimming with the attributes of Motherhood.

Today, Mother’s Day, is a good time to be grateful for and to remember the Spirit in our lives, those women who gave birth to us, those women who continue to nourish us and those women whose spirit animates us. Perhaps it is also good day to think about Mother Church and how each one of us, women and men, slave and free, gay and straight, married and single, religious and ordained alike, can continue to animate her with our spirit, our voices, our love.

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1. St. Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) The Instructor of Children [1, 6. 41, 3]

2. St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258): On the Unity of the Catholic Church, Chapter 5


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Fifth Sunday of Easter Homily: Religion in the Public Square


5 Easter C – May 2, 2010 – Religion in the Public Square

Today’s biblical texts

Next Thursday, May 6, 2010, is a National Day of Prayer … maybe. [1] President Barack Obama signed the proclamation in spite of the ruling by a US District Judge that the 1952 federal law requiring a national day of prayer was unconstitutional. This ruling was a victory for the Freedom from Religion Foundation which filed the suit back in 2008. The foundation does not want the government involved in religion in any way. At the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are those who believe religion should play a defining role in the affairs of this country … providing it is their religion.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey our society, the USA, is becoming more secularized. Some of the estimates show 15% of the population claims no religious affiliation and the number of atheists has nearly doubled since 2001.

The issue over a national day of prayer begs a bigger question for you and me this morning. How does a republic that describes itself as one nation under God and places trust in God on its currency invoke the wisdom of God from time to time? When is it appropriate for a nation, as a nation, to pray to God? That the government should stay out of religion is one thing. Does it mean that religion, however, should stay out of the public square? If so, would it put the US on a path that is already being experienced in the European Union where any mention of God or religion has been removed from its new constitution. It that where this country is headed?

Paul and Barnabas faced a similar situation as they worked hard to preach Christianity in Anatolia, present day Turkey, in the middle of the first century. That region of the Mediterranean was once called the cradle of civilization. Under Roman rule it was prosperous and secure. The people there lived in a social system that had a theocratic form of government. It combined obedience to the gods (like Zeus and Apollo) with loyalty to the emperor. 4 [4] One can imagine how difficult the challenge was for missionaries to promote Christianity to the Jews and Gentiles who lived there.

Today’s first reading was part of a letter written by Luke the author of the third gospel. It tells of a message that was meant to buoy up the spirits of the disciples who were constantly threatened by those who opposed their message. They were reminded that God had done great things for them and that the door of faith was open to all. Has God done great things for us? To provide new visions and ongoing support for the communities different ministries were established and new elders were appointed.

Organized religions need a booster shot every so often to give them credibility in the larger community. Otherwise we are talking to ourselves. Sometimes outsiders from other religions or nonbelievers can challenge mainline sects to examine who they are and what they do inside and outside their religious group. We are reminded in the psalm today that the kingdom of God is for all ages, for all peoples. However, John in the second reading suggests that in order for a new world to rise the old order has to pass away. It’s an image of a time when there is no more war, poverty, sickness; no more tears and suffering. This seemingly untenable time of peace and justice is the vision of the Church.

There are signs right here in this parish that the kingdom of God will endure for all ages, that there is a future for our church. At Easter we welcomed new members. Over the next few weeks we will baptize infants, we will share the Eucharistic meal with elementary school students for the first time and we will celebrate the holy spirit in the lives of our teenagers. Also, as our high school seniors graduate we trust they will pack their Christian values with them wherever they go. These are good signs, that the Catholic church does have a future.

If you read newspapers, watch TV or listen to the radio lately you could get the impression that Catholicism is the most evil religion on this planet. It is easy for us to be embarrassed to be Catholic. Some even deny it or leave it. There are over one billion Catholics in the world and we are good people. We have to behave like good people and let others know we are good people; that we have a a future. We take wrong turns every so often but we keep going on because we have a vision.

Although these life-cycle events are occasions for families they are significant for us all. They are signals that God has done great things for us and that we are doing great things for one another. We take delight that there is a religious context for our lives, a framework that sustains us in all we do. Thus, religion has a place in our lives, in our country.

Whether next Thursday is officially a national day of prayer or not will not affect who we are and what we do as Catholic Christians. However, we can be concerned about our country becoming so secular that it forgets about the diverse faith traditions that helped to spawn this nation and continue to give it life. The gospel today tells us that Jesus Christ invited us to love one another. This is not a love reserved for insiders — families, spouses, partners — the members of our religion only. Rather, it is a respect for all of God’s creatures and creation as well. According to that scripture, that is how others will come to know who we are and what we stand for. Faith alone without good work doesn’t get anyone very far and can leave an opening for some to protest the role of religion in the public square. To keep religion alive in the public square faith and good work are required.

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1 President Harry Truman signed the law in 1952 that each year there should be a National Day of Prayer