Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – November 27, 2011 – See Something, Say Something

1 Advent B – November 27, 2011 – See Something, Say Something

Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b, 64:2-7, Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19, 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9, Mark 13:33-37

In July 2010 the Department of Homeland Security launched a nationwide campaign: “If you see something, say something.” The slogan is a way to raise public awareness of potential terrorist activity and public crime and to report it to law enforcement authorities. Such periodic reminders are helpful to us. According to some studies large numbers of humans beings, preoccupied with their routines, distractions, their own agendas, do not always pay attention to what is going on around them.

Today we begin a new liturgical year and the bible suggests that we stay alert. Besides following a new translation at Mass what else are we to be on the watch for? Is it the end of time, the second coming of Christ? This expectation can be confusing if we imagine that Jesus is going to come back. The Jesus of history was one aspect of the revelation of God which, continues in the spirit, and is constantly unfolding in us, and among us. So what are we looking for?

Although it is the popular assumption, the season of Advent is not only about getting ready to celebrate the birthday of Jesus. The historical evolution of the feast certainly has captured our imaginations and has instigated a commercial phenomenon. However, Christmas is also about hoping for and setting in motion the fuller realization of the presence of God among us.

What else then are we watching for? Are we looking for better days ahead? The first reading takes us to the time after the exile of the Israelites. Think of it as the end of the financial mess the world is in today. The Israelites had high hopes for a brighter tomorrow like we do. Nothing seemed to be happening and so they let out cries for divine intervention. Like the psalm today — just let us see your face, God, and we know we will be OK. The prophet Isaiah answered them in a surprising way. The last line in today’s reading is pivotal — we are the clay and God is the potter. God shapes us as a human family and in response we continue to shape our lives and world we live in.

The gospel of Mark, which we will read during this liturgical year, was written during or just after the Jewish War in Rome (66-70 CE) and asserts Jesus as the messiah. In today’s selection we find another image — that of a doorkeeper.  While away, the homeowner put servants in charge each with a certain job to do. God may not always be apparent among us today, we may not always see God’s face, but God put each of us in charge with something to do while we watch for the full experience of God to emerge in our lives. Doing something good, positive and constructive in life opens doors of opportunities for ourselves and others.

Plainly, it seems that Advent is less about waiting for God to appear and more about how alert we are to the nonstop, unfolding presence of God within us and among us. This requires both faith and good work as potters and doorkeepers. By doing something to develop our own lives and the lives of others, by speaking up when we notice that something is not right, by taking risks to counter the status quo, we are effective disciples of Christ.

The list of problems surrounding us in the world is long and even the happiest of moments cannot erase it. Many people are already hoping this holiday season will provide a palliative to counter the jittery global economy, unemployment, broken down family life, large tuition and mortgage bills. Being called as Christians to address these concerns is one more task for us at a time when there are already so many challenges in our lives.

The season of Advent, however, can be a spiritual re-awakening for us depending on how alert we are willing to be. How can we feel alive in the world is a question posed by the author and educator Maxine Greene. She suggests that we become more alive by being wide awake to everyone and everything around us. [1]

See something, say something; say something, do something.


Maxine Greene, “Toward Wide-Awakeness: An Argument for the Arts and Humanities in Education” in Teacher’s College Quarterly, September 1977, Volume 79, Number 1 pages 119-125



Sermon – November 20, 2011 – Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe – November 20, 2011 – Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est

Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17, Psalm 23: 1,2,3,5,6, 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28, Matthew 25:31-46

Note: This is the final “sermon” in a series of talks given at St. Vincent de Paul Parish (Albany, NY) to guide a new appreciation and understanding of the Roman Catholic liturgy. Next week, the First Sunday of Advent, the “homily” will be based on the biblical texts of the day.

Every institution exists in a healthy tension between the past and the future. How to respect the past while moving forward. Richard S. DeMillo, author of a new book on American colleges and universities recently said that college presidents are recruited to do what is seemingly impossible: preserve the best of what the university has to offer and … set a new direction that is different from where the school was going before. As society and everything else changes, he said, preserving the past is not the only goal. [1]

According to one poll seventy-five percent of Americans believe our nation is on the wrong path. [2] Government and corporate America can no longer function like it did in the past. This is true in our own lives. While many of us enjoy reminiscing about the good old days, we know that the world is rapidly changing and that to survive we have to adapt even if it means doing things differently.

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, a universe that never stays the same. As we come to the end of our liturgical year (next weekend is the first Sunday of Advent) we also conclude our series on the Mass. Today we are focussing on the ongoing reformation of the church. Like universities, like nation states and our personal lives, we are asking … how does our church refashion itself to address social, cultural and historical transitions?

In this weekend’s parish bulletin Fr. Chris DeGiovine reminds us of a traditional aphorism: the church is always in need of reformation. Here are some major milestones. Before the fourth century, Christianity struggled to survive. By the end of that century it was not only recognized as a legitimate religion, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. It would not be long before the church, once shaped by the common good, shared ministries and charisms, would become more codified and clerical aligning itself with the imperialism and triumphalism of the civic ruling class.

Twelve centuries later the Catholic church, in a defensive move, reorganized itself to counter the Protestant Reformation. On one hand it became more rigid, it tightened up its rules to maintain its identity, to distinguish itself from the emerging Reformed religions. On the other hand the Catholic Reformation of that time also sought to improve religious life of the clergy and laity through spiritual renewal, missionary work and scripture study.

Four hundred years later the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council of the 1960s propelled the church into the modern, global religious community. This was perhaps the most radical ever reformation of the Catholic church. It changed the way we worship, the way we define ourselves in modernity, the way we relate to other Christians as well as dissimilar faith traditions. The Council sought to update the church without forgetting its past.

We can see in these three examples alone just how the Catholic church evolved from a small suspicious underdog into a powerful and controlling institution; from a church whose practices have always been contested from within and without to a body of believers admitting our need to be more respectful of other religions as well as members of our own household. So, how are we doing today? Is the church still in the process of reformation? Are the windows of the Vatican Two Council still open?

The church in the language of Vatican Two is now defined as the people of God, a sacrament of unity. That’s you and me. Do not let anyone take that identity away from you. You have it because of your baptism. Within this large cohort of over one billion Catholics, the hierarchical leaders, the shepherds of our religion, face the same challenges as college and university presidents do — preserve the best of the church’s past at the same time present a new direction for the church of the future.

Throughout history church leaders have produced some powerful statements especially concerning human rights. Most recently the Vatican Council on Justice and Peace called for a new global awareness of the economical inequities all over the world. Over the years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, including our own Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, has taken admirable stands on respect for life, education, health care, the economy, costly wars, and the needs of 49.1 million impoverished Americans.

Some of you wonder, I know, how can a church built on a long tradition of caring for people who have no voice overlook the voices of its own members — women, gays and lesbians, married priests, those who remarry without annulments and, in general, most lay people. All baptized members of the church are called to holiness and accountability. That is the message of today’s gospel. We are charged with working together to forge a realistic plan for the future without forgetting the past that got us here.

We remember that whatever we do as a church we do in the company of God — created by God, inspired by Jesus Christ and moved by the Holy Spirit. It may be that the continued reformation of our church will depend on improving conciliatory relationships between God and all members of the church. It will rely on how well clergy and laity work together as reconcilers. Theologian Nathan Mitchell warns, however, “We cannot be a church of reconcilers if we are more concerned with shutting people out than with letting them in; when claiming to be victims and never the victimizers.”  Mitchell wrote we must be willing to change or be changed. [3]

In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with a passionate speech. Here is one sentence about the reformation that the church was about to undergo. “We must not only guard this precious treasure [the church], as if we were concerned only of antiquity, but brisk and without fear, we must continue the work which our era demands, continuing the path that the church has followed for nearly twenty centuries.” [4]

That’s good advice for college presidents, Catholic bishops, you and me. Build on the past, plan wisely and boldly for the future, but never stop reforming.


1 Lewin, Tamar. “The Future Can’t Wait” in The New York Times, Education Life Section, November 6, 2011, page 31.

2 POLITICO/George Washington University Battleground Poll, November 14, 2011

3 See Nathan Mitchell “Gathering as an Act of Reconciliation” in Worship (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) November 2011, Volume 85, Number 6, 542

4 Pope John XXIII. Address at the Formal Opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1962, 6, 3.

1 Comment

Sermon – November 13, 2011 – How Can I Keep From Singing

Sermon – November 13, 2011 – How Can I Keep From Singing

Biblical texts for today — the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Note: This sermon was delivered by Betsy Rowe-Manning, Parish Life Director, St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Albany, NY.  Betsy’s sermon is the seventh in a series of talks designed to prepare the parish for the new translation of the Roman Missal which will be used beginning November 26-27, 2011.


During one of our silly family conversations over dinner my brother declared that he thought it would be very convenient to have a third eye on his index finger:  for seeing the kid behind him in class, checking around a corner without being discovered, looking into a jammed drawer to discover what the problem was.

I, too, had an idea for a modification —  a dial on the back of my neck.  Turned one way, I could sing bass —opposite, soprano or tenor or alto.  Why I could sing like both Kim and Brendan Hoffman, Bill Lynch, Justin Beaver, Lorraine Guyon, Taylor Swift, Josh Groban and Susan Boyle with but a simple adjustment.  Quite a range … don’t you agree?

Well, what is there about this singing business that it is so core to our celebration of Eucharist ?

Primarily because  LITURGY IS SUNG. We sing because this is the nature of the ritual we do together.  If all kept silence throughout, that would be a ritual, Quaker-like, but not the tradition we know.  Our tradition has DEEDS that NEED music (processions, for example) and WORDS that NEED music (acclamations and refrains that have nothing to do with the speaking voices of an assembly.)  Isn’t it almost impossible not to sing:  ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA, ALLELUIA? It would be like saying:  Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you !

Our song is something without which there would be no liturgy.  There is a place for silence and a place for plain speaking, but singing is all we have when it comes time to acclaim, to intercede, to process. When we come expecting to do and not to watch, we need our music, our song.  Song becomes an extra, only nice or only pretty, when we come for inspiration, entertainment, obligation or education.  But if we come to do, then song is central to the whole undertaking, for the task to be done can’t be done, except in song.

The first time I participated at Eucharist here at St. Vincent’s, years before Bishop Hubbard appointed me Parish Life Director, I was taken aback at the clapping after the recessional song.  I totally misunderstood.   Yes music here was, and is, extraordinary, but clapping? — Come on!

What I didn’t comprehend then, but what I’ve come to know through experience, through observation and some research is this:  Our applause is not affirmation of only the song. No, rather, –it is our endorsement, our consent, our final GREAT AMEN.  YES we believe, YES we agree, YES we are committed to what we have done here in word and song and gesture and posture and silence.  And we are steadfast in our commitment to carry Christ with us throughout the week.

Back to the question why is singing core?  Secondly, it is because we sing together here.  According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian and martyr, the reason is, quite simply, because in singing together it is possible for us to speak and pray the same word at the same time.   Singing together we can unite in the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  St. Paul reminds us that of this all the time – we come to God only in community.

It is the voice of the church that is heard in singing together.  It is not you or I that sings, (or Kim or Bill or Jenny) it IS THE CHURCH that is singing, and you and I, as a member of the church, join in its song.  Thus ALL singing together serves to widen our spiritual horizon, helps us see our little parish as a member of the great Christian church on earth, and helps us willingly and gladly to add our voices, (be they feeble or good) to the song of the church.  It is the only way to act together, to be the church and not just many individuals.

“How can we keep from singing?”  If baptized, we can’t.  If we have cast our lot with this church, if we have been hounded inside, we can’t.

No matter where your switch is permanently set [in the back of your neck], you simply can’t stop singing!


Sermon – November 6, 2011 – The Language of the Liturgy

32 Sunday Ordinary Time – November 6, 2011 – The Language of the Liturgy

Wisdom 6:12-16, Psalm 63:2-8, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

A few weeks ago I was standing outside the front door after Mass when a young girl came running up to me all excited. Julia Huber had learned a new word in school that week and then she heard me use that word in the homily. She even told me what the word “ponder” meant.

Words are very important. No matter what the language is they communicate ideas, meanings, values. They are expressions of joy and sorrow. They help us learn new things and reminisce about old things. Communication is difficult when we do not understand words used in a language.

Language helps to connect and unite people. A group decides on what a word means and it even grasps the nuances of that word. However, language also separates us from one another when diverse cultures mix, when different agendas compete using the same words. Words are puzzling when phrases inherited from an another age no longer carry the same meaning. Texting today is a good example of how words change. I have to decipher them carefully to get the message.

As English speaking Catholics around the world prepare to use a new translation of the Roman Missal the focus has been on the text. For many there is reason to be disappointed over the translation process, the lack of direct involvement of lay men and women and the hierarchical nature of the task. Realizing that words and their meanings are important, especially while praying together, what else can we turn our attention to, to diffuse any discouragement, to channel energies in a positive and constructive way?

When words fail us we turn to nonverbal means of communicating. International road signs are good examples of that. Consider also what seems to be a universal sign for “may I have the check please.” √ People who do not hear well use sign language. Hand signals, gestures, body language speak volumes to us. Smiles and frowns communicate joy and sadness. Sometimes a hug or a kiss are worth more than the words, “I am sorry.” There are many ways for humans to communicate beyond words. The richness of the Catholic liturgy depends not only on words and songs but on our actions as well. What are some of the nonverbal languages used in this parish during Mass?

Our different ministries include children, teens, women and men in liturgical roles. Our processions, common postures and gestures during Mass engage us in the actions of the liturgy. Works of religious art in our church communicate the stories of our ancestors and our own stories. The way we arrange ourselves around the font, the ambo and altar table shapes the level of our participation during the liturgy.

The new translation of the liturgical texts is the result of a process dating back to the previous pope and others who desired a more accurate interpretation of words rather than using popular language. It is not the first time the Roman Missal has been used as way to unite vast numbers of Catholics in prayer. It is not the first time that a new translation has been contested. Nor is this the last missal. There will others in the future.

Why is something like a new translation of the Missal troubling for some when there are other issues to worry about? Indeed, we are inaugurating this translation at a time in history when there is restlessness not only in the Catholic church but in all mainline religions. Studies show Americans consider themselves to be spiritual but not terribly religious church goers. Whether a new translation will inspire Catholics to return to their parishes no one knows. Christian history reveals that many if not most of the popular spiritualities practiced by Catholics and others emerged to counter attempts to tell people how to pray.

Young Julia Huber was all excited about learning a new word “ponder” in school and then hearing it used in church. She defined it for me as “thinking about something before making a decision.” The ministerial leaders in this parish have pondered how to incorporate the changes here at St. Vincent’s. I can assure you as we use the new translation we will not compromise our customs and traditions here or forego our sensitivity about who we are and what we stand for as a parish.

The words in the new translation do have multiple meanings and can be confusing. Some of them are just not the words we happen to use in everyday conversation. They will take some getting use to and we will do so as well as we can. The gospel today reminds us that God who gives us freedom also holds us responsible for what we do with it. [1]

Let us not forget, then, there are other priorities that are important in life, more important than a new translation: helping people who have no work, no food, no housing, no family, no friends.

As we worship God we can learn some new words and their meanings. As we do so we can also continue to concentrate on what we try to do best here at St. Vincent’s — daring to bring the kin-dom of God to those who desperately need us.


1 Labberton, Mark. “The Living Word” in Christian Century November 1, 2011, page 20