Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


Homily – 28 October 2012 – The Church Evolving and Surviving

30 Ordinary B – October 28, 2012  — The Church Evolving and Surviving

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126:1-6; Hebrews 5: 1-6; Mark 10:46-52

According to Celtic mythology there is a thin veil between heaven and earth. When we experience hardships and the possibility of death that veil is stretched very thinly. Some say God appears more present in our lives when the veil is thinnest. [1]

For many of us our lives are stretched. We spend much of our time moving from one place to another, from one task to another. We worry so much about what tomorrow may bring it is difficult to focus on what is before us now. Sometimes life is a series of moments in between what is no more and what is not yet.

This in between time is where most traditional religions are today. Membership in the majority of mainline Jewish and Christian congregations is dwindling. Here in the Diocese of Albany we have closed churches and merged faith communities. While the numbers of our lay ecclesial ministers is on the rise the number of ordained priests is in decline. At present we have 90 active priests in our Diocese. Some estimates predict that by the year 2020 there will only be forty priests to serve parishes.

Today is World Youth Day and Priesthood Sunday. We take this time to think about what kind of church waits ahead for our young members. We also can assess who we are as a church and the thin veil that separates the present from the future. How do we work together, what roles do each of us play? In the opening of the 2009 pastoral convention in Rome Pope Benedict XVI said: “They [the laity] must no longer be viewed as ‘collaborators’ of the clergy but truly recognized as ‘co-responsible’, for the Church’s being and action ….” [2]

One could say that ordination to priesthood is not the sacrament upon which the future of the church will depend. Baptism is.

Although priests do many things like hearing confessions, anointing, baptizing and witnessing wedding vows, the most visible role he has is to gather the “baptized community into communion.” [3] We are taught that priests do so during the liturgy of the eucharist acting in the person of Christ. How the priest carries out that role is very important. How he draws the assembly into the liturgy is essential. Is the congregation active or passive during Mass? Are we actors or spectators?

I am not referring to singing or saying prayers together. Rather, how well do we understand the teaching of the church: “In the liturgy the whole public celebration is performed by the mystical body of Jesus Christ, that is by the head (Christ) and its members (you and me).” [4]

According to our Catholic religion, the presence of Christ in our midst is expressed in a threefold manner. In Word and Sacrament, in the person of the priest and in the community of the baptized. These three relationships are inseparable and must be made obvious during the liturgy. An overemphasis on the differences between the priesthood of the faithful and the ordained priest does not help us understand how all of us, ordained or not, participate in the action of God when we celebrate sacraments.

Gender issues also muddle the situation. That only men are permitted to be priests in the Catholic religion is explained in iconic terms. Jesus was a man. This Christological perspective by itself can diminish the definition of the church and the role of the holy spirit in our lives.

Understanding the ordained priesthood in this larger context can be useful as the church addresses the shortage of clergy. We are aware that theologically, liturgically and historically the roles and styles of liturgical leadership are not static but always evolving.

When I read the gospel of Mark for today I thought to myself didn’t we already do this one? However, there are two stories in Mark that deal with eye sight. Our first impulse is to think that these events are about healing. Can we also think about them as moments of “insight.” In the first story (Mark 8:22-26) the unnamed blind man was passive; he was brought to Jesus by others. In today’s story (Mark 10: 46-52) Bartimaeus is aggressive. He himself pushed through the crowd taking it upon himself to gain insight about Jesus and his mission. He then chooses to follow Jesus.

These stories beg a question. Are members of the church today like the first man willing to be led along in our quest for insights? Or will the members of the church of today be more assertive about taking a role in developing a church for the future. Can we balance both approaches?

Last week I saw a Stephen Belber play called, “Don’t Go Gentle.” It is about a former judge trying to make amends for a lifetime of spiritual flaws.  In one soliloquy about racial justice the judge said, “Sometimes the rules have to change in order to evolve, in order to survive.” The Celtic tradition about thin veils between heaven and earth invites us to think about how we as a church are evolving and surviving. It just might require changing some of our rules.


1 Some say that Samhain, a Celtic observance now celebrated as the Eve of All Saints or Halloween, is one of those times when God draws near to us

2 Pope Benedict XVI, Opening of the Pastoral Convention of the Diocese of Rome. Theme: Church Membership and Pastoral Co-Responsibility (Basilica of St. John Lateran, 26 May 2009)

3 Janowiak, Paul. Standing Together in the Community of God: Liturgical Spirituality and the Presence of Christ. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 2011, 128

4 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 7

5 David Coffey cited in Janowiak, ibid., 135


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Homily – 21 October 2012 – Move Things About

29 Ordinary B – October 21, 2012 – Move Things About

Note: In the Diocese of Albany, because of the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha, we were allowed to use the following scripture readings today.

Leviticus, 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Corinthians 1:26-31; John 17:20-26 

Kateri Tekakwitha is on our mind today. Her first name was the Mohawk translation of Katherine. Some say the name meant “she who moves things about.” Kateri, whose mother was Catholic, studied about Catholicism with a Jesuit missionary and converted when she was twenty. Her tribe punished her for being a Catholic so she fled to Kahnawake in Quebec where she lived a life of prayer caring for sick and elderly persons. She was just twenty-four years old when she died. 

Coincidently Kateri is canonized on World Mission Sunday. Today we might reflect on how our Christian tradition, Catholicism, was spread to this country in the 17th century. Missionaries like the Jesuit martyrs  in Auriesville where Kateri lived for awhile are among the many men and women who suffered hardships to bring the gospel message to all peoples. How is the word of God shared today? Who are the missionaries of the 21st century in a country that some say is becoming increasingly secularized?

The first reading from the Book of Leviticus is about a call to holiness. For the Israelites it meant trying to imitate God. How were they to do so? Later in Leviticus there is a list of ethical and ritual commands that would guide them. The greatest command was to love all persons including aliens. This love was to be expressed in concrete ways. For example, equality in areas of civil justice (Lev. 24:22).

The pastoral teachings of the Second Vatican Council remind you and me that we too are called to holiness. (see Lumen Gentium, 5, 39) This powerful statement gave a new, refreshing identity to the church. It meant that all baptized people are members of an egalitarian society called the church. We share responsibilities in areas of worship, social action, faith formation and governance. All of us are co-workers in the vineyard.

The Vatican Two Council also helped us as members of the church realize that what we do together here on earth advances the kindom of God. We believe that that kindom, where peace and justice reign above all else, is already underway but not yet completed. At one time the church believed it was a perfect society. That is perhaps what fueled missionaries to evangelize others. Now we know we are a religious body among many faith traditions with similar goals with regard to ourselves, God and the world. That’s is the challenge we offer one another at the end of every liturgy — to go out to love God and to do good for our neighbors.

The gospel reading from John is considered to be a prayer that Jesus said as he was sending his disciples out on their missions. He prayed that they would be united in all they do; that they would be brought to perfection. What a prayer for us today. There is evidence that those who believe in God, in Christ and a holy Spirit are not entirely united. Some data suggests that we ourselves are scattered and divided not only as a country but as a religious people. One must ask where is the collegial spirit? Where is the dialogue? Where is the shared responsibility?

Today is also Bread for the World Sunday. It is an opportunity for us to engage in a specific deed  — to end hunger. Through education, prayer, and worship, we can recommit ourselves to the fight against hunger and poverty in our communities. It is part of our mission. Our food pantry of course is doing its part. As the second reading reminds us we boast about our food pantry in the name of Jesus Christ.

There are many hungers in the world. Hunger for truth and equality. Hunger for reliable relationships both human and divine. Hunger for physical and spiritual sustenance. The Jesuit missionaries were perhaps the ones responsible for planting the seeds of Christianity right here in our backyard. Among others they nourished Kateri Tekakwitha who then “moved things about” in her own life by helping others along the way. Now it is our turn. As disciples of Christ we go forth to feed others.



Homily – 14 October 2012 – Vatican Two Reinterpreted

28 Ordinary October 14, 2012 – Vatican Two Reinterpreted

Wisdom 7:7-11; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-13; Mark 10:17-30

The “nones” are back in the news. No, not the “nuns” —  the women religious whom we love. Spelled n-o-n-e-s, “nones” are those Americans who do not identify with any religion and their numbers are growing. New research tells us that 20% of the US population (34% of adults under the age of thirty) are religiously unaffiliated. These “nones” believe in God, they seek spiritual lives and they pray. They just do not belong to a religion. 

 The PEW Forum on Religion in Public Life reports that the “nones” feel organized religion is too concerned with money, rules and politics. They are less convinced that religion strengthens community bonds, helps poor and needy people and protects moral principles. As Catholics we have to ask what is our church doing to reach out to those who feel disenfranchised.

As you know October 11th marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council. In his opening speech in 1962 (how old were you in 1962?) Pope John 23 expressed his hope that through the Council the church would “gain in spiritual riches and find new sources of energy enabling it to face the future without fear.” The church’s teachings are valuable treasures, said John 23. However, they should not be guarded as rare museum pieces. Instead they should be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. [1] The pope understood the line in today’s second reading: “the Word of God is still alive and effective.”

Here is one example of a fresh reformulation. When the Council spoke of the universal call to holiness [2]  it did not negate the hierarchical nature of the church but it did change the perception that the clergy were the only ones responsible for governance, worship, education and ministry in the church. 

The updating (aggiornamento) in our church over the past fifty years, especially in the ways we worship and relate to all other religious traditions, has left an indelible mark on the identity of our church and our place in modern society. At the same time many clergy and laity today believe that the teachings of Vatican Two have been misinterpreted. They claim the ways in which the teachings have been implemented lack sufficient continuity (ressourcement) with the long traditions of the church.

Interpretations matter. Everyday we try to interpret all kinds of consumer reports and studies for different viewpoints and facts before buying an appliance, a car, a house or food in market. Today’s gospel is a good example of interpretation. Taken literally, if you are very wealthy the chances of getting into heaven are slim. However, by studying the texts, i.e., analyzing the social and cultural contexts, we might come up with another interpretation.

Scholars offer multiple ways of reading biblical texts. In this example, some suggest the story refers primarily to a life of discipleship rather than the renunciation of riches. [3] It is what we do with what we have that is important. The young man in the gospel was put on the spot because of his attitude. He did not want to share his wealth with others. [4] This interpretation helps us read the gospel in fresh terms.

No doubt the world and the church are different from what they were fifty years ago. We too are different. Perhaps what we can learn from Pope John 23 and this gospel text is that what lies ahead for all of us will depend on how we, in his words, “study afresh and reformulate in contemporary terms” what our church can be. That is our responsibility. 


1 Pope John XXIII – Address at the Opening of Vatican Council II – 11 October 1962

2 Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) 5, 39

3 Reginald H. Fuller. The Word of God for the Church Today The Liturgical Press. 1984 (Revised Edition), pp. 357-359.

4 John J. Pilch. The Cultural World of Jesus, Sunday by Sunday, Cycle B. The Liturgical Press. 1996. 148-150.



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Homily – 7 October 2012 – Moral Issues and the Election

27 Ordinary B – October 7, 2012 – Moral Issues and the Election

 Genesis 2;18-24; Psalm 128 1-6; Hebrews 2: 9-11; Mark 10:2-16

Do you ever feel like some people use God talk to make you feel guilty; that God is going to punish you for doing this or doing that? I recently saw a book review written by Barbara Brown Taylor that said, “the author is one of the few people I trust to write about faith without using God to clobber me.” I never think of God as treating us harshly. Today’s psalm said God blesses and protects us. Lately, though, some of the political and religious rhetoric makes it sound like if you do not vote for a certain candidate you would be committing a grave sin or that you are a morally irresponsible person.

Today’s gospel about divorce and remarriage could be one of those “make me feel guilty” texts. Perhaps some clarifications might be helpful. The gospel of Mark was based on oral traditions and written some sixty-six to seventy years after Jesus. The sayings attributed to Jesus reflected the male centered traditions of Jewish Palestine. [1] In the Mediterranean culture divorce was unacceptable because marriages bound groups together to make them stronger. [2] A divorce of two people meant the divorce of two families which frequently led to bloody battles.

Further, it was believed that in a divorce the honor of the man was at stake; women’s reputations did not matter. Although women could file for divorce in Roman law they could not do so in Jewish law. [3] Tested by the pharisees Jesus was offering an egalitarian ideal and not a new law. He was saying the rights of both parties matter.

In our time prenuptial agreements and short-term-renewable-marriage contracts challenge the phrase “until death do us part,”  (And, have you ever heard someone say: I didn’t think he’d live this long!) Nevertheless, living good, long, healthy and productive years with another person, the same person, is an ideal in our society.

When a relationship goes bad however something has to be done to help couples. Because divorce is painful enough hitting the couple over the head with God talk and stringent laws is not constructive. It also does not help to deny access to sacramental sustenance in these moments of despair and stress, the precise times when people need comfort and community.

Understanding the teachings of our religion, the Catholic religion, is an important responsibility today. It is apparent, however, that for many, these directives can be a source of anxiety, confusion and division. For example, various studies and polls point out that significant numbers of Catholics disagree with church teachings on divorce and remarriage, right to life issues (51% favor pro-choice) and same sex marriages (54% in favor). Overwhelming numbers disagree with the teachings on birth control. [4]

Note: One non-partisan source is: the Public Religion Research Institute

Today is Respect Life Sunday. Each year we are asked to reflect on the many moral teachings of our religion. In this election season we ask further how does each political platform measure up to church teachings. The application of principles and doctrines to all moral issues in our lives requires prudence and the formation of a good conscience.

In this regard, our bishop, Howard J. Hubbard, has written a helpful pastoral letter in our diocesan paper, The Evangelist, where he refers to the American Bishops’ instruction “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.“ [5] One of the many points our Bishop makes is that it is unlikely that there will ever be a candidate for public office or a political platform that will agree entirely with every moral stance of the Catholic church. The American bishops then affirm It is not enough to vote for your party of choice or to cast a vote because of a single issue. A responsible voter has to do some homework.

The purpose of religion is not to use God talk to deal with us harshly or control our thinking. It is the role of religion to help us establish a loving relationship with God, one another and all of creation. That’s hard work. The teachings of our religion like others can provide invaluable guidelines for living. Making decisions that affect our daily lives, however, requires prudence and well formed consciences. (To be continued before Election Day, November 6, 2012)


1 Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. (San Francisco, Harper) 1992, 301

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

3 Attridge, H. (Ed.) The HarperCollins Study Bible Revised Edition (San Francisco: Harper) 2006, 1743

4 For example, the Public Religion Research Institute

5 Hubbard, Howard . “At Election Time, Let Principles Guide Decisions.The Evangelist, October 4, 2012, 1