Richard S. Vosko

Musings on religion, art and architecture


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Homily – 6th Sunday of Easter – 1 May 2016 – “Unity Not Conflict”


Easter Eggs

Sixth Sunday of Easter C – May 1, 2016 – “Unity Not Conflict”

Click here for today’s scriptures

The presidential campaign has glaringly uncovered the ways in which we the citizens in these United States are not united on assorted issues especially ones that deal with basic human rights.

And, we Christians are divided on issues as well. For one example, Orthodox Christians are celebrating Easter today, five weeks after we did! Our conflicting calendars lay bare what has been known for a long time as the “scandal of Christianity.” How important is this concern?

In 1997 the World Council of Churches asserted that to celebrate this fundamental aspect of the Christian faith, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on different dates, gives a divided witness. It compromises the credibility and effectiveness of our churches in bringing the gospel to the world.

As noted in today’s first reading, the Apostolic Conference in Jerusalem in the year 50 CE also dealt with issues that were divisive. The concern was not about the movable date of Easter. Rather, some Jewish-Christians from Jerusalem insisted that Gentile-Christians from Syria must follow the Mosaic law about circumcision and other Levitical codes.

Right from the start, Christians argued over what they believed to be the fundamental teachings of their emerging religion. Not only does a bitter sweet history list disputes among early Christian movements but also, eventually, whether to wage brutal wars against other Christians and people of different faiths. Church leaders frequently developed doctrines to distinguish Christianity from other religions and to counter what they considered to be heretical campaigns.

The desire to strengthen the unique identities of respective churches continues to thwart unity. In the words of Andrew Sullivan Christianity today is in crisis. Instead of focusing on the “truly radical ideas” Jesus had, Christians are using religion as a tool to advance their own political and moral agendas. In doing so religious leaders attempt to “consume and influence every aspect of public life.”

In the gospel today we heard a part of Jesus’ farewell address to his followers. He said a Spirit will eventually emerge to fire up their passions, remind them of his teachings and guide them in their missionary work. Also,  he said, the peace he gave is not what the world gives. Jesus was not interested in stressing any complex doctrines. Instead, he did not want his followers to forget his primary focus: to treat people equally with mercy.

As it was then it is hard now to know exactly what to do when our church teachings do not adequately help us respond to present day situations. Traditionally, it is believed that a deity will provide guidance. However unless we have a direct line of contact with that deity we have to rely on others (rabbis, imams, priests, prophets, catechists and others) to interpret the social codes for us. [1]

Church doctrines that were written a long time ago do change over time but ever so slowly. The unfinished business of the Vatican Two Ecumenical Council is a good example. We have to continuously reinterpret the principles presented at that Council in light of today’s challenges. The same would be true of doctrines developed in the Middle Ages. They, too, need fresh explanations.

Francis, bishop of Rome, is doing exactly that. He has been called a “stealth reformer.” Flying beneath prickly doctrinal arguments he is showing us that mercy must trump doctrine. The life of Jesus is the example of what matters most today — how we respect one another especially those who are different from us.

Our divisions with the Orthodox church and other Christian denominations are complicated and stem mostly from age old doctrinal disagreements. On the other hand, in principle, there is no disagreement among us in terms of serving people who live on the fringes of society. There is a message here.

Emboldened by the Spirit Jesus left us, we can be ministers of peace and unity at home and everywhere we roam. We can cultivate further ways to join other Christians and people of other faiths in works of mercy and friendly dialog. With an emphasis on our common mission rather than rules we will discover and, in Pope Francis’  words, “unity is greater than conflict.” (Laudato ‘Si, IV, 198). 

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1. Finch, Jonathan. A Crisis of Belief, Ethics and Faith. (NY: Univ. Press of America) 2016, 33

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Homily – Fourth Sunday of Easter – 17 April 2016 – “What to Vote For”


The Fourth Sunday of Easter C – April 17, 2016 – What To Vote For?

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In the Easter season we hear gospel stories about the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Some followers questioned those visions while others gained inspiration to press forward in the name of Christ. We also read from the Acts of the Apostles which contain non-historical homilies and letters about the joys and struggles of early Christian movements.

Today in the Gospel of John we heard about Jesus the good shepherd. Earlier in this gospel Jesus is called a gateway to salvation, a doorway to endless opportunities. This good shepherd story is more about the sheep and their alliance to the shepherd. Some say it is based on the loving association Jesus had with the one he called Father. 

This parable prompts us to think about our relationship with God and one another, near and far. How do we get along as members of the human flock where some advance forward while others cannot? In the Joy of Love, Pope Francis refers to Jesus as a shepherd who reaches out to every member of the flock, a reference to the human family. “It will become possible,” the Pope writes, “for the balm of mercy to reach everyone, believers and those far away, as a sign that the kingdom of God is already present in our midst.” (No. 309)

Also, during this Eastertide, we read from the prophetic Book of Revelation more so than in any other liturgical year. The author, John of Patmos, a victim of persecution, writes about the invisible forces and spiritual powers at work on earth and in heaven. 

The Book contains letters from the risen Christ addressed to seven churches in Asia regarding the corruption in those regions. Timothy Radcliffe Johnson, a Christian origins scholar, wrote that the visions include the experiences of those who are marginalized and oppressed by the the dominant society. [1] Today’s passage, for example,  promises that no one will go hungry or thirsty in the future.

According to scripture scholar Robin Whitaker this is a highly charged political text. At that time it competed head to head with the Roman empire known for the unjust ways it treated people living on the fringes of society. The Lamb of God takes the place of the Emperor. [2]

In this apocalyptic Book, the conflicts of the nations are altered by the sovereign power of God who works through Christ. Although slain by the state, Christ is the liberator from all evil. We visualize Jesus Christ, the lamb of God, the good shepherd, a prophetic witness for justice, as a model for us.

How do we model a Christian spirit for others? Last week we wrote letters to our elected officials asking them to stop hunger around the world. This coming Tuesday April 19, 2016, the New York State Presidential Primary presents another opportunity for us to act. We have the responsibility to vote.

The Catholic bishops in this country have published a guide on how to shape our consciences as faithful citizens. The bishops ask us to ponder our nation’s domestic and foreign policies and the promises of the different candidates. They advise against selecting parts of our church’s teachings in order to advance partisan interests or validate ideological biases. The entire instruction is available online. There is also a link on our parish website and my blog.

The bishops instruction is based on four principles of Catholic social teaching — human dignity, subsidiarity, solidarity and the common good. These words are not just casual concepts. They are precisely about basic human needs and the freedom all people should have to pursue opportunities. 

However we vote we are making choices. Our ballot can advance strategies for achieving harmony in this nation and in other parts of the world. Our vote can make a difference in the ways you and I live and it can move legislation to provide for those struggling to survive everyday. Do not forget to vote.

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  1.  Radcliffe, LT. The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art. (Grand Rapids: Wm Eerdmans) 2015, p. 43
  2.  Whitaker, Robin. Notes from a class on the Book of Revelation, Union Theological Seminary, New York, NY February 18, 2016


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Homily – Third Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016 – “Got Anything To Eat?”


hunger copyThird Sunday of Easter C – April 10, 2016 – Got Anything to Eat?

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“Food, Glorious Food,” is the opening song in the musical Oliver! The play is about young Oliver Twist and his difficult life in Victorian London. Fed daily with meager dishes of gruel the workhouse boys sing the song dreaming and fantasizing about food. Oliver got into trouble when he demanded a second helping. [1]

With a huge growth in population in 19th century London crime and unemployment were high. There was a housing shortage, poor sanitary conditions and children were sent away to work dangerous jobs. Psalm 30 for today’s liturgy “I will praise you God for you have rescued me” may have been a wishful prayer at that time.

A similar story could be written today as people try to survive in the favelas in Brazil, the shanties in India, the ghettoes in Appalachia or even the small run-down towns in upstate New York. The exploited children in the story could be living in dilapidated shacks in Syria or South Sudan or the makeshift tents in Turkey and Greece where refugees await their fate. Humanitarian conditions in many parts of the world are nearing irreversible deterioration. 

In 19th century London philanthropic individuals and agencies began to address the plight in their cities. Today international agencies are working with nation states to end food insecurity which is the number one cause of terrorism, drug cartels, child trafficking and murder. According to a report from Bread for the World nearly half of all childhood deaths before the age of five are caused by malnutrition.

In John’s gospel Jesus appears to the apostles and the first words out of his mouth are “do you have anything to eat?” Presumed to be the first post resurrection appearance of Christ to his disciples, it is as if Christ had forgotten something. He neglected to remind his followers of a very important part of their mission if they were to pick up where he left off. 

Jesus questions Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Peter responds, “Of course I love you.” Jesus then challenges Peter and others within earshot, “Well then, feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” These are obvious references not to animals but to human beings. As Dorothy Day wrote, the disciples doubted the resurrection until Jesus asked them for something to eat. [2]

Spiritual hunger can take a toll on us. However, going to bed night after night on an empty stomach can lead to despair, sickness and death. The prophet Isaiah reminded us to seek justice and share our food with hungry people (Isaiah 56-58). Next Sunday we will read in the Book of Revelation — every nation, race, people, and tongue will not hunger or thirst anymore (Rev. 7:9-16).

Jesus entrusted Peter and the disciples with the pastoral care of God’s people. As baptized members of the priesthood of Christ, we also share this responsibility.  In his new letter, “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis exhorts us not to forget that the mysticism of the sacrament [of the eucharist which we celebrate almost everyday] has a communal character. It reinforces our “social consciousness and … commitment to those in need.” (187)

This weekend you and I have an opportunity to support robust funding for nutrition and health for mothers and children around the world. By our letter writing campaign today (April 10, 2016) we can urge our elected officials to reform the ways our government provides food aid everywhere. We can press Congress to allocate $230 million dollars for global nutrition programs and to pass the Global Food Security Act of 2016.

Toward the end of the song in Oliver the workhouse boys sing, “Food, glorious food! What wouldn’t we give for that extra bit more.” Jesus wanted something to eat. You and I want something to eat and so too do many men, women and children on this fragile planet want an “extra bit more” to eat. Our food pantry serves the local community. You and I can help to spread that mission, that act of mercy, on a global level.

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 1. Composed by Lionel Bart for the 1960s West End and Broadway musical Oliver! The show was based on the second novel by Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, written between 1837-39.

 2. The Catholic Worker, April 1964