Saturday, November 23, 2013



A few days ago Fr. Luke asked me to come up with a phrase, preferably something I’d written, that we could use in the Newark Abbey Christmas card. When I went to my book on Advent and Christmas and turned to the meditation for Dec. 25 I found the following:

I remember something that Pope John Paul II once wrote: The deepest human drama is to make oneself into a gift. At Christmas we celebrate God’s becoming a gift for us by taking on our human flesh. But Christmas is also a call to me to imitate God by making myself into a gift for others (From Holidays to Holy Days, 103).

I suggested to Fr. Luke that we use just the last sentence, "Christmas is also a call to me to imitate God by making myself into a gift for others." Then I went about my business. The next morning at meditation I started reflecting on the idea of making myself into a gift for others. I started making a mental list of the “others” to whom I’m supposed to be a gift and was overwhelmed right away by a torrent of faces: brother monks, students, family, friends, colleagues, parishioners. Phew! Being a gift to all those people sounded exhausting, so I stopped making the list.

Then it occurred to me to begin at the other end and ask “What are the gifts I have that I can give to others?” That seemed less likely to overwhelm me. I started a mental “brag sheet:” I can hear confessions in three languages, I’m an experienced teacher, I write books and give retreats …

The list suddenly stopped when I thought of a certain student in our school. A real pain in the neck to his teachers, he happens to be very gifted photographer. I haven’t taught him in a couple of years now but we always exchange greetings in the hallway. Early this week he said to me in a very matter-of-fact way, “Hey, Father Al, you know that smile that you always have that makes everybody feel good, that makes people feel warm inside? I want to take a picture of it. Could I?” He said this in a very matter-of-fact way, as if he were stating some obvious fact. That caught me off guard, but in a pleasant way: It was great to know that I could be a gift to other people without even trying!

If he weren’t a photographer I would never have known that my smile is a gift to him. That was a gift to me. Hmm. I suppose there must be lots of ways that each of us becomes a gift for one another without even realizing it.


Sunday, November 24, is “the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe,” known more simply as the feast of Christ the King. 

Pope Francis has proven a huge disappointment to a lot of Catholics for a lot of reasons, one of
Pope in St. Peter's Square
which is his discarding many of the traditional papal trappings of royalty. Popes as recently as Paul VI have been carried into St. Peter’s on a throne on the shoulders of several men accompanied by ostrich plume fans. These trappings originally sent a message to the world that the pope was the equal in power to the emperor in Constantinople who had the same courtly trappings. Slowly that statement has lost its urgency, its relevance.

Bishop Joseph Francis of Newark once told this story about himself: He was entering a parish church in a procession for a confirmation ceremony. He was feeling pretty good about the gorgeous vestments and the shiny miter on his head and the beautiful crosier (staff) he was carrying. Suddenly a little boy screamed excitedly, “Look, mommy! The Burger King!” When Pope Francis was elected he had his choice of three sizes of red papal slippers to wear, but he just kept his black shoes, nor did he wear the beautiful red ermine-trimmed cape that tradition demanded. Yes, he began disappointing a lot of people within minutes of his election.

Pope visiting the Youth House

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires and then as Pope he has never stopped insisting that the Church must be a church for the poor. He takes every opportunity to reiterate that same message to the world and to Vatican insiders by word and deed. He wants the church to make itself into a gift for the poor. By the way, in the monastery we just finished a table-reading book entitled “Pope Francis: Untying the Knots,” which I highly recommend. It explains how the early Father Bergoglio changed so radically as Archbishop and then as Pope. It would make a beautiful Christmas gift to someone on your list.


Speaking about lists… I always write in my prayer journal on Thanksgiving Morning a list of things that I’m thankful for. I get writer’s cramp, but it’s worth it. The list includes people in my life, people who have made themselves (consciously or not) into a gift to me. I pray that in return I’ll wind up on of few people’s list as someone who is a gift to them.

Happy Thanks giving!        

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