February 2013

February 2, 2013
Feast of the Presentation

Dear Friends of Saint Albert’s,

You’ve heard me say this before, and about other days, but today is another of my favorite feast days. In today’s gospel St. Luke is not just writing dogmatic theology; he is writing moral theology as well. He’s not simply telling us about the nature of Jesus; he’s giving us an example. When we read the gospel for today’s Mass, we do not just learn who Jesus is, we also learn how we should behave. And that’s where Simeon and Anna come in. The two are a wonderful touch; we know instinctively we can trust them, so if we have trouble believing that God could be clothed in something so shopworn as this flesh, we have the testimony of their eyes and their hands to reassure us that -- yes, indeed, Jesus was one of us. A child to be hefted about like any other, and a first-born, who had to be ransomed with pigeons, according to the law. But Anna and Simeon are not just “supernumerary geezers” in the gospel; they also represent an entire class of persons. They are just, St. Luke tells us, and they are pious. They are also very, very old. They are all that’s left of this flesh when it loses its power to charm and beguile. They stand for us and for our world, when we’ve done all we can, spent all we’ve made, when we have nowhere else to turn except to God and nowhere else to go except to church.

When I was growing up, February 2 marked the end of the Christmas Season. It still does in some places, as I discovered when I was traveling once, and found Christmas crèches still in place in churches we visited in January. My traveling companion, younger than I, wondered whether the pastors were simply negligent, and I’ll admit the thought crossed my mind until I remembered the all-important “forty days” that accompany so much of what takes place in the Scripture. These forty days have been busy at St. Albert’s. The students returned from Christmas visits to their parents, so our prayers have become a great deal livelier and far more melodic. They have devoted time to chores around the Priory, and cars shine, floors (and conversation at recreation and meals) sparkle more than usual. Those preparing for ordination as deacons and priests have taken their examinations, and while the results have not been made public, I have heard from those on the examining boards that our brothers acquitted themselves admirably.

And the squirrels, you ask? January was a month of funerals – for me, at least – so I spent a good deal of time on the telephone, planning liturgies. This gave me plenty of time to look out the famous “Prior’s Window,” through which I saw our furry friends cavorting from limb to limb of the oak trees that arch over the Birch Court entrance to St. Albert’s.  While I was in the doctor’s office, waiting to get my allergy shot the other day, I read a magazine article that said squirrels are left or right handed, so I watched very carefully while I took notes during my funeral conversations. I confess I saw no evidence of “handedness,” so I’ll run some experiments with Wheat Thins once the weather warms up enough to sit outside during our evening recreation.  

Many of you know that although I live in Oakland I am still in charge of The Rosary Center in Portland, Oregon. The folks who work there have been at their jobs for years, so they hardly need me – in fact, when I lived in Portland, my biggest on-site contribution was moral support; otherwise, I simply tried to keep out of everybody’s way. However, I commission an annual audit of the Center’s operations, so last week I paid a visit to confer with the auditors. They were – no surprise here – delighted with the way the Center is running. And when the conversation was finished I found myself with time to devote to some tasks I’ve been putting off simply because I lacked some uninterrupted time. One such was editing three chapters of Br. Ambrose’s Master’s Thesis, a very interesting comparison of the different traditions of Scripture interpretation represented by Origen and Cyril of Alexandria, and illustrated in comments the two made on The Song of Songs. The third chapter introduces an additional figure, someone I’d never heard of, a Copt, Shenute. This fellow lived to the tender age of 118, so attended every event worth attending, wrote his own commentary on the Song of Songs, and exercised quite an influence of Egyptian monasticism.  

When I was able to lay aside that task, I paid a visit to Lloyd Center, a large shopping mall near the Dominican Priory, where Fr. Antoninus Wall has spent the last few Januarys, experimenting with an unusual “casual” ministry -- taking his priesthood to a busy spot where ordinary people find themselves in the course of their everyday lives. This year Fr. Francis Le, the new pastor at Holy Rosary Church, made arrangements to rent a vacant office in the mall, so Fr. Antoninus had a “chapel” for daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, and what amounted to a class and discussion. The plan got off to a rocky start when he suffered a heart-attack and was hospitalized to have a pace-maker installed, but by the time I arrived, everything was back to normal, and I found Fr. Antoninus and a group of eight or nine individuals enjoying a spirited exchange about the history and geography of Jerusalem.

I returned to Oakland in time to enjoy lunch with the Archbishop of San Francisco and half a dozen members of the Sisters of Life, a new religious congregation of women who offer a wide variety of spiritual – and practical, material – services to women who have had, or may be considering abortions. The sisters were here to take part in last Saturday’s Walk for Life, which our Dominican brothers, once again, also attended. The lunch was delicious, but even better was the conversation, and the opportunity to learn what these women do – all of them young, enthusiastic, optimistic – and how they manage to do it in New York’s very unsympathetic political climate.

The night before last the Oakland members of the Order of Malta invited me to a dinner to welcome Archbishop Brunett to town. I’ve been suffering from a cold, but I gritted my teeth and “smiled and nodded” my way through a glass of 7-Up at the reception, before coming home and going early to bed. Archbishop Brunett was the Ordinary in Seattle when I was pastor at Blessed Sacrament, at the turn of the millennium, and I found him, then and now, quite engaging. I believe he found the Dominicans something of a refuge from the trials and tribulations of the Seattle Chancery Office – he also has a sister who is a member of a Dominican community – so he enjoyed visiting the Priory.

What does February hold in store? Next week Fr. Martin Walsh will celebrate his 75th birthday, and I will join a rather large crowd of Dominicans who plan to travel to Mexicali for the event. Fr. Martin is one of those individuals we call “a giant.” When I entered the novitiate, in 1968, he was famous for having recently survived an airplane crash while doing mission work in southern Mexico, and then, and then. Let’s see…he helped direct the Western Province’s Pastoral Training Program, served as our Novice Master, and was pastor at St. Dominic’s Parish in San Francisco when the parish undertook the first of its Restoration Projects, after the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. I had just been named the Province’s Development Director in those days, and one of my jobs was to attend meetings of the Restoration Committee at St. Dominic’s and report the results to the Council of the Western Province. This meant I had the honor to meet a number of remarkable individuals in San Francisco, and to deepen my friendship and respect for Fr. Martin. His efforts to save the church building were untiring, and under his leadership the Committee raised more than seven million dollars, a sum (our fund raising consultants told us) unprecedented, at the time, as we had such a small donor base to turn to. Along the way, we were invited to some splendid dinners. At one point Fr. Martin was elected Provincial of the Western Province, but he was unable to accept the position, and he is now Director of the Province’s Mission Foundation, devoting his considerable cultivation skills to supporting the Western Dominicans’ missionary efforts in Latin America.  

I will return from Mexicali for the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, on February 11. When we think of Lourdes, we probably first think of water, but the water is really something of a side issue. What Mary repeated over and over to Bernadette was the message, “Repent.” This year we celebrate Mary’s feast a mere two days before we begin Lent, when we will hear the same message. As we progress through these forty holy days, we may take solace from remembering that we have Mary to accompany us on this journey, as she does on all our life’s travels.

So what are you giving up for Lent this year? The first time I was assigned to our community in Seattle, I worked at the University of Washington campus ministry with the Dominican priest who had been my student master. He was, by any standard, something of a Puritan, and I arrived to work with him “in fear and trembling.” I’ve never been much of a television fan, but as Lent drew nearer that year, I realized I was watching about three hours a week, which I thought far too much, so I decided to give up television for Lent. I’d done this once before, when I was in high school and, as then, I quickly realized the world of literature reduced the notion of “sacrifice” in doing without television to a trifle. Then came one day when we had a community meeting, and we each described how our Lent was progressing. I remarked, “I gave up watching television, and I’ve read three novels in the time I’ve saved.” My former student master said, “Perhaps you should have given up reading novels for Lent.” About twenty years later I decided to give it a try – at least during the week. And with the exception of the year a friend introduced me to a social critic I found so engaging I read him even on weekends, I have been amazed to discover how challenged I am when Sunday evening arrives and I must lay aside my latest fiction choice.

Lodged between these two major liturgical days we have Mardi Gras, which this year happens to be the feast of Bl. Reginald, one of our Order’s earliest members. He was born in 1180 and ordained a priest. He met St. Dominic in Rome, and joined the Dominicans in 1218. Dominic sent him to Bologna, where he proved to be so electrifying preacher one of his contemporaries said “another Elijah” had appeared among them. At some point the Blessed Virgin appeared to him and gave him the scapular we wear. He died in 1220, so he is considered the first to wear the present Dominican habit, and the first to die in it. An early document relates Brother Matthew asked, “Do you ever feel depressed, Master, that you put on the habit?” With his eyes lowered, Reginald replied, “I very much doubt there is any merit in it for me, because I have always found so much pleasure in the Order.” Something about these words rings true – I’ve always considered myself “the spoiled child of the Western Province,” – so I’ve asked to have them put on my memorial card when I die. Coincidentally, my feast day is the day my term as Prior comes to an end. The squirrels have offered to manage a re-election campaign, but they have organized to demand better working conditions as compensation for their starring role in these bulletins. “No more Wheat Thins,” they say; from now on it’s Triscuits and extra-large cashews from Costco or they’ll perform in someone else’s yard – and I’ll never find out whether they’re right or left-handed!

In the meantime, our students will return to class on Monday, new safety gates will protect cars in the Priory parking areas, and those of you who join us for our daily prayers will have noticed four new faces among the students in the chapel. These are seminarians from the Chaldean Rite community, who will be studying with us. We also welcome a visiting professor, Fr. Martin Lisak, from the Dominican Province of Poland, who will teach Ethical and Religious Aspects of Globalization at the Dominican School this semester.

At Mass this Tuesday, four of our students – Brs. Andy Opsahl, Andrew Yang, Cody Jorgensen, and Thomas Aquinas Pickett – will be installed as acolytes, the ceremony that officially equips them to serve at Mass. It is a small step in their journey toward priesthood, but it is by no means insignificant, and we ask you, as you witness our brothers’ progress at St. Albert’s, to keep them in your prayers as they pass this milestone. We ask you to pray for all of us at St. Albert’s. Your prayers and generous financial support are essential elements in everything we do, and we are altogether dependent upon your kindness. You may be certain we remember you each day in the prayers we offer for the benefactors who make our life and ministry possible.

Sincerely in Christ,
--Fr. Reginald Martin, O.P.

 5890 Birch Court   ~   Oakland, CA   ~   94618-1627  ~   510.596.1800   ~   Western Dominican Province
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