A priest-friend of mine sent me this anecdote: One Sunday morning after Mass, the pastor noticed young little Alex standing in the foyer of the church staring up at a large plaque. It was engraved with names and small American flags mounted on either side of it. The six-year-old had been staring at the plaque for some time, so the priest walked up, stood beside the little boy, and said quietly, “Good morning, Alex.” “Good morning, Father,” he replied, still focused on the plaque. “Father, what’s this?” he asked. The pastor replied, “Well, son, it’s a memorial to all the men and women who died in the service.” Soberly, they just stood together, staring at the large plaque. Finally, little Alex’s voice, barely audible and trembling with fear, asked: “Which service? The 7:30 or the 10:00?”
I was quite saddened to hear of the August 26th terrorist attack at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan that took place during the US withdrawal and subsequent airlift. During that attack, 11 Marines, one Navy Corpsman and upwards of 70 Afghan citizens lost their lives. I have spent many a day in the cemetery, burying veterans of our nation’s armed forces. I am always moved by the military honors performed in the cemetery. Both of my grandfathers served in the US Army during World War II. We must pray daily for our troops and service personnel, both living and deceased. May those who have lost their lives be given eternal rest.
This reminds me of my favorite painting of St. Francis of Assisi. The painting is titled St. Francis in the Desert and it’s painted by the Italian painter Giovanni Bellini. St. Francis is seen outside of his cave, looking up towards the heavens, perhaps receiving the stigmata. I actually saw this painting in my first-grade religion textbook and was mesmerized by it. I was able to see the original in person at the Frick Collection in New York City. One of the details in this painting is a skull sitting on St. Francis’ desk. I was always intrigued by that skull.
A skull sitting on a desk is called a memento mori—“remember death” in Latin. It’s a reminder that one day we all will be called home to God. We know not the day nor the hour. In the crypt chapel of the church of Our Lady of the Conception in Rome, there is a chapel made of hundreds of bones of deceased Capuchin Franciscan friars. The inscription reads: What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be. Those persons who lost their lives in Kabul on August 26th did not know they were to meet God that day. We need to always remember death and live each day as if it’s our last. This is, of course, not easy; but as Christians we strive to live in such a way. While I wouldn’t normally look to Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise for spiritual advice, he does wisely remark: “Better to not know which moment may be your last. Every morsel of your entire being alive to the infinite mystery of it all.”
When I was in college at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, I decided to take a course in Biblical Hebrew as part of my studies as a seminarian. I thought it would be a good thing to be exposed to the original language of the Old Testament of the Bible. I had already taken Latin and I knew I would have to take Greek in the future so when Hebrew opened up, I thought ‘why not?’ and signed up. It was an eye-opening experience.
Biblical Hebrew is a fun language to learn but one that comes with its own set of difficulties. First you have to learn the Hebrew alphabet and then you have to get used to reading right-to-left. Finally, the vowels are written above and below the letters and usually left out altogether! While all this took a while to get used to, I ended up enjoying my study of Hebrew—I did okay on the final exam, thanks to a very large curve on the grading. I decided against taking any further classes but I was thankful for my introduction to Hebrew.
One of the first passages that I was able to translate and really read looking at the Hebrew itself was from our First Reading last weekend, from the Book of Joshua: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” I remember being so happy to be able to read that verse in Hebrew and, somehow, reading it in the original language really made an impression on me. The Hebrew word abad that is translated as “serve” in the verse means “to serve, to work, or to labor.”
A nineteenth century commentary on the Bible remarks on Joshua’s command to choose which gods they will serve. It says, “Here speaks the sturdy old warrior, who had led them to victory in many a battle. He invites them to make their choice between the false worship and the true, between the present and the future, between the indulgence of their lusts and the approval of their conscience.” But what about Joshua and his house? “But as for himself, his choice is already made. No desire to stand well with the children of Israel obscures the clearness of his vision. No temptations of this lower world pervert his sense of truth. The experience of a life spent in His service has convinced him that God is the true God. And from that conviction he does not intend to swerve.”
Joshua says that “he and his house” will serve the Lord. Yet in the genealogy present in the First Book of Chronicles, Joshua’s name is the last in his own line. It only makes sense when we read it together with Hebrews 3:6 which states that we are God’s house. When Joshua says that he and his house will serve the Lord, he is speaking for us too—in a way, the house of Joshua embraces all the faithful servants of the Lord. Remember that abad means “to serve, to work, to labor.”
That old commentary on the Bible goes on and says, “In days when faith is weak and compromise has become general, when the sense of duty is slight or the definitions of duty vague, it is well that the spirit of Joshua should be displayed among the leaders in Israel, and that there should be those who will take their stand boldly upon the declaration: ‘But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’” Times haven’t changed much since Joshua’s time, have they? Let us serve the Lord!
As you perhaps know, I studied Canon Law from 2016–2019 at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. In the spring of 2019, I was eating lunch in the building where I lived with a priest from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. We were both late for lunch that day and we were the only two in the dining room. It seemed like an ordinary lunch, albeit for the fact that we were the only two in the dining room, the other 30 priests having already eaten. Then, out of the blue, my cell phone rang. The caller ID said: “Diocese of La Crosse”—I knew I had to take the call so I excused myself, leaving the priest alone with his food, while I went out in the hallway and into an empty conference room. It was Bishop Callahan on the line and he told me that I was being assigned as administrator of Sacred Heart Parish in Polonia and St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception Parish in Custer: my first pastorate!
He then told me that I would start on Tuesday, July 2nd. “That’s not possible, Bishop,” I replied, “I am not done with school until the beginning of August.” He stated that they would figure it out and that I should get to parish after I finish my schooling. I walked back to the dining room a bit shaken up by the phone call. The priest from Milwaukee, suspecting it was an important call, asked who it was. “The bishop,” I said, “and he gave me my new assignment.” Bishop Callahan had been the auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee so this priest knew him well.
After the phone call, I realized how much I had to do before I could get to my new parishes: I had to finish the classes and take exams for the semester I was in, I had to take one class during the summer, I had to finish writing my 50-page-long research paper (thesis), and prepare for comprehensive exams, the canon law equivalent of the bar exam for civil attorneys. Not to mention I had to pack up from Washington and move back to Wisconsin. It was a stressful few months. Nonetheless, I did finish everything and moved back to Wisconsin at the beginning of August 2019.
I arrived in the parish and began my assignment on Monday, August 12th. Just a few days later, on Sunday, August 18th, my first Sunday in the parish, Polonia had its summer picnic. If you’ve ever been over to Polonia for their parish picnic, it’s huge. Nothing like getting thrown in the deep end through a baptism by fire like the parish picnic at Sacred Heart in Polonia. Then, the next weekend, August 25th, was St. Mary’s in Custer’s parish picnic. What a time to begin ministry in my first pastorate! I’ll never forget it. Here at Our Lady Queen of Heaven, we have come to the weekend of our parish picnic. It’s certainly less stressful for me than my first pastorate. I look forward to seeing many of you outside for it. I’m so happy to be here and to enjoy the picnic. The deep end doesn’t seem nearly as deep as it did in 2019. God bless!
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. What exactly are we celebrating in Mary’s life? The dogma of the Assumption of Mary is rather simple, in fact. Pope Pius XII defined it thusly: “that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” In other words, when Mary came to the end of her life, she was taken body and soul into Heaven. Thus there are no relics of the Blessed Virgin Mary in existence; only such things as her veil and even her wedding ring, although the last one is disputed. I did see it once in Italy, however.
Why was Mary taken up into Heaven body and soul? Mary was preserved free from all stain of original sin (that’s the Immaculate Conception) so there was no need for her to have the separation of her body and soul and wait until the Last Day to have them reunited. For those of us who were born into original sin—and that’s all of us—when we die our bodies will remain here on Earth until we are reunited with them when Jesus comes again in glory. Mary, having no original sin and no actual sin, was not subject to this separation and is able to exist wholly in Heaven.
Mary sits now in Heaven and is exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death. Mary is our example: we hope to one day be like her, seeing God face-to-face in Heaven with both our body and soul. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son’s Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians. What has already happened to Mary—that is, her existence in Heaven body and soul—is the anticipation of all of us: that one day we too might live with God forever in Heaven, body and soul.
The English Catholic priest, theologian, author, and radio broadcaster, Msgr. Ronald Knox, who was ordained a priest of the Church of England and converted to Roman Catholicism in 1917, writes concerning the Assumption: “You see, we get it all wrong about body and soul, simply because our minds are dominated by matter. We think it the most natural thing in the world that soul and body should be separated after death; that the body should remain on earth and the soul go to heaven, once it is purged and assoiled. But it isn’t a natural thing at all; soul and body were made for one another, and the temporary divorce between them is something out of the way, something extraordinary, occasioned by the fall. In our Blessed Lady, not born under the star of that defeat, human nature was perfectly integrated; body and soul belonged to one another, as one day, please God, yours and mine will.”