Reading the gospels throughout Lent as Jesus challenged the Pharisees
led me to some insight and clarity this year.
I thought of the Pharisees as ignorant and rigid. How could they fail to
understand when faced with the real person of Jesus? How could they not see
and understand what was right in front of their noses?
Yet, human kind’s capacity for rationalization and denial seems to know no limits.
Men construct laws as structures for their own safety and security.
Surely, that must be good!
But Jesus responds …. “laws are for men, not men for the law!”
What does that mean in actuality?
While these examples are not the most profound, they are, like much
of our day-to-day thinking, ordinary and mundane.
I receive a quarterly magazine from a very devoted group of Catholics on the East
Coast. In recent correspondence from them, the author spoke of the Latin Mass four
different times in a page and a half article with such fervor that I felt bullied from afar,
as if I am deficient because I find that Latin does not help me pray better, despite my
familiarity with it at childhood Masses and because it was an educational
requirement rom youth.
Recently I have noticed that women feel more obliged to wear chapel caps.
EWTN and my parish have incorporated more and more Latin into the Mass.
Will I become more reverent because I pray in Latin or cover my head?
Latin was once the “law” of the church as were chapel caps for women.
I recall quietly tiptoeing into church after school as a very young girl to make a
visit to the Lord. I had nothing with me to cover my head. An adult saw me and
reproved me soundly because of my bare head.
I suspect that Jesus was very glad to see me with or without my cap!
We seek concrete solutions, often heralding back to another time and generation,
believing that structure or laws will make the difference, instead of responding to the
problem in present time with people who have changed because times have
“I find no pleasure in burnt offerings.”
Nothing intrinsically wrong with chapel caps, nor Latin, nor “burnt offerings”
but they are just structures. In and of themselves, they do not provide
a pathway to Jesus.
Jesus made this clear. Love and mercy are what He wants of us; what He
requires of us; to see through to the heart and the needs of others and relieve
burdens, not to impose new (or former) ones.
I watched a segment on “60 minutes” last Sunday that discussed prisons in
The German prison model says it is about rehabilitation, not punishment and it really
is. U.S. prison officials and our representatives in government and the media tell us
that prisons are a place of “rehabilitation,” but in fact our country locks
up more people for longer periods of time in more inhumane and violent conditions
than few other places in the civilized world.
Our prisons are institutions where the non- violent become violent because they fear
for their lives and safety.
Our prisons are the places mentally ill are warehoused because we are unwilling
to pay for humane housing to care for them.
Our prisons are places where countless souls, children of God, live without kindness,
without mercy, without hope.
Prisons in Germany are based on MERCY. Prisoners have relative freedom.
They have libraries, training, counseling to assist them. The German
model challenges them to make good choices and demonstrate
responsibility; to change their lives with the goal of release to society.
Guards have no guns and treat prisoners with courtesy and respect, teaching conflict
resolution. Even murderers can earn their way out. Recidivism is low. Germans
spend far less than the U.S. for the humane treatment they provide versus the
barbarism we finance.
We talk rehabilitation but we exact punishment.
U.S. prisoners have little chance to reform themselves nor become productive
citizens, if and when they are released.
We are merciless and hypocritical in our approach.
The day after Divine Mercy Sunday, I lost a very dear friend.
As Elinor Dashwood said to Edward Farrar in Jane Austen’s book: “Sense and Sensibility”:
“He (was) the kindest and best of men.”
I have not stopped weeping since this priest entered Hospice.
He was truly a holy man in the Spirit of St. Therese of Lisieux.
He did little things well.
He offered his entire self in every Mass that he said, as if it was either his first or his last.
I smiled when he processed out to the altar. There was an urgency in his step, as if he
was about to direct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or the Philadelphia Philharmonic.
He loved music and his deep baritone voice boomed through the church when He
sang. He was the only priest I’ve known that sang liturgical music at the proper
pace…..he never let a song drag funereally when he sang acapella.
He opened himself to others and exuded gifts of humor, kindliness, generosity
and tolerance. His laugh was infectious.
He was in every sense of the word, a gentleman.
He loved the land, having been part of a large farming family, and never failed to
mention the earth, the crops and the needs of farmers when he prayed the petitions.
Having been raised in the city, my awareness of the land has been forever altered.
If you told him you needed help with something… anything… he was on it. He took it
personally, and rolled out all the stops.
He always had something kindly to say about you and to you.
He never forgot your name, your children’s names, nor your children’s children.
He never judged.
He gave of himself with a whole heart. He held nothing back.
I have lost a dear friend and I am unprepared to accept a world that does not have
him in it.
He earned his eternal reward. I wish only that I could see him one more time and tell
him what a difference he made in my life and in the lives of many others.
A poem, memorized in childhood, by Edwin Markham comes to mind:
“He drew a circle to shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win.
We drew a circle that took him in!”
He never failed to draw a circle and take you in.
It is fitting that he should enter the arms of his maker in this YEAR of MERCY.
He was the personification of the words of Jesus:
“The heart of the law…. is mercy.”
Monsignor Gerald J. Stessman
Born: March 13, 1933
Ordained: May 31 1959
Died: April 4, 2016