The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on January 18th, the traditional Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (in 1962 its celebration was moved to February 22nd), and concludes on January 25th, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The theme for this year’s observance is taken from the 15th chapter of the Gospel According to St. John: “Abide in my love…you shall bear much fruit.”
All those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior share the desire to cooperate with God’s grace and join in the mission of establishing God’s kingdom on earth. And yet throughout the centuries, Christians have been at odds with one another on a whole host of matters, from fundamental issues of doctrine to arcane issues of ritual. Wars have been fought and lives lost to preserve a flawed sense of what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. At the intersection of flawed reasoning and human frailty, the name Christian has been used to sow division and incite conflict.
To what end then are we invited to pray this week for Christian Unity? Do we merely seek to settle into a safe haven of harmony, or do we dare to delve deeper into the very prayer of Jesus to his Father, “that all may be one, as you Father, are in me and I in you.” (Jn 17:20)
The theme of this year’s observance provides us with a lens through which we can consider what we are praying for. At face value, it appears to be easy enough. “Abide in my love.” Aren’t we already doing that? We say our prayers. We provide for our families. We help our neighbors. We are, in various degrees, committed Catholics and faithful members of this parish. Perhaps our attention should be on “you shall bear much fruit.” We have a good work ethic that we instill in our children and model for our colleagues and co-workers. We have earned the respect and, at times, admiration, of others. So all things considered, this will be an easy week of prayer for us because we have checked all the boxes. Or, have we?
In many past conflicts among Christians, all the boxes were checked. Good Christians, God-fearing, all the actors considered themselves to be on the side of the angels, defending truth and vanquishing apostates, heretics, and infidels. They often reaped the damaged fruits of their unholy labor, the spoils of war. They accumulated power, status, and an inflated sense of self-worth. Righteous warriors? Perhaps. Christian? I have my doubts.
The elusive and least understood quality that defines who we are as Christian is Love. Without it we may yet consider ourselves good citizens of the world; with it, we can transform the world. The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity situates us squarely at the heart of the matter if we are to attain unity, unity among Christians, and more importantly, a union with God.
In his prayer to his Father in heaven, Jesus revealed where love is to be found and how it is to be attained. It requires a continual and radical conversion of heart so that we act in selfless ways and build bridges rather than walls; we reach out to the anawim of our times – the poor, the homeless, the powerless, innocent victims of hatred, bigotry, and abuse; we care for our common home, the earth itself; and we recognize in one another the very face of God. Only then will we be one with God and experience unity with one another.
Christian Unity is well worth our effort in prayer. It is not an illusory notion. It is a habit of the heart that brings us closer together as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, striving to imitate his life of service so that we too may be in union with our heavenly Father. To be one with God is to abide in love; and to acknowledge and accept one another as sisters and brothers who share a bond of love in the name of Jesus Christ will surely bear much fruit.
– Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J., PastorFeast of the Baptism of the Lord | January 10, 2021 Essay
As we celebrate the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we should prayerfully reflect on our own baptism and what our baptism calls forth from us. Living in faithfulness to our baptismal vocation, our lives and our world will be richly blessed in this new year.
How sad it is that so few Christians regularly call to mind what is now ours by virtue of our baptism. In baptism, we die to sin so as to rise to the newness of life in the risen Christ. Each one of us participates, here and now, in the risen life of Jesus Christ. What a remarkable truth that is! We dwell now in the risen Christ and Christ dwells in us. As remarkable as that truth is, it leads us to a still more remarkable truth. As we live in faithfulness to the risen life of Christ in us, we strengthen our confidence that one day we will enjoy the fullness of Christ’s risen life forever. Amazing! Admittedly, it is quite difficult for us to reflect on this truth, and to deepen our appreciation and appropriation of this truth; that we dwell now in the risen life of Christ so as to have the real and certain hope of one day knowing the fullness of his risen life forever. What makes it difficult for us to reflect on this truth, so as to own this truth, is that it so exceeds our human capacity to understand it. At the same time, we are still able to intuitively grasp what this truth calls forth from us, and, unfortunately, many persons recoil from what this truth calls forth from them.
As we now share in the risen life of Christ by virtue of our baptism, we should desire to deepen and strengthen our participation in his risen life. This requires a regular practice of prayer. To pray is simply to share honestly with God all of your own hopes, dreams, desires, doubts, and disappointments, and then to quiet yourself to hear God speak to you of all that is right, beautiful, and true in your life, but also what needs to change in your life if you are to be faithful to that risen life of Christ in which you now share. To deepen and strengthen our participation in the risen life of Christ also requires that we actively seek to make his life our life which we do when we shape our daily living according to his values – his values of compassion, generosity, mercy, forgiveness, selflessness, service to all, and an active concern for the poor, the vulnerable and marginalized of our world. Here is where many Christians recoil from doing what is required in order to strengthen their participation in the risen life of Christ within them so as to also strengthen their hope of one day enjoying the fullness of that life forever.
The values of Jesus Christ are clearly not the values of this world. It is, therefore, difficult each day to consciously choose to conform our lives to his values rather than simply acquiescing to a life lived in conformity to the values of this world. Yet, it is only by our willingness to conform our values to the values of Jesus Christ, that we deepen our participation in his risen life, strengthen our hope of one day sharing in that life forever, and serve as instruments through whom this world is transformed so that it better reflects God’s original vision for it. May we make of this new year a blessing for us and for our world by our embrace of our baptismal vocation!
– Rev. Mark Hallinan, S.J.
The feast of the Epiphany invites us to seek God in unforeseen, unexpected places; in paradox rather than logic. The Magi, quite reasonably, assume that they will find the newborn “king of the Jews” in the palace of King Herod. Yet the Divine GPS leads them to a cave in Bethlehem – a stabling place for animals, their feed, and smelly dung! If you and I were planning the arrival of God’s messiah, I’m sure we would not create such an absurd tableau, but as God declares, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor my ways your ways” (Isaiah 55:8).
“Epiphany” derives from the Greek epiphaino, meaning “to be seen, to show, to give light to, become apparent, make an appearance.” Our gospel reading for today – a jewel of the New Testament – relates that the Divine Child makes his appearance in the shockingly unanticipated – in a backwater town, born to peasant parents, much removed from power and privilege. In this narrative, God’s providence confounds human reason, so that God’s grace may transform the human heart.
The Epiphany drama invites us to contemplate that God is not incarnated in pristine, gold-plated perfection, but rather in those smelly, dark, grubby places within and without that we’d rather not visit, and certainly don’t want anyone to see. Let’s imagine the Magi posing a question for spiritual reflection from across the millennia – “Where is the stable in your heart where this child wants to make his light be known? Where does the Lord want to set up a Christmas crèche in your life this year?” Is there a place of woundedness, pain, shame, addiction, or past trauma that will-power alone cannot bring to rest? Where is this vulnerable, unattractive place within and without where God wants to be born?
Welcoming God into the dark caves and squalid stables of the heart will be a radical revolution for the ego, that part of us that seeks accomplishment, status, and a burnished persona, so ready to put on facades and erect defenses. The ego’s logic would have us be more spiritual by being more angelic, i.e. chasing perfection, imagining we can be free from conflict and complexity, and floating three inches above the ground. The paradox of God’s grace, however, is that “the stone rejected by the builder has become the cornerstone.”
Our gospel closes with the Magi, ever attentive to God’s mysterious guidance, whether in the stars above or the angelic messages in the depths of the soul, being directed in their dreams not to return to Herod. The birth of the Divine Child has disturbed a kingdom and an empire. And so it will be with us. If we can find the strength, through the alchemy of prayer and God’s grace, to persevere long enough to allow this divine impregnation to take place within us, we too will be disturbed to our core. We will be transformed; our lives restructured.
As the Christmas season draws to a close, I invite you to spend time in prayer with the Magi today – before they leave “for their own country by a different road” – contemplating their amazement at where they have found the Divine Child, and the sheer delight they take in welcoming him as he takes his place among us. Perhaps ask for their blessing on us – may we share in their graced bewilderment and joy, and may we find and welcome Christ in those unexpected stabling places in our hearts.
– Brian Pinter
Lest we dither about and create a health matter.
We go through the motions to try to bring cheer,
In hopes that Our Savior will lead us this year,
To Bethlehem’s stable filled with hope and no fear.
We climb in our beds, all cozy and warm,
And visions of sugar plums emerge and take form.
As mothers, as fathers, as children of God,
We gather remotely and venture a look,
At the pure light of love, shining from hillside to brook,
That brightens the paths that we follow and trod.
With a star to guide us on this journey of life,
Let us dream of new worlds, filled with no strife.
Reflecting on what to write in my Christmas message to you, I was drawn to the warmth, good cheer, and good old-fashioned sentiment evoked by Clement Clarke Moore’s classic poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas. From its opening words, “’Twas the night before Christmas,” to the wonderful imagery of “eight tiny reindeer” and a belly described as “a bowl filled with jelly,” we are invited to imagine a world filled with merriment and wonder, to a place where sugar plums dance.
I believe that today more than ever we need to be transported in our imagining to a world as fanciful and beautiful as the one described by Moore, one that gives us hope for the future. I confess I am not a poet, and I may be accused of being a plagiarist in penning To Dream of Sugar Plums, Again. My purpose, like that of Clement Clarke Moore or any true poet, is to invite the reader to be washed by memories and images that gladden the soul and through them enter a world of possibilities, to dream.
It takes courage to dream during dark days such as these, with nightmare scenarios of doom confounding our senses, and yet dream we do. We are resilient because of our faith. God with us today, God with us yesterday, and God with us in all our tomorrows! Is that not what we celebrate on Christmas Day? The realization of all our dreams and hopes in the birth of Jesus Christ. In the midst of darkness, fear, and dread, the light of hope illumined the path to a brighter future, our future. And so, we dare to dream of those things that will bring happiness and hope to ourselves, our families, and our friends – good health, a warm and safe home, a secure job, access to a good education, and so on. All worthy dreams that are good in themselves, but they are limited in scope to our own well-being.
In writing this letter I was also inspired by Pope Francis’ recently published book, Let Us Dream, The Path to a Better Future. In it, Pope Francis opens to the reader the broad vista of a world whose architects we are. It will be fashioned and designed by our dreams. It will be those dreams that will fuel our determination, fortify our will, and, with God’s grace, strengthen our resolve to find the path to a better future – for all. Pope Francis invites us to an understanding of our hearts’ desires, our dreams. They are by their very nature common to all humanity, built upon a shared hope for a better world. It is not simply our health, it the health of everyone in the world. It is not our personal security and well-being, it is the dream of prosperity for all. It is more than protecting our limited patch of turf, it is the care of our common home, Mother Earth. The blueprint for building a better future lies in the acknowledgment that each person’s dreams are essentially universal and not simply the realm of a privileged few. The darkness of these days of pandemic, social and political dissonance, and a planet under siege may dim our outlook for the future, but for those who believe in the miracle of Christmas dreams will never be extinguished.
Can you imagine a world where sugar plums dance? Let us dare to dream – to dream of a future filled with infinite possibilities and the realization of all our hearts’ desires. Let us dream again of sugar plums, whirling about and delighting the soul. For it is on Christmas Day when dreams come true. And so, I end with words of good cheer, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
– Rev. Dennis J. Yesalonia, S.J.
This week marks the anniversary of the passing of the Grand Dame of the Organ Loft. Nancianne Parrella was our Associate Organist from 1994 to 2015, and Organist Emerita until her death. Our parishioners knew Nanci as a kind, gracious woman with a self-deprecating sense of humor, who could really tear it up on Easter Sunday. But those of us involved in the music scene beyond the walls of the church saw her walk among the titans of American music. Notable conductors such as the late Joseph Flummerfelt, Robert Shaw, Kurt Masur, and Lorin Maazel regarded her as an equal and indispensable partner.
We were fortunate at St. Ignatius to be graced with Nanci the musician, Nanci the advisor, Nanci the prophet, Nanci the teacher, and Nanci the mother. Whether you were a seasoned professional musician or felt like you couldn’t carry a tune, she made you feel like the most important person in the room.
Many of us forget that Nanci’s tenure at St. Ignatius was but the closing chapter of an extraordinary career. Other highlights include:
- Serving as organist at First Presbyterian, Trenton; Trinity Church, Princeton; and Holy Trinity Lutheran, Central Park West, where she was an integral part of their Bach Vespers Series.
- Teaching with her husband, Joachim, in the Princeton public school system from 1957 until her retirement in the mid-1990’s.
- Serving as principal accompanist for the Robert Shaw Chorale and Festival Singers.
- A 14-year collaboration with the Bethlehem (PA) Bach Choir.
- Serving on faculty at Westminster Choir College in Princeton alongside Joe Flummerfelt.
In addition to all these engagements, she maintained a dizzying freelance career, playing for and serving as informal advisor to almost every major choral ensemble in New York City, professional and avocational.
Upon meeting Nanci in 2001, she immediately treated me as her peer, which I most certainly was not. Her husband, Jo, and their daughters, Amy and Lisa graciously embraced the St. Ignatius musicians as members of their household, even when it meant less time with their spouse and mother. We owe as much a debt of gratitude to them as we do to Nanci.
One of the ways we honor Nanci’s and Jo’s memories is through the Joachim and Nancianne Parrella Memorial Organ Fund. Use this link for more information about this remarkable couple, the fund, and how you can honor their legacy: https://donate.stignatiusloyola.org/parrellamemorial
Nanci was real. She lived with both feet firmly on the ground. And as her art reached for the heavens, she took us by the hand and, with a bright smile and a twinkle in her eye, led us there as well.
Her voice still echoes in my mind: “Honey, you can’t just play the damn notes! Let’s have another bottle of wine.”