Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Refer to Saint Joseph's Prep Main Page for President's Blog

Those of you looking for more entries, please check the President's Message site on the web page for Saint Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia.

It's more appropriate for me to use that site for entries that reference the school. Some personal items are posted there as well.

Thank you

George W. Bur, S.J.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Gesu Spirit Medal

Words of Gratitude on the occasion of the Gesu Spirit Medal,
May 2, 2011 at the Constitution Center

Thank you, Byron! My gratitude first to those at Gesu who invited me to share this honor not only with Chris Beck but also with Mark Solomon, Ralph Saul, Al and Aline Martinelli, Sue and Bill Shea, John DiIulio and Jay Sherrerd. Thank you, Chris. You made the work of the first ten years of the Gesu independent school a prelude, a kind of seed that fully blossomed in the amazing physical and programmatic additions of the last eight.

I thank the people of what was the Gesu parish whom I first met 26 years ago and who encouraged me and the Jesuits and the Sisters to keep Gesu School alive as a pillar of strength for neighborhood children regardless of what might happen to the parish. Many of those men and women, including Byron McCook are here tonight. They bore the heat of the day, and because of their vision and strength, for a long time into the future children from the Gesu neighborhood can walk happily to Gesu School.

I thank my siblings Eileen, Jeanne, Tony and Mary, and my in-laws Peggy and Frank, for their constant support not only for the children of Gesu but for me personally over a far longer period of time. And my nieces and nephews who took time away from their own children and their other obligations to enjoy tonight’s program.

I thank the Jesuits and the Sisters who went before us at Gesu. Without 125 years of the Gesu Church and the School before 1993 there would be no independent Gesu Catholic School.
I thank a Gesu graduate who joined Byron McCook and me when we first started a development program for the school in 1988: Jim Higgins from the Gesu class of 1945. Thank you, Jim, for your marathon run with us.

I thank my brother Jesuits, present housemates on 18th St., Father Neil especially with whom I served at Gesu for 14 years. He knew my weaknesses from day one and stepped up to fill in for me when necessary.

I thank Sister Ellen and Sister Pat and all of the IHM Sisters who have an uncanny understanding of children and their needs. They and the Gesu faculty and staff are amazing. How many years, Shirley Bright? How many years, Dolores John? They are the chief reason why young boys and girls from Gesu are able to take on confidently the challenges of high school.

In his absence, (I miss him but regretfully he had an unavoidable obligation this evening), I thank my schoolmate and good friend, Win Churchill, for his personal support and for his cheerfully persistent efforts over the past 21 years to place the success of the children of Gesu School before a steadily increasing group of friends. Without him and his many friends the Gesu School would be, if anything at all, a weak image of itself.

I thank Frank and Keith Pension and Bill and Elise Rouse. I thank all of you gathered this evening around a vision of a world where all children have an opportunity to be healthy and to grow and succeed so that their gifts, too, can make a better world.

Finally I thank the children of Gesu and their parents and caregivers who are striving to be the best that they can be and who teach us, friends, parents, teachers, board members, all to believe in our best selves. There is no better world than one in which we show our best selves to one another.

And if I have saved the thanks for God to last, it is because the living God is not only Other but also present in all of us in this room. We give thanks for that divine presence and we count on it as we continue to gather around this wonderful school and its children.

Friday, April 22, 2011


This evening we celebrate Jesus sharing his body and blood in the Passover meal of bread and wine with his closest friends. “This is my body; this is my blood.” This evening we celebrate Jesus washing the feet of the disciples as they celebrate the Passover. “Jesus, wash me and not only just my feet but my head and my hands as well.” We focus our attention in this supper room on these images of Christ’s love for us as a way of fostering the faith which has kept these images alive. I suggest them as consoling images. Without these images the atmosphere of betrayal, of indecision and of cover-up in that supper room threatens to give the lie to the entire Christian enterprise.

It is, I suggest, this same kind of atmosphere, that of betrayal, indecision and cover-up, which envelops our local church during this 2011 season of Lent and Easter. The sexual abuse of minors by clerics and the lack of honest disclosure of all the facts leave many of us Catholics feeling angry and dispirited. The local diocesan clergy are not alone as the cause this crisis. Nationwide religious orders like the Jesuits are deeply negligent. We failed to screen and form our members properly. We responded to reports of abuse by protecting the abusers and with little understanding of the abused.

To whom do we go? We hesitate to give church leaders our trust. In this angry and dispirited time I suggest that we remember that Jesus himself understands betrayal. The supper room’s images of nourishment and humble kindness also include other images. There is one of Jesus’ disciples whom he invited to follow him, one whom he entrusted with leadership and responsibility. This man, Judas, betrayed him. None of the other chosen disciples, though they clearly knew the danger in which Jesus found himself, paid any attention to the possibility of betrayal. One disciple, we think it John, even knows the identity of the betrayer. They let betrayal happen under their noses. And then the chosen leader of the group, Peter, engineered his own personal cover-up and denied that he even knew Jesus.

Through all this Jesus himself continues to trust in the God whom he calls his Father.
In seeking how to handle betrayal by those whom we trusted, we remember other Christians in other circumstances who suffered under the sinfulness of the Church. Our African-American brothers and sisters suffered the sin of slavery, a slavery not just condoned by the Church. Organizations in the Church held slaves as well.

We remember the Jews persecuted by Christians especially in European pogroms.

We remember the poor in some of the countries of Latin America where Bishops stayed silent while their political leaders murdered innocent people, a silence to protect the position of the Church in civil society.

We remember especially the women and children whose voices went unheard in all these circumstances.

The slaves, the Jews, the murdered innocents! The legacies from these sufferings continue to poison the world in which we now live. These legacies allow people to speak rationally when they say they want no part in a Church that has such a history.

No hero emerges to accompany Jesus on the evening of the Last Supper. The isolation of the Jesus in his suffering must be complete. In later times of crisis the Church is saved by saints who stand out and imitate the Lord Jesus in their proclamation of the gospel of human dignity: people like Oscar Romero, Ita Ford, Peter Claver, Pierre Toussaint, Franz Jagerstatter and his wife and children, the men and women engaged in the work of reconciliation in Rwanda. And generally, too, in the light of their common suffering some slaves maintained their spirits by singing the songs of the Israelites on their journey from the slavery of Egypt. Some suffering Jews remembered their history, such events as the tears of Babylon and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Today, in Latin America people remember the suffering of the innocent as united with the torture and death of Jesus.

How difficult for us today to see the saints that are emerging from this current crisis. But saints will emerge from among those who have suffered. Saints will emerge from among those who foster reconciliation. Saints will emerge from among those who tell their stories and help us create safe environments for our children. This request is so little, so presumed, and yet for some children and teenagers it is the wholeness of life.

But back to this evening:
Aside from the Lord Jesus little or no promise graced the supper room whose images we now so reverence. Only a fool would have predicted that these followers of Jesus would be seeds for a Church. May Jesus and the grace of his Father continue to use our weakness for the divine glory.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

This I Believe , an excerpt from the WHYY series

WHYY-FM has a series called “This I Believe.” Prominent people in the listening area have recorded short essays to illustrate the statement. This contribution by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer struck me as the essence of what I believe about the human person. I would elaborate but this is always my picture of the people that come into my life. Without this basic beginning of belief, I have no place to go:

  • “When I was a child in the late 1950's, before I was able to read, there was a book in my home called The Family of Man, a compilation of photographs that had recently been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The collection was, as I found out later, a "photo-biography of the human race." I recall poring over that book during long evenings. I marveled over the fact that two eyes, a nose and a mouth could take on such variety. These pictures were wondrous, but the awe they evoked was not entirely comfortable. I struggled to reconcile the deep sense of kinship I felt with those faces with the estrangement of being a lonely child.

  • The conundrum of separateness and connection was bewildering, a bit uncanny. I had a voracious thirst to learn what other people did with their deepest fears and hopes: with their solitude, their sense of connection, their awe.

  • My family was not big on spiritual practice. Study, however, was a sacred endeavor. So, as soon as I could choose my own books, I began reading about the religions of the world. When I was about 15, I learned something that changed my life. It happened, of all places, -- in synagogue school. We were exploring a passage from the Mishnah, a Jewish law code from the year 200. At one point, it says, 'An earthly king stamps his image on a coin and they all look the same. But the King of Kings, God, puts His image on every human being, and every one is different.'

  • That felt exactly right: I was a unique coin, but stamped from the very same "image" as every other. Until that moment, I had not known if I believed in God. But that text made sense to me. No person is more holy than any other. This messy reality with all its wild diversity was actually also a unity, a sacred oneness.

  • Now I work in a rabbinical college, creating programs that prepare students for a world of religious diversity. I am lucky enough to get to spend every day honoring my core belief. I believe that no matter who you are--- a bearded orthodox rabbi or a hijab- wearing Muslim woman --- you are, simply by virtue of being human, the spittin' image of the one and only God.

  • ]My work is to bring together people whose looks, experiences and beliefs are different, people who first encounter each other as strangers, perhaps even foes, and leave having seen the holy in each other's faces. It doesn't always happen. Truth is, sometimes it is hard for me to see the image of God, even in people close to me. This is not such an easy belief to maintain. But I know it is worth trying.”

Saturday, February 05, 2011

John B. Kelly, Olympic Singles Champion, 1920, scans the frozen Schuykill, January 23, 2011

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Beatitudes Matthew 5

The Pennypack near Fox Chase.

The Altar at the Medical Missions Convent

Matthew 5 The Beatitudes Sunday, January 30, 2011

We find all we need to know about ethical behavior in the Ten Commandments. We find all we need to know about Christian prayer in the Our Father. In today’s reading we find all we need to know about the promises that God brings to us in Christ Jesus. The first point: the promises in the beatitudes, these promises of happiness and consolation, are made to the humanity of Jesus. Jesus suffers to bring about these promises but one can say that God so relates to Jesus’ human spirit as to fill it with promised consolations. It is this Jesus that attracted the disciples and the great crowds that followed him.

Blessed, or “happy” as some faithful translations read, are the poor, the meek, those who mourn and those who show mercy. Blessed, too, are the peacemakers, those who thirst for justice, those whose hearts are pure and those who take insults in the name of Jesus. These promises are not merely a poetic turn of speech, not merely rhetoric for an auspicious occasion but they pour out of Jesus own heart and signify both his constant demeanor and his consoled frame of mind.
Let me say something about the nature of God in relation to the beatitudes and then read and comment on a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.

First we step behind the reality of Jesus: The descriptors in the beatitudes tell us about the nature of God as well as any words in the scriptures. God, for example, is poor in the sense that there is no category of creation whose absence can make God poorer or whose presence can make God richer. God shows us the divine meekness and mercy, mourns with us when we test our freedom to our sorrow; God makes peace, desires justice, is pure of heart and is the first to hear the insults directed to the Person of Christ, the insults that deny Christ and that proclaim the death of God.

How is it possible for us to be like God and to live as Jesus lived in constant touch with the happiness of God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer confidently writes in The Cost of Discipleship the key to the nature of the beatitudes:

“[Jesus calls] the disciples blessed, not because of the privation or the renunciation they have made, for these are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which the disciples are made to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes [can justify the state of happiness]. Sometimes Jesus speaks of privation [and the like] as if they implied particular virtues in his disciples, but that is neither here nor there. …Privation [and the like] all have the same ground—the call and the promise of Jesus.”

We value the comforts of the world: our health, our worldly reputation, our lives, our control over circumstance, an independence to make up our own minds about likes and dislikes. But to become disciples, to hear the call engages us in the common enterprise under the leadership of Jesus. We cling less to our worldly opinions; we worry less about our health; we care less about our worldly reputation; we ease our control. We place practical decisions in the hands of God.

Jesus himself experiences the happiness of this way of life and as the first born of all creation he offers it to us. We hear the call to discipleship and then experience the result of our call; it is the experience of Jesus: privation and renunciation. To the surprise of those who answer the call Jesus shares his consolation promising to us who have become his friends: “Blessed are you.”
God does not require most of us to live in such a crisis as the one that enveloped Bonhoeffer for the last decade of his life. God called him to be meek and a peacemaker, to thirst for justice and to mourn the collapse of Christianity under the Nazis.

He criticized publicly not only Hitler’s ideology and war machine but also his fellow Christians who denied themselves in their eagerness to cling to what little influence they retained in the era of Hitler. But Bonhoeffer prayed the Beatitudes finding that God would continue to console and be faithful to him. It is a testament to Bonhoeffer’s great character that even Hitler could not bring him to a legitimate trial and only in a gesture of vengeful weakness during the very last days of the war did Hitler order him executed. God uses the weak to shame the strong.

Our own crises pale in comparison to the crisis of Christianity in Hitler’s Germany but, have no doubt, the call and the promise of discipleship are for us in our own day-to-day lives. Many of us are restless in our search for the way of discipleship. God and the Lord Jesus are even more restless in their desire for our happiness. Blessed are those of us who have ears to hear.

Friday, December 31, 2010

Prep Senior reflects on service trip to the DR

Will Bankhead, Prep senior, made this presentation at the Senior Mother-Son Mass in December. He relates his experience as a member of a Prep service trip for the purpose of building houses in a rural area of the Dominican Republic.

Hello, my name is William Bankhead. I’m a senior here at the Prep and I’m here this morning to talk to you about one of the most important experiences of my life, my 10 days in the Dominican Republic this past summer.
When I was asked to speak here today, my first worry was at what point in my story I should begin. Well like many great movies and books, I’ll start at the end. What I read now is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent Ligia Bailand on June 21, four days after I returned from the DR, I wrote:
“It’s nice having all of those swell comforts of home back, but there IS something missing. If there is one lesson that I can take from this, it's that despite how much we all missed toilet seats and hot showers, nothing gave me the kind of satisfaction as my days in the DR. No food ever tasted as good as our meals after work; no sleep ever felt as good as our sleep after a hard day's work. I envy you and your current students because you still have those days ahead of you.”

With that in mind, let’s go back to the beginning. It all started when the wheels touched the tarmac at the Santo Domingo Airport. With me were close friends, kids I didn’t know, the head of the English Department and an old Jesuit. Most of us didn’t know what to expect, and minutes after landing, we piled into a large van and started out on a six hour drive to the retreat center. As we drove, the cities got poorer, the conditions rougher. Buildings went from large facilities to tenements to shanties, and eventually there were no buildings at all, and we all faced the beauty of the DR, the sprawling farms, the cascading mountains in the distance, and the endless horizon. It was like this for hours, and suddenly we arrived at the retreat center… where the electrical power promptly went out. Surprisingly enough none of us had a problem with this, we were all just so happy to be safe, with each other, and in close proximity to food and a bed. This was truly our calm before the storm.

The next day, it was out the frying pan, and into the fire, we awoke at sunrise and went down the mountain to begin our first day of work. There was no time for tutorials or learning curves; it was time to start pouring foundations and it was essential that all hands were on deck, willing and able. Work was back breaking, but satisfying. When things seemed bleak, or hands got tired, the realization that what we were doing made a difference was enough to help us push forward. At the end of the first day, the reality of our situation sank in. Chuck Palahniuk said in the preface of his book Fight Club, “Being tired isn’t the same as being rich, but often it’s just as nice.” On the way back at the end of each day, we’d look at ourselves and each other and see the dirt, concrete, and mud caked on our bodies. All we could do was smile and laugh. We were welcomed home by cold showers, and hot coffee. And to us, this was the lap of luxury. For the first four nights, we lacked electricity save that of flashlights. We went to bed when it got dark and woke up when the sun came up.

Around the fifth day, while laying cinder blocks, Ligia told us to drop our tools and follow her; she would take us on a tour of El Manguito. During this walk, the kids followed us, as they did everywhere during the entirety of our stay. At one stop, one nine-year-old boy following us at the time leaned against a motorcycle that had just pulled up. Little did he or any of us know, the exhaust pipe where he chose to rest his leg was still red-hot. When Ms. Bailand went to examine his leg, the burned skin was a sickly pink-white color, the smell haunting, the burn contrasting tragically against his brown skin. It was two days later that we found out this kid’s leg had gone unattended to in our absence; no one cared enough to take this kid to a hospital, or even wrap up the leg. The burn was becoming infected and had Ms. Bailand not given our driver $50 and told him to take the kid to the hospital, I doubt the child would still have that leg.

It was on the sixth day, Ligia took us to see a waterfall and the local beaches, to enjoy the paradise that is the DR. It’s this day however that rings as the most striking in my mind. From that day, the Dominican Republic was a terrible beauty. The entire country, beautiful enough to be a resort, but simultaneously stricken with poverty.

I’m not standing in front of you this morning to tell you that all the money in your wallet will solve all of our problems; all of their problems; it won’t plug up the wounds, cover the scars, or erase their history. But each dollar more we have is another vat full of concrete; another truck load of wood; more sheets of roofing; another entire house or two, or three; another DR trip all together. On July 11, the last day of the final DR trip, 10 more houses stood than at the beginning of the summer.

On the wall in my English class reads a quote, “At the end of my life, I’d like to think that I won’t be remembered for the size of my house, or the car I drove, or the number of toys I had. But by the things I left behind. The people I touched, and the difference I made.” Thank you.