English Hymns in the Divine Office

The long tradition of common prayer in the monasteries of western Europe is based on the recitation of the 150 psalms at precise times of the day over the course of the week. The times for morning and early evening prayer drew upon the Jewish tradition for people to unite their intentions with the times when sacrifices were offered in the Temple. After the Temple was destroyed, this Jewish use of psalms and other prayers each day became “the sacrifice of the lips.” In this way the Pharisee tradition continued the practice of linking the time of prayer to the time of the Temple service.

In the Church the reference in Psalm 119:164 (“Seven times a day I praise you because your edicts are just”) became the ideal for the monks to decide the number of the “hours,” i.e., the times for daily prayer, in addition to the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Over the centuries the Church of the Roman rite introduced Latin hymns to introduce each of the “Hours.” After the Second Vatican Council the Hours may be celebrated in the vernacular language. Some hymns have been translated into English but a wide selection of more modern hymns in English allow for choices on the part of each community.

The Rev. Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was a British Methodist minister who wrote many hymns. The one I’ve chosen is assigned to Vespers or Evening Prayer in the Catholic Divine Office but it would be appropriate for morning as well. Here are three stanzas of this prayer:

For the fruits of his creation,
Thanks be to God;
For the gifts of every nation,
Thanks be to God;
For the ploughing, sowing, reaping,
Silent growth while men are sleeping,
Future needs in earth’s safekeeping,
Thanks be to God.

In the just reward of labor,
God’s will be done;
In the help we give our neighbor,
God’s will is done;
In our world-wise task of caring
For the hungry and despairing,
In the harvests men are sharing,
God’s will is done.

For the harvests of his spirit,
Thanks be to God;
For the good all men inherit,
Thanks be to God;
For the wonders that astound us,
For the truths that still confound us,
Most of all, that love has found us,
Thanks be to God.

Human industry and ingenuity have enhanced the productivity of God’s creation, a responsibility in the human vocation (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15). Farmers use the machines of several inventors to increase the produce of areas that are cultivated. The phrase “Silent growth while men are sleeping” points to the parable of Mark 4:26-29:

26 And He was saying, “The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; 27 and he goes to bed at night and gets up daily, and the seed sprouts and grows—how, he himself does not know. 28 The soil produces crops by itself; first the stalk, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. 29 And when the grain is ripe, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” (New American Bible)

A century ago, scientists developed a type of wheat that could come to harvest within three months, the short growing season in western Canada. Rotation of crops has led to increased and varied productivity. For these contributions of human ingenuity we are grateful!  Are the products of the fields reaching those who are hungry? The work of farmers must be channeled to places of great need.

Gratitude to God in the first stanza is balanced by the emphasis on human labor in the second. Workers in the field or vineyard deserve a living wage. Justice for the worker is an expression of God’s will, already emphasized in the Torah, especially in the Book of Deuteronomy.

Farmers realize the importance of good relations with their neighbors. An old farmer once told me of a situation of misunderstanding with his neighbor that had perdured for some time. While he was away a fire in his barn was extinguished by the neighbor. In gratitude, he overcame the problem that had caused tension. “We can choose our friends from afar but we must cultivate a true friendship with our neighbors.”

The poet’s focus moves to the human needs in far-off places – these involve the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy: “the hungry and despairing.” There are but one example in each category.

Lists of Jewish Sources

  1. Feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty
  2. Clothe the naked
  3. Visit the sick
  4. Bury the dead and comfort the mourners
  5. Redeem the captive
  6. Educate the orphan and shelter the homeless
  7. Provide dowries for poor maidens

Spiritual works of mercy complement the list of “corporal works” given in Matthew 25:31-46

  1. Instruct the ignorant
  2. Counsel the doubtful
  3. Admonish sinners (see Matthew 18:15)
  4. Bear wrongs patiently (see Matthew 6:14)
  5. Forgive offenses
  6. Comfort the afflicted
  7. Pray for the living and the dead.

Share the abundance of the harvest with those who are less fortunate. Laws of Deut 15:7-11 exemplify care for the poor which offer guidance for modern communities.

The final stanza of Pratt Green’s poem draws attention to the benefits of the spiritual order.

“The good that all men inherit”-  private property is a right limited by the call to advance the common good, which should be a heritage shared by all.

Wonder is an act of appreciation for the beautiful surprises of life. “The wonders that astound us” provoke a sense of awe on the part of creatures living in the presence of God.

“The truths that still confound us” – we examine our conscience with regard to limitations that we in a society place on relationships, beginning with God and embracing neighbor as an equal to self and extending to the natural world at large.

“Love has found us” – the love of God transforms our lives even before we begin to realize the multitude of gifts that are signs of God’s loving presence.

Another hymn taken into the Divine Office that celebrates the human response to divine blessings is by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a Nonconformist hymnwriter who was the pastor of the Independent Congregation, Mark Lane in London from 1702-1712.  Frail health dogged him for many years, but he produced texts that resonate well, even today for people with a poetic sense.

I sing the mighty power of God,
that made the mountains rise,
That spread the flowing seas abroad,
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
The moon shines full at God’s command,
and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord,
who filled the earth with food,
Who formed the creatures through the Word,
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how Thy wonders are displayed,
where’er I turn my eye,
If I survey the ground I tread,
or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below,
but makes Thy glories known,
And clouds arise, and tempests blow,
by order from Thy throne;
While all that borrows life from Thee
is ever in Thy care;
And everywhere that we can be,
Thou, God art present there.

The Watchman

“Son of man, I have appointed you a watchman for the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, you shall warn them for me.” (Ezekiel  3:17)

Each summer we see, with heartbreaking photos, the coverage of wildfires in the western states. A while ago someone remarked that there were no such fires in western Canada. “Not so,” said I, “they are widespread but are seldom reported here.” Recently reports have come from southern Europe, Turkey and Australia, showing that the danger is widespread.

Fear of such fires should lead to prevention of accidents on campsites and other human causes. The incredible accusation of arson is made from time-to-time. May anyone with such a temptation find and accept counselling!

When I was seven my family moved to a town in a mountain valley of north-east central British Columbia (B.C.), near the headwaters of the Fraser River. The lumber industry was the main source of employment. Trees provided livelihood in return for hard work. Every winter logs were hauled onto the river for a journey south after the ice broke. Trucks crossed the river on sawdust “roads.”  Danger lurked for the driver of a vehicle that plunged as the ice broke.

One of the mountains, seven miles from the town, was called “Lookout Mountain.”  The only telephone in the town was to the dwelling of the watchman who spent the summer months scanning the skies for any sign of a fire. His was a lonely life of dedicated vigilance. Was this appreciated or taken for granted? As a child I cannot remember, but I hope that people expressed their gratitude!

In 1945 we heard a story that, from the Aleutian Islands, then occupied by Japan, thousands of small glass prisms were sent on miniature parachutes to the B.C. forests. This hope for wanton destruction could not be reversed when the war ended.  Such acts posed less of a problem than landmines but the intention was malevolent and should be prohibited as unethical in any society. Such a warfare on trees is forbidden in the Law of Moses. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 begins with a prohibition against warriors cutting down trees but then concedes that building siegeworks requires use of this resource. The specific command is “Do not cut down the fruit trees!”

The image of a watchman guarding against natural disaster or the attack of enemies is applied to the spiritual and moral order in the prophet Ezekiel. A priest from birth, the young man, taken into exile in Babylon area in 597 B.C., was called to be a prophet in 593 (Ez 3:16-21, 33:1-9). The image selected to depict the serious nature of the call is the teacher giving warning to those going astray. Whether they heed or avoid the admonition, the person called to teach cannot ignore the challenge because God’s full message must be proclaimed.

In the context of forest fires today we hear of responsible leaders warning a community of imminent danger. Some refuse to leave, hoping for a change of wind or a drenching rainfall. The refusal to cooperate may be life-threatening. In the various situations of life in a community, may all, young and old, heed the teacher’s exhortation or admonition!

World Day of the Poor

This special day of prayer and action was instituted by Pope Francis at the end of the Jubilee of Mercy, celebrated in 2015. On June 13, 2021 Pope Francis presented a message, “The Poor you will always have with you,” as a preparation for this coming November 14, the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, as World Day of the Poor.

The Gospel text quoted as the title of the papal message is Mark 14:7. The account in Mark 14:3-9 is the basis for a reflection on the woman who anointed Jesus’ head with a special perfumed oil. After she was criticized sharply for the extravagant gesture, Jesus defended her because she anticipated his death whereby his poverty was made evident. “That nameless woman, meant perhaps to represent all those women who down through the centuries would be silenced and suffer violence, thus became the first of those women who were significantly present at the supreme moment of Christ’s life: his death, burial and resurrection. Women, so often discriminated against and excluded from positions of responsibility, are seen in the Gospels to play a leading role in the history of revelation.”

Pope Francis then reflects on the way the poor in every generation “know the suffering of Christ through their own suffering… We are called to discover Christ in them, to lend them our voice in their causes, but also to be their friends…”

Often we hear or read the similar episode in John 12:1-8, where the statement of Jesus, “You always have the poor with you but you do not always have me” may lead to a shrug of the shoulder: What can I do about it? This seems to imply that poverty is inevitable in every generation. Mark’s text, however, includes a reference to the Book of Deuteronomy. Pope Francis notes that Jesus calls us to seek every opportunity to do good. “Behind it, we can glimpse the ancient biblical command of Deuteronomy 15:7-11.” Thus Jesus has challenged his disciples to obey this precept in relation to the parable of the sheep and goats on the Day of Judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46).

The text of this message for the World Day of the Poor is available on the Vatican website here.

May every day find us open to the true needs of the poor!

Acknowledging Genocide

For many centuries the history of conflicts and wars has been written by the victors. The memory of atrocities, however, is recorded in the oral traditions among survivors of those who lost their freedom and, in some cases, their identity.

Since the Second World War, when the term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemke, the relentless attack on civilians in minorities has been seen as uniquely odious.

What degree of humility and self-judgment is necessary for a government to acknowledge responsibility for an attack aimed at the destruction of an entire ethnic community? Has this ever happened by the governing power under which the vicious acts took place? Not likely in the past. We hope that genocide will never occur again!

For centuries African communities have been under the domination of European naval powers. Both material resources and human lives have been exploited without any regard for the Golden Rule, a guiding principle applicable in every community and culture (See Scarboro Missions: https://www.scarboromissions.ca/golden-rule).

In recent weeks the German government acknowledged that the military attack from 1904-1908 on two tribes in South-West Africa (now called Namibia) constituted genocide. “The German government also agreed to establish a fund worth 1.1 billion euros, to be distributed over three decades, as part of the accord” (“Germany Officially Recognizes Mass Killings in Colonial-Era Namibia as Genocide,” Wall Street Journal, May 28, 2021). The descendants of Herero and Nama tribes claim that the negotiations should have been with their representatives rather than with the Namibian government. A government official said that “the two sides had reached an agreement in principle, which must be presented to representatives of the Herero and Nama communities and debated in parliament” (Wall Street Journal, May 29-30, 2021).

May a focus on the needs of these two communities living on “reservations” bring a modicum of reparation for past crimes!

Counteracting Hatred

Over the years many educators and other people of goodwill have fostered ways to promote proper relationships within society. Some explicitly cite the Golden Rule in one of its many forms to provide a foundation for such expression of human decency.  See Scarboro Missions: https://www.scarboromissions.ca/golden-rule.

In the past year and more, we have experienced the wrath of a pandemic that has caused many to retreat into isolation with its concomitant tensions and worries. It seems that some people have made a practice of lashing out against others. This has included acts against individuals and groups of especially vulnerable people. Besides decrying the abuse and violence we invite leaders in every community to offer guidance to those who show vicious forms of hatred, especially against Asians and Jewish people.

The Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies endorses the statement of the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, “A Call for Solidarity with Our Jewish Colleagues and Neighbors:” https://ccjr.us/news/statements/ccjr-2021may28.

We also pray for peace in the Middle East and for the success of efforts to overcome the scourge of Covid-19.

Prayer for Peace between Israelis and Palestinians

The Church is always in prayer for the cessation of conflict in all parts of the world and especially in the Middle East. May the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians cease!

Pope Francis and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops offer reflections in a spirit of prayer and hope.

After the Regina Coeli prayer in St Peter’s Square on May 16, 2021, Pope Francis  made an appeal for justice and peace:

Dear brothers and sisters! I am following with great concern what is happening in the Holy Land. In these days, violent armed clashes between the Gaza Strip and Israel have gained the upper hand, risk degenerating into a spiral of death and destruction. Many people have been injured and many innocent people have died. Among them are even children, and this is terrible and unacceptable. Their death is a sign that they do not want to build the future, but they want to destroy it.

Moreover, the growing hatred and violence that is involving various cities in Israel is a serious wound to fraternity and to peaceful coexistence among the citizens, which will be difficult to heal if we do not open immediately to dialogue. I wonder: where will hatred and vengeance lead? Do we really think we can build peace by destroying the other? “In the name of God who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters” (cf. Document on Human Fraternity) I make an appeal to calm and, to who is responsible for it, to put a stop to the din of weapons and to follow the paths of peace, even with the help of the International Community.

Let us pray constantly that the Israelis and Palestinians may find the path of dialogue and forgiveness, to be patient builders of peace and justice, opening up, step after step, to a common hope, to a coexistence among brothers and sisters.

Let us pray for the victims, in particular for the children; let us pray for peace to the Queen of Peace.

To view Pope Francis’ entire prayer and reflection, please visit the Vatican’s website here or watch the video below, which includes an English translation.

The U.S. Bishops’ Chairman for International Justice and Peace also renewed prayers for Israel and Palestine. Please see https://www.usccb.org/news/2021/us-bishops-chairman-international-justice-and-peace-renews-prayers-israel-and-palestine.

All are invited to join in intercession for those who suffer and for the good will of all who can contribute to healing and peace-building.

Protestant Convention in Jerusalem, April 2001

Motherhouse of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt, Germany. derbrauni, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The visit of Pope St. John Paul II to the Holy Land, especially his days in Jerusalem, made a profound impression on Christians throughout Europe. This became the stimulant for the Evangelische (Protestant) Sisters of Darmstadt to organize a convention, “Changing the Future by Confronting the Past,” in Jerusalem from April 17-22, 2001.

During the Pope’s visit to Israel, ordinary Jewish citizens were asking, “Where are the Protestants?” So we were thankful that more than 700 Christians from over 25 countries, especially throughout the Protestant tradition, joined us in April. ‘We were astonished by the harmony of purpose experienced between people from different nations, different cultures, yet all drawn together by a common purpose- a desire to repent for what his or her country had done to the Jews,’ to quote one delegate. The wider the spectrum of Christians represented at this act of repentance in Jerusalem, the more meaningful it would be to the Jewish people.  Though not necessarily sharing the same theological views, we were united in repentance and in our desire to demonstrate our support for the Jewish people.*

I was privileged to be the Catholic speaker at the conference that reviewed the history of Christian-Jewish relations over the centuries. The text of my presentation is here.

How did I receive the invitation? A Brother in the Community working with the Darmstadt Sisters is from Millburn, N.J. When he visited his father, he came to see me, and we discussed our common hope for positive developments in Christian-Jewish relations.  Shortly before the Convention dates, the Catholic speaker was no longer available so Brother Sylvestro contacted me. It was a memorable privilege to join with this large group of pilgrims for those days.

The most solemn part of the Convention is described by the Sisters:

The climax was the repentance service on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, led by an international team of clergy.  A hush fell on the gathering as Bishop Christian Zippert of Germany opened with a prayer to the Eternal Father, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘Following the example of Ezra, Nehemiah and Daniel, who confessed their sins and the sins of their fathers at crucial times in their nation’s history, we want to begin this new millennium with a public confession of sin before God and the Jewish people here in Jerusalem, where the Church began.’*

In attendance were over 1200, including 200 members of the Jewish community.  A declaration repudiating anstisemitism and signed by over 32,500 Christians in 36 countries was received by Rabbi Paul Laderman on behalf of the Jewish community with the assurance it would be permanently stored in the National Archive of the State of Israel.

Twenty years have passed, and the prayerful work of repentance and peacemaking continues. May the goodwill and hope of this and many other encounters dispose us, Jews and Christians, to be recipients and vehicles of divine blessings!

*Taken from the letter of thanks to those who supported “Jerusalem 2001 Convention: Changing the Future by Confronting the Past.” © The Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary  Darmstadt, Germany.

New Program in Jewish-Catholic Studies

Recently the Cardinal Bea Centre of the Gregorian University (Rome) has announced that a two-year interdisciplinary graduate program will lead to a Licentiate in Judaic Studies and Jewish-Christian Relations. A licentiate is the ecclesiastical degree equivalent to a Master’s degree in other settings.

In a webinar on April 21, 2021, Father Etienne Veto, the Director of the Bea Centre, presented the program. Sixty to seventy percent of the courses will be in Judaic Studies on a range of topics, including art and literature, leading to a deep understanding of Judaism. The second facet of the program will be Catholic-Jewish relations, leading to a Christian self-perception in the light of Judaism. Following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics will understand that the Jewish people have not been replaced by the Church. Rather, the Church “draws nourishment from the good olive tree onto which the wild olive branch of the Gentiles have been grafted (see Romans 11:17-24)” (Declaration Nostra aetate no. 4)

Graduates of this program will be equipped to pursue interfaith collaboration and peace-building through research and teaching.

The guest speaker in the webinar was Father Norbert Hofmann, of the Salesians and the long-time Secretary of the Pontifical Commission on Religious Relations with the Jews. He drew attention to the words of Pope Francis in an audience with members of the American Jewish Committee. The Pope presented three goals for Catholic-Jewish encounters:

  1. Collaboration in works of charity on behalf of the poor and suffering.
  2. Building on the heritage of the Second Vatican Council for mutual esteem and friendship.
  3. Deepening the Christian theology of Judaism on the basis of the statement for the fiftieth anniversary of the Vatican II Declaration in 2015, “The Gifts and the Calling of God are Irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).

Father Hofmann drew attention to the need for involvement of young people in Catholic-Jewish relations. The Commission has promoted this through biennial international “Emerging Leadership Conference,” which brings fifty young people together for several days of study.

Seton Hall University’s M.A. Program in Jewish-Christian Studies welcomes this new development of the Gregorian University’s Cardinal Bea Centre!  As our program enters its 45th year we look forward to opportunities for collaboration!

M. L’Abbé Kurt Hruby (1921-1992)

Father Kurt Hruby

The centennial of a birth is a good time to remember the life of a benefactor. Kurt Hruby was born in Austria in 1921, the son of an Austrian Christian who divorced his Jewish wife after the Nazis took over Austria in March 1938. Kurt joined his mother in her flight to Palestine. There he acquired a fluency in modern Hebrew and a profound knowledge of the Ashkenazi (eastern European) rabbinic tradition. His survey of “Post Biblical History of the Jews” is published in The New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010.

On visits to Paris in the 1960s and 70s I would spend time in the library of the Fathers of Sion. There I met Father Hruby and benefited from his erudition and sense of humor. On occasion we met at international gatherings of those promoting Christian-Jewish relations. He was editor of the Swiss journal Judaica from the early 1970s until his death.

Father Hruby was a younger member of the generation of pioneers who prepared the Church for the Second Vatican Council and the new encounter between Christians and Jews. May they rest in peace and may our work build upon the foundation that they set in place!

Eve Shea (1947-2021)

Eve Shea, M.A.

Lifelong learning was exemplified by Eve Shea who graduated from the M.A. program in Jewish-Christian Studies in 2017. She and her husband, Tim, had been friends and supporters of Sister Joseph Spring’s Assumption College for Sisters in Denville, and the sisters and priests in Jewish-Christian Studies also became beneficiaries of their generosity.  Eve’s life-experience and studies moved her into action to promote justice and harmony in the world around her.

As one of her professors, Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill offed a beautiful eulogy for Eve’s funeral.  With his permission, I quote from his text:

“The first eulogy in the Bible is when Abraham came to eulogize Sarah (Genesis 23:2). The Jewish Rabbinic tradition says about that verse in Genesis that “The righteous are considered alive even after death.” Sarah achieves this distinction and so did our beloved Eve.

What is immortal and lasting in a life? It is that the person lives in our memories, our lives, and our values. Our love and respect for Eve lives on.

What were Eve’s most cherished values?  She cared about other people and the injustices they suffered. She wanted to overcome hatred, she wanted to overcome anti-Judaism, and she wanted people to learn to respect one another.  She also strongly believed in education…She also valued family, friendships, and relationships- as well as community. She volunteered for many local organizations…

We loved and cherished her. Eve will be missed.

I will close with a quote from a Jewish funeral prayer.

God, full of mercy, Who dwells above, give Eve true rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, among the holy, and glorious who shine like the sky. May her rest be in the Garden of Eden. Therefore, may the All-Merciful One shelter her with the cover of His wings forever, and bind her soul in the bond of life. The Lord is her heritage; may she rest in her resting-place in peace; and let us say: Amen.”