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!

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.

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.”

Radio at the Service of Humanity

The first Vatican Radio microphone.

Communication by the airwaves was already in use during World War I. In Germany the Nazi party offered a radio to every family, but tuned it exclusively for the promotion of National Socialist ideology! Listening to another station brought severe penalties and Hitler Youth leaders called for children to report their elders.

During the Nazi period in Europe, people beyond the reach of the Nazis used this medium to combat the errors and vicious activities of Nazi Germany. After the young priest John M. Oesterreicher had fled from Austria to Paris, he used radio to elucidate the Christian message in contrast to the propaganda coming from Germany. In research of Nazi archives in Coblenz, Father Robert Graham found that a stenographer had recorded Father Oesterreicher’s sermons.  In 1986 Dr. Erica Weinzeirl edited the collection under the title: Wider die Tyrannei des Rassenwahns. Rundfunkansprachen aus dem ersten Jahr von Hitlers Krieg. (Geyer Edition Wien, Salzburg, 1986).

In 1931, under Pope Pius XI, the Holy See introduced radio as a means for international communication.  See the commemoration of this milestone in “Vatican Radio turns 90.”

As technology advances, the Church incorporates these manifestations of human ingenuity into the service of the Word of God. May this continue to promote the profound human need and desire for understanding, justice and true peace!

Old Age: Our Future

The Biblical heritage has maintained a special place for the elderly in human society.  The Jewish and Christian faith communities have continued to promote a respect for the wisdom and experience of those blessed with a long life. Tragically, in some modern societies there is a tendency to disparage the spiritual value of the presence of those who become infirm in their time on earth. Of course, we appreciate the progress of medicine and science in easing the aches and pains of the passing years! However, may the length of a person’s life never be left to the decision of a committee!

Recently Pope Francis instituted the “World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly,” to be celebrated on July 25th, the Feast of Saints Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In Canada devotion to St. Anne has a long history, so integrating a new dimension to the feast will be an extension of its impact for pilgrims to the shrine of Ste. Anne de Beauprès in Quebec and to Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta.

The Pontifical Academy for Life offers a document “Old Age: Our future. The condition of the elderly after the pandemic.” 

May these teachings hear much fruit for a deeper humane response to the challenges of life!

Mutilation of Girls

Photo by Bill Oxford/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Traditions of initiation are part of many cultures. Occasionally we learn of university or other clubs engaging in harmful and potentially fatal activities. Such cases lead higher authorities to impose strict roles to save lives and overcome questionable practices.

Each year on February 6th the practice of a widespread and very dangerous initiation is brought to the attention of people everywhere. Young girls in many countries are subjected to the cruel practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). For all victims this leads to a life-time of difficulties regarding health (especially in childbirth). Some candidates do not survive the experience. In recent years the deaths of several girls in Egypt, Sudan and Chad have become international news. See the story by Sara Jerving about a creative effort of a community in Sudan to offset this tradition.

On January 5, 2021, with President Trump’s signature, the Congress of the United States passed a law declaring that subjecting a minor to FGM is a crime. See the U.S. government fact sheet on FGM as well as this article published by Religion News Service. Already this practice, originating in certain parts of Africa and elsewhere, had been prohibited in a number of states in this country. Now it is forbidden nationwide. This legislation should lead to public awareness and concern about the danger of death of victims or of life-long trials which follow the practice of FGM.

May all people of good will become aware of this crime against young girls! Educators, school nurses and social workers may be able to promote understanding of this form of child abuse among immigrants who may plan to send their daughters to their homeland for this grim initiation.

May there be better days ahead for girls everywhere, now and in the future!

The Call for Justice in Nigeria

Since 2009 the attacks of Boko Haram terrorists have plagued Christian communities in several areas of North-Eastern Nigeria. This has been followed by aggressive intrusions by Fulani herdsman into farming communities long established in other parts of Nigeria.

In recent months ordinary people have begun to protest against the brutal actions of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (S.A.R.S.). Panels of inquiry into police brutality have been called for by ordinary citizens: see “Nigeria Goes on Offensive against Youth Protesting Police Brutality.” Undoubtedly these are quiet and persistent efforts by people of good will to ameliorate the situation.

In The Tablet (London, England) in “Prison Special Report,” Patrick Egwu describes the work of a Nigerian Catholic non-profit welfare organization, The Catholic Institute for Development, Justice and Peace (CIDJAP). Founded in 1986, this Institute offers free legal services to prisoners who are not able to afford a lawyer. They also help ex-prisoners to find work and to reintegrate into society. May this and other groups of quiet service bring hope to many prisoners and their families!

Rabbi Asher Finkel (1934-2020): Rest in Peace

Rabbi Dr. Asher Finkel
Professor Emeritus
Jewish-Christian Studies
Graduate Program
Seton Hall University

You are righteous, O Lord
And all your deeds are just;
All your ways are mercy and truth;
You are the Judge of the world.
(Book of Tobit 3:2)

As the Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies and the Master’s Program in Jewish-Christian Studies commemorates 45 years of academic work, it is with great sadness that I share the news that Rabbi Asher Finkel departed from this world on August 17, 2020. He was surrounded by his beloved wife, Jane, and his children and grandchildren as he gave his life into the merciful hands of his Lord.

“You are righteous, Lord, and your judgment is right. True and righteous Judge, blessed are you, all whose judgments are righteous and true.” (Philip Birnbaum, Daily Prayer Book, p. 738).

When we studied the Book of Tobit, probably from the third century B.C.E., Rabbi Finkel pointed to the above quoted prayer of Tobit as an example of the continuity in the tradition of Judaism. Over the decades of his teaching as well as in his publications, he often drew attention to the resonances of the Biblical heritage that are shared in teachings of the Rabbis and the Christian Scriptures. His knowledge of both Jewish and Christian classics was unparalleled!

Over several generations the Finkel family has brought the profound moral message of Lithuanian Jewish education to Israel and the Diaspora. Rabbi Finkel’s uncle had brought the entire Mir Yeshiva to safety in Shanghai in 1940, thanks to the heroic deeds of Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese Counsel in Kaunas, Lithuania. This is background to the message in Mishpacha at the occasion of Rabbi Finkel’s death.

This story of Rabbi Finkel’s deep love of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) reminds me of a quotation in one of Father Thomas Stransky’s essays:

Youth, what man’s age is like doth show,
We may our ends by our beginnings know.
(Sir John Denham (1615-1669), On Prudence).

May Rabbi Asher Finkel be bound up in the bundle of life, in the care of the Lord, his God! (1 Samuel 25:29).