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Reflections on spring

Robins are unreliable.


Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate seeing them around the neighborhood after a particularly grueling winter, but I certainly don’t put all my spring eggs in their basket. Too many times I’ve seen them huddled in the front yard, shivering in a late season snowfall. Granted, it’s not the lasting snow of January and February, but it’s snow nonetheless, and it makes me glad that I haven’t gotten around to putting my winter boots away yet.


Goldfinches are a little better at announcing spring, even though they are here year round and spend the winter hogging the bird feeders. The intensity of their feather color is what signals the change. In January, for instance, they look rather drab — more or less gray with sallow undertones. However, as the days lengthen and the sun gets stronger, the sallow parts become cleaner and brighter until finally, they virtually glow on the tree branches, giving their name to the color they’ve become — canary yellow.


But as much as I love the birds, what really convinces me that spring will not only come again, but come soon, is my neighbor, Clint. Without fail, he begins his garden by planting peas on the same day every year. And that day is Good Friday.


Given the fact that Easter — and by extension, Good Friday — is a moveable feast, some years that is easier said than done. When Easter falls in late April, even the garden guides say that it is OK to till the soil for the early, cold-loving plants. But in other years, like this one, when the feast of the Resurrection barely makes it out of March, things get a bit trickier. That’s when it takes a great deal of faith to work the soil, when even the finches are only halfway to yellow.


Clint has been known to shovel snow off the pea beds so that whatever sun breaks through in March can warm the frozen earth; he blankets the soil with plastic to trap the elusive heat. Considerable thought and effort go into the process because he needs three relatively warm, friable inches of soil to plant the seeds. Hard work is rewarded, and by Good Friday the beds are ready, even if Clint has to wear his lined winter boots to do the actual planting. Peas appear about 10 days later.


I’m sure there are some people who think he’s a bit crazy, going to all this trouble for peas, but I see it differently. To plant peas when everything else is covered in snow is an act of hope. After all, that is what the promise of Easter is all about — bringing a glorious Resurrection out of the bleakness of Good Friday. If my neighbor can coax seedlings out of ground that should, by rights, still be frozen, then I say “Hurrah.”


He believes in spring’s Resurrection and is willing to put his back into proving it and becomes a spring blessing because of it.


Prayer for Peace and Healing

In response to the recent school shootings and other acts of violence in our nation’s schools and communities, parishioners in the Diocese of Burlington are invited to participate in a time of prayer for peace and healing on Holy Thursday, March 29, from 9 a.m. to noon.


This will be a time of quiet Eucharistic Adoration asking our Eucharistic Lord to shower His peace upon our schools, our communities and our world. Catholic schools are asked to have their students participate in this time of prayer.


On this day when we begin our remembrance and celebration of Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection, it is appropriate that we spend time praying for the gift of peace and healing He alone can give.


Christian activists say militias target religious minorities in Syria

Jihadists allied with Turkey are hunting down religious minorities to kill them in Syria’s northwest, Christian activists warn, as Turkey and its allies have encircled the Kurdish-held town of Afrin and are relentlessly pushing through.


Turkey is using hardline jihadist proxies, including Islamic State and al-Qaida militants, to eliminate the presence of Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities along its border, the activists said.


“The situation is dire. They feel desperate. They are crying out to God every hour,” humanitarian Charmaine Hedding told Catholic News Service. Hedding directs the Shai Fund, a Christian aid organization that provides humanitarian supplies to Afrin’s citizens.


“The jihadist militants consider Yezidis ‘infidels,’ while there have been announcements made that if you kill Christians, you will go straight to paradise,” she said. Hedding referred to her conversations on a satellite phone March 15 with Christians and Yezidis trapped in Afrin, saying cell phone service had since been cut.


In New York, UNICEF said “reports from inside Afrin indicate that dozens of children have been killed and many more injured since the start of hostilities in the district.”


Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria, criticized the escalation of Syria’s conflict.


“From a regional conflict we have moved on to an international conflict,” he said.


“The suffering of the poor people is immense, enormous. Suffering of the civilian population and the children is so great. I don’t know when this war will end. The end is not close, unfortunately,” Cardinal Zenari told Catholic News Service by phone March 16.


“The war is very, very complicated. And every year brings a new chapter. It becomes more complicated with more suffering for the poor people,” he said. “In Syria, it is a massacre of the innocent, because rockets and bombings on the cities hit, above all, those who are at home, that is, women and children.”


Christians and Yezidis in Afrin have an additional worry of being attacked and killed by Islamist militants working on Turkey’s behest. Afrin, some 30 miles from Aleppo, is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, and is bordered to the north and west by Turkey and south by government-controlled Syrian territory.


Hedding said a Yezidi man from the Afrin area told her, “When the Turks and their proxy forces went through Yezidi towns, they destroyed all the Yezidi temples, desecrating the houses of worship.”


“No one can move in and out of the area, because of the Turkish drone bombardments. Everyone must stay put and in hiding. Stores are not open, and there is no access to food or water,” Hedding said. Access to clean drinking water stopped after Turkish and jihadist fighters seized the main dam and water plant from the Kurds.


Lauren Homer, a Washington, D.C.-based international human rights lawyer familiar with the situation, said: “Farming villages and small towns have already been ‘cleansed’ of their inhabitants. Yezidi villages and Christian churches stand empty. Ancient landmarks, homes and farmland lie in ruins due to Turkish bombs.


“Many war crimes have occurred. They’re documented by both residents and by gloating Turkish fighters,” the Anglican lawyer told CNS and the Washington-based


Some media reports said 10,000 people from Afrin had managed to escape. But Afrin’s population had grown to 1 million as internally displaced Syrians fled there from other conflict-ridden Syrian towns.


Although “the Kurdish-led forces are trying to fight, they are greatly underpowered,” Hedding said, noting they face the advanced warplanes, tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons of NATO’s second-largest standing army, Turkey.


Homer said Turkey has 673,000 soldiers, and another 20,000 radical Islamist fighters, veterans of Islamic State and al-Qaida affiliates. Afrin’s defenders possess no weapons or ground forces sufficient to stop the assault.


The Syrian Democratic Forces — which includes Kurds, Christians and others — were forced to divert many of their troops to try to defend Afrin, she said.


“They left Eastern Syria, where they were on the verge of crushing ISIS. That area is now vulnerable to an ISIS comeback, or to conquest by the Assad regime, or Russian and Iranian armies,” Homer explained. She said this jeopardizes the victory the U.S.-led military coalition has had over Islamic State in Syria.


Kurds and Christians created a nonsectarian, pluralist, inclusive government system in northern Syria in which there is religious freedom and equal rights granted to all, regardless of a person’s ethnicity, religion or gender. This, too, is under threat by Turkey’s invasion, activists say.


Observers said so far, the United States military seems to be doing little to protect its Kurdish and Christian allies in northwestern Syria, who are largely credited with eradicating Islamic State from the area as part of the U.S.-led military coalition.


Homer and other activists called on the U.s. government to stop the onslaught before it is too late. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ignored a Feb. 24 U.N. Security Council resolution requiring a cease-fire by Turkey in Afrin.



New diocesan website launched

A new diocesan website has been launched.

The decision to revamp was made because the original website was designed 10 years ago and really hadn’t been updated since.

After three years as bishop of Burlington, Bishop Christopher Coyne was ready to share his vision — one Church, one community — and create a web presence that not only reflects this vision but is inviting and easy to navigate for the Catholic community and those interested in Catholicism.

Burlington Bytes, a Vermont-based website design firm, began working with the diocesan communication staff to redesign the website last fall.

One of the top reasons people visit the diocesan website is to find a Mass time. The new parish/Mass search option integrates a Google map into the search and allows Catholics to find a Mass based on zip code up to a 200-mile radius. People also can search for Catholic schools and cemeteries.

The Vermont Catholic Online News and the diocesan events calendar also are integrated throughout the website, so news stories and events related to certain ministries and programs display on that ministry page. For example, the March Marriage Encounter Weekend at St. Anne’s Shrine, the June 23 annual Family Day in Troy and the August 25 Year of the Family Conference in Montpelier will be featured on the Marriage and Family webpage.

Vermont Catholic eNews also received a major makeover. Beginning in the spring, Catholics will have the option to select what news categories they’d like to be included in their eNews report: all, Vermont, schools, nation, world or Vatican. They also will receive a list of events happening throughout the state and feature articles.

The new, mobile-friendly format allows users to visit from their tablet or phone from anywhere to stay in touch with the Catholic community of Vermont.

Liberating commitment

While each family’s particular Lenten traditions vary, one of the most universal ways of observing Lent is by committing to do — or not do — something significant for the full 40 days of the liturgical season. Especially for young children, the eventual breaking of this commitment on Easter Sunday can add to the joy of celebrating Christ’s resurrection (especially if they’ve committed to abstaining from a favorite treat).


But as we mature, so must our faith practices, and that alters the way we participate in and think about our commitments. At some point in early adulthood, I was challenged to use my Lenten observance to commit to something that would make a lasting impact on my relationship with God and life as a Catholic. (Let’s be honest, giving up chocolate for a month and a half did little to improve my relationship with God.) This reorienting of my Lenten practice was significant, but what I found even more significant was the level of commitment I was able to observe when it was for something that truly made a difference in my life. I remember three specific Lenten seasons during which my choice to seriously commit to something meaningful made a lasting impression on my life as a Catholic.


During Lent 2010 I was studying abroad in Rome. Along with some classmates, I committed to attending Mass every morning before classes began. This commitment to worship every morning required 5 a.m. wake up calls and treks across the Eternal City before sunrise, but by Easter Sunday, I had been changed forever. It was then I decided to pursue a degree in theology.


I started dating my now husband on Ash Wednesday 2011. Of course, deciding to date him was not an intentional Lenten commitment, but nevertheless, the timing coincided. Being the good Catholic college students that we were (and me being nostalgic for my prior year in Rome), we decided to attend daily dorm Mass together during Lent. This meant that a significant portion of our first 40 days in a committed relationship were spent worshipping side by side. I do not doubt that this had a substantial effect on the development of our relationship. By Easter Sunday, I think we both knew that this particular relationship commitment just might be for life.


During Lent 2017, I committed to abstaining from meat for the entire 40 days, not just on Fridays. After Lent, I continued abstaining.


Some would say that I’ve simply become a vegetarian, which is true, but it’s more than that. My abstaining from meat is a faith practice that places me in solidarity with those who must eat simple meals and don’t have the option to choose otherwise. It also places me in solidarity with those who suffer due to the environmental degradation caused by climate change, which is exacerbated by the carbon emissions of animal agriculture. I am reminded of this every time I eat something, and since I eat multiple times I day, I’m almost constantly being placed into this position of sacrifice. As someone who struggles to set aside daily time for prayer or contemplation, this has been one of the most successful practices I’ve committed to for infusing my daily routine with faith, through prayerful sacrifice.


While committing to rise early and attend Mass, date one person and abstain from meat forever do not produce the Easter Sunday experience of indulging in that which has been given up, a clearer conviction to the life I am called to live contributes daily to my Easter joy much more than a chocolate bar ever could.


My professional vocation, my primary vocation and my daily practice of being Catholic all benefitted from my decisions to firmly commit.


In “The Joy of Love” (“Amoris Laetitia”), Pope Francis observes, “Freedom of choice makes it possible toplan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others.” Could our inability to commit to small, meaningful things in life be affecting our ability to discern important commitments?


A decline in commitments to vocations of marriage, the priesthood, religious life and intentional singleness continues in the United States. What is it that people fear? Perhaps they fear feeling trapped by their freely made choices. Perhaps in committing to something for life, they fear never experiencing that Easter day indulgence. This year, instead of setting up our Lenten commitments to be broken joyously on Easter Sunday, perhaps we set ourselves up to celebrate a commitment well kept and worth continued keeping. I can speak from experience to say that meaningful commitments undertaken with sincerity and love can become the most liberating experiences of self-discovery and recurring joy.


Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.





Sacrificial ministry is incomplete without the cross

Caution: This article concerns working with the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and addicts. If your experience of this kind of ministry is limited to the occasional conference talk on social justice in an air-conditioned building, bolstered by small group discussions followed by a tasty lunch, you won’t appreciate it.

If you have hands-on experience with the above-mentioned population, who rejected your good intentions at “helping them,” then you will understand the Gospels in their complexity and entirety.

For most Christians, the seminal Gospel passage often quoted regarding social justice and ministry to the poor is Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

This Gospel makes clear the various acts to be performed, but the sacrificial act of ministry is not complete without the cross. For ministry to be fruitful the mystery of the cross looms behind every act of charity. An act of love, met with the rejection of the intended recipient, if united with the suffering of Jesus on the cross, can produce spiritual fruit more efficacious than any pious sermon on the preferential option for the poor.

Remember what happened to Jesus in John 5:1-16 when He bestowed two healings on the man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been paralyzed for 38 years? The man is healed but nonetheless intentionally betrays Jesus to the authorities for having told him to carry his mat on the Sabbath which led to an intensified persecution of Jesus.

Jesus’ act of charity is met with ingratitude, betrayal and suffering. But, did Jesus stop healing the sick? No.

So, what do you do when the sandwich you offer the hungry man is thrown with contempt in the garbage? You still feed the hungry. When the water you offer the thirsty one is left behind for alcohol? You still give water to the thirsty. When the clothes you offer the poor family are exchanged for drugs? You still give clothes to the poor. When you offer kindness and compassion to the mentally ill or addicts and they calumniate you? You remain kind and compassionate. But, most importantly, you pray to the Father from the depths of your soul uniting your frustration, hurt feelings and misunderstood intentions to Jesus so that He may elevate those acts of charity to the supernatural heights of mercy which we alone, without the cross, are unable to accomplish.

From those heights a shower of grace descends upon the poor, which a mere sandwich, bottle of water, pair of boots or kind smile was unable to achieve by itself. Such is the complexity of social justice and ministry to the poor. Not every recipient of charity is ungrateful, obviously. And many will be kind, pleasant and enjoyable. But don’t let those who betray you and hurt your feelings stop you from performing the good works of the Kingdom.

Jesus didn’t stop. And neither did the saints.

–Originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.