Saturday, July 21, 2012

A hill on the Mohawk River


By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Hundreds of gravestones in neat white rows cover the crest of a hill overlooking the Mohawk River in upstate New York. It may appear to be a military cemetery—the kind the United States leaves behind in all the countries in which it has fought—but the men buried here were not soldiers. They were nonviolent, peace-loving, and, it must be admitted, only a few looked very much like warriors.

The hill overlooking the Mohawk once held Iroquois villages where French Jesuits arrived by canoe in the 17th century to evangelize the Indians. The Jesuits had little success, though one young woman, Kateri Tekakwitha, will soon be canonized. The Indians tortured and killed some of the missionaries, including St. Isaac Joques.

Centuries later, the missionaries gained control of the land where the Indian villages had stood and built a shrine in honor of the French Jesuits. They named it Auriesville. The bones of the laymen working with the Jesuits and killed along with them have never been recovered. These lie somewhere on that hill or in the valleys around it, along with the bones of the Indian chiefs, the few converts the missionaries had made, the young warriors dead in the ceaseless intertribal wars, the Indian mothers and children, some of whom died of diseases brought by the Jesuits and other white men. Along with them are the remains of 500 or so New York Province Jesuits who have died since the 1970s and lie in the neat white rows.

They are all there in the sunshine with the trees, summer clouds, flowers and songbirds. Sadly, there are no traces left of the Indians.

My brother Ned is one of the men lying there, one of the most recent Jesuits to be buried. We came to visit and say our prayers. Then I walked back and forth through the long rows of gravestones, reading each of them; I knew those buried there almost as well as my brother did.

They were all types of men—some were missionaries sent to the Caroline and Marshall Islands and the Philippines; others were parish priests, superiors, authors, scientists, and teachers. There were men who ran labor schools, greeted guests in the novitiate, ran world-famous aquariums, men who campaigned for peace and others who campaigned against pornography. Sometimes other Jesuits didn’t appreciate a man’s work. Peace work was criticized by some of them. Some Jesuits were well-known, others were not. Many were quite eccentric: The Jesuits give their members so much freedom, it is the rare man who doesn’t end up somewhat free-spirited.

I looked up from time to time as I walked through the long rows and realized: This is beautiful country. There are lakes, mountains and a forest bulging with pine, elm and maple. There are deer, hawks, and small furry animals none of us could identify. There are dark blue rivers and farm land sweeping down to the river banks.

I think the Jesuits are content to be there together in that earth with the tiny wild daisies that grow among the graves and the songbirds that sit atop them.

When we were young my brother never dreamed he would end up on that hill. I don’t think he would have imagined being anything but a Latin-Greek professor. He worked eventually with Fr. Dan Berrigan in the peace movement and then he set up with friends a soup kitchen that has grown into a very effective social center for poor people in the Bronx. On his tombstone—if the Jesuits allowed brief summaries of people’s lives on their tombstones—might be the words: “He tried to make peace. He fed the hungry.”

We walked away with peace in our hearts, leaving the French Jesuits, the Iroquois and the more recent dead to God’s warm and calming care.

The last stanza of “Amazing Grace” could have been written about the Jesuits of Auriesville and the Indians of the Mohawk River: “When we’ve been there ten thousand years/ Bright shining as the sun/ We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise/ Than when we’d first begun.”

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. Please send your feedback to

Sunday, July 8, 2012

An alarming sermon


While in the United States, my wife and I heard a sermon one Sunday that at one point sent shivers up and down my spine. The priest talked of a meeting he had attended in Florida with 200 or so priests from different parts of the United States. He explained that the meeting had been called to discuss the new Mass Missal, but that it quickly carried over into more current problems – for example, the nasty controversy between the Vatican and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the dispute over the basic meaning of Vatican Council II.

It was a lovely June morning and many in the church were probably thinking of the US Open Golf Tournament that would end that afternoon.  The priest was saying that Rome, according to the priests at the meeting, acted incorrectly in its efforts to control the free speech and actions of the LCWR, and was wrong also in its belief that Vatican II merely restated traditional doctrine in language more suitable for the modern world, and did not lay the foundation for important future changes in teaching, practice and explosive new eras of evangelization.

The priest didn’t mention the Pope but talked of “Rome” and the “Vatican,” but in such serious matters who can speak for Rome if not the Pope? The criticism of the Pope sent shivers up and down my spine not because the criticism was on target but because it could be correct and that papal error was being discussed at a quiet Sunday Mass, as if it were a very ordinary matter.

It was unsettling for someone raised long ago in an Irish American parish in the Bronx. The stern face of Pope Pius XII granting our family indulgences stared down at us from our living room wall as far back as I can remember. Popes then were treated with touching respect. The times have changed, for sure; now we discuss charges that, if correct, would make the Pope a heretic.

The accusation that the Pope has misinterpreted Vatican II is the stuff of schism. As far as this author knows, the accusation is unparalleled in Church history. If the Pope has made a poor analysis of Vatican II and is guiding the Church on the basis of that analysis, we are most probably in trouble. We may have been going in the wrong direction for years and may continue to do so for years to come. Perhaps we should have guessed something was wrong when Rome put an end to the Theology of Liberation in the early 1980s. This theology was part of the Church of the Poor crusade that blossomed right after Vatican II as if it were the special concrete result of the discernment and prayers of the bishops at the Council.

Instead of Vatican II’s optimism at that time, we hear talk now of a “remnant” possibility, meaning Rome may be willing to see the number of the Church’s true believers shrink in the face of  secularism and other problems until only a small number of Catholics remain. It seems a gloomy future for the Church that emerged with such hope from the Council in 1965.

One problem may be that Rome doesn’t appreciate the local Churches in Asia, Africa and Latin America and even the Church in the United States. Rome may be pessimistic about the future of the European Church, but the Asian, African and Latin American Churches are not pessimistic. Rome doesn’t seem able to allow the hopeful experience of these non-European Churches to guide or, at least, to help guide its thinking.
I looked at the people around me, including my wife. They didn’t seem upset in any way. There was less coughing than is usually heard during a sermon. At the end of the sermon the congregation applauded. I asked my wife later what she made of the applause, and she said it might have been that the people were grateful they had been taken into the priest’s confidence and told the truth, at least as far as the priest knew it.

How did the Church arrive at this situation?

I think that ever since Vatican II, the Holy Spirit has intended to guide the universal Church through the Churches of Asia, Latin America and Africa. The intent of the Spirit, therefore, cannot be discerned by examining the Church in Europe. Immediately after Vatican II in 1965, there arose in Latin America the movement of faith centered on the poor called the Church of the Poor. In Asia in 1970, Pope Paul VI attended a meeting of Asian bishops in Manila, and the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference was started. It described the Church’s approach to the ancient religions and cultures of Asia as one of respect, and of eagerness to work with them on the great poverty of Asia. Work with the poor seems the common characteristic of Latin America and Asia.

In the Philippines, our religions and political futures are intertwined. Both must focus on the poor, it seems, if we are to have a peaceful, progressive and just country.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates with e-mail address

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