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Dear Friends,


In addition to teaching of a God of mercy seeking relationship with us, not a God demanding sacrifices for our sins, Jesus made his original followers so eager to spread the “good news” because he did not preach tribalism, nor did he seek to reinforce tribal identity.


Jesus was a Jew from birth to death, he worked within the categories of Judaism, but he did not define himself with those categories.


The title that Jesus himself most certainly introduced in speaking of his own identity was, “Son of Man,” it appears 29 times in Matthew, 14times in Mark, 26 times in Luke, and 13 times in John.


Obviously, Jesus must have been trying to make a point in using that title exclusively, and while the Gospel writers agree on little {not even the text of the Lord’s Prayer, mind you}, they are unanimous in affirming the non-tribal nature of the self-understanding of Jesus as, the Son of Man.


Son of Man implies that Jesus was a son of the human without ethnic, racial, or political identities, just a son of the human. While there is the notion of gender, other actions of Jesus indicate that he did not cling to gender as a marker of identity to set him apart over and against women.


He took each person as they presented themselves on their terms.


Eleven verses into Mark’s version of Jesus, Jesus experiences the “heavens being torn open and the Spirit like a dove descending on him.”


Pretty powerful language. What had been awakened in him by that kind of display? Can you imagine?


If that isn’t enough a voice from the heavens speaks, “You are my beloved son; with you I find great pleasure.”


Then, after all of that, “at once the Spirit drove him out into the desert” where his identity was tested and integrated.


Most of us don’t have those kinds of heavenly experiences to shape our identities but we do have experiences. Our cultural, familial, and ethnic atmospheres dramatically and subtly form and give shape to our identities.


I think the Gospels reflect the concerns of Jesus to figure out what all of this means and how can he teach others what he has experienced about himself and learned about God. Jesus had been awakened to a new understanding of himself and I believe that was what drove his mission, awakening others.


He encountered two very tribal groups in those efforts, the Roman Empire and the Jewish religious system. They were both extremely resistant to any kind of change or challenge to extend or expand their self-understandings.


One of my wonderful young friends in the parish is involved with other young people in discussing religion and God and the Bible.


He asked my advice.


I told him not to be concerned about who is right or what religion is the correct one, but to focus on his own life and think about his experiences, especially those that lift him up, make him happy and less antagonistic and fretful.


I suggested him to think about consolation and if ideas and people and experiences helped him to be consoled when things are not so good.


I suggested he think about what his religious resources (me, this parish) do for him and not to get into arguments with his friends because we are all at different places on the journey.


I told him that I don’t believe that religion is so much about being right or certain, but being open and curious as to what is going on both on the surface and beneath the surface of life for a whole lifetime, not just now as if this is our only chance at faith.


For those who seek to believe in Christ, the Gospel sets question marks on all claims of truth, our own experience of truth and any other claim of truth. Those questions ought to remain until we get to heaven, at least.


Faith in Christ is not a battle cry, Christ does not create a kingdom like the kingdoms that we create. The Kingdom of God calls for no passports, no identity cards, no pedigrees, no provenances, no certificates from our pastor.


Jesus did not use identity as a determining factor in his mission or teaching.


Even when the Syro-Phonecian woman (Mark 7:25-30/Matthew 15:21-28} asked him to heal her daughter and he appeared to play the identity card, she trumps him, indicating that the story itself is designed to disentangle Jesus from identity theology.


The Jesus that we find in the Gospel stories reached out to everyone but explicitly to the non-conformers, those who did not fit the categories and markers of his Jewish tribal religion and cultural background.


He interacted with women, lepers, the possessed, sinners, Samaritans, he touched the dead, he ate with sinners and tax collectors, and he rescued a woman caught in the very act of adultery from the hands of the tribal leaders.


Today is Veterans Day, Armistice Day in Europe, people are pausing to remember that 100 years ago this day the “war to end all wars” finally ended.


We know that it did not end all wars and one of the reasons is, in my opinion, that Christianity in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, have never considered the role that tribal Christian churches played in creating the conditions, even, the reasons for war and come to terms with that.


Jesus teaches us in the Gospel of John 11:15, “I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”


Joy is the mission driving force not correct thinking and it is painfully obvious, that joy is absent from so many lives, so, so many lives.


I watched this season of political rallies and those folks who are so confidently Christian, seem to be so angry and so hostile and so  very easily frightened.


There are new catechetical initiatives in our country that are selling a militant orthodoxy that suggests that since 1967, the end of the Second Vatican Council, we have been tinkering with the “faith,” playing at being Church, not taking Christ at his word, not being faithful.


Many of these movements imply, some quite aggressively, that Pope Francis in not legitimate, that he is a pretender pope, and his leadership is not to be taken seriously, that he has muddied the waters.


They want to promote a binary view of the world and retribalize the Catholic Church with what I call “identity theology.”


They see aggressive apologetics of catechism theology that has no doubts, no need for searching for the truth, no need to consult outside their own circles of expertise, as what will save the Catholic Church , more specifically, the Catholic parish.


In my experience in trying to be a disciple of Christ, I have to be able to live with doubts, be uncertain, learn from dark and sad moments, feel compassion, be thankful when I am shown mercy and try to be merciful not only in my actions but in my thoughts.


The urgent and crucial human rights and dignity issues of this day have to be a part of our Christianity not as political issues but as human issues as Christ clearly taught in what we call, the Beatitudes, the way of blessings.


An underlying assumption of this new apologetical Catholicism is that the Catholic Church in particular and Christianity in general is under attack by secular forces committed to destroying religion in this country. It sells in politics, much to the disgust of many of us.


But I wonder if their real fear isn’t rooted in Pope Francis’ tolerance for ambiguity in matters of faith and morals and the questions he raises about Western capitalistic values, environmental concerns, and the plight of women and children of the Third World.


Faith in my experience is at times a quiet unfolding of truth, those very brief moments when Word and world are one, at other times, a silent realization of mystery, and yet at other times, the terrors of the night.


I try to live with optimistic anxiety, existential ambiguity, and believe that the Christ was still Christ even in the tomb.


I believe that all kinds of people every day, especially young people, probably because they are not in a tribalized Church, are being awakened to experiences of themselves as made in God’s image that they never imagined and that is changing the world and the Church.



Father Niblick