Fr. Joe Nassal, C.PP.S. authored a Holy Week Retreat that we will present here on the province website. Each day will be added the morning of the presentation.

Prayer in a Pandemic

(To be prayed each day)

God of Life,
this Holy Week we stand under the shadow
of the cross of Covid-19.
Each day, the numbers of those infected rise and the death toll climbs.
It is a time of fear and
confusion as we cry out to you in our distress.
As your heart breaks at the suffering of your people,
you bend your ear
and hear our prayer.

As we walk this holy way,
help us to empty ourselves
to make a space for your paschal mystery.

Open our eyes to see you,
our ears to hear your voice.
You do not abandon us
but send your Son, Jesus,
to walk this road with us.

With our fragile faith,
You give us the courage
to remember how
You accompany us
along the way,
to remind us we are not
alone but stand together
under the weight
of this cross.


Holy Week 2020 Retreat: Conference 2

Compassionate Presence:
When Death Approaches

Readings Available at

Isaiah 42, 1-7
Psalm 27
John 12, 1-11

In his book, The Violence of Love, St. Oscar Romero reflects on the beginning of Holy Week. He wrote these words forty-one years ago, on April 6, 1979, less than a year before he would be killed, but his prophetic words ring true as we gather in prayer under the shadow of the cross and the coronavirus on this Monday of Holy Week:

The message of Holy Week has perhaps greater meaning for the present time than for any time before. Amid so many voices from oppressed and oppressors, amid so much machinery of oppression and so many moans of victims, amid the selfishness of those who refuse to hear the protest of the hungry, in the presence of rightful efforts made for social justice, and in particular as we live surrounded by a virtual environment of terrorism, vengeance, and violence—what good it would do us all to raise our problems and our feelings and personal or group efforts to the transcendent level that Christ call us to from his cross in Holy Week: to God’s justice and merciful love.

Our invitation this Holy Week is to lift all of our problems and panic, our fears and our tears, our worries and anxieties, our isolation and loneliness, our grief and pain, to the cross of Jesus and commend them to God’s compassionate presence and merciful love. Here we find our solidarity and our communion with one another as we seek “empty ourselves” of whatever it is that holds us hostage to our fears. When we empty ourselves as Jesus did, we open up that space within that allows us to hold one another in prayer, to offer our compassionate presence to one another across the miles.

Several years ago, a religious sister and friend who spent most of her life in ministry in the inner city, living and working with the poor, seeking justice while practicing mercy, was diagnosed with cancer. For almost two years, Nancy had to receive weekly intravenous treatments. Somewhere in the middle of this exhausting process she needed to restore her health, Nancy lost her courage. She wanted to run and hide. In describing this experience, she wrote, “It is hard to say which collapsed first, my soul or my veins, but collapse they both did. One day the search for a healthy vein became too painful. I pushed the needle away and cried.”

In telling her story, Nancy recalls that the nurse left the room but returned a short while later holding the hand of a little girl. This ten-year-old girl had battled cancer for most of her life. The child smiled at Nancy and said, “You should have one of these.” Lifting her T-shirt, she showed Nancy the hole that had been cut into her abdomen so that she could receive her treatments through a permanent plastic port. Then this little girl put her hand, so small and so soft, on Nancy’s hand and said, “You can take it.” And Nancy did.

There was a tone of authority in the little girl’s voice because of the suffering she had known in the ten short years of her life. Because this little girl had listened well to her own suffering, she had the right to speak. Her words rang with authority and with hope. With her compassionate presence, she gave Nancy the courage to continue her treatments.

Compassion: The Aroma of Grace

We hear such compassionate presence in today’s gospel. Jesus is in Bethany at the home of his good friends, Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. This is after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead although it’s not clear when this dinner took place. We know it was “six days before Passover” but not how long after Lazarus came shuffling out of the tomb. But let’s imagine it is shortly after Lazarus has been raised from the dead.

Martha is in her familiar role serving the guests. One can imagine she also had prepared the funeral dinner after Lazarus had died—remember he had been dead four days by the time Jesus arrived at the tomb. Martha once again takes a serving role as she does in Luke’s gospel when she was consumed by all the details of hospitality that she complains she’s doing all the work while her sister Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and doesn’t lift a finger to help her.

We find Mary in a similar place in today’s gospel, taking “a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointing the feet of Jesus and drying them with her hair.” Mary is practicing the art of hospitality since washing the feet of guests is an act of hospitality. Mary has certainly taken the lowest place. But in this scene, she is not washing the feet of Jesus; she is anointing them; using an expensive oil that fills the house with a sweet aroma, a spring fragrance, a scent of love.

Because the stench of death is in the air. Remember Martha’s words to Jesus when he told them to roll away the stone where Lazarus was buried: “Lord, it has been four days now; surely there will be a stench.” Now the odor of death has returned as we heard at the conclusion of today’s gospel when Jesus’ adversaries become increasingly frustrated by the large crowds following Jesus and they begin to plot not only to kill Jesus but also Lazarus because many were coming to believe in Jesus because he raised Lazarus from the dead. Dan Berrigan once said that that resurrection was against the law because the dead are supposed to stay dead!

So what Mary is doing here is not only offering hospitality and seeking to freshen the air to overwhelm the smell of death. Even more, she is celebrating the sacrament of anointing. She is anointing Jesus’ body for burial. She wants to remember this moment of profound intimacy with her beloved friend by anointing his body.

This is one of the most difficult aspects of those who are dying from this coronavirus—loved ones are not able to be with them as they approach death, to touch them, to hold them. Last Saturday on NPR, there was an interview with a funeral director from Chicago on how the coronavirus has “changed how we deal with death.” As Scott Simon said, “Social distancing and stay-at-home orders have essentially brought an end to large funerals and memorials where people can share their grief. A brief hug to comfort a mourner is potentially lethal.” So, he asked Norman Williams, the funeral director, the impact this pandemic has on rituals of grieving. “The first thing you want to do is reach out to them and to touch them,” Mr. Williams said. “Grief is usually a very intimate and physical process that’s done in groups. And at the very moment people rely most on the traditions of their religious faith, or the healing of friends nearby, the room is largely empty.”

The need to reach out and touch someone who is dying or who has died is very real. My Mom was at work when my older brother Ed died by suicide and because of the nature of his death, the first responders kept her away from seeing his body. Though we had a closed casket, Mom needed to see her oldest son and though the funeral director and I advised against it, he opened the casket for a few seconds before the visitation began. It is an image still seared in my memory more than thirty years later.

But it is not only Mary who needed to touch the body of Jesus, who was intuitive to know this might be the last time she would see Jesus alive and want to remember this moment forever. Jesus also wants people to remember her witness of love. In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus says of the unnamed woman, “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

Not only is the woman who anointed unnamed, but in Mark’s passion story, this anointing happens in the home of an outcast, Simon the leper. Though both Mark and John locate this scene in Bethany, John has it taking place in the home of Jesus’ friends, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, while Mark has Jesus hanging out in a place where we often find him in Mark’s gospel—on the fringe, with the outcasts.

Both Mark and John note how this lavish display dislocates the noses of some of his disciples, especially the one who holds the purse strings, Judas Iscariot. Though the perfumed oil might have been a pleasing fragrance, Judas and some of the others held their noses and complained the perfume was a waste of money. “It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages and the money given to the poor.”

John points out, “He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.” Jesus defends Mary by telling Judas, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

On the one hand, it seems like an extravagant waste of money to buy this costly perfume. But on the other hand, when focusing on the presence of Christ, the body of Christ, there is no extravagance. Someone we love is about to die and nothing is too extravagant when it comes to the cost of love. Jesus’ response about the poor has always caused discomfort among those who stand with the poor calling for more justice and a fair distribution of the world’s resources. Certainly, Jesus proved time and time again his concern for the poor. But here the focus is on a person who is about to die and Mary is giving a powerful witness of compassionate presence.

As that little girl was for Nancy, Mary was for Jesus. Her compassionate presence nurtured courage in his heart as he continued his journey toward the cross.

When Death Comes

With the number of deaths caused by the coronavirus climbing each day, death is on our minds and hearts during these days of Holy Week. We hear in Jesus’ words to Judas that death is on his mind. As I stand in this chapel at Sonnino Mission House where Father Jim Sloan prayed for so many years, the poem by Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” that I quoted at his funeral comes to my mind. In one of the verses, the poet writes:

When death comes…
I want to step through the door full of curiosity,
Wondering: what is it going to be like,
That cottage of darkness?

The night nurse at Saint Charles Center who was with Father Jim when he died, said he asked her, “What’s next?” These were his last words, “What’s next?” That sounds like Jim. He was creative and curious about so many things, about ideas and arts, spirituality and social justice.

In her poem, “When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver captures this endless quest for understanding, knowledge and fulfillment. She approaches death not with fear and trembling but curiosity and hope: “When it’s over,” the poet writes, “I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement, I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.”

Fr. Jim spent his life “married to amazement”—he wanted to know more; he wanted to know, “What’s next?” Jim loved to travel. He and his good friend, Fr. Bill Walter, took many trips together, visiting many countries and seeing many sights. If we approach death with such a holy curiosity, like an adventure we have been planning for all of our lives, like a trip to a country we’ve always wanted to visit, then, Oliver writes:

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility…

As people of faith, as people who believe passionately in the resurrection of the dead and the communion of saints, this view of death as an eternity filled with endless possibilities might fill us with hope and consolation in this time of fear and distress.

Indeed, as we ponder the death of Jesus during this Holy Week, Mary Oliver gives us a voice. Her poem continues:

…and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a daisy, and as singular.,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth
tending as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

This is so important to remember during this time when we hear the statistics, the numbers of those who are dying: each one has a story, a name that played “comfortable music” in the mouths and hearts of each and every one who loved her; each one’s life “a lion of courage” and each person “precious to the earth” and precious in the eyes of God.

The great mystic Meister Eckart viewed death as a coming home. He wrote, “God is at home. We are in the far country.” His words echo in the conclusion of Mary Oliver’s poem:

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I made my life something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened
and full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

In the face of so much death caused by the coronavirus, this Holy Week invites us to reflect on the death of Jesus and our own, by reflecting on how we are living our lives right now. Are we making of our lives “something particular and real”?

A Holy Curiosity

“The important thing,” Albert Einstein once said, “is not to stop questioning. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

This is one of the great dangers we face today: as people of faith we stop asking questions and fall back into patterns of black and white. Though there are few people who own black and white television sets anymore or take black and white photographs, there seems to be a number of people who like their answers to religious questions in black and white with very few shades of gray.

That seems to be the place where the disciples complaining about the cost of the oil and the religious leaders who felt threatened by Jesus find themselves. They had a very clear understanding of right and wrong, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders. They believed to be holy, one had to follow the rules and there was no room in the rules for risk takers like Jesus.

But Jesus defined holiness in a very different way. Each and every person made in God’s image and likeness is holy. Throughout his life, Jesus sought to restore that image of God in those he encountered who were broken by sin or blamed or shamed. He saw that image of God in each person; he saw each one as a child of God.

When Mary anointed Jesus, she recognizes and affirms his holiness. By reaching out to Jesus in such a sacred way, Jesus not only confirms her and says this sacrament of compassionate presence will be told forever, but affirms the sacredness of every human life.

Mary’s recognition of holiness recalls a story from Robert Wicks. When he was teaching, one of his students had spent a summer doing an internship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. When Wicks asked him to describe the archbishop, the student said, “He’s a holy man.” Wicks pushed the student to define what he meant by “holiness” and after stumbling and fumbling for words, the student finally said, “I don’t know! All I know is that when I was with Archbishop Tutu, I felt holy.” That is one of the best descriptions of holiness I’ve heard.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus speaks eloquently and powerfully of recognizing the dignity and dreams of every human being. It reflects the Sufi mystic and poet, Tagore, wrote: “I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” While Mary may have spent her days and nights practicing the music of contemplative and compassionate presence, when the time came for her song to be sung, she was ready. And that is why the music and melody of her compassionate presence will never be forgotten.

Perhaps during our retreat today, we could ask ourselves, what song did I come to sing? What song were you born to sing? Have we spent our lives singing our songs? Or, in my case, have I become Joe one-note? Has my song survived or am I still trying to tune the instrument so it sounds just right?

When I was in grade school, I took clarinet lessons and played in the school band. At the high school seminary, we had a band or combo that practiced and played now and then at school Masses. Remember it was the seventies and combos and guitar Mass were in vogue. I was no Benny Goodman or Pete Fountain—the only two clarinet players that I’ve heard of—but after high school, I never picked up the clarinet again. To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked up the clarinet in the first place. It never became much of a passion. So, when I consider Tagore’s question, I have not spent my days whetting the reed to play the clarinet. It was not my instrument.

Perhaps at various times in our lives, the leader of the band has asked us to play a song that is not our own. We can certainly fill the position and maybe even learn the notes well enough to do the work but somewhere deep inside we recognize it is not our song, not our passion. This can sometimes lead to singing a dirge rather than whistling a happy tune.

Thomas Merton in No Man Is An Island made this point by defining happiness as consisting of “finding out precisely what the ‘one thing necessary’ may be in our lives and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by divine paradox, we find everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

Have I discovered what the ‘one thing necessary’ is for my life?

How many in our world never have the opportunity to sing their song? How many haven’t heard the music playing in their souls? Or were never given the opportunity to provide the melody or the harmony or to write a new song because they were told there is only this song, this music?

First Song of the Suffering Servant

In the first reading for this Monday of Holy Week, we hear the first song of the Suffering Servant and I want to conclude this reflection with a few words about how the servant fulfilled his mission, sang his song, in the world: “not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.”

The servant sings his song of service, of bringing forth justice to the nations, tenderly, quietly, “a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” Our journey this Holy Week is about tending the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. The justice we seek is steady and steadfast, not a flash in the pan but holding fast to each other in prayer.

The prophet reminds us that God has grasped us by the hand, formed us, and set us as a “covenant of the people, a light for the nations.” And the justice we seek, the love we share, the mercy we extend will “open the eyes of the blind, bring prisoners out of confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.” We are the servants of God’s mercy and justice. This is our song and this week gives us time to listen to its music in the depth of our hearts.

In her book, Writing and the Spiritual Life: Finding Your Voice by Looking Within, Patrice Vecchione writes, “Life is a blend of possibility and impossibility…mystery and spirit run through our days like rivers and sustain us.” Rivers do not run in straight lines. They carve a path through the landscape. It is like time itself. Some people prefer Chronos time while others wait for Kairos time. Chronos time is the way the crow flies—in a straight line. The word chronology reflects this pattern of thinking about time—just the facts, ma’am.

Kairos time is as the eagle flies—majestic and memorable and maybe even magical. It is Martin Luther King standing before the Washington Monument and straying from his prepared text to deliver lyrical language drawn from the Scriptures that lifted millions to the cause of liberation and civil rights. As we know now, the most memorable lines in Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech were not necessarily the prepared remarks but the spontaneous outburst of vision and hope.

Perhaps we’ve been trying to address the chaos in the world from a chronological point of view for too long. We forget that the great moments in history are Kairos moments when someone steps up or speaks out or—as in the case of Rosa Parks—sits down and that one’s courage become contagious. As Vecchione writes, “From chaos comes clarity.”

We have entered the chaos of Holy Week where the confusion and fear caused by the coronavirus keeps time on our minds and hearts. We need courage and compassion to be even more contagious today if we are going to defeat this coronavirus. As Jesus was preparing to die, he was grateful for the compassionate presence of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus for giving him a safe place to focus on what is most important, most essential.

May we nurture and enlarge that safe place within during these days as we reflect and hold in prayer those who are most important to us and what is most essential in living as the beloved daughters and sons of God.

Be safe, take good care as we continue to meet in prayer.


At the Crossroads: Reflections at the Intersection of Life and Death

  • Where does the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus find a place in your personal story?
  • How does the coronavirus pandemic reflect the paschal mystery?
  • What does it mean to you to be holy? Who are some of the people in your life you see as “holy”?
  • The world stands under the cross of the coronavirus this Holy Week. But what personal crosses do you stand under at this time in your life? Listen to the whisper of the wood of your crosses; listen to your losses. What do you hear? What are they teaching you?
  • What sorrows have left scars upon your heart?
  • Who are the fallen, the forsaken, and the forgotten in your life?
  • What have you learned from those who have fallen under the weight of their crosses and losses?
  • Our mistakes and missed opportunities are our best teachers. What have you learned from your own stumbles, fumbles, and falls?
  • Recall an experience when going through the door of the cross led you deeper into the heart of the paschal mystery.How have you experienced God’s presence in your suffering?
  • Who has shared the gift of tears with you recently? Reflect on experiences in your life when another has invited you into her Garden of Gethsemane? What was that experience like for you?
  • Whose feet have your washed recently? Who has washed your feet?