If a sabbatical is supposed to be about renewal, and if renewal can take many forms, for me it means a time for praying, reading, writing, thinking, and a bit of golf.  Sometimes these can be structured and organized; sometimes, things happen.

          That has been my experience these last few days here at Mundelein as I’ve inhabited the premises with about 100 men and women from all over the world for a bi-annual meeting of the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values (ISREV).  Of course, I have not gone to a single plenary presentation.  But I have had the chance to sit with many of these participants during meals and engage in conversation with them.  This morning (5 August) is their last day, and at breakfast we discussed some dimensions of papers given the previous day—we ranged from the place of religious education in universities (from the perspective of S Africa), the purpose of “happiness” in life, and the extent to which Viktor Frankl’s understanding of meaning can be applied.  I also got into a sustained (= over a period of a couple of days) discussion with one man who was researching and writing on the philosophical anthropologist Rene Girard (whom I’d never heard of before).  His thought is challenging, finally not 100% credible to me, and intriguing.  How else could such a conversation have occurred, except “by the grace of God”?

          So my experience here at the seminary goes beyond my own plans of reading and writing.  Another “chance encounter” allowed me to concelebrate Mass this past Tuesday, and to preside/preach this past Thursday.  This was a special experience for me, even if the congregation was only about 10.  So many things came together on that day:  it is, of course, still the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and it was the day Pope Francis went to Assisi to pray privately in the Porziuncola in commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the “Porziuncola Pardon” (I’ll leave it to you to research it!).  In addition, it was the Memorial of St Jean Marie Vianney, the Curé of Ars—patron of parish priests and someone who heard confessions as much as 16 hours a day:  certainly someone cut in the mold of the Holy Father!).  Lastly, the Scriptures for Mass were the “new covenant” of Jeremiah 31:31-34, and the “keys of the Kingdom” of Matthew 16:13-23.  It gave me a chance to reflect on the importance of mercy and pardon, and to observe that the “new covenant” was about God’s remembering our sins no more (= they cease to exist!), and that while we sometimes focus too much on the Church’s ability to bind, we need to remember also its authority to loose.

          These are the blessings that cannot be planned; they are making this a very special sabbatical for me.  I hope you don’t mind that I’m still away…