April 30, 2010

Better Men and Honored Maids

In my experience as the Church's official witness for nuptial consent, which is admittedly brief, I have observed a disturbing phenomenon. Increasingly, couples are unable to elect a singe Best Man and Maid of Honor. I know, it's awful to have play favorites, and in our PC culture everybody has to be a winner, but this business is a little silly.

To be honest, though, I don't mind the extra person on the bride's side. The way I do things, the Maid of Honor is the hardest worker in the whole ceremony, charged as she is with preventing the bride from falling down the stairs or ruining her makeup with tears, etc. She is responsible for the maintenance of She Who Is High Maintenance, and rightly so, at that moment. So having these two Maids of Honor isn't so bad.

On the other hand, I see no redeeming quality in having two Best Men. The Best Man is charged with two simple but critical tasks: making sure the groom doesn't faint or run away, and producing the rings on demand. Even in my short experience, the question of the rings is fraught with danger. "That's not my ring," said one of my brides once. "It is today!" I responded. To have two Best Men in this job would seem to me a violation of the Airplane Rule. Complexity increases the probability of failure. Keep it simple.

Finally, given that this is happening, I want to suggest some changes in nomenclature. There cannot be two Best Men; it is a grammatical absurdity. As St. Paul reminds us, though all the athletes compete, only one can win the prize, just as he also said that it is better to marry than to be on fire. Like Tyler Durden, St. Paul is full of useful information. If there are two of them, I say they are to be called Better Men.

The same goes for the girls, though perhaps with less force. I say we call them Honored Maids.

April 29, 2010

Walking

I've always been a walker. Wherever I live I always fall into set paths: Prospect St. to Ogden St. to Edgehill Rd. in New Haven. The main road through Connecticut College down to the lonely back of Cummings Arts Center and back over South Lot to the far road. Down the River Corrib path to Galway Cathedral and back home on Newcastle. Up Waterman to Thayer and down to Wickenden, where all the coolest spots in Providence could be found. Up the white trail to the 'stop sign' blazed red trail at Sleeping Giant. Down Fulton St. to Euclid Ave. on the edge of Queens. Up Mass Ave. past Porter Square past John the Evangelist to that funny pedestrian path right by the Greek pizzeria that leads all the way to Alewife station, and then back on the T. The big loop of Morsemere down to the Roberts Ave. in Yonkers, a stop at Christ the King, and back home on North Broadway.

Somehow my walking provides for me an intersection of freedom, contemplation, and solitude. At least that's what one of my best spiritual directors once suggested.

I bring this all up because it has become for me an example of how God redeems our personalities and natural peculiarities for His own purposes. Here in the parish ministry, my walking has done a lot for me. I almost never drive anywhere if it's not too far to walk, given the time I have. One result of this is that I not only run into parishioners, but I get to know the sort of folks who hang out in the streets. It makes me feel more connected to the people, gives me opportunities to ask about their concerns, and gives that much more specificity to my prayer for the intentions of the people of the parish.

This is the sort of plain reflection that gives me a little bit more confidence and clarity in my own vocation as a friar and a priest. I can see God making use of me in my own particularity. It's easy to see the Holy Spirit making use of one's talents and strengths, but when He is discerned to be making a redemptive use even of one's eccentricities or random habits, it reveals the depths of the gentle salvation of God.

Phreaking, Reminiscing, and Googling

I spent much of today in a state of under-productivity due to having to wait around for the phone guy, who never came. I have quite a few irons in the fire with Verizon right now; two old POTS lines that mysteriously ring busy when called, and another account which they have turned over to collection for a phone line I have never been able to find or determine has ever been in service. We should have got rid of all this old cruft when we put in the T-1, but I digress into phreaky rant.

Anyway, in my idleness, I was thinking about Confirmation last night and thought back to my own Confirmation. I was twenty years old and a junior in college. I was appended to the year's crop of ordinary confirmandi at the parish near school. At the time they seemed like kids; there's a big difference between twenty and fourteen. But time softens age gaps, and today I was thinking about how my Confirmation classmates must all be around thirty-two by now. I wondered what had happened to them; if any had become famous or infamous, or entered religious life or the priesthood. I took out the program from that night and googled them. Almost all had Facebook profiles. One was a professor of government somewhere. One had been arrested for some kind of tax problem with his restaurant.

So I prayed for all of us, for the continued grace of the Spirit in our journey, the Confirmation class of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Quaker Hill, Connecticut, December 11th, 1992

April 28, 2010

Overheard: Homiletic Arithmetic FTW

Last night was Confirmation. It's always a joyful night, and it's good to see so many of our young people completing their sacramental initiation. In the sacristy, while we were preparing for the procession, the bishop was playing with the altar servers, asking each of them in turn if they would like to preach the Mass. All but one shyly declined the opportunity.

Then the bishop came to one girl who had herself been confirmed the year before.

"Would you like to give the homily?" he asked.

"Sure," she exclaimed, "1 + 1 = 3!"

She was referring to a part of the homily from the previous year, at her own Confirmation Mass, in which the bishop warned the confirmandi of the dangers of premarital sex and teen pregnancy. Get it? 1 + 1 = 3.

The bishop was startled and taken aback that his homily, at least in part, had been remembered. We parish staff were proud, of course. Not accepting the calling of his bluff, however, the bishop did preach the Mass himself, and even used the "1 + 1 = 3" bit once again.

April 27, 2010

Grief

This morning I offered a funeral Mass for a baby. He had two days in this life.

The grief and shock, the tragic wrongness of the whole thing, the pitiful little coffin, it was all so sad.

At the cemetery, while I was waiting for the funeral director to take me back to the friary, I started to think about God's Heart. Take the sadness of this funeral today and multiply it times just the children killed by abortion in one day, and that's a look into the Heart of God.

May he rest in peace.

April 26, 2010

Getting There

The other day I finished the Holy Father's doctoral habilitation The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure (in translation), and I have to say that I really enjoyed it. It's a 'page turner.' If you've ever wondered how someone like Bonaventure could preserve the eschatological edge of Franciscanism by correcting the excesses of Joachim of Fiore and his early receptors, and by making a subtle Christological shift of Christ from eschatological end to center of creation, then this is the book for you.

Having an argument about Christ as end and/or center might not seem to matter, but I think it does. As Christians, we need to recover our eschatology. We have lost, to some degree, our sense that the world as a whole and we as individuals are on a linear pilgrimage of which this life is only a part. The loss of this sense has hampered us in our senses of both life and death.

In the area where I work, aimlessness is one of the larger pastoral and human problems I see. It seems like a lot of young men die here; guys in their 30s or 40s who never really got going in life and who often fall into alcohol and drug abuse. I feel for them because I can see that it's hard here. There isn't much to do. Unless you're a schoolteacher, cop, join the fire department or work for the casino, or unless you have the wherewithal to get a job in the City and commute, there isn't much left. I sometimes wonder if preaching with an eschatological edge would help. I don't mean that I would get up and preach the fear of hell, but explain the good news that our human lives have some urgency to them; that we are live lives that become less revisable each day and through which we decide who we want to be in eternity. Not that this is a matter of fear. It is the stuff of opportunity, and when we put ourselves to it we find peace and joy because we are aligning ourselves with the fundamental movements of the entire creation. Purposefulness of life is harmony with the pilgrim creation.

Our lack of eschatological consciousness also reveals itself in how we handle death. It's why funerals have become 'celebrations of life' rather than offerings of prayer and sacrifice for someone at a turning point in their ongoing journey. It's why Mass intentions have become opportunities to memorialize the dead rather than to pray for them. Many priests wouldn't dream of using anything but white as the liturgical color for funerals. I have nothing against white, which is the right and dignity of all the baptized, but doesn't making the option for white in funerals into an unassailable norm betray a little bit of presumption?

April 25, 2010

Sundays and Celibacy

Today was one of those Sundays when I both open the church in the morning and close it in the afternoon.

At six this morning I went to the church to set up for the first Mass. Once I had everything set up, there was almost enough light to offer Morning Prayer, so I made my meditation first and then opened my breviary. All this before turning on the lights or opening the church. (As anyone learns fast, you can't open the church too early in the morning, because no matter how early it is, someone will start coming at that time and then resent you when it's locked.) It's such a privileged solitude to sit, locked in and alone with the Blessed Sacrament and the paschal candle in the dim, early morning natural light. I am unworthy of the privilege of being able to pray this way.

Then I open up and everything gears up. I offer two Masses in a row, have a break, and then have four babies to baptize. In the course of the day I probably greet a couple hundred people. I promise to pray for all kinds of intentions, sign bulletins for children and sponsor forms for adults. I bless a couple of rosaries, and hear reports from retreats.

Then, at about four in the afternoon, having wrapped up the baptismal paperwork and some other random stuff to get ahead on the week, I go back to the church and find it empty once again. I grab the arcane set of keys that open the poor boxes and the vigil candle donations. I collect all of the crumpled money and put in the right bags. All quiet. I check the holy water bucket and decide that it can get through the week. (I don't know what people do with it, and maybe I don't want to know. We go through several gallons a week.) Then I put off the lights, lock up, and sit down again in the solitude to offer Evening Prayer. I'm back where I started, there in the dark with my breviary and my Lord. Before the Our Father I try to remember all of the intentions I was given today; a complicated pregnancy, a blood test tomorrow, another young man who said, "Please pray for my attitude."

I know I repeat myself and write about this over and over, but it continues to strike me at deeper levels: the starkness of the shift from intense social-ness to total solitude in the life of priestly ministry. The day begins and ends with solitary prayer in the sacred space of this church, but in between the same space is filled with people and noise and music and prayers.

It speaks to me of celibacy. It isn't a life of separation from people. On the contrary, I feel very embedded in the fabric of this community and its neighborhoods. But what I offer in all those relationships begins and ends with the God I meet in my solitude. Whatever I have to offer emerges from this mysterious and exclusive intimacy that I clumsily call prayer. It is an exclusive Relationship, for sure, but an exclusivity that wants to become fruitful, if that makes any sense. Maybe I'm not saying it right. I'm pretty tired.

Overheard: Priestly Vanities

Overheard in the sacristy:

Friar #1: That's a nice stole, where did you get it?

Friar #2: Brother so-and-so gave it to me; he said it would suit me better than him.

#1: Yeah, it is kind of wide.

#2: Why do you always have to call me fat?

April 23, 2010

And His Poor Mother

The poverty of the holy family goes fittingly with the humility of the Lord's incarnation, as well as providing a model for the poverty of spirit befitting the Christian soul. One of the questions we friars are asked in the examination before perpetual vows illustrates the point well:

As pilgrims and strangers in this world, do you wish to embrace the most high poverty of our Lord Jesus Christ and His poor mother and to share with joy the life of the poor and of the least in this world seeing in them the face of the Lord?


In light of all this, I was surprised to see that our Blessed Mother has the money to go around donating stained glass windows:



This is from Immaculate Conception ("St. Mary's), the mother church of Yonkers. It's my favorite church in the neighborhood. I've been wanting to get this picture for a long time, but the light hasn't cooperated until today.

Backhanded Blessing

Yesterday someone was coming by to pick up one of those St. Joseph statues that you bury in your yard in order to obtain the grace of selling the house. The ladies in the office asked me to bless the statue, so I made up this blessing, which I pronounced without the hopeful homeowner present:

Gracious God,
we pray that through the intercession of St. Joseph
all who find in this statue an object of devotion
and a means to prayer
may be delivered from all burden of superstition.
We pray through Christ our Lord.

April 22, 2010

Note to a Baby Priest

One the kindest men I've ever met is going to be ordained priest this Saturday. Unfortunately parish stuff is going to prevent me from being there. As I thought about writing an email with my regrets, I found myself wanting to compose advice about the first days of priesthood. But then, thinking this patronizing, I decided not to do it. I'll blog my thoughts instead.

Ordination will be a blur, just go with it. Depending on the circumstances, your first Mass might be a blur too; that's why it's good to have an MC, especially if you're preaching it yourself. Don't worry, you will calm down inside and be able to pray again soon. You will wake up the day after your ordination and remember that you are a priest and it will strike you with gratitude, gravity and delight. Once you get through the weekend, the first few days of your priesthood will be sublime. As you begin to offer--thankfully--nice and quiet weekday Masses, your new state will begin to overwhelm you. You will think of your own Marian soul, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit.

All that being said, there are a few things that I want to warn you about. Don't be surprised.

Priestly ordination will be the most intense transformation of identity you have gone through since entering religious life. As a lay friar, you always have to explain to people what you are; sometimes even Catholics don't seem to get it. "Are you a monk?" No. "A priest?" No. Buddhist? Ninja? There is no more of that. You are a Catholic priest. Everybody knows--or thinks they know--what that means, both your friends and your enemies. And you will find both in new abundance, let me tell you. From now you are a vessel of the world's hope in a new and particular way, but you are also configured to the Christ the world hates. People will invest you with that hope and deride you with that hate. It's an intense life in that regard. Nobody has a neutral opinion of the Catholic priesthood.

Nobody warned me about this, but someone may come to you right away and want to be your first penitent. Apparently this is some kind of honor. Be ready for it; make sure you have the absoution formula memorized before the ordination Mass. If it happens, just appreciate the person's devotion, be kind, and stand in awe as the power of absolution given to Peter now flows from your voice and hand. You will always remember your first penitent, and the special honor you gave to each other will live forever in the secret of your priestly heart.

Finally, don't be surprised if you experience doubts, especially around the Mass. Your relationship to the Eucharist is now forever transformed. Of course you have always believed firmly in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but perhaps now you will wonder, 'Does this really 'work' when I do it?' Little old me, with all my sins and faults? As you bow slightly and let the Lord pronounce the words of consecration in your voice, perhaps you will wonder if anything has 'happened.' Run with the doubt and pray through it. I had always been drawn into the Eucharist because of the stunning humility of Christ therein, but I never really knew the depths of the sublime humility of Christ until he was found willing to descend into my hands, the hands of a shallow and distracted man, hands full of every guilt.

The humility of Christ is overwhelming; let yourself feel it in your Masses. In gratitude for the salvation we have through it, let us be imitators of Him, letting our hearts break at every suffering, and consenting to have our lives poured out for the reconciliation of a tired, hurt, and violent world.

April 21, 2010

Right Lisa, a Wonderful, Magical Animal

So responded Homer Simpson, disbelieving his daughter Lisa's claim that bacon, ham, and pork chops had a single origin.

Today I was using one of the classrooms at our grade school to host a meeting. While I was waiting for folks, I enjoyed reviewing displays that the children had made on the countries of the world. I was impressed by the diversity of countries, as well as the care and effort that had gone into the work. I was proud of our kids. The original assignment could be discerned from the displays: one was to report on the government, culture, religion, dress, and food of each country.

One little text box caught my eye:

The most popular delicacy in England is fish and chips. In the United States it is referred to as Chicken Strips and French Fries.


I have advised Fr. Pastor to review the science curriculum.

April 20, 2010

Fat Things

Back in this post, I tried to illustrate the crazy way the wheels of my mind turn around and in on each other as I try to think about a talk I'm supposed to be preparing. I'm still trying to find the right topic for the talk in question, but I think I've decided.

Since I'm going to be speaking on the Sunday which would have otherwise been the feast of St. Anthony of Padua, I cannot resist making use of him. But which of his sermons should I use? Well, that day would have been the third Sunday after Pentecost for him, but that sermon doesn't seem so accessible for the purposes of a communion brunch. So then I thought that maybe I could find the corresponding sermon to the gospel that we will hear that day in the modern Roman liturgy. No luck. The gospel for that day does not come up on a Sunday in older Missale Romanum, and I only have Anthony's Sunday and festal sermons.

Well, that day isn't so long after the feast of Corpus Christi this year, so maybe I can use Anthony sermon In Cena Domini, for the Lord's Supper, I thought.

As I look at it, I can see various advantages for a communion brunch. First of all, Anthony starts out by quoting Isaiah on our invitation to a convivium pinguium, a 'feast of fat things,' which is what a Sunday brunch usually approximates on the earthly level. Second, I also notice that he quotes Petrus Comestor a couple of times, Peter the Eater, who is always fun to talk about.

Easter Preaching Rant

It's a joyful challenge to be preaching on the "Bread of Life Discourse" this week, all the while leading up to next Sunday when we will have the image of the Lamb in the reading from Revelation and the Good Shepherd in the gospel. Journeying through that particular conjunction, the Lord as Lamb and Shepherd, is the prayer of my homily preparation this week.

It reminds me of something I've heard from priests from time to time over the years, about how they dread preaching through the Easter season and don't know what to say. I have always found the sentiment both sad and disturbing, but perhaps now that I am a daily preacher I can at least sympathize. Easter is supposed to be the center of our faith, the preeminent moment of Christianity. So why should it be hard to preach? I think of two issues.

First, Easter suggests that the resurrection of Christ be preached. I say "suggests" because I have not always heard about the resurrection in Easter homilies. It's true, it's a hard thing to preach. Jesus rose, or 'was raised' (theological passive), 'in his human body' (as we say in the Roman Canon, "secundum carnem") to some sort of new, glorified, eschatological life. This new life is somehow continuous with his historical life, and includes, in some sense, the physical body that he, as Word, borrowed from us through the consent of Mary. He has breath, and can eat. Oddly, however, he is not immediately recognizable, despite being the same person. Perhaps even more strangely, the risen Jesus is not confined by the ordinary limitations of physical bodiliness, as he appears and vanishes, shows up in locked rooms, etc.

Even more, the Easter homilist must preach on how this resurrection of Christ has implications for us, how his passing over to new life is also ours, and how all of this is communicated through baptism and the other sacraments. Too often these are preached in a way that does not produce portable belief and practice for people. We throw our hands up and call it a "mystery." Not that I have anything against mystery, but we need to preach mystery so as to encourage mysticism rather than mystification.

All of this is just to illustrate that the Easter preacher has a delicate and difficult task, and if we are accustomed to preaching a vague morality or general, clever sayings about "spirituality" we, as a Church, will not be up to the task.


Second, I think Easter preaching is challenging because it forces Christian particularity on the preacher. It is about the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and there is no way around it. This particularity will be hard to preach and communicate if we have absorbed the comfortable and civil theology of 'many paths to one divine something-or-other.' Perhaps few of us would admit to adhering to this theology, but many have adopted it as an operative mode. Why not? It's comfortable, it helps us to fit into the relativism of the world, and it relieves us of the discomfort of having to say that anybody might be wrong about anything. Unfortunately, however, once we adopt this 'theology' as our comfy and unspoken over-arching paradigm (and I believe that many of us have) there is nothing left to preach but vague morality and general spirituality. The theological problem with this idea is that God becomes fundamentally unknowable, since all "faith traditions" are equally inadequate to the Mystery. God, apparently, is not actually capable of revelation. Therefore, when God is unknowable and not a reliable revealer of himself, worship cannot be anything but the worship of ourselves and our own ideas. More likely it will be worship of our own pride in how enlightened we are to have adopted such a magnanimous theology. Been there, done that. I can't think of anything more boring.


Via non est nisi per ardentissimum amorem crucifixi.

Surrexit Dominus Vere. Alleluia.

April 19, 2010

What's At Stake: Sexual Abuse and Apostasy

Last night I received an email from an old friend, a sometime companion on the inner journey of prayer. He wrote to tell me that the scandals in the Church had become overwhelming for him, that he did not have much hope, and that he had apostatized from the faith and been received into another ecclesial community.

I don't know if I'm supposed to answer, and I don't think I will. It's not really any of my business anyway. What would I say? Shall I apologize for crimes and negligences for which their is no apology? Shall I beg him to return from error? I don't think either of these are called for; it's just that we were once important to one another in the Lord, and he only wanted to share his grief and let me know of the difficult decision he had made.

It raises the question for me: Do I have a limit? Could things get so heinous and discouraging that I would be tempted to apostasy? Of course I want to say no; but that would be vanity and bravado. My faith is imperfect, and my practice barely adequate; on the internal level I hardly live up to my vows. I only barely keep intact the prayer life I have promised through our Rule and Constitutions. I am not such a good Catholic and my faith is not so strong. I probably have a breaking point too, God help me.

But I just don't think I could leave the Catholic Church. How is it that I first heard the Gospel? What were the conditions of possibility of my having a Bible in my room on the hot summer night in 1991 when I first read St. Matthew with open mind and heart? It is that anyone can buy a Bible at Barnes & Noble? No. Is it because of the great work of translators, from the seventy-two rabbis of Alexandria down to the scholars who produced the RSV I held in my hands in those days? Not really. I heard about the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ because the apostles and martyrs gave their lives and suffered in order to keep it alive for me. It was this community of witness that produced the New Testament, and they have passed down the apostolic teaching, even into the hands of the bishops who ordained Fr. Larry and Deacon Ron, the first men to suffer the pastoral care of my stupid and distracted soul.

Without that faith I would be dead, or at least living some close approximation of death. And the world still wants me dead.

This apostolic tradition is all I have to stand on in this world. I'm sure that some of my teachers and confreres would judge me narrow-minded and hopeless in clinging to this sense of Catholicism after all the theological education they have given me in their generosity, but that's how I see it. And as much as my conscience is very troubled and I am very angry, I don't think I would ever try to seek comfort by settling for a facsimile of the Church and play-acting through 'sacraments' I knew in my heart to be invalid. Untethered from accountability to the Petrine ministry (or at least the ministry of some patriarchal see), Christianity has no defense against accepting and assimilating whatever errors or moral chaos happen to be the current worldly fashion. Indeed, sadly enough, this struggle is hard enough even within the apostolic churches, but it is hopeless without.

I don't mean all this in a triumphal way. I am upset too. I am increasingly convinced that the health and even the survival of my vocation depends on my making my life into some kind of integrated response to the issues raised by the sexual abuse scandal. When I, who was born with the name Charles L., decided to be baptized under the patronage of Charles Lwanga, I thought it just a matter of convenience. But it was no accident. St. Charles was martyred, at least in part, for his unwillingness to accept sexual abuse. Nor is it an accident that certain experiences of my own religious life and priesthood have put a harder edge on my own reflection on the festering illnesses behind the scandals. My own vocation is meant to be something with regard to this. I don't know what it means yet, and it might not even be anything external, but it has to be something.

I don't know if you ever look at this blog, old friend. But if you do happen to read this, please don't be offended. This post is about my conscience, not yours. It's not a condemnation or even a disapproval. It's my way to trying to encounter, in my heart, the same issues that you are working to take as seriously as you can. Oremus pro invicem.

April 18, 2010

Elevated Platform, Never Gonna Conform

It's funny how you get to know people in the confessional; through these regular encounters you come to know lots of folks without knowing who they are. After three years here in the parish there are several penitents whom I know even by the sound of their feet on the way into the confessional, or by the way they move the curtain or move to the kneeler. If I say that I don't know who they are in the external forum, I commit the masked man fallacy; what I mean to say is that I don't know if I know them or not. And it's none of my business besides.

It reminds me of the experience I've had at the moments of my life when I've been a regular commuter by subway or bus. I see people I don't know over and over. I get to know them without knowing them. I've even given them names: 'the purposeful girl,' 'the melancholic partier.'

But the confessional is much deeper than the bus. It's a sort of opposite of how relationships usually go. In life and work you become acquainted with a lot of people on the surface; you know where they live and what they do, perhaps where they come from and the configuration of their families, but not much more than that. In only a handful of close relationships do you really get to know people's hearts and dreams and sufferings. In the confessional it's the other way around; you get to know the heart and the struggles without knowing the ordinary stuff.

It all calls for a lot of reverence and respect.

April 17, 2010

Infant Baptism Challenges

One of our student brothers down at CUA was given the homework of asking parish priests of varying generations the following question. Even though it's poorly written, I thought I would blog my response.

One of the most difficult pastoral care situations is whether to baptize the child of parents who do not seem to be living their faith very actively. How do you handle parents who present their child for baptism, however, the parents are not actively practicing?

The situation you describe is a very common one; in fact, it is almost the majority of infant baptism requests, at least where I work. It's actually an interesting thing; I had imagined that infant baptism would be one the more enjoyable and lighthearted aspects of the parish priesthood, but I have found that is one of the most frustrating.

That being said, let me tell you my pastoral strategy. I try to look at the case as an opportunity that the Holy Spirit is giving the parent(s) to come back to the practices of the faith, to the promises of their own baptism/confirmation. I see my task as trying to 'hook' them back, to be that 'fisher of men.' Mostly this takes the form of encouragement, of seeing the birth of the child as this opportunity to get back to the Lord. But it can also take the form of a fairly stark challenge; people need to know that it makes little sense to promise a journey on behalf of someone else when they aren't making the journey themselves. All of this presumes, of course, that the parents are at least indifferent to the faith; if they are hostile or have already apostatized in some fashion, things are much harder to move forward in good conscience.

The ascetical task, then, is to stay positive. Lay on the congratulations thick, but always frame them theologically. God has blessed them, made their marriage fruitful, etc., and they should return thanks to God by prayer and assistance at Sunday Eucharist, etc. If they are not married or their marriage is not convalidated, I offer this as a next step.

All that being said in a general way, there are a couple of special situations.

1. Where I work more people are from the parish than actually in it. It has a huge diaspora. I have actually had people call me from Atlanta or LA and tell me that they are parishioners. What they mean is that they identify with the parish in a nostalgic or historical-familial way. When someone is in this condition calls for infant baptism, it is a hard case. If they have not been practicing the faith and don't even know what their parish is where they now live, I tell them that our place is not the place for the baptism. This is usually very hard to hear, but I try to explain to them that it would be nice for their child to have a church to identify with growing up too. Why deny the child what has meant so much to you? If, on the other hand, they are practicing the faith where they are and just want to come to the ancestral home for the baptism on account of family, I usually accept.

2. Sometimes it is the grandparents who are seeking the infant's baptism rather than the parents. This is also a hard case. Generally I try not to deal with grandparents, just like I try not to deal with parents during wedding preparations. Nevertheless, an involved and accepted grandparent, who is physically and mentally able to continue to advocate for the Christian initiation of the child, can be enough of an encouragement to consent to a baptism in good pastoral conscience, at least in my opinion. Again, this demands that the parents are at least indifferent to the faith and not hostile.

3. Mixed marriages can also be hard. In these cases I have come to realize the wisdom of how we do marriage preparations. Folks who have married only civilly haven't usually talked about the religious disposition of children, and the question can catch them by surprise. I have had the situation a couple of times of a Catholic married to a Jehovah's Witness, and the one parent wants to baptize the child without the other's knowledge. This can also happen in mixed marriages involving denominations that reject infant baptism.* It's also more common than you might think for the children of a Catholic-Jewish mixed marriages to be raised concurrently in both, and end up both confirmed and bar-mitzvah'd at the end of it all. St. Paul would have a blast with that, but I'm not sure what pastoral sense it makes for the soul to which it happens.

All of this isn't even to speak of the whole godparent and sponsor dramas, which are also a headache a lot of the time.

But, as I say, I look at my ascetical task in all this as being ruthless in keeping my thoughts and speech positive, and not giving in to the temptations to accusation or disdain. I always try to ask myself what the Holy Spirit wants to do for this couple or family, what opportunity is Providence giving them on this occasion, and how can I be a facilitator in that process.


*Against those who reject infant baptism, I quote the beginning of Belloc's Pelagian Drinking Song:

Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How whether you went to heaven or hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.

The Lord's Breakfast

The risen Lord prepares a nourishing meal for us from where he stands on the edge of eternity, on the shore that blurs the borders of heaven and earth. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

April 16, 2010

RIP: Peter Steele

Things have been very metal for me lately, especially with the thrill of being interviewed on the subject yesterday by Ben Ratliff of the New York Times Arts section. I can only fear what will become of the tape of my outrageous utterances on the topics of the catholic imagination of metal and Christianity as the logical answer to the cosmic dread it celebrates, among many other things.

While out on errands today, I learned from WSOU of the death of the one of the great metal singers of our time, Peter Steele of Type O Negative. Last I heard he had rejected atheism and begun to identify himself as a Catholic. This is from an interview he gave to Decibel, as reproduced in his Wikipedia article:

There are no atheists in foxholes, they say, and I was a foxhole atheist for a long time. But after going through a midlife crisis and having many things change very quickly, it made me realize my mortality. And when you start to think about death, you start to think about what’s after it. And then you start hoping there is a God. For me, it’s a frightening thought to go nowhere. I also can’t believe that people like Stalin and Hitler are gonna go to the same place as Mother Teresa.

I think I also remember reading somewhere about how he went to confession after being away from the sacrament for thirty years. I can say that from the priest's perspective, those kind of encounters are precious and honored.

I pray that you had the grace of the sacraments at your passing, brother, and that you were sped by the Lord's mercy to the rest you weren't able to find in this life.

Requiescat in pace.

Type O Negative, covering the Neil Young classic:


April 15, 2010

Feast of the Profession of St. Francis

As I mention from time, one of the brothers here set up a 1954 Missale Romano-Seraphicum in one of our hallways as a museum piece. Partly for my own amusement and edification, and partly out of rebellion, I set it up as if for Mass each day whenever I go by. It is an interesting practice, because there are many observances that do not appear in the 1962 Seraphic missal or breviary. It's like a little trip into the 'extra-extraordinary form.'

Today I notice that tomorrow is one such Franciscan feast that I had never heard of:



"The solemn commemoration of our holy father Francis, confessor." What gives? An extra feast of St. Francis apart from the celebration of his birth into eternal life in October?

A little Googling reveals that this is supposed to be the feast of the "profession of St. Francis," but to what event in his life does it refer?

A look at the classic chronology of the life of St. Francis compiled by Omer Englebert and Raphael Brown (one of the real treasures of the older, Franciscan Omnibus of Sources edited by Marion Habig*) suggests that it was on April 16, 1208 that Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter Catanii joined Francis and became his first brothers.

Anonymous of Perugia 2:11 takes up the story this way. The three brothers had a priest open the gospels for them. Upon hearing the passages, If you wish to be perfect, Whoever wishes to come after me, and Take nothing for the journey, they exclaimed, "This is what we we want, this is what we were seeking." Francis goes on to say, "This will be our Rule." So I guess that amounts to a profession, and hence the feast day.



*If you want one, good luck. Try the bookstore at St. Francis of Assisi on 31st St. in Manhattan, where I recently noticed copies of the 1991, 2-volume reprint.

The Small Hours

Apparently, a religious priest who grew up as a Heavy Metal kid is considered an oddity. So much so, in fact, that someone who writes about Metal music professionally is coming to meet and interview me tomorrow. He's thinking about writing a book about the Metal ethos, or something.

In my curiosity about this situation, I have been reflecting on what connections there might be between my conversion to Heavy Metal around age fourteen and my conversion to Catholic Christianity six years later. Perhaps they are more and deeper than I had previously imagined.

For whatever reason, I was reflecting on the lyrics to "The Small Hours" by Holocaust, a song famously covered by Metallica.

Look hard at the darkness,
And you will see,
Just call my name and I'll be there.
You cannot touch me,
You would not dare,
I am the chill that's in the air.

And I try to get through to you,
In my own special way,
As the barriers crumble,
At the end of the day

This is such a vivid description of my experience of prayer. Peering into the obscurity of being, of one's own existence and that of the world, Something is found, Something that is more a Who than a what. But this finding is itself an illusion, and as "barriers crumble" you realize that is you who are being found and Sought all along. Nevertheless, the One Who finds us will not be possessed or grasped: "You cannot touch me." Noli me tangere. But this retreat draws us further in to the Mystery, and ultimately to the goal, the eschaton, the resurrection destiny of the New Jerusalem, the "end of the Day."

April 14, 2010

Anxious, but Happy

Posting has been slow lately, I know. Ever since this Boston College business became that much more real for me the other day, I have been preoccupied with all kinds of joys and worries. I noticed it especially when I had a hard time concentrating on the Office of Readings earlier this morning; my thoughts were racing so much that it took me three tries to get through the hymn Hic est dies verus Dei. I thank God for practices like Centering Prayer which have helped me to disidentify with thoughts and feelings and so not be overwhelmed at times like this. Yes, I am my thoughts and feelings, just as I am my body. But these do not exhaust who I am as God's creature.

On the one hand, I'm happy about the whole thing. The friars have asked me to go back to school, and since I have vowed to seek God's will for me in my obedience to the fraternity, I am confident that this is what the Holy Spirit desires for me right now. I also just feel good; transition always gives me this funny and giddy energy that makes me feel curiously alive.

On the other hand, though, I'm also very anxious. I don't have enough of a plan of what I'm going to do when I get there, or with whom. Topics for a dissertation--even giving shape to the word gives me a feeling of dread--roll around in my mind: Sermons of Lawrence of Brindisi? Victorine love and obedience? Religious life as eschatology? The Bonaventurianism of Benedict XVI? Debt paid or canceled on the Cross?

Other anxieties arise as well. Am I ready to go back into a fraternal and educational environment that is much more ideologically charged than life here at the parish? Here nobody bothers with the larger theological or ecclesiological implications of belief and practice. On the one hand, this can make for boredom, but it's also a very real freedom. If you feel like you should pray or offer Mass in a certain way, nobody uses it as a chance to dismiss you with some reducing label, nor does anyone confront you with questions like, 'Is that your idea of Church?' Am I ready for the penance of losing this freedom? Will I find my new environments tolerant?

Anyway, that's where I am today. I still have a couple of the "What's At Stake" posts in development, and I promise to get back to them.

April 12, 2010

The Next Step in the Journey

So today I get a letter from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. After "careful review" of my application, they are offering me admission to the Doctor of Sacred Theology program. The Order asked me to make the application back in the fall. I already checked with my provincial minister, who confirmed that I should accept the offer.

Here I go into transitional mode. Pray for me.

Right now, by Providence, I have to go to the funeral home and so am relieved of the temptation to luxuriate in my anxiety.

April 10, 2010

Hugh's Advice to the Unchaste

What shall you pay to the Lord your God for your virginity, which you vowed and after the vow lost?...Is there something else which may be paid for this, so that the debt may be paid and so great a vow fulfilled? If there is nothing else which may be paid for this, there is no salvation for those who vowed this and cannot pay it after it was lost....Let him who dares, say this? I neither presume nor wish to do so. Let him beware who should should wish to say this, lest perhaps he raise a danger in himself. What other thing? Pay your penance. Pay your humility. For virginity of the flesh pay humility of the heart. For broken flesh break your heart....it will suffice. (De Sacramentis, 2.12.6, Deferrari's translation)


The Master is speaking to consecrated virgins and religious, but his wisdom is easily applied to those who know falls from the chastity proper to other states of life as well.

The Resurrection, Continued

This Sunday seems to have a lot of names: Sunday within the Octave of Easter, 2nd Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday, Dominica in albis, Quasi modo Sunday. Whatever we call it and with whatever emphasis we celebrate, it's an opportunity to go deeper into the good news of the Lord's resurrection.
Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

Or, digging into the archives, here's a homily more focused on the Divine Mercy.

April 9, 2010

$2 Worth of Providence

One of my little spiritual practices is to try to notice divine Providence in the course of a day. Today was a good one:

As I often do on a day off, I decided to go into Manhattan for a little while. I wasn't sure if there was a whole bus fare left on my MetroCard, so I brought along $2.25 in quarters just in case. As it turned out, there was one fare left on my card, so I didn't need them. Then, as I sat in the back of the southbound Bee Line #2 bus, quietly starting in my rosary, I heard someone at the front of the bus asking if anyone had change. So I got up and traded eight of my quarters for two dollar bills.

I changed at 242nd and Broadway and got on the 1 train, which I took all the way to 28th St. After confession at Francis of Assisi, I walked up to St. Agnes by Grand Central for Mass. As a priest, it's nice to simply go to Mass once in a while, to have the chance to hear someone else preach and to be able to take your time in prayer at and after Holy Communion. I usually forget, however, to have something ready for the collection. Providentially, I had the two dollars from the lady on the bus for the basket at St. Agnes.

$2 worth of Providence for the lady on the bus, for St. Agnes, and for me.

April 8, 2010

Eschatology, Not Idealism

"The unsophisticated and unrealistic way in which Francis tried to make the Sermon on the Mount the rule of his 'new People' is not understood properly if we designate it as 'idealism'...it is understandable only as...eschatological confidence..."

(Joseph Ratzinger, The Theology of History in St. Bonaventure, trans. Zachary Hayes, 40)

Wow. This Franciscan thing ain't idealism but eschatology. Is he right?

I can already tell that this book is going to change my life.

100,000

Gentle reader from outside Wichita (maybe Clifford Township?), as best I can tell it was you who rolled over the counter on this page to 100,000. Thanks for the visit!

So I thank God for the gift of this blog in my life and for all of the prayer and encouragement I have received from it, and for all of the friends I have made in the Lord. Peace to you and thanks.

April 7, 2010

Hugh on the Paschal Candle

Pope Zosimus established that a large candle be blessed on the Holy Sabbath of the Pasch, which the deacon blesses after benediction has been received from the priest. This candle designates Christ: in the wax humanity, in the fire divinity; and as it illuminates it precedes the catechumens to baptism, just as once a column of fire preceded the children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea, illuminating by fire and shading by a cloud. (Hugh of St. Victor, De Sacramentis, 2.9.5, Deferrari's translation)


There's my next Easter Vigil homily, should the Holy Spirit ever give me the opportunity again! One could go a lot of places with this particular image of the divinity and humanity of Christ, but I'll tell you right now, not all of them would be orthodox. I'll be careful, I promise. I'll be sure to have my homily certified. Get it?

Take, Bless, Break, Give

When I hear the gospel of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, as I did when I proclaimed it this morning, it's hard for me to understand how anyone would want to be a Christian without the Eucharist.

To me the gospels of yesterday (John 20:11-18) and today (Luke 24:13-35) are parallel. Both are resurrection appearances in which the risen Lord is not immediately recognizable, and in which the experience of his presence is somehow fleeting.

To me these passages answer the basic question of the Christian: How may I have an experience of Jesus? The answer from the gospel is clear, at least to me: prayer and sacrament.

Mary Magdalene recognizes the risen Lord when he calls her name. In one instant she goes from thinking he might be the gardener to the certainty that he is her "rabbouni." As it was with Mary, so it is with us. If we want an experience of the risen Jesus (the only Jesus available to us personally and experimentally, by the way) we need to create a space in our lives in which we can hear Him utter our name, calling to each of us as His unique and unrepeatable creations. This space is called prayer.

To the disciples on the way, Jesus is just a friendly stranger. When they offer him hospitality, he breaks the bread for them. Luke's 'take-bless-break-give' makes it obvious that we are talking about the actions of the Eucharist. In these actions by which the risen Jesus offers the bread the Eucharist, he is immediately recognized for Who He Is. In this one of the basic dynamics of Christian spirituality is revealed: prayer, which is the offering of hospitality to Jesus in our hearts, drives us to recognize Him when he offers the Eucharist for us.

April 6, 2010

Anglican Rosary

One day last Easter season an Anglican religious brother stopped by the parish office looking for some holy water from the Easter Vigil. Why he wanted our holy water, being an Anglican, I wasn't sure, but I gave him some that I had saved for my personal use.

In thanksgiving he gave me an object that he called an Anglican rosary. It's one of those nylon cord things, small and rugged, designed to be used rather than admired. There's only one knot where the three should be near the cross, and only seven in each "decade."

I don't know if it's blessed, though I doubt it.

Anyway, I was cleaning up some junk in my office and came across it again. I don't know how to use it, and doubt I would if I did.

Anybody want it? Leave me a comment with an address. I won't publish the comment, but I'll send you this "Anglican rosary."

Noli Me Tangere

She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and then reported what he had told her. (John 20:14-18)


More than any other dominical word, Jesus' "stop holding on to me" in today's gospel speaks to my own experience of prayer.

When I first began to reflect on the idea of God, the idea drew me into a kind of prayer.

But then it happens, somehow, very obscurely, the Lord becomes recognizable when he calls the pray-er by name. "Rabbouni!" This call, this experience of God in his Person drives you deeper into prayer; you want to know Who this Presence Is. Whatever this is, it is somehow at once terrifying and delightful, joyful and serious. It makes you feel giddy and grave at the same time. But as soon as you feel like you can touch the Mystery, this same God Who invited you into prayer seems to retreat from the embrace and the understanding. At first you feel put off and reejcted, but after a while you learn to trust this, and see the retreat as an invitiation, as if this Beloved refuses to be touched in order to make you chase Him deeper into the mysteries of your own being and that of the creation.

This goes on a for a few years, and you find that you desire more and understand less. Somehow you know God both more and more intimately and less and less certainly. You desire in a way that can never be satisfied, and experience a satisfaction that never becomes satiety. Eventually you hardly know what is meant by the utterance "God." Yes, you believe that He is a Trinity because he has revealed Himself to be so, and because the life of the sacraments has convinced you of His Presence in them on the experimental level, but in the experience of prayer all of this language seems to become too coarse. The conversation or the love making of prayer seems to be below or above or around it. Pick you metaphor; in the end they don't matter either.

Noli me tangere. Amen.

April 5, 2010

How My Crazy Mind Works

This morning I am going through various things that I left to worry about after Easter. One of them is an invitation to speak "on a spiritual topic" at a prayer breakfast of an organization of Catholic widows and widowers. I am given no limits or guidelines. Hmm. Well, the date is June 13, which would be the feast of St. Anthony were it not a Sunday this year. Perhaps I will speak on St. Anthony. Where can I find some of his writings? I know that there are new English translations of his sermons, but I don't see them in the catalog of the seminary library and for some reason the only way I can find to order them online is from Italy. I'm not paying forty euro plus FedEx to prepare for a prayer breakfast. But then I see that maybe I can labor through a sermon in Latin at this site. But which one? Ah, June 13 will be the third Sunday after Pentecost in the EF, so there it is.

That's how my mind works. It has a logic to it, but to know the nature of that logic is the amusing question. As Dr. Woody used to yell at us in hermeneutics class, "Please don't say 'there's a sense...' 'There is a sense' in which a pig and a cow are the same thing. The point of philosophy is not to tell me this, but to tell me in what that sense consists!"

Defending Ourselves

I have to admit that I'm getting a little uncomfortable with this business of defending ourselves against the "attacks" of the New York Times and others in the secular press. I love Benedict XVI, and an examination of his ministry shows that he has done an immense amount of work--especially at the CDF--against the legacy of negligence with regard to the child abuse and other sexual misconduct of the clergy. But we can't give the world the idea that we feel we are being attacked in complete unfairness.

Yes, we should calmly point out when matters of fact are distorted. Yes, we should try to show how we have made our ministries and institutions safe for children. But we have to admit that crimes have been committed, and the negligence of bishops and superiors have allowed them. Bishops too have to admit that there the roots of their own failures go deep. The homosocial world of seminaries and presbyterates in which they themselves grew up sometimes had a power structure of the patron and client culture, a culture that can sometimes edge into crypto-erotic and even the genital. Behavior which is an abuse of power and a crime against the developmental flourishing of a child might have been more or less normalized for them by their own upbringing in the church, which is not to say that they were comfortable with it. There are culturally embedded confusions at the root of this crisis which are not reducible to incomplete blamings of homosexuality or celibacy. Add to this The Church's persistent sin of "desiring to restore confidence rather than to restore souls," (Philip F. Lawler, The Faithful Departed, 156) and the failures of leadership are set up.

Jesus warned us that the world would hate us, and indeed it does. The world hates us because our belief and celebration of the humility of Christ in the manger and on the cross undoes all of the world's pride and addictions to violence and power. So we should not be surprised if an organ of the world like the New York Times hates us. We can't act like all of a sudden the world is going to look at us with a hermeneutic of appreciation. This is not a reason to imagine, however, that the secular media is only out to discredit and smear the Church, though they are happy to be able to do so. They all also report on facts, the sins of the church among them.

So let's use this historical moment not to get up and defend ourselves in the stance of the courageous victim, but let every cleric kneel down like the publican and express his desire to be converted from any root of these negligences and abuses that he allows to live in his heart.

April 4, 2010

Explicit Triduum Paschale

Let it never be said that I am so into sacramental liceity or liturgical decorum that I'm afraid to have a little fun, especially when it makes for hilarious catechesis.

After greeting the people after the last Mass this morning, I was walking back to the sacristy. Examining the baptismal font and its decorative waterfall were two little kids, a brother and sister in the range of four or five years old. The sister had a little baby doll under her arm.

I asked her if her baby had been baptized. She replied that she wasn't sure. When I asked her if she would like for her baby to be baptized, she wasn't sure about that either, but accepted it with the encouragement of the "grandparents." (How much like real life!) After extracting from the brother some consent to his godfatherhood, I baptized the "baby" with just a tiny bit of water and wholly defective intention. By this time the little girl was getting into it, and smiled as I charged her with her new duties of Christian motherhood.

April 3, 2010

My First Born

I didn't anticipate this, but this afternoon I have found myself somewhat emotional as I reflect on the baptism of my first catechumen tonight. I've done and witnessed plenty of baptisms, of course, but this is the first time that I myself have prepared and catechized someone according to the RCIA, praying and reflecting with her over the last two years.

I'm proud of her faithfulness to the program and desire for baptism. But I'm also anxious. Did I cover enough to make a foundation for a Catholic lifetime?

There's a kind of bittersweet letting-go in all of it. I have succeeded. In a few hours my ministry will have brought a newborn Christian into this world, a living, fresh sign of the power of Resurrection. At the thought of that I'm overcome with the humble tears of my unworthiness as I reflect on the searing mercy of God that has made shallow and distracted old me into a steward of the deepest of Mysteries. As I present her to her pastor to be baptized, there's a kind of wholesome grief about it too, of letting go of a child who is about to become an adult in the spiritual order, and whom I now set free into the confounding and delightful economies of Grace within which we stumble on our way through the pilgrimage of this life.

May God delight in his neophyte.

This Is The Night

Tonight it will be my redeeming joy to preach at the Easter Vigil for the first time. Follow this link for my homily.

April 2, 2010

Fidelium Ore Lucentem Sanguinem Veritatis

Each year, at some point between the beginning of adoration on Holy Thursday evening and the early hours of Good Friday, John Chrysostom pulls it all together for me:

If we wish to understand the power of Christ's blood, we should go back to the ancient account of its prefiguration in Egypt. Sacrifice a lamb without blemish, commanded Moses, and sprinkle its blood on your doors...In those days, when the destroying angel saw the blood on the doors he did not dare to enter, so how much less will the devil approach now when he sees, not that figurative blood on the doors, but the true blood on the lips of believers, the doors of the temple of Christ.


I love the earthiness of the Latin translation in the LH, fidelium ore lucentem sanguinem veritatis. On the mouths of the faithful we see the shining Blood of truth. Anybody know the Greek?

April 1, 2010

Bareness and Solitude

Here, as in most places I suspect, the Chrism Mass is celebrated earlier in Holy Week. This makes Holy Thursday the day of one Mass.

It might not seem like a remarkable thing, but for me one of the real jarring experiences of the priestly ministry has been the frequency of celebrating Eucharist. Fortunately in my religious life prior to priesthood, either by choice or compulsion, I more or less fulfilled the injunction that religious ought to make "every effort" to assist at Mass daily. But the one Mass a day which priests are also "earnestly invited" to offer is only the beginning at this point.

Where I work there are seventeen Masses a week on the regular schedule. Add to that the weekly average of 1.5 funerals and half a wedding or other special event, and we're up to nineteen. We are two priests on staff who enjoy the help of a retired priest who offers Mass four times a week. That leaves fifteen Masses a week to be offered by two priests. Give each a day off, and that's only 1.25 Masses to be said per day. Not so bad. Our retired brother spends about ten percent of the year away, so at these times the figure goes up to 1.6 Masses per day per priest. Because things are rarely so even, there are sometimes problems, given that we only have faculties to offer Mass twice on weekdays and thrice on Sundays.

I do not mean this as a complaint. It is my honor, joy, and redemption to offer Mass for the people I serve and for the world. I am ready to do so each day at the limit of the faculties the Church gives me, should there be pastoral necessity or even utility. However, it is a very different sort of eucharistic life than before ordination.

To me it becomes the most remarkable feature of the Triduum. Given this life in which Masses are multiplied--we often have three in a row in the morning, early and later daily Mass, then funeral--the Triduum seems so bare of Eucharist. From Thursday morning to Saturday night, one only has Mass twice. At any other time of the year, at least in my job, it would be nothing unusual to celebrate Mass twice or three times as much during the same period of the week. It brings me a new appreciation for the Triduum : it's bareness and eucharistic solitude.