December 31, 2008

Shuffle Your iPod Meme

This is a fun one. I saw it over on SFO Mom. Here's how it works:

Here's how to play: hit SHUFFLE on your music player of choice, and post the first few lines of the first 15 songs that come up, unless they give away the title. When commenters name the tunes correctly, strike them out in the list. (The lyrics, not the commenters.)

Here's what came up on my player:

1. There's a prefab building and a funny smell

2. Nerd girl I don't deserve you/I don't get the references you refer to

3. I have a problem that I cannot explain/I have no reason why it should have been so plain

4. Waiting for the train to take me far/far away from here

5. Compete, compete, do it for the boys/empty barrels make the most noise

6. Funeral held for the depression of man

7. Will these dreams still follow me/ out of dark obscurity?

8. Good morning dear, I think I'm losing it/Can't find my way and I'm getting used to it

9. One Saturday I took a walk to Zipperhead/ I met a girl there and she almost knocked me dead

10. I'm rolling down the hill snowballing getting bigger

11. You see us on every TV screen/ you read about us in the news

12. I wanna go/ I wanna play for the hip kids

13. Complications inside of me/remind me that my heart won't always beat

14. As passion encircles the daily storm/The heart bleeds and droughts do not

15. At the White House tonight/you can bet they're not eating burritos

In the Beginning

As we get ready to celebrate the octave day of Christmas tonight and tomorrow, the Gospel for Christmas Day rolls around again. I've been thinking about the beginning of John's gospel a lot lately, having been set off by Brother Chris's beautiful reflection. It's as John's prologue contains all the depth and beauty of the Christmas mystery.

The "In the beginning" of John 1:1 is logically prior to the "In the beginning" of Genesis 1:1. Before God began to create the heavens and the earth, the Word was with God. The Son is "eternally begotten" of the Father, as we pray in the Creed. And yet these two accounts of what was "in the beginning" are very much related.

Before they went on their Christmas break, the grade school children came for Mass one morning. I quizzed them on their knowledge of how God created the heavens and earth. Surely they had heard the story of the first chapter of the Bible. How did God create the world? "In six days," said one, correctly, but not answering my question. They were stumped. The technique God used to create the heavens and the earth was so obvious in the text that they couldn't see it.

The answer, I said, was that God created the universe with his speech. This is what the Scripture says, after all. God said...and so it happened. The miracle of Christmas is that the same created power from which everything has come--the Word of God--becomes for us this little child that Mary could hold in her hands. And so it is with us, in the sublime humility of God we hold the Word through whom God created the universe when we receive him in Holy Communion.

In the mystery of the Incarnation, the creative power of God has come to dwell in our humanity, giving us the option of being ourselves renovated and created anew. The Word of God became flesh so that we might be recreated and reborn in God.

December 30, 2008


The other night we were talking about the lineage of Orders, and wondered how far we would have to go back to find a common ancestor. So I had to figure it out.

We have three priests here in the parish, and the "most recent common ancestor" in our lineage of ordination is Pope Benedict XIV, who was made bishop all the way back in the summer of 1724. From his hands one of us diverges, though the other two maintain a common line all the way up to Pope St. Pius X.

Ten sets of hands back into my own lineage I discovered quite a character: Carlo Odescalchi (1786-1841), who, in order to become a Jesuit novice, resigned not only his cardinalate but (apparently) his episcopacy as well. He was no worse off for the career move, it seems, as he is said to have died in the odor of sanctity and his beatification process is open.

Me Fail English? That's Unpossible!

So said Ralph Wiggum, indignant and incredulous. A friend of this ministry has emerged via anonymous comments, kindly pointing out the errors in the English of my posts. Of course I thoroughly enjoy this, both because I love grammar and because I don't believe writing to be one my gifts anyway.

But the question remains: how is that, only nineteen months out of graduate school, I am making so many grammatical errors? Have I forgotten the torturous sessions with my second reader, wrangling over my alleged colloquialisms and unnecessary use of the passive voice? (I continue to protest that colloquialism is a special privilege of Franciscans and that the passive voice is necessary for theological reflection. After all, where would the Sacred Scriptures be without the theological passive? Christ was raised from the dead, after all.) Have I forgotten about the erudite but somewhat hyperbolic Jesuit who wrote on one of my papers, "Worst sentence ever"? Indeed, it was a very poor sentence, but could anyone be so well-read as to be confident that he had read the worst sentence ever?

Nevertheless, I have been reflecting on my grammatical breakdown, and I have blamed it on preaching. Unlike when I was in school, I now do most of my serious composing not for the eye but for the ear. Thus, when I write I am concentrating on things like rhythm, rhetorical parallelisms (traids, etc., in my Bonaventurian pretensions), delivery seams, and punchlines. In all this the sentences get long and the constructions complex, perhaps to a degree that would never be tolerated by an editor. As anyone who reads or writes will tell you, long sentences and needless complexity are the easiest way to start making case and agreement errors.

So keep on keeping me on my toes.

December 29, 2008

Five of What?

This morning in the parish office an argument broke out about the common idea that the "Twelve Days of Christmas" is a secret, catechetical code for Catholics living under persecution. I have always believed that this was a sort of urban legend with no real foundation, but others insisted on its truth. So who is right?

The argument started when nobody could figure out the fifth day. Five of what? I was asked. Knowing full well that the "correct" answer was probably the five Books of Moses, just to further monkeywrench the discussion I said that it had to be the five notions of the Trinity, and that I was busy preparing my class on active and passive spiration for my kid-adapted RCIA group.

The Inner Light

For about a year before I became a Catholic, I used to worship on Sundays with one of two meetings of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. These days often remind me of the Quaker tradition of the Inner Light, which seemed to be their way of talking about the presence of God within, by which we are meant to discern our steps and find our awareness of God's action in the world.

This tradition often comes to mind for me during the Christmas Octave, when so many of the liturgical prayers and Scriptures we hear are built around the Johannine arrival of the Light. We hear the prologue to the Gospel of John on Christmas day, inviting us to rejoice in the "true light, which enlightens everyone," that is "coming into the world." Then during the octave we hear a lot from the letters of John, which remind us to walk in the light we have received. We who live in the northern hemisphere, for whom the physical daylight follows our theological reflection, are especially fortunate. From now until we celebrate the nativity of John the Baptist, the daylight will increase. Then, the birth of he who "must decrease" signals the loss of the daylight until we celebrate the Lord's birth once again.

Our faith tells us that the Light which is born for us at Christmas is now resurrected into the grace of our baptism and communion. God now sends us to be mirrors of the Light to one another.

December 26, 2008

Adeste Fideles

Sharing some Chinese food in between the Masses of Christmas Eve, I had fun with our organist by telling him how I'm always very amused to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful" because my original reference point for the tune is not the hymn, but Twisted Sister's 1984 hit "We're Not Gonna Take It," which is just about the same song. After being mocked unmercifully about it these many years, they finally just recorded the real thing, complete with an interpolation of "We're Not Gonna Take It" as part of the bridge at about 2:30:

Extraordinary Form

Putting Christmas gifts together, today I am able to afford one of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter's kits for learning the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. Their kits were well reviewed over on The New Liturgical Movement, so I'm confident that it was a good purchase.

On my reading of Summorum pontificum, the faithful have the right to request the EF from their pastors, who are also supposed to allow it for marriages and funerals for those who wish. Thus it seems to me that a priest ought to know who to do it in case this happens. Though the Holy Spirit has mercifully shielded me from the burden of pastorate thus far, who knows when it will come.

Perhaps it's probably a fantasy, but I always have this thought that this nice, traditionalist girl is going to come into the parish office and request an EF wedding. Check one out over at In Caritate Non Ficta.


During these days of the Christmas Octave, I won't have any homilies to post. Because I have three different homilies to give--Christmas Midnight, Christmas Day, and Holy Family--all in the span of about three days, I just don't have the time nor the ganas to go through my usual composition and editing process.

This is actually pretty dangerous, because it's when you don't prepare well that you end up preaching too long and too randomly. One of my favorite quotes to apply to homiletic preparation is from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

That's my definition of elegance. It's good to keep in mind when it comes to the curious intersection of theological reflection, salesmanship, and theater that is preaching in the assembled Body of Christ. You don't want to be one of those priests who suffer from the dreaded 'banana problem,' named for the little girl who said, "I know how to spell 'banana,' but I don't know when to stop."

December 24, 2008

What Time is Midnight Mass?

This is everyone's favorite call to the parish office this time of year. Of course it's a legitimate question. Like a lot of places, the kairos of our "liturgical midnight" is not at chronological midnight. I've even been to the Christmas "Mass at Midnight" as early as 7 pm, which is really going too far; I think this aberration is mostly the fault of priests who are chicken to proclaim and preach on Matthew's genealogy.

Some people in the parish complain about having the Midnight Mass at 10pm. I tell them I would happily push for the restoration of the Mass at Midnight at midnight if we can also push for having the Easter Vigil at the correct time, i.e. so that it ends around first light or so. Afraid that I'm serious--and maybe I am--they back down. Despite my latent traditionalism, I'm all for having the Mass at Midnight at 10pm. The children are less sleepy and the adults are less drunk.

A lot of people complain that 10pm is too early for Midnight Mass because they can't finish their Christmas Eve dinner by then. This complaint really cracks me up, because the custom of the Mass at Midnight dates from a time when December 24 was a day of fast and abstinence, and having Mass at midnight dispenses with the old rule of having to fast from midnight before receiving Holy Communion. Ben and other readers better versed in this stuff, fill in my gaps on this one!

This year I'm grateful to be presiding at the Mass at Midnight again. (I think this is partly because my pastor is afraid that I will preach on Matthew's genealogy, which I might if I had the Vigil). I'm thinking of breaking some new ground tonight, and trying to sing the Gospel. I haven't decided yet. I'm going to wait and see how well I do with the proclamation at the Vigil:

Today, the twenty–fifth day of December,
unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
and then formed man and woman in his own image.
Several thousand years after the flood,
when God made the rainbow shine forth
as a sign of the covenant.
Twenty–one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel
out of Egypt.
Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
one thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
in the sixty–fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.
In the one hundred and ninety–fourth Olympiad;
the seven hundred and fifty–second year from the foundation
of the city of Rome.
The forty–second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
the whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
and nine months having passed since his conception,
was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.
Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.

December 23, 2008

Overheard in the Monastery

One of the brothers was talking about his Christmas confession, which didn't go well. For many reasons both genuine and scrupulous, he was wondering out loud if his confession and the absolution he received were valid.

Other friar: "I don't think I would want to hear your confession, except perhaps if I was the last priest on earth."

Scrupulous friar: "But Father, what if I was in danger of death, wouldn't you be willing to hear my confession then?"

Other friar: "Only if I was certain that you were really going to die."

December 22, 2008

Making Space

Yesterday was one of those Sundays when I gave my homily and felt like it didn't work. It was too long and too complicated. I had two Masses in a row, so I could call the audible in between and change everything for the second version. Many times it's only in trying to preach on something that I discover the best way to try to disclose the mystery.

Yesterday, to keep things simple I came upon the metaphor of making space. In many ways I think this is a fruitful theme for Advent; during this season we try to make room for God, to 'make straight the way of the Lord.' We try to find time to pray, to be apart with the God who is so Other.

And yet, when we come near to the mystery of Lord's Nativity, we realize that our true joy is not our making of space for God in our lives, but God making space for us within the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. I think it comes across in yesterday's reading from 2nd Samuel; When David wonders if he should build a Temple for God, the Word of God comes back to him saying that it is God who will build an eternal house for David. The dynamic is repeated in the mystery of the Lord's Annunciation; Mary's fiat gives the Word of God a living and perfect tabernacle from which to born into our world, but the overwhelming good news of this is that revelation of the Son of God borrowing humanity from Mary prepares a place for our humanity within the inner life of Trinity.

Yes, like Mary we must consent to the presence of God within, and make a space for God in our lives. But so much greater than this is the space God creates for us within the veil of his own life as mysterious holiness, delight, and joy.

December 20, 2008

The New Temple

The Incarnation of the Word in the mystery of the Lord's Nativity is the appearance of the Temple of the New Jerusalem, giving all humanity a chance to make of themselves a perfect and pleasing sacrifice to God. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

December 18, 2008

Slightly Imperfect Socks

Once in a while I have the grace of an experience that shows me that despite my best spiritual efforts, I am not yet poor. Yes, I have professed to live sine proprio, "without anything of my own." Yes, I buy clothes from the "slightly imperfect" rack. Yes, I don't drive when I can walk or take the bus or the subway. Yes, I refuse to accumulate a mass of things that ends up being "my stuff." Luckily for me though, the Holy Spirit sends me experiences from time to time to show me that I am not yet poor. Today was a great example.

Because I was able to get away for part of today, I went to Manhattan to do a couple of errands and go to confession. (My regular confessor here in the friary is in the hospital. Pray for him--things don't look good.) On my way home, switching from train to bus in downtown Yonkers, I had a break of a few minutes. Remembering my desperate need for new socks, I went to the big discount department store. I found exactly what I wanted right away: a sack of six pairs of black cotton crew socks with the "slightly imperfect" sticker on them. Just what I need for just $3.99.

After waiting in line for several minutes, I put my new socks on the counter and gave the nice lady my credit card. Clearly annoyed, she informed me that one could not charge a $3.99 purchase on a credit card, but that I would have to spend $10 for that privilege. Not having $3.99 in cash, I had to leave without my new, slightly imperfect socks. It was a remarkable encounter between me and this annoyed woman. I was stunned at the idea that I would use something besides my credit card for any purchase more profound than a newspaper. She looked at me as if someone who had a credit card but not $3.99 was at least a little crazy.

The encounter reveals the challenge of professing poverty. Being rich or poor is not just about having money or not. Richness and poverty are also sets of beliefs and practices, in short, cultures. The rich/poor distinction is also inextricably wrapped with whether one possesses cultural or educational capital, and these are almost impossible to alienate from the individual. Even though I might have looked like a hobo, even though I was acting poor, my belief about how I would pay for the socks shows my thinking and my cultural identity as an affluent person. My unconscious belief that one would use a credit card for a purchase of $3.99 shows in me a certain class and cultural identity. "Cash is the poor man's credit card," as my father used to say.

All of this shows that our vocation to holy poverty has to go beyond material austerity and beyond practices within our community--though it would be nice if we even had these things! If we really want to be poor, we have to go and live with the poor and let them be our teachers.

Advent Spirituality

I was going to see my spiritual director late yesterday, so over the course of the day I was reflecting on the month that had passed. I noticed right away that I felt much better in my vocation and encouraged in prayer than I had when I was preparing for my visit last month. So I spent the day trying to remember what had happened over the past month to improve my spiritual situation, and I noticed a lot:

An old friend had called, whom I had not seen much since my conversion, and I was reminded how Christianity has saved me from certain inanities and unmeanings of my prior self. Visiting the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal in Newark for their Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass was healing and clarifying for me. The latest letter from our Minister General, some of which I shared yesterday, has been encouraging for me and some other younger friars. Finally, catching a cold a while back forced me to slow down--even stop--and notice where I was and what I was doing.

All of this is Providence, and has been there over the past month for my encouragement. But my point is simply this: if I had not taken the time yesterday to reflect and become mindful of these little acts of the Holy Spirit, I might never have noticed God working through them. That's why something like regular spiritual direction is a good practice; it forces you to take notice of what's going on with yourself from time to time.

To me, this is the spirituality of Advent. The Bridegroom is always arriving. God is always appearing in the now, forever new and refreshing. At least that's the best way we can experience Eternity, as a Presence in the now. The Bridegroom is always arriving; we pray so that we might recognize him.

December 17, 2008

The Challenges

Yesterday we received an encyclical letter from the Minister General of our Order, Br. Mauro Jöhri. In it he says some tough things, but after reading it with another young friar last night, we were really happy about it. It points out some of the problems that we ourselves have noticed and talked about. The Minister General notes especially some of the issues and challenges that we face in the formation and initiation of new members. Most seriously, he points out a sort of evaporation of our the missionary spirit that is supposed to be constitutive of Christianity itself, not just consecrated religious life:

One of the first facts is a declining readiness to be sent on a mission of first evangelisation, or generally to places marked by economic, social or political difficulties. The pastors of the local churches repeatedly invite our Order to take responsibility for places needing first evangelisation, or to consolidate what was begun only a few decades previously. But I must say I find considerable reluctance to accept such requests, even in the case of jurisdictions with a fair number of vocations. The biggest difficulties are due to the fact that this type of commitment requires great sacrifices, including the need to settle in places that are often without the kind of communications we are becoming accustomed to more or less everywhere (internet access, etc.). What concerns me is that many brothers concentrate primarily on what they might lack for themselves, while easily forgetting people who do not yet know the Gospel or who need to be accompanied in their journey of integration of Christian values.

In how we live at "home," Br. Mauro also sees systemic issues:

One finds here and there signs of a clear refusal of manual and domestic work. We have so many employees that we are accustomed to being served in everything, right from the first years of formation. With some friars this happens so that they can devote themselves full-time to pastoral work, others because they are busy with study. In such cases fraternal life is the biggest loser, because we limit ourselves to praying and eating meals together, but everything else is delegated to someone else.

The spirit of "I came to be served, not to serve" can easily infect brothers from the developing world:

I notice in candidates of young jurisdictions a very strong desire to be able, one day, to find their way to northern shores and to settle there for some time. Some believe that having “become Capuchins” gives them the right to pursue specialised university studies later. It is evident that we cannot support such a view; otherwise we simply become an agency for social advancement.

But this isn't to say that we in the affluent and privileged cultures and classes are free from a selfish spirit. In fact, our desire to do something counter-cultural and to reject privilege often does not go deep enough into our own selves:

In jurisdictions where vocations are few and candidates often come to us in adult life, I notice a strong tendency to consider the choice of our life in terms of self-fulfilment before anything else. The danger is that each person comes with his own personal project to fulfil, while disregarding that of the fraternity. And so it happens that the personal aspect is exaggerated and stressed in a completely individualistic, narcissistic way.

This is challenging stuff, but it's stuff we need to hear if religious life is going to keep its savor and be good for something besides being thrown out and trampled underfoot.

December 13, 2008

Clothed and Adorned

Rejoice in the Lord always, for he is near. The arrival of the Eternal Word made flesh is the good news of a fresh renovation of our humanity. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

December 11, 2008

Stuff I Never Knew

It's almost a commonplace to say that neither the trials nor joys of our particular vocation are what we expected. I'm starting to wonder whether the Holy Spirit doesn't want us to indulge our vainglorious ideas about what a vocation will be like (e.g. marriage, religious life, priesthood) in order to get us to go ahead and do it. Once we have followed the Spirit in, then the truth can be revealed.

Anyway, there have been a lot of unexpected discoveries about priesthood. Celebrating the Eucharist as a priest has shifted my whole sense of it. For example, I always looked at the sacrifice as something that happened to the bread and wine. But now I look at it less as something that happens to the bread and wine, and more as something that happens to God; something God goes through as it were, his passio.

On a practical level, there are aspects of the Mass that I honestly never knew about before being a priest. Now I probably went to Mass 2,500 times or so as a layman, but there were prayers I had never heard and things I never knew about. Here are three examples:

1. The secret prayers. I had seen priests praying sotto voce, as it were. I had even heard lots of priests say the secret prayers in a regular voice. But a couple of them I just never knew about, like the prayer during the purifications, which has become one of my favorites: Lord, may I receive these gifts in purity of heart. May they bring me healing and strength, now and forever.

2. The Kyrie after the Confiteor. If option A is used for the penitential rite at the beginning of Mass, that is, the I confess to Almighty God..., the priest gives the absolution after the Confiteor, May Almighty God have mercy on us... and then is supposed to say or intone the simple Lord have mercy... before going on to the Gloria or the Opening Prayer, as appropriate. Before being ordained I had literally never heard any priest do this. When the I confess... was used, they would give the absolution and then go straight to the Gloria or Opening Prayer, omitting the Kyrie. I've asked a few priests about this. Most said that I was wrong, but others admit that they are supposed to do it but don't want to. The rubrics are pretty clear, though. I say, why omit this beautiful piece of our tradition, and a great opportunity to insert a little Greek into the Mass?

3. The prayer after the Sprinkling Rite. Here's another one I had literally never, ever heard before being ordained myself. If the rite of sprinkling with holy water is used in place of the penitential rite, the priest is supposed to pray this prayer over the people when it is done: May almighty God cleanse us of our sins, and through the eucharist we celebrate make us worthy to sit at his table in his heavenly kingdom. Again, I was shocked to see this prayer in the Sacramentary, because I had never heard it at Mass. My experience was that the Sprinkling Rite just ended and the Gloria would begin. Or, as is widespread practice among the brothers of my Order, the Gloria is sung during the sprinkling. This, of course, necessitates the omission of the prayer, because when you're done sprinkling it's time for the Collect. Age quod agis, I say. Let's do one thing at a time. Plus I like the prayer; it's been one of my discoveries.

As one of my confreres, a lay friar, likes to say, "Making up your own liturgy is the height of clericalism."

December 10, 2008

That Would Take All Night

On the other side of town we have a group of young sisters who run retreats for the Spanish speaking folks in the area. They are often in need of confessors, and I go when I can. Imagine my fear when I went the other night and was put in a room with this sign on it:

I thought to myself that I would never make it. Luckily for my sanity and my spotty Spanish, not to speak of those who had to suffer me as a confessor, there weren't that many.

December 8, 2008

St. Thomas and the Immaculate Conception

The feast of the Immaculate Conception, arriving as it does nine months before Our Lady's birthday (liturgical gestations are always perfect), is a favorite time for Franciscans to indulge our particular chauvinism by beating up on non-Franciscan theologians, St. Thomas in particular. This is because St. Thomas is said to have denied the Immaculate Conception, but only a generation or so later our own Bl. John Duns Scotus became a champion of the doctrine. Thus we Franciscans--sometimes infamous for our anti-intellectual tendencies--have a chance to be better than the great Angelic Doctor himself, and hence to all other smart people.

So this morning I decided I would actually read St. Thomas on the question, to see what he said. Truth be told, he does deny the Immaculate Conception in ST III. q. 27 II. (see the reply to 2nd objection in particular.) (1) He says that it would be derogatory to Christ as universal Savior to think that Mary never had any original sin. To be fair, we can hardly fault St. Thomas (whom I love, I'll admit it) for not holding a doctrine that would not be dogmatically defined for another 600 years. In order to answer the question of Mary's sanctification, of which he firmly believes, Thomas resorts (and as well he might) to Scriptural examples of holy individuals who were sanctified in utero, such as St. John the Baptist and the prophet Jeremiah, but not from the first moment of their conception. (See III. q.27 I, response.) (2)

In the end Thomas makes a good point. If Mary never knew original sin, what need did she have for Christ's salvation? Did Jesus Christ come to suffer for most? Didn't she need the salvation Christ won for us as well? The point provides an inadvertent reductio ad absurdum for the idea that salvation from sin was the principal purpose of the Incarnation. (It also shows us that the salvation Christ did indeed accomplish through his passover is not bound to time in a mechanical way.) It's not as if God made the world and when people sinned God then decided on the Incarnation as a means to our salvation. "The Incarnation was not plan B," as one of my favorite teachers liked to say. With God there is only plan A. Even if our first parents had not sinned, the Word would have come to us as the Incarnate Son of God, simply out of God's passionate desire to lift his creation to himself. That this required the salvation from sin we have through Christ's Passion is an extra, remedial gift. (Though it is a gift of inestimable value, which we celebrate each day in the sacrifice of the Mass.) After all, we could never say that sin controls how God behaves.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Immaculate Conception and Queen of the Order of Friars Minor.

(1) "Ad secundum dicendum quod, si nunquam anima beatae virginis fuisset contagio originalis peccati inquinata, hoc derogaret dignitati Christi, secundum quam est universalis omnium salvator."

(2) "Respondeo dicendum quod de sanctificatione beatae Mariae, quod scilicet fuerit sanctificata in utero, nihil in Scriptura canonica traditur, quae etiam nec de eius nativitate mentionem facit. Sed sicut Augustinus, de assumptione ipsius virginis, rationabiliter argumentatur quod cum corpore sit assumpta in caelum, quod tamen Scriptura non tradit; ita etiam rationabiliter argumentari possumus quod fuerit sanctificata in utero. Rationabiliter enim creditur quod illa quae genuit unigenitum a patre, plenum gratiae et veritatis, prae omnibus aliis maiora gratiae privilegia accepit, unde legitur, Luc. I, quod Angelus ei dixit, ave, gratia plena. Invenimus autem quibusdam aliis hoc privilegialiter esse concessum ut in utero sanctificarentur, sicut Ieremias, cui dictum est, Ierem. I, antequam exires de vulva, sanctificavi te; et sicut Ioannes Baptista, de quo dictum est, Luc. I, spiritu sancto replebitur adhuc ex utero matris suae. Unde rationabiliter creditur quod beata virgo sanctificata fuerit antequam ex utero nasceretur."

December 6, 2008

Think Again

The appearance of the Forerunner, John the Baptist, is the "beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God." John invites us to metanoia, to think again, to have second thoughts about our selfish ways, and thus to prepare ourselves for the arriving Kingdom of God in the person of Jesus Christ. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

December 5, 2008

Metropolitan Jonah

Over these recent days I've been, like many I think, amazed by what I've read about Metropolitan Jonah, the newly elected primate of the autocephalous Orthodox Church in America. It's partly because we're both college-age converts, and there are other similarities in our stories as well. But it's also because those statements I've read so far are so striking:

To those at St. Vladimir's Seminary here in Yonkers, he gives this vision of ministry:

[He] particularly reiterated the need to imitate the sacrificial path of Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. “To become the living presence of God, the living temple of God, requires us to crush our ego and shatter our will,” he said, “so that we might conceive God within us and become his presence in this world.

“Seminarians,” he noted, “do not come to theological schools to become ‘professionals’ and to be ‘respected,’ but rather to be crucified and thereby shine forth the light of Christ.” His Beatitude reminded the seminarians that his own title of “episkopos” means not “master of the house,” but “slave of slaves.”

On the topic of being an autocephalous church he said:

“Hierarchy is only about responsibility, it’s not all of this imperial nonsense,” he said. “Thank God that we’re Americans and we have cast that off. We don’t need foreign despots. We are the only non-state Orthodox Church. In other words, we are the only Orthodox Church that does not exist under the thumb of a state — either friendly or hostile.

“So the church is our responsibility, personally and collectively, individually and corporately. What are you going to do with it?”

I love that because it captures a shift in my own self-understanding as an American. The public education I received as a child (which was very good) left the subtle message that the so-called separation of church and state was for the protection of the state. I know realize that it is just as much for the protection of the integrity of faith.

May you be filled with the Holy Spirit as you take up your ministry, Metropolitan Jonah.

December 2, 2008

Holiday Blues

Luke 10:23-24:

Turning to the disciples in private he said,
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

It's a commonplace to hear us Catholics complain about how the world around us skips Advent and goes straight to Christmas, and then gives up on the Christmas season after one day. I don't think the world celebrates Christmas at all, but observes the pagan festival of Yule, but that's another rant.

More and more I experience all of the lights, decorations, sales, and trite songs as a form of denial. In ministry you learn quickly that this is a very hard time of year for a lot of people. The dark days make people blue. Many anniversaries of death are recalled. Family conflicts flare up.

The Advent season speaks to this spiritual condition. It is an invitation to enter into the dark places of our hearts and find the longing for God, the misinterpretation of which is the cause of so much of our misery in the first place. Advent invites us to give up on the failed strategy of drowning our alienation and despair with bright lights and noise, and invites us to seek the single Light that desires to be born into our personal darkness.

December 1, 2008

The Ascesis of Preaching

For me the greatest challenge in preaching is finding the right ascesis for preparation. To paraphrase Master Yoda, it requires a good deal of 'unlearning what you have learned.'

Ever since I have been able to read, I have been conditioned to read a text as fast I can (while still comprehending it, more or less) and to think of something clever to say or write about it right away. The quicker and the more clever the better. This is the relationship to a text that going to school has taught me, from the first grade all the way through theological studies.

The trouble is, you just can't go about preparing to preach on the Sacred Scriptures in this way. To skim the text and go with the first clever thing you think of is a serious error, and one that has caught me many times in the hundred or so weekends I've spent so far in the clerical state. Many times I have gone to an ambo to proclaim the Gospel and only at that moment realized how I ought to have reflected and prepared to preach on it. I realize that this is partly because this is when the printed word becomes the Word of God most eminently, i.e. when it is proclaimed in the assembly, but it's also because the Scripture simply has to be heard.

Through all of this I have learned that I need to employ all kinds of practical strategies to make myself slow down in the course of my weekly preparation. I need to read the Sunday Scriptures out loud, for one thing. I need to refuse to have an idea the first time. Ideas make you miss things, as you begin to conform the text to the thing you want to say. I need to play with several ideas and refuse to choose one right away. Finally, I need to keep reading the text as I prepare, to make sure it's not drifting off into my idea. For we are not meant to preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord. (2 Corinthians 4:5)

November 29, 2008


The eternal God, who is the longing of each soul created in his image, desires to arrive in our lives as our giftedness and joy. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

November 28, 2008

Overheard In The Monastery

(On the Friday after Thanksgiving)

Friar with cell phone on speaker: "Why aren't you at work?"

Unknown interlocutor: "It's Saturday."

November 26, 2008


Today's Gospel, Luke 21: 12-19

Jesus said to the crowd:
“They will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents,v brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives."

The world is the courtroom, and God is on trial, put to the test by those who either won't or don't know how to believe. We who are Christians are called to be the witnesses at this trial where we will give our martyrion, or "testimony," as Luke says.

November 25, 2008

Unlikely Source

I was listening to metal internet radio the other day and I was reminded that even Slayer, widely regarded (and rightly so) as pretty occult and Satanic, can deliver the stark and obvious anti-abortion message. Here's some of the lyrics to their 1988 song, "Silent Scream."

Nightmare, the persecution,
A child's dream of death.
Torment, ill forgotten
A soul that will never rest*

Guidance, it means nothing
In a world of brutal time
Electric, circus wild
Deep in the infants mind

Silent scream
Bury the unwanted child
Beaten and torn
Sacrifice the unborn

Shattered, adolescent
Bearer of no name
Restrained, insane games
Suffer the children condemned

Scattered, remnants of life
Murder a time to die
Pain, suffrage toyed
Life's little fragments destroyed

Silent scream
Crucify the bastard son
Beaten and torn
Sanctify lives of scorn

*Of course we know that the Lord is close to the broken and wants always to save the victim of society's injustices. So we trust that God does give rest to the souls of those who are robbed of their lives on earth through abortion.

November 22, 2008

Destination and Destiny

The movement toward the cosmic kingship of Christ, first explicitly revealed in his Resurrection, is the true history of the world. Let's get with the program. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

November 21, 2008

From My Confessor

It's lonely to be a priest. It just is. But in a certain and very real sense this is necessary. The priest has to know something of the loneliness of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, because this is where we see the classic expression of the perfect unity of his human and divine wills.

For us who are mixed in our motivations, it will be our daily practice and cooperation with grace that will bend our will to the divine. As with Jesus in the garden, it is in our own loneliness that we see this task before us most clearly. Our experience of alone-ness can be either the occasion of the sin of turning back on ourselves and indulging in loneliness, or turning from ourselves in the solitude that reaches out to the One who is.

November 20, 2008

Pro-Choice, or Pro-Me at the Expense of You?

So is the title of Historical Christian's latest post. Read it here and believe it.

Pastoral Conflicts

Sometimes I think I'm going to write a real article about new courses that ought to be offered in the seminary curriculum. Here's one that really needs to be invented: Common Pastoral Conflicts.

The thing is, there are certain conflicts that arise frequently in ordinary parish ministry that I never would have imagined. For example, it never would have occurred to me that people would nominate someone who had not completed their own Christian initiation--or wasn't even a practicing Catholic--as a godparent for their child. And yet this is a common problem. An ugly conflict inevitably arises when parents are told that only someone who has completed their own Christian initiation (i.e. through Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist) is eligible to sponsor someone else for the same journey. You can't show the way if you haven't been there yourself. It boggles my mind, and so I was very much unprepared to deal with such a thing when I became a parish priest.

Another frequent conflict comes with the issue of burying the dead. From my own Christian formation, I always understood that to bury the dead was one of the corporal works of mercy and hence a blessed act. But many times in the parish ministry I have come into conflict with people who want to have a funeral for their deceased loved ones and then keep their cremated remains around the house. Fortunately for my conscience, the policy of our parish is no burial, no funeral. But the problem is compounded by the local practice of doing committal services at the crematory before a body goes in, as if it were a burial. We won't do it, offering to return to do the committal service at the actual committal of the remains. This is uncomfortable, though, because it exposes those who don't actually intend to bury the dead. Again, I never would have imagined having this conflict before I got to be a parish priest, because I always thought Christians buried the dead. The affirmation of the human place of creation, as well as our hope for the new creation at the end of time, would be good places for us Christians to get back in touch with the Jewish roots of the blessed mitvah of burying the dead.

The practical issue for me in both cases is how to discern the line between changing conditions, times, and cultures on the one hand, and the breakdown of the ordinary practice of the Catholic religion on the other. This discernment is very needful, because the former calls for Evangelization, but the latter calls for correction.

November 19, 2008

Encouraging Vocations, Continued

Thanks for all the good comments, brothers and sisters. This is a critical topic, and I've continued to think about it, especially with reference to my own hesitancy to encourage vocations and what it might be about.

Perhaps another reason why I find it challenging to encourage vocations is that, in my experience, I feel like we promote the common religious life wrongly. Though this was completely alien to my own discernment, for many men who discern there is a choice to be made between the secular priesthood and religious life (including, perhaps, the religious priesthood.) Within this dilemma I think that we sometimes set up an unhelpful distinction between a caricature of the secular priesthood as lonely, solitary, and unsupported and the common religious life as one in which you can depend on mutual care and support. To me this is very dangerous.

It's true that the common observance can provide a kind of safety net from spiritual ruin. Even when you can't pray and don't want anything to do with spiritual effort, you still have an obligation to common prayer and the common table. Somebody might notice if you totally disappear. These are both good things. On the other hand, though, if someone enters religious life in order to fulfill his needs for friendship, support, or (to use some of the favorite words of those who try to sell us this bill of goods) mutuality and intimacy, he is going to be disappointed.

If we try to encourage vocations to religious life by convincing people that it will serve their own emotional needs, their vocations will end in disaster. Yes, a brother will make friends in the community, and this will be an invaluable support in the life of observance and ministry. But this is not the primary purpose of the common life, which is provide--as St. Benedict put it--a "school for the Lord's service." The common life at its heart is meant to be a penance in the best sense of the word, an opportunity to do violence to ourselves and bend our minds and wills to God.

The common, religious life is observed not to serve my emotional needs, but to give me a chance to discard the emotional tyrant that I have come (falsely) to regard as "myself."

November 18, 2008

Do I Encourage Vocations?

In the parish where I work we are very fortunate to have three full-time priests, so we have no explicit reason to claim that we are suffering from the shortage of clergy. It makes itself felt, however, in subtle ways. One of those ways is in the culture of Mass intentions, which are filled up here about six months in advance. As the years have gone by and the number of regular Masses has decreased (though we still celebrate eighteen a week here, plus an average of two funerals and half a wedding) and the reform of the liturgy has ended the "side altar" Mass, the demand for Mass intentions has not decreased at the same rate. So many times I have rescued one of the poor kids who answers our phone and door in the evening from someone who is irate that they can't have a Mass said for their deceased loved one anytime soon.

But how many of these irate souls have ever encouraged their own sons or other young men in their life to consider the call to the priesthood? Not many, I would guess. That's where the clergy shortage ends up in its most unpleasant illogic: you can't expect the ministry of priests on demand while not encouraging priestly vocations.

But am I a hypocrite in this criticism I have just made? Yes, at least to some degree. Seeing a young man, an outstanding altar server or a thoughtful religion student perhaps, do I try to plant the seed of a vocation? Like a lot of my brother priests, and even among those who are happy, I think I am also hesitant. Why? I've thought a lot about this, because my hesitancy surprised me at first. If I am grateful for my own vocation and find a lot of joy and redemption in it, why would I not recommend it to another, even on just the human level?

I remember when I was a senior in college and I was first thinking about a vocation to religious life. There was an ex-seminarian, a philosophy major like myself, who heard about it and said, "Best of luck with your vocation." I hardly knew him, but it was a big moment for me to have someone simply say those words, "your vocation," and make it real for me. So why am I hesitant to do that for someone else?

I hesitate to recommend the secular priesthood to anyone for two reasons. First, because I don't feel like I really know anything about it. I don't know what it's like to go to a diocesan seminary or grow up attached to a specific local church. Second, the morale of the secular clergy--at least where I live--seems pretty low. For example, without something to fall back upon like a religious community perhaps, they are one accusation away from being on the street without a home, a salary, or a pension.

But what about religious life and/or priesthood within a religious community? Since this is my own vocation, for which I am exceedingly grateful to God and for those who have encouraged and helped me along the way, why am I also hesitant here? I think that it's because, though this is a beautiful life full of fine challenges and wide opportunity, it is a very hazardous life on the spiritual level. I have no doubt that if there is anyone in hell at all, there is a good proportion of religious and clergy. This life is a beautiful and well-beaten path of Christian discipleship, and it has been proven in its power to make saints, but religious life can also make you worse. In some cases, I think people end up worse for their religious life than they would have been if they had stayed in the world. This is because, at least in the mainstream, North American religious life that I know, you don't have some of the spiritual safeguards that secular people enjoy. For instance, in secular life you don't have the option of deciding you don't want to work for a living, but in religious life this sometimes happens, and a priest or lay religious becomes miserable in their idleness and infects the rest of the community with the rotten luxury of their laziness. Other religious, lacking the give and take of close relationships, which keeps a lot of ordinary people from becoming entirely self-centered, start to believe all the praise they receive and become the sort of narcissistic little kings that make people think there is something the matter with religion. Others simply get comfortable and complacent, performing religious functions while they pursue bourgeois values and middle class goals.

Now I'm not saying that this happens to everyone, or that there aren't genuine saints that you meet frequently in the course of religious life. But I do think that the reason I am hesitant to recommend this life to potential vocations is that the spiritual hazards of this life are real, intense, and in your face all the time. Worse, it has been my experience of religious life and ministry that we as religious or priests do not know how to challenge each other to avoid or work ourselves out of these pitfalls. So I don't know what I would do if I encouraged someone to join up and I saw his soul ruined by it. But doesn't that make me the man who buried his talent?

November 17, 2008

Privy Counselling

Recently I've been taking another look at the Book of Privy Counselling, in A.C. Spearing's translation. It's obviously by the same author as The Cloud of Unknowing, and is often bundled with it in editions of The Cloud. Privy Counselling is shorter and more practically direct than The Cloud, and I've enjoyed noticing what I underlined at my last reading, guessing at what must have been on my mind at the time. Sometimes I also think that the close association of The Cloud with Centering Prayer has led us to read it through that lens, sometimes to the detriment of the text.

Some of my favorite parts:

When you come to be by yourself...put aside good thoughts as much as evil ones..and see that nothing remains in your active consciousness but a naked purpose reaching out to God.

And so descend to the lowest level of your understanding (which some, on the basis of actual experience, hold to be the highest)

You are your own cross.
This one reminds me of my favorite quote from St. Augustine, Factus eram ipse mihi magna questio, from Confessions 4.4.9, which I like to translate, "I became my own big problem."

The household of the spirit is marvelous, because its Master is not only the doorkeeper himself, he is also the door. He is the doorkeeper through his Godhead, and the door by his Manhood.

November 16, 2008

Franciscan Blogroll

Check out Fr. Herald as he blogs on mission in Sudan. He is a brother of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who are originally a daughter community of my own.

November 15, 2008

Holy Communion And The Vote

The South Carolina pastor who gave this post-election exhortation has made plenty of noise, and his diocese has rightly rebuked him publicly. But what makes things difficult is that Fr. Newman's claim is actually correct:

Voting for a pro-abortion politician when a plausible pro-life alternative exits constitutes material cooperation with intrinsic evil, and those Catholics who do so place themselves outside of the full communion of Christ’s Church and under the judgment of divine law. Persons in this condition should not receive Holy Communion until and unless they are reconciled to God in the Sacrament of Penance, lest they eat and drink their own condemnation.

But the assumption behind the statement is faulty. There was no "plausible pro-life alternative." Yes, there was an anti-abortion candidate, but just being anti-abortion doesn't make you pro-life. Being pro-life means holding up the life as the original value against everything that threatens it in the culture of death: abortion, capital punishment, pre-emptive war, structures of poverty, and disregard for the health of the creation. My implication, of course, is that neither of the two major candidates for president in this recent election lived up to these values enough to earn the label "pro-life." In fact, the only candidate I know of that seems to get it is Joe Schriner, a good Catholic by the way. I learned of him through a kind reader of this blog, and I have actually corresponded with him since. Give him your support in whatever he decides to do next with his campaigning.

We must pray for our president-elect's party that it might come to value the life of the unborn. We must all do our part to repent of all of our culture's sins against the sanctity of life, abortion especially. But we can't pretend that what secular politics calls "pro-life" is what is really implied by the term at its deepest Christian level, and we certainly can't let these compartmentalizations and oversimplifications into the Body of Christ.

The Optimistic Investor

In this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a man who entrusts his servants with a huge amount of money, and expects a return on his investment. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

November 10, 2008

Best. Prayer. Ever.

On Saturday the local funeral home sponsored their annual memorial Mass for all the families they had served over the past year. It's a beautiful event. There were about 150 people. The undertakers give them all lunch too.

At the conclusion of Mass we the ministers were standing in the vestibule greeting the people, and the cross bearer was standing next to me. A little girl, maybe five or six years old, came through the doors, turned, and just stood there looking at the crucifix. Eventually she just said, "Wow," and continued to stand there looking up at the Lord until she was called away.

Then one of the friars said, "That's the best prayer I've heard in a long time." Another exclaimed, "I have my Good Friday homily done for next year!"

I thought of Jesus' words to Nicodemus, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so tha teveryone who believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14-15) When the Israelites gazed upon the serpent they were healed, and so it is when we turn our spiritual eyes to the crucified Lord.

November 8, 2008

We Are God's Building

This weekend we celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral church of Western Christianity, the basilica of St. John Lateran. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

November 7, 2008

Baby Got Book

I saw this video on Sci Fi Catholic, who seems to have picked it up from the Art of Apologetics; two blogs that are worth a look if you haven't already. Evangelization always demands new forms after all.

"Ladies, do you wanna save some people from Hades?"

"And if you're Catholic, there's even more."

Now give some traffic back to White Boy DJ for letting everyone post his track.

Just for the record, my favorite Sir Mixalot track was "My Hooptie," from his 1989 album with one of the most hilarious cover photos ever, "Seminar."

November 6, 2008

Entering Religious Life

One of the immediate trials for most who enter religious life is a crisis of expectation. It's not exactly as you thought it would be. I think this is because religious life, even in our time of greater openness and contact with the world, remains somewhat opaque to outsiders. This is compounded by the insistence of so many religious on the invisibility of religious life, e.g. going about in secular clothes, etc. Because of this, I think a lot of us got our idea of religious life from books and movies--books that might be have been written hundreds of years ago, and movies that might be more romance than reality. I know that for me, my expectations of religious life prior to my entrance were formed mostly by the Lives of St. Francis by Thomas of Celano and Thomas Merton's The Sign of Jonas, all filtered through the trials and tribulations of the beautiful Sr. Luke (that is, Audrey Hepburn) in The Nun's Story.

It's embarrassing to say all this, but I think it's a reality for a lot of us. So as soon as someone enters a religious community, there is often an intense culture shock or existential crisis of expectations. (Admittedly, some of this is due to the unfortunate bourgeois and decadent state of much of mainstream religious life here in the United States.) Sometimes this shock at the real vs. expected religious life is so bad that a new brother will leave within 24 hours.

I went through this, and continue to do so on some level. And I don't think I'm an unusual case in this regard. I once asked a spiritual director about it, complaining that the spiritual trials and crosses of my religious life were entirely other than those I expected to have. He told me that this was, in fact, an expression of God's mercy. If we were allowed the carry the crosses we imagine ourselves bearing, or would like to carry, it would be too much an occasion for vainglory. So, in his mercy, God gives us crosses that we would not want, and are unglamorous and not even interesting.

I imagine that in our world of sitcom families and so-called "romantic comedies," a lot of this is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to married people as well.

I'm thinking about this stuff this morning because today is the funeral of my first vocation director, the friar who handled my application for my first go at religious life, when I spent 18 months in the formation program of the Friars of the Leonine Union (the OFM.)

November 5, 2008

Obama and the Holy See

This will come as a shock to some Catholics, but the Vatican seems happy about Barack Obama's election as president of these United States. Last night Pope Benedict sent him a congratulatory telegram, and today's issue of the Vatican's newspaper has an exceedingly laudatory front page article. Pdf in Italian linked here.

Joe Biden, Signing Bulletins, and the Pastoral Dance

One of the hardest and most delicate tasks in the pastoral ministry is what I call the "pastoral dance." It's the subtle balance you have to achieve between being encouraging and affirming on the one hand, and trying to be strict in the values you hold up on the other. It's easy to retreat into one of the simple extremes, to be the legalist on the one hand or the "whateverist" on the other, but to maintain a balance between the two is terribly hard. Here's two illustrations, one from my own life and another from someone else's (thank God.)

Signing bulletins for children is one of those random little Sunday rituals. Kids often need a signed bulletin to prove to their religious education program that they attended Sunday Mass. This is especially true if they attend classes in one parish and worship on Sunday in another. I don't sign automatically, though. I demand an account from the kid. If they are preparing for a sacrament I ask them why they want it and what they think it means. If they are between sacramental preparations, I ask to know what they are learning. If they can't tell me anything--in the worst cases they don't even know if they are preparing for a sacrament or not--I refuse to sign. I tell them that it's ordinary wisdom not to put your signature on something if someone can't tell you what it is. However, I almost always sign in the end, and I do the whole script in a lighthearted way, so as not to embarrass the kid's poor mother who has diligently brought the kid to church. That's the pastoral dance. You have to affirm and encourage on the one hand, but you have to make sure the value is held up on the other, to avoid the great scourge of the "spirit of whatever."

To take a hypothetical and more difficult example, what would I do if I were the pastor of the new First Catholic, vice-president elect Joe Biden? I understand that he attends Sunday Mass diligently, so I presume I would be able to ask him for an appointment. But what would I say? How would I affirm and encourage him in his apparent effort to lead a Catholic family, but still explain that his unwillingness to defend the rights of the unborn is unacceptable? How does the public and notorious element play into it? Would there be a pastoral strategy to affirm what's good, like Sunday Mass attendance and being a Catholic family, while still making it clear that the notorious failure to use public influence is intolerable? If this were me, this question would be pretty heavy on my conscience.

The pastoral dance is hard. But you have to do it if you don't want to be the scribe that binds up heavy burdens on the one hand, or the person who casts their pearls before swine on the other.

November 4, 2008

Bad Thoughts

I know that this is becoming a bit of a pet rant, but I am increasingly convinced that the problem with our practice of the Catholic religion is that the faithful have not been taught the sacred mysteries in such a way that they become practically portable into their individual lives. I get the feeling that people look upon the great mysteries of our faith--the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord--as beautiful and miraculous events to which we are spectators. The Word of God descended into our humanity in order to provide our humanity with path into God, not just to give us something beautiful to contemplate in itself.

One area that reveals to me the lack of basic spiritual formation for the average Catholic is the question of "bad thoughts." Many times people say that they are troubled by their evil thoughts and worry that they are sinful. To me this is a very unfortunate situation, because evil thoughts are actually one of the most useful things in the spiritual life.

Every time an evil suggestion pops into our head, whether it comes from the world, the flesh, or the devil (to name the classical suggestions for sources), we have the gift of an opportunity for worship and obedience. By rejecting the evil suggestion rather than nourishing it, we make a beautiful act of worship and recognition of a God apart from ourselves. Even better, if we replace the evil thought with a good one, we are practicing metanoia, changing our minds. This is the practice that the Buddha called "changing the peg." If we practice this over and over in our lives, we will eventually not only convert our minds from evil to good, but we will become that much more free of the tyranny of our thoughts and detached from our own internal discourse.

This freedom and detachment will be invaluable in our prayer. I once went to hear a meditation teacher and during the question period some kid asked him about being frustrated by distractions. The teacher said, "You are too possessive of your own mind." I didn't get it then, but I get it now. The teacher was pointing out that the problem is not the presence of absence of distractions, but being overly-identified with our own thoughts. I'm not exactly my mind, just like I'm not exactly my body. I'm certainly not the stream of conscious thoughts that roll through my head all day. Let go of distraction by letting go of all your thoughts. As Thomas Merton said, "In an age when everyone talks about 'being yourself,' I reserve the right to forget about being myself."

Evil thoughts aren't a good thing, but we can use them to discover the freedom and conversion that God wants to give us.

November 3, 2008

The Friars' Cemetery

One of the perks of my current assignment is that I live and work on the same campus as the cemetery for the friars. I can easily visit the deceased brothers from time to time. I can also visit my own final resting place and contemplate the day of my burial in a pretty concrete way. If I die in the Order, that is, thanks to many who must be praying for my perseverance.

Yesterday I spent some time in the cemetery for All Souls Day, hoping to receive the indulgence for someone I wanted to give it to. I counted 36 friars who had concluded their pilgrimage in this world in the eight years since I entered the Order. Most I knew to one degree or another; a few I had lived and prayed with in community. I went through each of them, praying for them and thanking them for the prayers and example. When I went to pray the Our Father and the Creed prescribed for the indulgence, the "Our" and the "We" with which they respectively begin really struck me. I felt as though I was praying with the deceased brothers, wherever they found themselves in their journey. I thought, as I often do, of the last words my formation director said to me before my priestly ordination: "Reflect on the communion of saints...that's the only this makes sense."

Oremus pro invicem, fratres.

November 1, 2008


This year the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, All Souls Day, falls on a Sunday. To pray for our beloved dead is to recognize the mercy of God shown to the elect who need to continue their preparations for heaven after death. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

October 31, 2008

From My Confessor

Riffing a little on spiritual advice from my confession in preparation for All Saints and All Souls:

When it comes to God's will in your life, think of four levels:

There are, I hate to say it, religious who don't even try to seek God's will. At best they have never learned the difference between self-centered pious dreams and the living God.

A lot of religious manage to conform themselves to God's will in their daily lives more or less, but they complain about it to each other or to whatever other victim they can find. These get self-satisfied because of the good they do, and thus compound their sin.

Some get beyond this point, and do God's will will without complaining in their speech. They are still complaining in their thoughts, however, revealing that they haven't actually accepted God's will.

The goal is to not only do God's will but to accept it internally. To do the former is the easy part; to accomplish the latter is the real work.

October 30, 2008

Parish Ministry

I've been slow about posting this week; it's just been really busy. This is a busy time of year in general. For me the joy and the challenge of my ministry as parish priest come from the same fact: the outrageous diversity of the work. In the course of one day there is celebrating Mass, preaching, and leading prayers. In addition there are appointments in which you are called to pray with people, to offer spiritual advice or to plan events. And then there are homilies and talks to draft. Often there is a wake to attend in the afternoon, and usually an appointment or a committee meeting in the evening. Finally, there are technological and physical projects around the place to do or supervise, runs to the bank to be made, poor boxes to empty, vigil candles to light, telephone menus and websites to maintain, and thermostats to adjust.

In a way it's a beautiful ministry and a privilege, to have the chance to see the original blessing of God shining through into the world in so many different ways and in the lives of people in so many different situations and moments in life. On the other hand, it's easy to get worn out and scattered in spirit.

It's also why it's so important to take some "sabbath" from time to time, for the threefold Biblical purpose of imitating the Creator, taking time to restore ourselves in prayer, and to acknowledge that even though we work hard and do so many things, the ministry does not depend on our work, but on God.

October 27, 2008


Yesterday was baptism day. We have baptisms on the last Sunday of the month. We take turns, which means each of us gets to preside four times a year.

I really enjoy it, even with all of its ritual chaos and the depressing presence of those who are only "cultural Catholics." It's a beautiful ritual with a theology that, to me, is almost overwhelming in its implications.

On the other hand, preaching on baptism day is always a little jarring for me because most of my baptismal preaching is at funerals and wakes. So I am very accustomed to preaching the doctrine, theology, and Scriptural foundations of baptism, but not in the actual context of someone being baptized. In fact, the ratio in my ministry is about 25:1. That is, for each time I can preach on the actual occasion of baptism, I have about 25 opportunities to preach on baptism in the context of Christian death. (You can ask what this might mean demographically for the future of our parish, but that's another question.)

In the end (literally) the point is the same; being buried with Christ, united with his humanity, and becoming subject to the new life of the Resurrection. The eternal life given at baptism is not something that will be enjoyed at some future point; eternity is not subject to now and then. Jesus says, "you have eternal life," not "you will have eternal life." So whether we're at the beginning and end of our pilgrimage on this earth, the eternal life we have through the passing over of Christ is the same.

October 25, 2008

How To Read The Bible

Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. In his response he provides for us an answer to the persistent problem of how to understand the Sacred Scriptures. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

October 24, 2008

Why I Don't Mind Weddings

Over the years I've gathered that most priests regard marriage preparation and the execution of Nuptial Masses and ceremonies to be among their most dreaded chores. I think that this is because, for one thing, they take up a lot of time. With just over a year now in my career as parish priest, I have witnessed seven marriages and have sixteen more in production. Very few go by without any hitch at all; you almost always have to do something extra, like finding baptismal records from suppressed parishes, figuring out inter-ritual or inter-religious dispensations, obtaining decrees of nullity from previous marriages lacking canonical form, or asserting your rights and jurisdiction against the dreaded "wedding planner." All I can say is thank God one of my best friends in the Order is a canon lawyer.

Not that these things are always a terrible hassle, but in most cases you are doing them on behalf of young people with little more than a tangential relationship to their religion, much less to the parish. (There are shining exceptions.) Most, sadly, are "cultural Catholics" who probably won't be seen in church again until the next spiritual emergency, like when they have to baptize a baby. So I think that a lot of priests find it to be a sad situation and resent having to spend a lot of time on it.

I also find it sad, but I've also come to appreciate these young people. Even though they have not kept up with their faith--probably because it was never taught to them in a way that was relevant to their lives or portable into adulthood--I find them to be people of faith. It is an amazing act of faith to get married, after all; to bet that your own mutual love and regard is stronger than a future you can't even know. To me, that's almost the definition of faith.

In this world with its utter disregard for the creation and the gift of life within it, with its violence and morbid desire to see its own shipwreck, I find it very encouraging that people still insist on falling in love with each other. And they know at some level that love demands a complete commitment, even though we can't know what forever or complete is going to mean. But we do it anyway, because love is the way we touch Eternity and only eternity satisfies it.

October 23, 2008

Building The Tombs

Today we celebrate the feast day of St. John of Capistrano, one of the "pillars" of the Observant reform of the Franciscan Order. Yesterday we celebrated St. Peter of Alcántara, a colleague of St. Teresa of Avila, whom we celebrated earlier this month. I love these memorials of the saints who were the great reformers in the history of religious life; I find them inspiring.

But to celebrate these saints, to offer the beautiful prayers of their Masses and Offices frightens me a little too. For if I myself am doing nothing to reform and renew religious life, to shake it out of its obvious (to me) state of lassitude and decadence, then I am fulfilling Jesus' own condemnation of the hypocrites:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous, and you say, "If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have joined them in shedding their blood." Thus you bear witness against yourselves that you are the children of those who murdered the prophets; now fill up what your ancestors measured out! (Matthew 23:29-32)

Sometimes I have an honest fear that mainstream religious life--as least as it is here in North America--is falling into this trap. We are very good at celebrating the courageous reformers of the past, but not so good at aiming their reforming vision at ourselves.

October 22, 2008

Getting A Beating

The conclusion of today's Gospel:

That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Luke 12:47-48

I remember how in studies we arrived at this passage during the Luke course and the professor said, "Congratulations. If you have been paying attention during this course, you are no longer eligible to receive the lighter beating."

God Language

Back at the beginning of the summer, I was utterly delighted to hear about the decision of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments that we are no longer to use or pronounce the divine name during worship.

This made me happy because I have always felt that the pronunciation of the divine name in contemporary songs and alternative psalmodies was disrespectful not only to God but to the whole Scriptural tradition, kept alive by our Jewish brothers and sisters, of not pronouncing the name. A couple of times since this came out, though, I've gotten into conversations with people who don't approve.

Mostly they mourn the loss of Dan Schutte's beloved setting of Psalm 139, "You Are Near." This I understand. It's a laudably Scriptural song, people love it, and it's catchy. Maybe the words can be changed, but otherwise this is a genuine loss. Other alternative liturgical texts, more spurious in origin, will also have to be scrapped, and good riddance.

In any case, when I've been in conversations about this point, I've noticed a real lack of good sense about the nature of the words we use to refer to God, and what sort of words they are. Someone will say, for example, "How come we can say 'Lord' or 'God' but we can't use this particular name for God?"

The reason is, I think, because "Lord" and "God" are not names. To say "Lord," or Adonai or Kyrios for that matter, is to pronounce a title, not a name. These are titles for God that replace the divine name in the case of the Old Testament, and titles that migrate to the Risen Lord in the case of the New.

To say "God" is not to pronounce someone's name, but to point to a concept, an idea. To say "God" is not to address someone by name but to attempt to signify the Deity. This is why it is misguided for missionaries to replace the word "God" in the Scriptures with the proper name of the local deity.

Even to say "The Father" or "The Son," using the signifiers that Jesus reveals for the Holy Trinity is not really to use a name but a description of a relationship. There isn't really such a person as "God the Father," but the relation of Source and paternity within God.

In the end we have to recognize that most of our efforts to refer to the divine Mystery take the form of titles and descriptions, not names. There are really only two proper names for God, the divine name revealed to Moses, which no one may pronounce, and Jesus Christ, the name of the Word of God become human, whom we may and must address by name precisely because of his Incarnation.

October 21, 2008

Committal Poll

There are two things I've been wondering about with regard to committals, i.e. the burial services that complete the liturgy for the Christian dead.

First, what to wear? I have always gone to the cemetery in just my habit, doing committal services in just my "street clothes" without any vesture. However, in the introduction to the rite it says that the minister should vest according to "local custom." I've asked a few of the undertakers what the local custom might be, but they are so trained to flatter and coddle the clergy that they don't want to say anything. (In this they are not be faulted, for in many or perhaps most cases, (to our shame) coddling and flattery are the most productive way to deal the clergy.)

So, what should I be wearing at committals? What is your good and catholic sensibility? Habit and stole? Habit, surplice, and stole? Don't bother?

Second, where should the military rite of committal fit into the liturgy? The tendency seems to do this part after the conclusion of the religious liturgy. Thus, after I dismiss the people, the soldiers or sailors play their automated bugle (or tape player, without any pretense), fold the flag and present it to the bereaved. It's actually quite successful as a rite and I've always found those who do these services to be exceedingly gracious and reverent.

Doing the military honors after the religious committal seems to work in some ways, e.g. the liturgy is not interrupted. On the other hand, I always have the nagging feeling that God should come at the very end. Doing the military honors before the final, religious committal would have certain advantages. For one thing, I'm not comfortable sprinkling the flag with holy water, and some of the soldiers and sailors aren't either. Removing the flag before the final committal would allow the coffin to be sprinkled during the rite. (This isn't in the rite itself, but seems to be customary and expected.) It would also allow the final "go in peace" to actually make some sense. What do you think?

October 20, 2008


Yesterday I finally got to my "home" parish to offer a Mass of Thanksgiving. Not that it was my home for very long; I was only a parishioner of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Quaker Hill, Connecticut for three short semesters when I was in college. Nevertheless, because I received the sacraments of initiation there, it will be always be home in a certain sense.

As I drove up to the church, I looked at the sidewalk and remembered how it was the last walk I took as an unbaptized seeker. The permanent deacon who baptized me assisted with the Mass, and among those present were his wife and my godfather, who is a captain in the Coast Guard and a professor at their academy. It was almost overwhelming to pronounce the Lord's words of consecration at the same altar from which I received my first Holy Communion.

So today, with two funerals on deck and trying to recover from a being absent from my regular ministry for a day, I am trying to remember to be grateful for my vocation. Gratitude saves us from so much misery.

October 18, 2008

Repaying To God What Belongs To God

In the midst of this intense election season here in the United States, with much talk of taxes and who ought to pay them, Jesus invites us to ask ourselves how concerned we are to paying our debts to God. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

October 16, 2008

Teaching Subversion

This morning I was over at our grade school recruiting altar servers. When I went into the 6th grade, they were studying light. So I had to ask the kids: "Spiritual light or physical light?"

"Physical light," responded their teacher. So I went on to ask them,

"Is light a wave or a particle?" A lot of umms and half-raised hands followed. So I continued,

"Maybe light is a partic-ular kind of wave. How about that?"

Then there were a lot of "whoas" and cries of "that's neat!"

But then I had to say, "Children, many times in life people will try to tell you things, and a lot of things they say will sound neat and clever. But like what I just said to you, these things often don't have any meaning. The truth is that I'm good at playing with words but I don't know the first thing about the wave-particle duality. So, be suspicious. Now, who wants to be an altar server?"

October 15, 2008

The Danger

In today's gospel Jesus condemns the scholars of the law:

Then one of the scholars of the law said to him in reply, “Teacher, by saying this you are insulting us too.” And he said, “Woe also to you scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift one finger to touch them.” Luke 11:45-46

It's disturbing to think that people who must have spent much of their lives studying the Sacred Scriptures and reflecting on the will of God ended up missing the point. And yet we know this from our own time, when many priests who, I presume, preached and taught and prayed each day have been found to have been involved in terrible crimes.

It just drives home to me the need to be somewhat ruthless in our examination of conscience and motives. Not that anyone should be so hard on themselves because of their sins--like those who do not seem to believe in the forgiveness of God, but that we should always be a little suspect of our own thoughts and excuses.

October 14, 2008

Breviarium Romanum vs. Liturgy of the Hours

I've been experimenting with the Breviarium Romanum (in it's Romano-Seraphicum edition) over the past few weeks, and now I'm prepared to say which I think is better, this old version or the Novus Ordo Liturgy of the Hours.

Matins/Office of Readings. The Liturgy of the Hours (LH) has fewer but longer readings. The structure is much simpler than the Matins of the Breviarium Romanum ( BR.) The longer readings seem to lend themselves more readily to the atmosphere of lectio and spiritual reading. The BR, however, has a much better sense of "progressive solemnity" in it; the number of nocturns varies according to the solemnity of the day.
Decision: split. I think that the LH would be the better prayer in the case of individual recitation, but the Matins of the BR would be better for celebration in common. The longer readings of the LH are suited especially to individual reflection, while the interwoven rhythm of psalms, readings, blessings, and absolutions of the BR Matins would seem better suited to praying in choir.

Lauds/Morning Prayer.* It seems to me that the LH is the superior prayer. The inclusion of the Old Testament canticles in the psalmody expands the range of Sacred Scripture that is prayed, and the 4-week psalter makes for a wider varity of brief readings. The universal inclusion of reponsorial intercessions allows for greater participation when the hour is prayed with the faithful.
Decision: LH

Prime: nolo contendere says the LH, which has no prime.

Terce, Sext, None/Mid-Morning, Mid-Day, Mid-Afternoon Prayer. For the small hours, the BR seems superior to me. The LH gives only one cycle of psalmody for prayer "during the day," making the presumption that most of the time you are only going to pray the one mandated hour. For the other hours, a set group of "gradual psalms" are used, which also double as the festal psalms. Though the readings are more varied in the LH due to the 4-week psalter, the short readings in the BR are spot-on inspirations for the spiritual trials and effort that go with a working day.
Decision: BR

Vespers/Evening Prayer.
My observations are the same, mutatis mutandis, as for Morning Prayer.
Decision: LH

Compline/Night Prayer. The compline of the BR has much to recommend it, such as a fuller psalmody and a greater variation between Sunday and weekdays. However, it seems to me that the simpler structure--especially the option to use either of the Sunday psalmodies on any day if you want to pray from memory--makes the LH the superior version of this prayer. When it's dark and you're tired, my guess is that the LH compline is more likely to actually get prayed than its BR predecessor.

Other considerations:

Psalter. The idea of praying through the whole of the psalter each week is the beautiful foundation of the BR. The BR is to be further praised for its willingness to include all the psalms, in contrast to the LH, which omits a few deemed to be disturbing. (It is amazing on Sunday to suddenly be praying the full version of psalm 110; its easy to forget that the LH skips the part about heads being strewn about.) On the other hand, the 4-week psalter of the LH allows for a much richer cycle of readings, as well as making room for the OT and NT canticles at the hinge hours.
Decision: undecided. Despite all the benefits of the 4-week psalter, the ideal of praying through all 150 psalms each week is very attractive.

Portablity. Here the BR wins with no contest. One of its volumes is less than half of the size of any edition of the LH I have ever seen. Portability might not seem like a big deal, but the willingness of someone to take their prayers along to work or when they travel depends on it in many cases.
Decision: BR

*Though the typical edition of the LH maintains the traditional names for the hours, I am using the American English translated names for clarity.

October 13, 2008

Against the Politicians

This is the time of year when you encounter one of those unforeseen delights of the parish priest ministry: fighting with the local politicians who want to campaign outside of church on Sunday.

They are usually playing the pro-life angle and, well, God bless them. Unfortunately, when I quiz them a little on their pro-life credentials, their ethic often turns out to be incomplete at best if not utterly inconsistent.

The basic issue for me is that I don't want their secular campaign materials littered about the church. I find it totally unseemly, not to mention bordering on illegal. It is especially disturbing because the politicians claim to represent the Catholic point of view, which they do not. (Or have not so far.)

The ensuing conflict is highly scripted, thanks be to God, so it can be executed without too much stress or even attention. At first they are asked to leave, which sometimes works. If they are dumb enough to not discern the border between public and parish property, removing them is as easy as a call to the police. They usually aren't that dumb, however.

If none of this works, you can try to strike a deal, asking the politicians to only distribute their propaganda to folks on their way home rather than their way into church. This sometimes works, but politicians are clever people and they know this strategy hurts them; people arrive at church at different times, but tend to leave all at once.

If the deal doesn't work you threaten to call their opponent--who is, of course, being portrayed by the politicians as un-Catholic--in case he or she wants to send someone down for counterpoint. At this point they tell you that you are a rotten priest who is set against God, and they threaten to reveal this to all of your parishioners, or call your diocese, or whatever. You then encourage them to do so, so that you might be crowned with the glory of fulfilling Matthew's final beatitude.

Having succeeded or not in your quest to eject those who would make the Lord's temple into a marketplace, at whatever point you need to get recollected for other things, you leave the prepared script, ask God to clear your mind of the whole thing, and get back to the Lord.