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.