March 31, 2009

The Paschal Nightmares

I wake up with a start. It's 12:21 am and I realize that the time has come for that especially terrifying nocturnal visitation, the Paschal Triduum liturgy nightmare. No wonder I can't remember the Mass of the Lord's Supper the night before...Holy Thursday isn't until next week.

A few moments before, I'm dreaming and it's Good Friday afternoon. Charles, what do you mean you're not familiar with this specially adapted version of St. John's Passion? Haven't you been practicing? We're all ready to go. I can't find the prayers in the Sacramentary. And why can't I remember Holy Thursday Mass last night? You were there, Father. It was beautiful, as always, Father. It must be nerves. Am I going crazy? And why am I wearing this aquamarine chasuble? I need to go find something else. I just need to untie this other thing, whatever it is...oh no, stuck in another conversation on the way back. I still can't find the page. I make it back and I hear the intoning of the Gospel acclamation--they started without me. The pastor is going to be so mad at me. The kid working the fog machine shakes his head and I understand that I'm not to go out there now. It's too late. Panic. What is wrong with me that I can't remember Holy Thursday Mass last night?

And I wake up.

March 30, 2009

Overheard at the Funeral

This morning I concelebrated at the funeral Mass for Fr. Robert Stanion, CFR.

There were a lot of funny stories during Fr. Andrew Apostoli's eulogy, but this was my favorite:

"When Br. Robert applied to the seminary the rector asked him if he had taken his two years of Latin, and he responded that he had...he just didn't tell the rector that he hadn't passed either time."

March 29, 2009

Overheard in the Sacristy

Altar Server in the fifth grade: Father, I'm sorry I missed serving last time; my car broke down.

Priest: Your car broken down?

Server: Yes! Now I have to take a cab!

What Liturgists Want

hodie liturgistas hoc petere, cras vero aliud velle.

"Today the liturgists ask for this, tomorrow they want something else."

--Canon Aimé Georges Martimort, from the work of the Consilium for the implementation of the liturgical reforms of Sacrosanctum concilium, quoted in Stanislaus Campbell, FSC, From Breviary to the Liturgy of the Hours: The Structural Reform of the Roman Office, 1964-1971.

Please, please...someone with better Latin than me explain the use of the infinitive here. Or is it an error?

March 28, 2009


Arriving at the fifth Sunday of Lent, our attention begins to shift to our proximate preparation to commemorate the Lord's Passion. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

March 27, 2009

Confessing Alone

I had some shopping to do, so since it was a very nice day today I went into Manhattan for my day off. In addition to my errands, I completed what has become my routine of religious activities when I visit the big city: Confession at St. Francis of Assisi on 31st St., visiting the Daughters of St. Paul on East 52nd, and then proceeding to St. Patrick's Cathedral to pray None before the Blessed Sacrament in the Lady Chapel and light a candle at the shrine of the Little Flower. (Being a Friday of Lent, the visit to Papaya King was omitted.)

My experience of confession today was rather remarkable. I went in and knelt behind the screen--though I prefer face to face, my experience of the priests there is that they seem more comfortable with the screen! I made the Sign of the Cross, explained my state in life, how long it had been since my last confession, etc. There was no word of welcome or anything, but I thought, whatever, sometimes priests just listen until you're done. As I started my confession, I began to wonder if there was anybody there on the other side of the screen. I didn't want to look or ask. (For whatever reason, my experience is that some priests get annoyed by departures from established procedure in the confessional.) So I continued to confess, making long pauses, as if to invite the priest who might be there to interject a word of encouragement or counsel. Towards the end of my confession I was convinced that nobody was there. The priest must have been taking a bathroom break or something. A few moments after I finished my confession I heard the door handle rattle and the priest walked in and sat down.

Here's the funny thing: my confession, which I made amidst my increasing suspicion that no other earthly person was there, was a great confession. I was free and honest about the grace and sin in my life in a way that I rarely achieve. So when the priest did come in, I only had to repeat what I had said before.

Perhaps there is a spiritual practice of preparing for confession present in my funny story today.

March 26, 2009

Coolest. Wikipedia Article. Ever.

If you read your Roman Martyrology yesterday, you noticed that in addition to being the Feast of the Annunciation, it was the day of St. Dismas, the "good thief" from St. Luke's account of the Crucifixion.

A quick browse of search results for Dismas revealed what is now my favorite Wikipedia article, "List of names for the Biblical nameless."

There you will find, among many others, the names of the wives of the antediluvian patriarchs, Cain and Abel's sisters, Pharoah's magicians, Mrs. Pontius Pilate, and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus. There are four sets of names revealed for the Magi, and five for Jesus' two fellow condemned on Golgatha.

The sources for all of these range from the exalted, such as the Babylonian Talmud and the Antiquities of Josephus, to the bizarre but still fun, such as the book of Jubilees and The Book of the Bee.

March 25, 2009

"Inclusiveness" vs. Communion

There is an interesting piece in the most recent "daily dispatch" from Zenit on the practice of giving blessings to those who do not receive Holy Communion during the communion procession. Apparently--and I was unaware of this--it seems to be the practice in some places to invite everyone into the communion procession and then give a blessing of some sort to all those who do not actually communicate.

First of all, it seems to me that a distinction needs to be made. I am familiar with the practice of blessing children who have not yet reached the age of first Holy Communion. This makes sense to me. I do it myself and have even seen it at ultra-traditionalist Masses in the Extraordinary Form. Had these children been born into one of the Eastern rites or Orthodox churches, they probably would have received Holy Communion already.

Adults, however, who are members of separated ecclesial communities, or who do not believe in Christ or even God, or Catholics who have placed themselves outside of communion by their own choices, are all another story. Each Good Friday we are reminded of the intensity of our prayer for all these categories of people with whom we are not yet in full communion.

Christ's salvation is for all without exception. In this sense it is inclusive. That we are not in full communion with one another here on earth is a manifestation of the sins of history and the bad choices of persons. (And I can't help but think here of those who are publicly anti-life.) These failures of ours and our ancestors are not absolved by the cheap and easy values of being "inclusive" and "welcoming."

It can be very uncomfortable when only some can come to Holy Communion. Perhaps it's a wedding or a funeral in which--by the world's standards--only a few seem to actually participate fully in the ritual. It goes against the over-arching niceness of being "welcoming."

But there is a kind of welcoming and "inclusiveness" that relieves us of our discomfort and makes it look like public sin, heresy, or schism don't matter. We can do this blessing-for-all thing in the communion procession and everyone "gets" something, whether it be Holy Communion or a nice blessing. We are "inclusive," and "open" and "accepting," and we feel good about ourselves and warm and fuzzy about our ministry. The wounds of sin, so manifest in the imperfection of our communion with one another, are covered over and forgotten. We no longer have to worry about the hard work that full communion with one another would require, of the changes that might be demanded of us and the penances we might find we owe to each other. No way. Penance and change are from another era. We are "inclusive" and "accepting."

That we are not in perfect communion with one another ought to make us uncomfortable. But if we medicate ourselves against this discomfort by indulging our own need to be nice and "inclusive," we absolve ourselves of the difficult and often uncomfortable work of restoring true communion.

March 24, 2009

Initiatory Dissonance

At this time of year we make a big deal about the Sacraments of Initiation, and as well we should. After all, it is the new life of the Sacraments that communicates to us the life and presence of the Risen Lord. In our Baptism into his death and Resurrection and by receiving his own paschal sacrifice into ourselves in Holy Communion, we become the risen Body of Christ in and for the world. So of course this time of year is all about those who are preparing for their initiation at the Great Vigil. Likewise we look forward with joy to the happy rites of First Holy Communion day and Confirmation night.

But in all of this there is a dissonance that gnaws at us. If the sacraments contain such tremendous grace and are such a big deal, how come the majority of fully initiated Catholics (at least in this part of the world) are not practicing their faith? In my own ministry I can't help but notice that a large portion of the babies I baptize are not seen in church again. The same goes for Confirmation. In a very tired lament, it is noted that what is supposed to be the beginning of a new, fully initiated Christian life is often, in practice, the end.

So what gives?

I'm supposed to be a publicly consecrated Christian and a steward of the sacraments, so whenever I get a chance to get some insight into this issue I try to take it for the sake of my own preaching and efforts at witness. Sometimes I get a friendly chance to ask non-practicing Catholics about their faith. It might be someone who was elected to be a sacramental sponsor, but who can't be immediately certified for the ministry because they are not themselves making the journey on which they now hope to accompany someone. It might be a relative of someone for which we are preparing a funeral liturgy.

I'm often quite shocked by what I hear when I ask folks like these about their faith and beliefs. On the one hand, almost all can easily identify a belief in a benevolent and somewhat personal deity. But many, when asked what they believe, do not easily find their way to Jesus Christ. A large portion seem to be completely unaware of the divinity of Christ, and still more do not seem to have any practical sense of the Blessed Trinity.

So no wonder they don't go to church; if I didn't believe in the divinity of Christ, I wouldn't bother get up to attend the memorial of his sacrifice. A lot of ordinary people make sacrifices, and good for them. But it's no reason to get up on Sunday. And If I didn't believe it is the Spirit that prays within us, praying through Jesus to the Father, I wouldn't bother with prayer either.

So a very hard question remains: How is that someone can grow up Catholic, come to be a fully initiated Christian through the Sacraments instituted by Christ and flowing from the power of his Resurrection, but be more or less totally innocent of the central confession of Christianity, whether it be Peter's version, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" or Thomas's, "My Lord and my God!"

So, what is going wrong such that the point of the whole thing seems to get lost?

March 23, 2009

Paschal Procrastination

It's a well-worn maladaptive strategy for dealing with life, to declare things to be pro cras, "for tomorrow" and thus absolve yourself of having to care about them now. But at certain times of the year, at least for us Christians, it's a good idea.

Anyone who pays attention to the liturgy notices that a shift occurs on the fifth Sunday of Lent. The texts and focus move our attention to the Lord's Passion and we begin our 'final ascent' to the great mysteries of the Paschal Triduum and Easter. This was more explicit in the old calendar, when the last two weeks before Easter were called Passiontide and everybody noticed because of the veiling of sacred images.

So as I approach these more intense days, I don't feel guilty at all about declaring all kinds of things to be pro cras until after Easter: meetings with engaged couples, several sorts of administrative busywork that the Holy Spirit has given me as a salutary penance, car maintenance, and thoughts about my future beyond my current assignment. All of it can be on hold for Passiontide and be happily received anew during the Easter Octave.

March 21, 2009

Cyrus and Jesus

The salvation that comes to God's people from those who were called a messiah can help us to understand the salvation brought by the Messiah. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

March 20, 2009

Altar Cards

When I received my "kit" for the Extraordinary Form from the FSSP, it came with a set of altar card reproductions, "suitable for framing." So, when I got around to it, I took them to the local picture framer. They were ready today. The center card is a arranged little differently from the laminated center card that came with the kit, but I'm sure I'll get used to it:

Here's the Gospel side card:

And the Epistle side:

And here they are all together on Our Lady's little altar:

A visit to the local picture framer is one of those wonderfully multicultural experiences you can have living in the New York area. In a city founded by the Dutch, you walk into a bleak, industrial area built by Germans and made to flourish by the Irish, Polish, and Ukrainians. You walk into a warehouse studio where you encounter a Guatemalan eating Chinese food and say, "Buen provecho!"

Overheard in the Monastery

Young Friar (finding old friar napping): Father, when you are done with your nap, I'll come back and make my confession.

Old Friar: Give me time to write to Rome for faculties!

Record Review (Sort of)

For the last few days I've been listening to the new MC Lars record, This Gigantic Robot Kills. It's fun, and you can't go wrong with something that takes it's title from a random quote from the great Wesley Willis.

At first I was intensely amused by 35 Laurel Drive, about a drummer with the "messiest house in New Jersey."

I was next impressed by Hey There Ophelia, which makes a mash-up of the story of Hamlet over an interpolation of Screamager by Therapy?, bringing me back to fun and fresh days of alternative rock in the early nineties. How can you resist a description of an Ophelia who "rocks out to Soft Cell?" One of my brother postulants used the lyrics of a famous cover by Soft Cell to describe how he lost his vocation, but that's another story.

In the end I decided that my favorite track is No Logo, which makes a mockery of "bumper sticker activism" over an interpolation of Fugazi's Waiting Room. To hear that particular song took me right back to high school and reminded me of some intense and salutary graces.

The message of No Logo is the same angle I sometimes take when preaching to our own high school students. I tell them that their innate rebelliousness is not a defect, but a gift. They just have to be careful not to sell it out to any of the pre-packaged revolutions and rebellions that have been carefully engineered for their consumption. Instead of selling out to the fashions of revolutionary stickers and t-shirts, they must harness their rebelliousness to militate against the world's culture of death and disregard for human dignity.

A revolution is supposed to be a change that turns everything completely around. But the ideology of political revolution will never change anything except appearances. There will be violence, and power will pass from one party to another, but when the smoke clears and the bodies of all the dead men are underground, the situation will be essentially as it was before: there will be a minority of strong men in power exploiting all the others for their own ends. There will be ther same greed and cruelty and lust and ambition and avarice and hypocrisy as before.

For the revolutions of men change nothing. The only influence that can really upset the injustice and iniquity of men is the power that breathes in the Christian tradition, renewing our participation in the Life that is the Light of men. (Thomas Merton, "Tradition and Revolution" in New Seeds of Contemplation)

Thanks, Lars, for the record. Congratulations on the release.

March 19, 2009

You The Man

I was amused by the first line of the hymn given today for the Office of Readings in the American English breviary. Here's the whole thing:

Joseph of Nazareth, you are the man
Last in the line that rose from David, King.
Down through the royal generations ran,
And ends with Jesus Christ.

Gabriel from heaven came to Mary's side,
Came with the joyful promise of a King,
Came to you also, Joseph, to confide
That God conceived this Child.

Guardian and foster-father of the Christ,
Honor to you, so chosen by our God!
Husband of Virgin Mary, you are first
To show us Christian love.

Yes, St. Joseph, you are the man. Pray for us.

The breviary credits the text to a Stephen Somerville. Does anyone know if this is the same (Fr.) Stephen Somerville who famously renounced his membership on ICEL and who was, if I remember rightly, the priest-on-set during the making of The Passion of the Christ?

This is a Big Mistake

I know that I have edged more towards the conservative and traditionalist over the years, but in my best reflection this has seemed to be a responsible discernment driven by my own theological education and experience of religious life. But may it never be said that I was unwilling to say something against the Holy See:

Adjusting the transcript of the Holy Father's recent remarks--as legitimate as it might be to help us to understand his meaning--is to me a serious mistake that will further distract the world (in its misunderstanding of our Catholic belief) from the real presenting question of how we are to begin to assist in the healing of the African continent and repent of our structural and historical sins against her people.

Check out the trouble here.

March 18, 2009

Franciscan Blogroll

Go ahead and check out Br. Ernie.

And You Thought She Was In Heaven

Today I went into one of the monastery storerooms to look for a new toothbrush. Imagine my surprise when I saw this:

It's really amazing what you can find lying around an old religious house!

Relativism in Religious Life

Benedict XVI is oft-quoted on the dangers of the "dictatorship of relativism,"and in religious life as I have experienced it, relativism is alive and well. An embedded culture of relativism--to which many are strongly committed--is, I believe, one of the main reasons why mainstream religious life in North America is in such a malaise, struggles with recruitment, and has a hard time deciding where it is going.

I remember being a very young religious in my first house of formation. We would be gathered for "theological reflection," which was code language for the compulsory intimacy of sharing our own feelings and personal stories. With subtle affirmations of body language, the formation director taught us that the correct way to begin one's "sharing" was with the caveat, "For me,..." Thus we were taught to use ourselves as a starting point in reflecting on our vocations and experience of religious life. God might fit himself into the picture later, but it was we ourselves who were the starting point.

Later on in my religious life I was in another house where we had a meeting about the reverences made upon entering the chapel for Morning and Evening Prayer. One brother suggested that if we all made the same reverence upon entering the chapel, it would be a powerful sign of the unity of our religious profession. A fine inspiration, but impossible to achieve because of differences of "opinion" and "feeling." One would say that "for him" it was important to reverence the Blessed Sacrament, but that he would not genuflect (as we do in the Roman rite) because such a gesture was culturally bound and thus not binding. Another would say that "for him" the altar as more important than the tabernacle ("I don't have that devotion") so he would bow instead to the altar. Still another would say that he "preferred" to reverence the gathered assembly, because that was where the presence of Christ subsisted most evidently "for him."

What was interesting to me was that no one said--out loud, at least--that he would genuflect to the Blessed Sacrament and/or bow to the altar because that is what we do in the Roman rite of the universal Church. No one said it because the axiomatic starting point of the reflection was what seemed best "to me" and "for me" rather than our common profession within the larger Body of the Church. This sort of thing is a seriously debilitating spiritual disease in contemporary religious life.

I was thinking about all this because of something that happened last week. A visiting priest arrived to preside at a funeral. I was volunteered to be acolyte for the Mass (how I miss this ministry sometimes!) In the funeral Mass the Opening Prayer follows directly upon the procession of the ministers and the deceased to the sanctuary. So, as the family were getting to their pews, I approached the priest with the Sacramentary. He then sent me away, telling me that he needed to "make a little speech" at that moment. I wanted to tell him that there was a moment a little later during the Mass when he would have the opportunity to make a sort of speech, and, in fact, would be expected to do so, but I decided that it probably wasn't a teaching moment. He was committed to offering his version of the Mass.

As with so many things for us Catholics, the 'rubber hits the road' with the liturgy. As long as priests reserve to themselves the imaginary right to lead their version of the liturgy, and as long we let them get away with it, we allow our "presiders" to turn the Mass into more and more of a cooking show and a cult of personality and we reinforce the dictatorship of relativism.

March 17, 2009

St. Patrick's Altar

Our pastor dressed up St. Patrick's altar for his feast day:

Doesn't it just make a person want to dress a chalice, pull an amice over his head, and pray psalm 42?

The text above reads Patricius Apostolus Hiberniae.

St. Patrick's Day Rant

Now don't think for a minute that I would be against recognizing and celebrating the immense contribution that Irish-Americans have made to the the flourishing of the Catholic faith in these United States. Still less would I ever have a problem with the veneration of the saints. I don't even have a problem with the stray solemnity* that interrupts the ordinary course of Lent. St. Patrick's Day when I was a student at NUI Galway was one of the most fun things ever.

But...St. Patrick's Day and its attendant celebrations have become a liability to the observance of Lent. I don't think Patrick would approve, and so I suggest that his feast day be moved out of this particular liturgical season.

Before you get all shocked at my outrageous suggestion, let me explain. It's not that there's one day lost during Lent. I'm talking about the few weeks of parades, receptions, parties, and banquets of fraternal organizations. In the parish where I work, which has strong Irish-American roots, I calculate that for the clergy and leading faithful, approximately 12 to 15 percent of the days of Lent are de facto suppressed or superseded by celebrations associated with St. Patrick's Day. This is certainly unacceptable as we try to prayerfully accompany our catechumens through the desert of Lent to the Promised Land of the new life of baptism. Again, I don't think Patrick himself would approve.

"But you can't just move St. Patrick's Day!," you complain. In the last revision of the general Roman calendar, many saints' days were moved around, and hardly anybody remembers what they used to be. So, I propose that we do something to recover our Lent. Praying at his altar today, I'm convinced that St. Patrick would want it that way.

UPDATE: Apparently there are a lot of people for whom St. Patrick's Day induces thoughts of ranting. The exact search term "St. Patrick's Day Rant" has been bringing by a good deal of search engine traffic today.

*Here in the archdiocese of New York, as in many places in the USA, St. Patrick is our titular patron. Thus his day goes from being a Lenten "commemoration" to a full solemnity.

March 14, 2009

On Our Behalf

Jesus saves us from our failure to keep God's Commandments and the inadequacy of our worship by borrowing our humanity and obediently offering the perfect sacrifice on our behalf. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

March 13, 2009

Onus meum leve?

Tonight I donned a Roman-style chasuble for the first time and felt, well, oddly unclothed.

Against Polarization

It's hopeful to me when Catholic blogs of very different points of view converge a little on the issues of our divisions. Consider these two quotes:

First, just one section of this post from Aún Estamos Vivos:

(Please read the whole of the post; it's worth the time for any Catholic who cares about the polarization of the Church and the caricature of it that the Catholic blogosphere provides.)

Now, as to this whole SSPX thing in particular... Hardly anyone I speak to has ever heard of these people, yet the Catholic blogosphere would lead you to believe that the SSPX and the Tridentine Mass are the only things that matter out there. I tried taking a stab at offering an explanation as to why the Pope reached out to this group, but this strange solicitous attitude towards them still seems odd nonetheless.

Here's something for liberals to consider in that vein... It's a sacramental church. Popes and cardinals and bishops say Mass. They dispense sacraments. They notice who shows up looking for them. To them, that's the pulse of where the Church lives... The laity in Germany and France and Austria and other European countries who are so upset about this SSPX decision need to consider this:

If they had been showing up to Mass every week, this ridiculous overture to the SSPX would have never taken place.

Second, consider a section of this post from What Does The Prayer Really Say?:

The obvious type of rupture and discontinuity is in the form of a break with the past. Progressivists see the Council, for example, as a break with the past, a new theological, ecclesiological starting point. They do great harm by working from this view. If you take insufficient positive consideration of the past, you work great harm.

Another type of rupture, less obvious, comes from those who defend the past while not taking sufficient account of present progress or the possibility of authentic development without substantive change in doctrine. Those who freeze the Church and deny the possibility of broadening our theological reflection do great harm. The world does in fact present new exigencies even if human nature doesn’t "mature" out of its perennial needs – as many progressivists falsely assume.

Rupture from the past. Rupture from the future.

The former is far easier to correct than the later. The later is far more dangerous than the former.

Though they come from bloggers with very different concerns, both are concerned Catholics and both are quite right. Too often we allow our differences push us into an ever-hardening polarization. On the contrary, we need to learn from each other. "Progressive" or "liberal" Catholics need "conservative" or "traditionalist" Catholics to help them recover the values of reverence, piety, disciplined observance, and the value of a Catholic culture that is stronger than the anti-values the secular world would like us to have. On the other hand, conservative or traditionalist Catholics would benefit much from allowing their liberal or progressive brothers and sisters to lead them into a reflection on the implications of the "universal call to holiness" (Lumen gentium, chapter 5) and the Church's embrace of the "joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties" of all humanity as her own. (Gaudium et spes, 1)

These battles are often fought through the liturgy. In a way this makes perfect sense, as the liturgy is the "summit" (Sancrosanctum concilium, 10) of our life as Church. In this I have three suggestions:

1. Summorum pontificum has established two expressions of the one Roman Rite, which proceed from the Missals of Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI, respectively. On any given Sunday some of us are praying one way and some the other. We cannot live as parallel worlds. The two expressions must arrive at a mutuality of interpretation and correction. In this, Benedict XVI's cover letter to Summorum pontificum is quite instructive. Though very different in some ways, each Mass is fully the Roman Rite. The virtues and foundational theologies of each can enrich and correct the other.

2. The 1962 Missale Romanum, though it is being prayed each day all over the world and is thus part of the living tradition of the faithful, remains a historical document. In order to fully recover the Tridentine Mass, along with the immense musical and artistic legacy that enriches it, the Missal needs to be updated to include, for example, those who have been canonized since 1962. We must pray within a living tradition extended through all time, and not according to a very particular snapshot of it. That's not what it means to be catholic.

3. Here in the anglophone world we expect a new version of the ordinary form of the liturgy one of these years, when the English Missale Romanum tertio editio typica emerges from the translation process. There are a couple of implications that we can use to our advantage. First, much of our service music will become obsolete. Thus, we have an opportunity to create music that takes its continuity with the tradition more seriously than what we have now. We could even take the radical step of singing the Mass instead of substituing hymns and songs for it. This practice has become so ordinary that it is wrongly thought to be normative. Second, priests will have to look at the book and learn the new prayers. This will be a great opportunity to return to an actual following of the Mass instead of everyone doing his own thing and making the liturgy into a cooking show or a cult of personality around the "presider."

We have opportunites to meet the challenges before us. Let's take them.

March 12, 2009

Priests in the Movies

Being an adult convert who had negligible contact with the Catholic faith growing up, the first priests I ever met were fictional ones from TV and the movies. There are many, of course, but three have remained with me over the years: Fathers Merrin and Karras from The Exorcist and the young priest who receives Antonio Salieri's "confession" in Amadeus.

The priests from The Exorcist made a real impression on me when I first saw the movie early on in college. I especially love Father Merrin in this dialogue:

MERRIN: I would like you to go quickly over to the residence Damien, and gather up a cassock for myself, two surplices, a purple stole, and some holy water, and your copy of The Roman Ritual. The Large one.* I believe we should begin.

KARRAS: Do you want to hear the background of the case, first?


Merrin knew the spiritual hazard he was dealing with and was no-nonsense about his ministry of expelling it. He was single-minded about both the danger and the boundaries that needed to be preserved around it. And he died with his boots on, fighting the demons. I love that. I also appreciate Father Karras for his gentleness, his openness to doubt, and most of all for his final self-sacrifice. That is the personal goal of the priest, after all, to conform himself as much as he can to the one sacrifice of Christ.

I have always found these two fictional priests to be inspiring. But now that I myself am a priest, I sometimes think of another, less glorious fictional priesthood: the poor soul sent to extract a confession from the suicidal Antonio Salieri in Amadeus. As the story develops, the young priest is visibly overwhelmed by the theological tragedy Salieri has interpreted his life to be. To encounter people who have embedded themselves in this kind of anti-spirituality is not at all uncommon; there are many who suffer in the grip of an internally woven belief system in which God despises them or conspires against their happiness. And all the while Christ is suffering in them, nailed to the Cross, dying (literally) to save them from the misery they have insisted upon for themselves. And there is something of that spiritual death in all of us.

In the end the roles are reversed as Salieri declares himself the "patron saint of mediocrity." Condemining the poor priest as his mediocre brother, Salieri promises him his saintly intercession as goes forth to breakfast absolving his fellow inmates in the lunatic asylum. As a priest this scene comes back to me sometimes. His ministry cannot even begin to crack the rotten luxury of his penitent's hardness of heart. Even beyond being a waste of time and a scandal to the world, a mediocre priesthood will surely faint before the intensity of spirtual suffering in our world and the depths of its committment to the works of the culture of death.

*Never mind that there was no such thing as a one-volume Roman Ritual in 1973, large or otherwise. Fast forwarding to the present, a new rite of exorcism is now in print which allows the exorcist to choose between expelling demons in the "imperative" style, as demonstrated in the movie, or the "supplicating" style, which asks God to do it.

March 11, 2009

How I Almost Met a Pope

This is one of my favorite stories from my religious life. As I was once accused by a classmate, "I think you joined religious life just for the stories." (This is a play on Dr. Tim Whatley, who was accused of converting to Judaism "just for the jokes.")

Around the time I was first in contact with the Capuchin Franciscan Order, one of our friars convened a conclave and had himself elected Pope Pius XIII. I was a novice when we discovered this, and we were very much amused.

During the same year, one of Pius XIII's biological brothers died, who was also a friar. (There were one or two others besides, from the same mother, who also became friars.) So another novice and I drove from Fond du Lac to Appleton to go to the funeral. We wanted to pray for our deceased brother and assist at his Mass, but we were also thinking that we might get to meet Pius XIII. What would happen if he showed up? Would he preside at the Mass? How would it work? Would the rather liberal friars in Appleton have the necessary equipment for a pontifical requiem Mass? As we drove up we were filled with bemused speculations.

For his own reasons I suppose, Pius XIII didn't show up. Now I don't care if you're Pius XIII or Linus II or Hadrian VII or whoever, if you're going to be Pope you should at least have enough class and reverence to come to your own brother's funeral.

March 10, 2009

Why I Have to Fast

In this, my second Lent as a priest, I'm beginning to realize why self-denial is a critical part of the priestly life. You have to practice it in order to counteract the forces that conspire to make you selfish and arrogant.

As a religious who is not or not yet a priest, few people "get" who you are, and you are constantly explaining, often in vain, that you are a lay Catholic religious and not a priest, a Buddhist, or one of those martial artist monks from the movies. In one hectic morning it all changes and you are a Catholic priest and everyone knows--or think they know--what you are, friends and enemies alike.

In a lot of ways this becomes a spiritual hazard to the minority and humility that is sought in the consecrated religious life. As a priest you are often the center of attention. You are given the seat of honor at events. People old enough to be your grandparents address you by title. Since the ministry of priesthood is so diverse, you are bound to good at something at least, and are praised endlessly for it. You attract disciples who treat you with reverence. You become more appealing to the opposite sex because of your power and unavailability.

It's easy to let this "go to your head," and maybe that's what happens to priests who become self-centered and arrogant. Subtle signs illuminate the path to this spiritual death: You look forward to seeing your flatterers and, enjoying their comments, forget that it is those who insult you who are your real spiritual friends. Instead of asking people about their own lives, children, and folks who might be sick or struggling, you notice yourself turning conversations back to yourself as you grow accustomed to being the center of attention.

These sorts of things have to be fought with the utmost ascetic effort in order to prevent them from becoming habits. This is why plain, unglamorous, and elementary forms of self-denial over the course of a day are so important. They train the self not to concentrate on its own wants and whims and open the inner door to concern and focus on others.

Don't be Decent or Nice

If you aren't reading Historical Christian, it's time to start. Since last night I've been thinking about this provocative post, "Down with Decent Priests." Check it out.

March 9, 2009

Domine, Non Sum Digna

We're probably all familiar with those who mean well but wrongheadedly change the texts of the Mass to make them "inclusive." E.g., those who adjust the preface dialogue and say, "It is right to give God thanks and praise," even though the antecedent for the expunged "him" in this case is "the Lord," a title that ordinarily (for us Christians) refers to the risen Jesus. Or we think of those who prefer to pray their own personal Sanctus and say "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord," when even a casual perusal of the Scriptures reveals that the Christian use of this phrase refers to Jesus, making the "he" obviously appropriate. Part of this is the obscuring of the specificity of Christianity after all, in our general slip toward the more civil theology of "one paths to one divine something-or-other." But I digress.

This stuff is generally associated with "liberals," which is why I had to laugh at this post over on WDTPRS, describing someone who adjusted the gender of the Latin text in the Extraordinary Form Mass by saying "Domine, non sum digna ut intres sub tectum meum..." I don't know if I'm offended by the audacity to change the Mass or in love with sensitivity to Latin grammar!

As I've said before, a wider use of the 1962 Missal is going to raise thorny issues for its proponents that perhaps they haven't anticipated!

March 8, 2009


This morning was the most sleepy I had ever offered Mass. I felt fortunate just to get through it, though I couldn't resist the Roman Canon today because of the sacrifice of Abraham in the first reading.

Later last night I was in a difficult conversation with another friar, which always keeps me awake. Then, at midnight EST, the bus from the afternoon wedding returned to the front of church, releasing its horde of revelers, many of whom hung out loudly for another hour and a half. A couple of hours later, thanks to Daylight Saving Time, it was time to get up and open the church. Trying to pray and lead prayer in this state reminded me of one of my favorite passages from The Sign of Jonas:

On and off since Easter I have been playing a new game called insomnia. It goes like this: you lie down in your dormitory cell and listen first to one monk and then another monk begin to snore without, however, going to sleep yourself. Then you count the quarter hours by the tower clock and console yourself with the exact knowledge of the amount of sleep you are missing. The fun does not really begin until you get up at 2 a.m. and try to keep awake in choir. All day long you wander around the monastery bumping into the walls.

Insomnia can become a form of contemplation. You just lie there, inert, helpless, alone, in the dark, and let yourself be crushed by the inscrutable tyranny of time. The plank bed becomes an altar and you lie there without trying to understand any longer in what sense you can be called a sacrifice. Outside in the world, where it is night, perhaps there is someone who sees that something he has done is horrible. He is most unexpectedly sorry and finds himself able to pray.... [4.28.47]

March 7, 2009

His Suffering is our Glorification

The Lord's Transfiguration reveals the destiny and hope of a glorified humanity, accomplished through Jesus' Passion and death. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

March 5, 2009

Plundering the Egyptians

Yesterday I had a delightful meeting with a parishioner who was seeking ways to respond to Jehovah's Witnesses. He seems to have befriended one who has been "working on" him for some years.

Apparently one of the main attacks this Witness makes on ordinary Christianity is the observance of the "man made" holidays of Christmas and Easter. First of all, the days have to be considered separately.

Easter, though it perhaps corresponds to certain pagan festivals surrounding the vernal equinox, is intimately connected with the Passover, which is certainly part of divine revelation. God did not invite the children of Israel to observe the Passover; he commanded them to do so. If you want to believe the Gospels, the Last Supper was or was not the Passover meal, but in any case, the Passion, death, and Resurrection of the Lord is correlated with the Passover in a pretty direct way. So the assertion that the celebration of Easter is a "man made" or pagan observance has no merit.

Christmas is another story. Serious guesses at the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth place it perhaps in the spring of the year we would now call 3 or 4 BC. But it's anybody's guess, really. The commemoration of the Lord's birth, which we celebrate on December 25th, does in fact correspond to various pagan festivals associated with the winter solstice. Putting Christmas in their place assisted the conversion of culture to Christianity and fit astronomy to theology as we celebrate the re-birth of the light of the world. (At least in the Northern hemisphere.)

But do the pagan roots of observing Christmas when we do make it wrong and something to be rejected? And if not, why? Christians have always had the right and privilege to borrow what is helpful from the pagan world, e.g. culture, philosophy, etc., and adapt it to Christian purposes. But where do we get this right and privilege? It is founded on the Christian sense of creation and Incarnation.

The world comes to be through the Word of God. We see this in the prologue of the St. John as well as the first creation account from Genesis: "God said...and so it happened." We believe that this Word became flesh in Jesus Christ. Thus, Jesus is the revelation of the pattern on which all of the divine creative activity is based. Therefore, all created things--as well as art and culture, the grandchildren of God, as it were--somehow point back to the Word of God in their internal logic. We see this very clearly in ourselves in our heart's perpetual longing for love and beauty and intimate union; this is the creative force of God alive within us. From this we see that everything human, evangelized and adapted, can be put into the service of Christ.

Now I woudn't push this line of argument as far as Karl Rahner's famous "anonymous Christianity," which I find a little patronizing, but it does stand up to Sacred Scripture and it is certainly strong enough to justify plundering the winter solstice festivals from the pagans and transforming them into the commemoration of the Nativity of the Lord.

March 4, 2009

Believing in God

This morning I've been reflecting on the idiom "to believe in," and how it has varying senses depending on the object.

When we say we 'believe in' an idea, we usually mean that the idea is true or that it is a good idea. For example, 'I believe that life is sacred,' or 'I believe in the legal protection of life from conception to natural death.'

On the other hand, when we say we 'believe in' a person, we express a certain faith in him or her. It is a sort of confession of our belief that someone has the resources to succeed in some task or to be the person he or she is called to be at a certain moment. It often happens that someone struggling with self-doubt is encouraged by those who say, 'I believe in you.'

Belief 'in God' belongs in the second category, but is far too often expressed in the first. Even the question, 'Do you believe in God?' is usually to ask whether or not we believe in the 'existence of God.' But to actually believe in the existence of God is to confess the surpassing import of God; otherwise we are not believing in a god that it is really God. As Abraham Heschel famously put it, "God is no importance unless He is of supreme importance."

To believe in God is to believe in him in the same way we say we believe in another person. It is the confession that God has the power and will to carry out the promises he has revealed to us. As Isaiah the prophet puts it to us during Lent:

For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down And do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, Giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

March 3, 2009

Onward to Death

Last night I was scanning some old pictures that I found in my room. It's really something to look at yourself in the past and wonder about that person. You recognize yourself, and know that it's you, but the person in the picture is also mysterious and opaque, somebody else in a different place with thoughts and dreams that might have become quite foreign over the intervening years.

It got me thinking about death, and what it means spiritually. This life culminates in our death, so to think of ourselves in process is always to think about where it will all end up. Every moment that comes and goes presents us with a choice of what sort of person we are going to be. Each day our lives become that much less subject to revision. Finally, at the moment of our death, for better or for worse, we have decided who we are going to be in the world and all we were to God, ourselves, and each other goes into the immutability of eternity. The prayer at the beginning of the wake service puts this together so well for me: "We believe that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel in death." Not only are they not unraveled, but they are made permanently durable in the eternity of God.

Each day we decide what kind of death will crown our lives.

Here's your humble blogger, just over half of my life ago:

Así pues...

There's a good article in the New York Times this morning on the shift toward Spanish language and Latino Catholicism here in New York. The presenting dissonance is the appointment of our tenth Irish bishop (in a row) for a local church in which the majority or near majority of Catholics are Latino. In fact, New York hasn't had a non-Irish ordinary since the death of bishop John Dubois in 1842 (He was from Paris.)

Now I wouldn't want this to interfere with the big fun of Dolan's honeymoon period here in New York. But this shift in North American Catholicism is obvious in my own experience. The Church needs not only to accept it, but to celebrate it.

In the last two parishes I have been in before this one, the Sunday schedule culminated in a Spanish Mass. In both cases the attendance and the participation at this Spanish Mass exceeded the other Masses in English combined. In the parish where I work now we have confessions for an hour on Saturday afternoon. In between confessions I almost always have time to pray Evening Prayer, and sometimes even have time to pray my Rosary as well. On the other side of town some Mexican sisters have taken over a parish convent where they run retreats most weekends. I've gone several times to help with confessions. They put me in a room with a sign on it asking that no more than seventy people be in line for confession at a time. I tell them that I'm good for two hours or maybe a little more. After that, I'm exhausted from trying to listen in Spanish.

Now my experience is limited in scope, and is confined to the Northeast of the United States. But it does tell me that the future of our faith as it is practiced here is more and more Spanish speaking and Latino in culture. The average Latino Catholic is more likely to attend Mass than your average Anglophone Catholic. (In fact, the great majority of the latter don't attend to their religion at all, or perhaps only in an emergency like marriage or death.) Latinos are less likely to substitute actual children with pets, so they have more children and are more likely to raise them--to one degree or another--in the faith.

So, Irish archbishop or not, a local church blessed with the culture of Irish Catholicism or not, we are on our way to being a Latino church. Check out the article here.

March 2, 2009

Holy Communion

The other day when I was making my thanksgiving after Mass I got to reflecting on my experience of Holy Communion. It has shifted over the years.

When I was younger in the faith my day-to-day spirituality was much more agonistic than it is now, and I think I used to view Communion as a kind of conduit that would bring me the Lord's strength into me to fight the various spiritual combats of the day. It was my connection to the divine power that would contend within me, making up for my own powerlessness and concupiscence in the struggle with sin and distraction. "Blessed be the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for battle, my fingers for war." (Psalm 144)

It seems to me that I am now less focused on myself and more in awe of the Presence itself. At the altar I stand in wonderment before the sort of God who is willing to be "hidden under the little form of bread." (St. Francis) This is an amazing thing for me, a sublime reversal. People who don't understand the power and almighty-ness of God ask why God doesn't act in this way or that to alleviate the suffering we bring upon ourselves and each other (ignoring the fact that it is our fault and thus our responsibility anyway). Instead, the power of God is revealed in the perfect humility of the Nativity, the Cross, and the Eucharist--in the littleness of an infant away from home, a condemned criminal, a little piece of bread. This is the Almighty who "empties himself" (Philippians 2: 7) in order to make himself our servant and our nourishment, and so reveals the humble path to real power and success in human life as well.

The act of Holy Communion, to me, is similarly overwhelming. What does it mean to take this self-sacrificing God into my body? Am I ready for that? Am I ready to consent to my body and soul being united to the sacrifice of Christ? Do I will to place myself on the path toward Christ's depth of humility and self-emptying? Do I really desire to be emptied, broken, poured out and given for the nourishment and salvation of others?