April 30, 2009

Obedience, Poverty, Chastity

Too often we accept from the world a sense of the vows that is negative in which they are only about renunciation and not having something. On the contrary, if they are to be lived well, either as values that animate any Christian life or as the public vows of religious consecration, obedience, poverty, and chastity need to be active forces in our daily spiritual practice. As one of the brothers likes to tell novices, "If something is a value for us, then we look for ways to put it into practice."

Here are some examples of looking for opportunity from my own reflection over the years:

Obedience. Today I will do my best to work honestly and diligently in what tasks the Holy Spirit puts before me through legitimate authority or religious duty, even if it isn't what I want to be doing or doesn't suit my idea of my vocation or "what I'm about." If my superiors seem irrational or unfair or worse, I will joyfully thank God for the grace of sharing one of the ordinary sufferings of poor people everywhere. I will notice the things in me which are idiosyncratic or peculiar, and I will take care not to impose these on others through whatever power I might have. I will remember what's going on in the lives of others and be sure to ask them how things are going. I will grasp opportunities to turn conversations away from myself and toward the concerns, trials, and joys of others. I will pray gratefully when I am given the grace of being mocked, excluded, or condemned for the unwillingness to accept the moral absurdities and tragedies of our world, like abortion, war, and same-sex "marriage." I will pray with even more gratitude when God gives me the grace of being labeled, excluded, and despised by my own brother and sister Christians for the unwillingness to accept liturgical abuses or disregard for the Rule.

Poverty. I will do little, symbolic things today to remind myself that I am a poor man. I will take the ugliest apple from the basket instead of the prettiest. I won't drive when I can take the bus or the subway, and I won't take the bus when I can walk. I will be grateful when someone asks to borrow something I don't want to give him. I will pray for the people who suffer in the manufacture of my clothing and my food. I will try to forever reduce my impact on the earth by ruthlessly examining my choices as a consumer.

Chastity. I will be forever vigilant against treating those who might be naturally attractive, charming, or interesting any better than those I find boring, shallow, or even repulsive. In fact, I will make an effort to treat everybody as if they were the most interesting and beautiful person in the world, because this is how God sees them. I will be grateful when my own little jealousies and internal acts of possessiveness are thwarted. I will keep my eyes from the desperate dullness of a pornographic culture. I will notice and take every opportunity to build up the self-esteem and confidence of children, especially girls. I will thank God for the natural affection that is in me as a revelation of the creative power of the loving God, but I will make good use of the traditional practices of custody of the eyes and guard of the heart, so that what is natural and good by creation is not turned selfish by concupiscence and deordination.

April 29, 2009

Baptism Stats

I don't know why, but I love figuring out stuff like this. One of my classmates calls me a "church nerd."

Of all those I have baptized thus far as a cleric of the Roman rite:

boys: 52%
girls :48%

Have a biblical or saint's first name: 43%*
Have a biblical or saint's name somewhere among their given names: 71%
Have no biblical or saint's name at all: 14%

Apart from surname,
have three given names: 12%
have two given names: 81%
have one given name: 7%

Most popular names:

For girls, Madison (15%)
For boys, Matthew (14%)

*I'm judging this in the most expansive sense, i.e. accepting as saint's or biblical names all versions, derivatives and cross-language drifters, like Jesús or Joshua for Jesus, Grace (a very New Testament word), Christine in it's various spellings, Sean for John, Marie, Mariah, etc.

April 28, 2009

Defensive Devotion

We have common rosary twice a week in our parish, and almost every night in May and October. For the folks who are devoted in this way, the rosary is an active devotion. For me it's different. Over the years the rosary has become for a defensive devotion.

I'll explain what I mean. It started before I was in religious life when I worked as a direct caregiver in a group home for physically and mentally disabled adults. The shifts were typically ten or twelve hours, and there were no naturally occurring breaks. So, in order to get much needed breaks, everybody smoked. Having to have a cigarette provided a means to get out of the house and take a breather--so to speak--away from the chaos.

So I joined in for a while, but eventually I didn't want to smoke anymore. It wasn't too hard for me to let go of the smoking, but I still needed an excuse to take a break from work. I was talking to my spiritual director about it and he asked me how many of these smoking breaks occurred during a shift. When I responded that there were about five or so, he suggested that instead of smoking, I pray a decade of the rosary. His advice worked well, and I began to pray the rosary in five or six parts over the course of the ten hour shift.

This is what I mean by defensive devotion: the use of a devotional spiritual practice to avoid doing something else which we don't really want to do. I've kept up the general idea of this practice over the years. Nowadays I pray my rosary little by little when I am going from here to there in the course of daily work. There's a lot of little walks that you make during the day as a parish priest, such as the sacristy, the funeral home, and the bank. Often I use this time to do my proximate preparation for preaching, deciding exactly how I intend to deliver what I want to say, but if it happens that negative, anxious, or unhelpful thoughts enter my mind, or temptations to sin arise during the relative mental idleness of these travels, that's when I reach for wherever I left off in my rosary.

Call it a weapon in the spiritual combat, if you will. For me, I like to call it defensive devotion.

April 27, 2009


There's an interesting article in the New York Times this morning about atheists who are organizing themselves to find the support of community and to advance their agenda.

Whenever I read something like this, I'm always led into a reflection by how little I am offended as a committed theist and religionist. Why doesn't it bother me? Shouldn't committed atheists offend me? Why don't they?

First, it seems to me that the reasoned and thoughtful atheist is not the real atheistic enemy of faith and religion. The real atheistic danger to faith in God is the practical atheist; the person who may say they believe in God but for whom God makes no practical difference in their life. In fact, I think that the committed atheist is much closer to the theist than the person who may observe a religion on the surface but for whom God has no dynamic place in their heart and mind. The professed atheist is at least trying to be true to his conscience and the reasoning being God created him to be, while the practical atheist fails to truly face the searing and subtle question of God at all. In this they risk breaking the commandment that prohibits the vain use of God's name, and because they are "neither cold nor hot," they can expect to be "spit out." (Revelation 3:15-16)

Second, as I have said here many times, it's hard for me to blame people for not believing in God. This is because it is my experience that most people have been taught--or have somehow absorbed--a concept of God which isn't very believable for a thoughtful adult. The God they think someone wants them to believe in is closer to Santa Claus, Papa Smurf, or the Great Pumpkin than it is to the original Mystery whom we name as Unbegotten Source, Word, and Spirit.

Third, I have a sort of a practical connection with these professed atheists in their desire for the ruthless application of the separation of church and state. Perhaps they want it so that civil society can be protected from religion, while I want it the other way around: so that the faith can be protected from the world and from the numbing lowest common denominator of our American "civil religion."

Check out the article here.

April 26, 2009

Breaking Even (Almost)

A parish community can make a rough estimate of its relative growth or diminishment by comparing baptisms and funerals. If more are baptized into the church militant than leave for the church expectant or triumphant, the community is growing, and vice versa.

As of today, just in my particular ministry, I'm the closest I've ever been to breaking even. In 23 months as parochical vicar:

42 baptisms

44 funerals

April 25, 2009

Risen Into Our Midst

When the risen Lord appears to the disciples, he can be touched and even eats with them. He is not a ghost or simply a spirit. But he also does not seem to be bound by space or time; he appears in locked rooms and vanishes from sight. Sound odd? It shouldn't; this same mysterious Presence of the Lord remains with us in the Eucharist. My homily for this weekend is posted here.

April 23, 2009

The Old "3 and 3"

Sometimes it's just overwhelming to realize how much the Holy Spirit arranges for what we need spiritually at a given time.

I became a Catholic back in college, in between sophomore and junior year. I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon toward the end of the summer. By the following Saturday, I knew it was already time for my first confession! The little parish near campus had a fairly typical confession schedule: Saturday afternoon, 4-4:30. From that day forward, I went to confession every Saturday afternoon and then returned to campus for the vigil Mass.

I was surprised to discover that no matter what I said in confession, the old priest always delivered the same counsel and penance, which I heard so many weeks in a row I can still reproduce it now:

Thank God for having made a good confession, and tell Jesus that you love him. For your penance say three Our Fathers and three Haily Marys. Now, make a good Act of Contrition.

Perhaps my confessions were all more or less similar, though I know that some were much graver and more complex than others. But no matter what I said, I always got the same thing. I can only guess that maybe that's what he said for every confession.

But here's where I'm amazed by Providence: As a priest, I woudn't want to think of saying something so brief and generic to a penitent, much less the same penitent twice. But as a nervous and somewhat scrupulous neophtye, this was just what I needed. I was put at ease so that I could examine my conscience without worry, and I became more free in what sins I would admit because I had no fear of having the priest confirm my feeling that I was off to such a bad start as a Catholic.

I laugh a little about this now that I am a priest myself; it doesn't take much time in the confessional before nothing much shocks you anymore, and you soon realize that original sin is quite unoriginal in its various derivatives.

But recalling my own early experience from time to time reminds me that not every penitent needs a lot of counsel. For some, the last thing they need is more religious input. As a young priest, you always want to make that amazing "surgical strike" in penitential counsel, but sometimes you also need to let go of this ambition too. Some penitents just need a calm and reassuring word, and a renewing connection to the God who delights to see us leave the unreality of sin behind.

April 22, 2009


The next youngest brother (in religion) who is here with me in community likes to play a game called "hypotheticals." It makes for some silly and light conversation to take the edge off after stressful ministry in this world of suffering. For example, we ask each other to choose between two hypothetical assignments, neither of which is attractive of the natural level. Or we choose two of the friars and try to make educated guesses about which one would win in a hypothetical fistfight.

The other night, though, my confrere got me with one which stuck with me on a more serious level:

"If there were some kind of illegal steroid that would make you a better preacher, would you take it?"

Of course I said no. But I have to admit, it would be a temptation. Probably not a temptation that would get very far, but one that would at least arise in my thoughts. The very fact that I could be tempted in this way reveals the admixture of selfishness present in my ministry. That I might even consider risking health and committing civil crime in order to be a better preacher, reveals that there is part of my ministry that is about me and not yet exclusively about God.

It's what the ancient fathers called kenodoxia, or vainglory. In John Cassian's treatment of this vice, he tells a hilarious story about a solitary monk who was spied in his cell pretending to be a grand deacon, dismissing the people, and singing the double alleluia to himself.

Nevertheless, such realizations as this are salutary in the spiritual life. When we have those moments that display the admixture of selfishness in our religious motives. Our prayer and our ministry are never a pure adoration, submission, and service of God. In this life there will always be at least a little bit of bad motivation mixed in: fear, idolatry, vanity, etc.

Our good and bad motives are like the weeds and the wheat that grow so closely together that it can be hard to tell them apart sometimes. A good and quiet habit of discernment and examination of conscience are the best tools in trying to know the difference, and this is the hardest ascesis there is. The Lord promises that he will harvest the wheat. Despite our mixed motivations, we know that the good that the Spirit has nurtured within us will be harvested unto eternal life. (Matthew 13:24 ff.)

April 21, 2009


Today I was scheduled to tour a large group of public high school students through our church. What a bummer that they canceled. I had been faxed a copy of the ditto that they would have to do and was really looking forward to the questions. Here are some samples:

1. "What is the name of this religion?"

That's easy: Christianity

3. "Where and when did this religion begin?"

Hmm...here there are some choices: The sacrifice of Abel? The call of Abraham? The Passover in Egypt? The Annunciation? The Nativity? Peter's confession? The Last Supper? Pentecost?

7. "What is the name of the deity of this religion?"

Oh, how I was looking forward to this one. A discourse on Exodus and the Tetragrammaton, (with perhaps a dig to the Jehovah's Witnesses) and my standard rant about how Father, Son, and Spirit are not names in any intelligible sense.

12. "What are some of the major rituals of this religion? Explain each."

Good thing this one was at the end, I thought, because explaining each would have certainly filled whatever time was left.

Secret Holiness

Today is the feast of Capuchin brother St. Conrad of Parzham, who spent his religious life as porter of our friary in Altötting, receiving folks who came to the door.

The Capuchin reform of the Franciscan Order, though not even five hundred years old, has produced a lot of saints, including many martyrs and even a doctor of the Church. A significant number of our saints have had this ministry of porter, or brother in charge of the door, or questor, a brother who would go out to beg.

Did these ministries make these brothers holier than the others? I doubt it. I think that many got to be saints because their holiness was available to the public; it was on display, as it were. The ministries of porter and questor put certain friars in regular contact with a lot of different people who noticed their holiness and kept its memory alive after their bodily deaths. Others who were equally saintly did not come to be canonized because their holiness was more secret.

The same point goes across religious orders. Why are their so many more canonized Franciscans than there are canonized Trappists or Carthusians? Because Franciscans are more holy? No way. It's just that their holiness gets to be more public, and those with heroic virtue are more likely to end up with a public cultus that leads to veneration, beatification, or canonization. I have no doubt that, proportionally speaking, there are just as many Trappists and Carthusians in heaven as there are Franciscans, but since their saintliness is more secret, it doesn't arrive at public veneration here in the Church Militant as we make our pilgrimage through this life.

In fact, I think that most of the holiness present in the individual members of the Church is secret. This is one of the things I've learned from the ministry of the confessional. There are saints out there, folks who have arrived at a level of response to grace and ascetical struggle against their sins that I can only speak to based on things that I've read in books. Where they are is far beyond what I can speak to from my own experience of the spiritual journey.

The really amazing thing is that often God seems to hide sanctity from the saints themselves. They don't know that they are so holy. This is partly because the closer we come to God, so much more do our faults seem glaring and our sins seem tragic in the intensity of God's goodness. That's why the saints are always so conscious of themselves as sinners. But I also think that it is the mercy of God that keeps people ignorant of their own sanctity. It saves them from temptations to vanity and ambition and frees them from an awkward self-consciouness that accompanies those who get caught in the trap of desiring holiness as a kind of commodity, rather than simply desiring God.

April 20, 2009

Creation Born Again

As we leave the Easter Octave behind, Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus comes around in the daily lectionary, and we are reminded of the necessity of being born again, born from above if we want to see the Kingdom of God.

It's too bad that the idea of being "born again" has been co-opted so heavily by a certain kind of individualistic piety, as if the rebirth we are granted in Christ is a matter of mere religious conversion. This is certainly part of it, but Christ died and rose so that the whole of creation might be reborn, not just me.

Sometimes I think we don't spend enough time reminding ourselves of the direct connection between the creation and the incarnation. When I talk to kids or even adults about creation, they almost always know that God created the heavens and the earth. But they are often stumped when I ask them how God creates, what particular technique God used. Though it's explicit and obvious in the first creation account in Genesis, it's easily missed that God creates through his speech. "God said," "and so it happened."

St. John says as much in the prologue to his gospel, how the world was created through the Word. As Christians we believe that Jesus Christ is that same Word made flesh. The same Word which, when spoken, makes the creation happen is made human in Christ. So God's act of creating the world and the Incarnation of the Word are very closely correlated. I would even dare to say that the world is created so that the Word might become incarnate in it, so that the Word made flesh might die and rise within it in order to communicate to the creation the creative power of the Word.

The Resurrection, then, a recapitulation of the first day of creation when God separated the light from the darkness. This is also part of the reason why we celebrate the Easter season as a "week of weeks." During the whole of the first week we pray in "on this Easter day" in the preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, because the Easter Octave is the "Sunday" in the seven weeks of the season. The Easter season imitates and commemorates both the creation through the Word and the re-creation through the Word made flesh, and reminds us that we are on pilgrimage to a destiny in which these are the same thing.

The gift of rebirth in the Resurrection is for the whole of creation. For God insists on saving the world and pours out upon it the very force of creation itself in the dying and rising of Christ.

April 18, 2009

Franciscan Blogroll

It's not the ordinary way of getting onto the Franciscan Blogroll, but if you write a blog and then become a Franciscan, that's what happens. Check out Be Thou My Vision.

Believing Thomas

To encounter the Risen Lord is to believe in him, and to make that most perfect Christian confession, "My Lord and my God." My homily for this weekend is posted here.

April 16, 2009

Archbishop Dolan's Installation

I went to the installation with three other friars, taking the subway to Rockefeller Center. Approaching the Palace Hotel behind the Cathedral, there were all kinds of great photos to be missed: a young man in a beautiful cassock eating a giant sandwich, a canon regular in full regalia guffawing on his cell phone.

At the hotel the vesting room was like a clerical mosh pit littered with black jackets and briefcases. From there we were herded onto 51st St. on the north side of the Cathedral and lined up in several columns of two by two. At this point we stood for a while, and it was here that you saw everybody: more deacons and priests than I had ever seen in one place before, canons regular, the Order of the Holy Sepulchre, the Knights of Malta, the Knights of Columbus, and others that I couldn't identify.

Eventually the procession began, and we were led past archbishop Dolan, who was greeting everyone from the north side entrance of the Cathedral. Behind him the many cardinals who were in attendance sat like a kind of entourage. We turned onto Fifth Ave. and entered the Cathedral. We were led around the north side of the sanctuary to chairs that were set up in front of St. Louis's altar. (If you know St. Patrick's, this is the altar just to the ad orientem left of the Lady Chapel.) From there you couldn't see much, but there were TV monitors for us.

Once the procession was finally over, it seems to me that Cardinal Egan made a little speech before Archbishop Siambi made a long one, which he read in the pulpit from a folded set of papers held right in front of his face. Finally the apostolic letter of transfer was read and taken to the altar to be notarized. Dolan was led to the cathedra and then the Mass began in earnest with the Gloria and we were on our way.

The first reading was proclaimed in Spanish, the psalm was beautiful, and then the same deacon who had read the Gospel at the Chrism Mass got up to do it again. He sang it this time, and good for him; it was Luke's account of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, and that's a long one.

Dolan did very well preaching. He was friendly, reverent toward both the past and present of New York in many ways, spoke to his mother and called her "Mom," and when he came to the pro-life part he got a standing ovation. Continuing on his pro-life theme, calling the Church the "mother bear" who would fight for her cubs in danger, we all applauded again. Dolan didn't deny the challenges before us, though, which he identified as the presence of the death of the Lord within his Church, but urged us all together to turn all the highways and streets of the archdiocese into the road to Emmaus on which the Lord himself draws near and walks with us.

The intercessions were proclaimed in several languages, beginning with one in Irish that wasn't in the program. The offertory went quickly, and Dolan prayed the first preface of Easter, in which he said, "...in this Easter season" instead of the "on this Easter Day" appropriate for the whole octave. He whipped through Eucharistic Prayer II and we were at the Communion Rite.

After Holy Communion, many ciboria ended up in the tabernacle behind us on St. Louis's altar. Trouble was, the mensa was too wide and the tabernacle too high for the average priest to reach it. So, lifting a transitional deacon onto a folding chair, the Blessed Sacrament was safely reserved. Later, a very tall priest was impressed into service so that the Sacrament might be reposed with a little more dignity. A vigil light was brought, but because nobody smokes anymore, there was no way to light it. The dissapointed server left and returned a little later with a light that was already lit.

For us random presbyters, there was no procession out, so we left through the back door, returned to the mosh pit of now unvesting clergy and knights, returned to our parish by 207th St., and went out for a beer.

It was a very happy day. We are grateful to God for our new Archbishop, and pray for every gift of the Holy Spirit as he begins his ministry among us.

April 14, 2009

Paschal Candle

You know you have a lot of funerals in your parish when Easter brings a paschal candle like this!

Using Eucharistic Prayer I

In the fifteen years I spent as a Catholic before becoming a priest, I encountered the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I) at Mass very, very rarely. For whatever reasons that I don't understand, I guess that there are large parts of the praying catholic world that almost never encounter this prayer. Some anecdotal evidence from my own life illustrates what I'm talking about:

When I was a postulant I went to Mass with one of my classmates on the feast of the Epiphany. The priest prayed the Canon. Having coffee at a diner after Mass, my brother postulant expressed his annoyance and confusion at the priest who had "made up his own prayer." My classmate, a cradle catholic, had never heard Eucharistic Prayer I before!

When I was in theological studies we had to take a course to learn how to offer the Mass. When one of my fellows took his turn practicing the Mass in front of the class, he used Eucharistic Prayer I. The professor, clearly disgusted, scolded him and let us know that the Roman Canon would not be acceptable for the purposes of the course.

So, when I got to be a new priest who wanted to make use of this most Roman Eucharistic Prayer, I faced a problem. Most priests I had known and prayed with would almost never use it, so when should I? I didn't want to make it a case of whim, so I needed a plan.

Here's the plan I have adopted for the use of Eucharistic Prayer I, the Roman Canon. I use Eucharistic Prayer I:

1. On any day for which it provides proper Communicantes and/or Hanc Igitur, excepting nuptial Masses. (Though I would certainly oblige if a bride asked for the Roman Canon.) This amounts to Christmas and Easter and their octaves, Epiphany, Holy Thursday, Ascension, and Pentecost.

2. On the feast of any saint who is named in it, excepting feasts of Our Lady, as she is named in every Eucharistic Prayer.

3. On any feast that has a particularly Roman character, e.g. The Chair of Peter, the dedication of the Lateran, etc.

All together this makes for something like twelve percent of the whole liturgical year.

April 13, 2009

The Next Big Thing

Having safely arrived in the week of weeks that is the Easter season, it's time to get psyched for the big event in these parts:

April 12, 2009

The Paschal Quiet

Easter Sunday afternoon, one of those moments as a parish priest when there is a sudden shift from activity and sound to quiet and stillness. From the Vigil last night and through the four Masses today, I've greeted hundreds of people, sang many hymns, preached twice, sprinkled two congregations, and done seven incensations of altars and Gospels, not to mention offering the Sacrifice three times.

And after all of this intensely social and sometimes feverish activity, these last few hours of the Paschal Triduum* arrive with complete quiet and solitude. Masses are done and the people have gone. It doesn't even seem like there is anyone in the friary; the brothers are perhaps asleep or have gone to visit someone.

I can see how some priests get trapped in loneliness. The ministry is very social; you make both friends and enemies in abundance, and attract flatterers and disciples. But at the ends of the day you are alone. So if you start to identify yourself with the support you receive from the people you serve, you put yourself in a dangerous place. You will be lonely when there is no one around to fulfill your need to be helpful, your need to be needed. As one of my friends in the Order described this caricature of ministry, "There I was, hard at work, doing for God what he couldn't do for himself."

But loneliness is a temptation, a running away from the invitation of solitude. The longer I go in my Christian journey--and here I am in the last hours of my seventeenth Paschal Triduum--I realize more and more that part of the charism of celibacy is an invitation to a certain kind of prayer that is jealous, exclusive, and very secret.

Amen. Surrexit Christus Vere. Alleluia.

*Sometimes people forget that the Triduum doesn't end with the Easter Vigil but extends through Vespers of Sunday. As far as divine revelation is concerned, a day goes from sundown to sundown; i.e., "Evening came and morning followed, the nth day." So the 'three days' of the Paschal Triduum commence with the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which replaces Vespers on Holy Thursday Evening, and close with Vespers on Sunday.

April 9, 2009

I Have Given You a Model to Follow

The Paschal Triduum approaches, and this year I have been asked to preach at the Mass of the Lord's Supper for the first time. My homily is posted here.

April 8, 2009

Chrism Mass

Yesterday I attended the Chrism Mass for the first time. Last year would have been my first as a priest, but I had to skip it to go to a wake. It was really impressive to see so many priests, and to join with them in renewing our resolve to serve.

After vesting in what I suppose is the ballroom of the New York Palace Hotel (which is right behind the Cathedral on Madison Ave.), the procession is formed going West on 51st St. Taking a left onto 5th Ave. we entered the Cathedral through the huge center doors that are usually closed. This was the most intense moment for me. To have the noise and chaos of the secular city fade behind you and the Lord's sanctuary open up before you with its fragrant clouds of incense and beautifully ordered singing; this must be a faint taste of what it is to leave this particular pilgrimage behind and enter into the Eternity of Heaven.

This is, of course, one of the main functions of religious ritual on the natural level, to throw us out of ourselves and into a wider horizon, 'something bigger than ourselves.' And why not be free from the tyranny of ourselves and our own thoughts and be cast into the ultimate horizon, the final Source and Ground, the Alpha and the Omega that we call God?

That's why so many of our rituals and liturgies do not succeed as well as they could. How often the subject of our hymns and songs is "we" and "us!" How many of us, in so many subtle ways, preach ourselves rather than Christ crucified!

April 5, 2009

Charles Can Follow Simple Directions

So said my first grade teacher.

The rubrics for Passion Sunday call for the brevis homilia, which can be given after the Gospel at the procession, or pro opportunitate after the proclamation of the Passion.

The sacristan, without being asked mind you, timed me at 88 seconds.

Rave: Jesus Christ

Creatures of God we are in our humanity; a subtle and curious and beautiful synthesis of spirit and matter that not even the angels know. And what have we done with it? With the body we are given to serve and love each other we have abused ourselves and oppressed our brothers and sisters. With the voice we have been given to speak the truth and say "the good things men need to hear" we have cursed and gossiped and lied.

We spend our whole lives surrounding ourselves with vanities and competing for illusory securities even to the point of scarring the whole of world history in the process.We do whatever we can to have subtle or obvious power over each other, and power becomes our drug of choice.

Into this mess our Lord arrives, riding on another humble creature, into his own city. Unlike the vain kings of this world who were anointed king by grand high priests, Jesus is anointed king by an unnamed and unappreciated woman. He turns the folly of our whole lustful cult of power around by ruling from the royal throne of the Cross, on which he can't even move, much less compel anyone else to do anything.

The Almighty God reveals in Christ the dead end of our self-destructing project of lording it over each other in so many subtle ways. By placing himself below us, as a servant who willing suffers the misery that we insist on for ourselves and each other with our sins, Jesus Christ shows us the true power and authority that our nature, so wounded and shortsighted through sin, so often can't see.

April 4, 2009

Rant: A & P Catholics

Everyone likes to make fun of people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. I don't know; they don't bother me so much. If you're only going to attend twice a year, Christmas and Easter are pretty good choices. There are those who argue that Pentecost ranks above Christmas in the calendar, but we can leave that for another time.

When people confess this semiannual pattern of attendance, I invite them to add another day each year. Pentecost the first year and Assumption the next. By then they would have a quarterly visit! Then I remind them of their "Easter Duty" to receive sacramental absolution and Holy Communion once a year, and crack them up with the suggestive title of said decree: Omnis utriusque sexus. (That's DS 812, for all of you church nerds who have your Denzinger handy.)

But the people who do get to me are the "A & P" Catholics, as my first religious superior used to call them. The 'A' and the 'P' stand for ashes and palms. These folks choose Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday as their semiannual visits to church. And sometimes it's not even about praying with the community and allowing the meanings of these symbols to permeate you as a member of the Christian assembly. No. It's about "getting my ashes" or "getting my palms." Sometimes they are so brazen as to complain about not being able to get this stuff without even staying for Mass!

I don't get it. If you want to pray with the Christian community please join us as we use these miserable little material symbols to recall the paschal victory of Christ over suffering and death. But if you just want to run in and out or have a three second para-sacramental transaction so you can have some dirt on your head or carry some leaf home with you, there's plenty of dirt out there and plenty of leaves that you can go pick yourself.


Palm Sunday

The rubrics for Passion Sunday call for a brevis homilia if it seems opportune. So I don't bother to go through my usual reflection and composition routine this week.

Bracketing off the circus of "palm acquisition," it's actually a beautiful observance. To me it's a lot like Ash Wednesday in the sense that it embodies the ironies that are at the heart of Christianity. We cheer the arrival of the King and prepare a path for him. But we know that this is a King who will reign from the throne of the Cross as a tortured criminal, unable to even move his hands and feet, much less compel anyone to obey him. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern kings who were anointed on their heads by high priests to rule their people with power and strength, this is the King who was anointed on his feet by a sinner and whose power will be manifest in his placing himself below us as our servant.

To say any more than that today would be a spoiler for my Holy Thursday homily. It will be my first time preaching that one!

April 3, 2009

The Mysteries of the Way of the Cross

A recent email alerted me to a proper Franciscan observance I had not noticed before, the feast Mysteriorum viae dolorosae Domini Nostri Jesu Christi. I only have the 1942 Missale Romano-Seraphicum before me right now, which places the day on the first Friday of March. I have a feeling it might be a different day in the 1962 Missal.

Because of our connection with the ministry of the places in the Holy Land, Franciscans have always been associated with promoting the devotion to the mysteries of the Way of the Cross.

This feast day is not in our current Franciscan calendar. Perhaps since the blessing of Stations of the Cross is no longer reserved to Franciscans, we no longer get to celebrate their mysteries as a proper liturgical observance.

Since I took the time to transcribe the sequence for someone, I'll reproduce it here:

Christi mortem, Christianae,
Sero plangas atque mane,
Et in planctu gaudeas.

Diligentem pone mentem
Super Christum patientem,
Ut sibi condoleas.

Quam despectus, quam dejectus
Rex caelorum est effectus,
Ut salvaret saeculum!

Esurivit et sitivit,
Pauper et egenus ivit
Ad usque patibulum.

Cum deductus est Immensus,
Et in Cruce tunc suspensus,
Fugerunt discipuli.

Manus, pedes perfoderunt,
Et aceto potaverunt
Summum Regem saeculi.

Cujus oculi beati
Sunt in Cruce obtenebrati,
Et vultus expalluit.

Suo corpori tunc nudo
Non remansit pulchritudo,
Decor omnis abfuit.

Propter hominem peccata,
Sua caro cruciata
Fuit inter verbera.

Membra sua sunt distenta,
Propter aspera tormenta
Et illata vulnera.

Inter magnos cruciatus
Est in Cruce lacrimatus,
Et emisit spiritum.

Suspiremus et fleamus,
Toto corde doleamus
Super Unigenitum.

Hinc nostrorum peccatorum
Gloriosus Rex caelorum
Nobis donet veniam.

Atque secum perferentes
Crucem, ducat gestientes
Ad aeternam gloriam. Amen.

April 1, 2009

April Fool

Some might be surprised to know this, but religious life is a hotbed of practical jokes, hoaxes, and pranks. Here are some that I have witnessed over the years:

At Benedict XVI's Saturday morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of our brothers had the honor of being one of the gift bearers. On the television feed, you could see that they conversed a little. So everyone wanted to ask this brother what he had said to the Holy Father. Someone started the rumor that he had asked, "Does this count for Sunday?"

Another urban legend claimed that a certain friar was the son of wrestler King Kong Bundy. (There was a resemblance.)

There have been imaginary phone calls from bishop's secretaries, and from provincial superiors in India, sending brothers off on fool's errands of various kinds. Attempts to arrange full ecclesiastical funerals for dogs and cats have also been called in. False summonses to appear before the Apostolic Penitentiary "tomorrow morning, Rome time, first thing" have also been received.

An urgent 'While you were out' note instructed a brother to return the call of Sister Mary Ellafanta, giving the number for the Bronx Zoo. Another invited a brother to call the local funeral home and ask for 'Myra Mains.'

I once received a forged birthday message via fax, bearing the letterhead of the apostolic nunciature.

These sorts of things work well on us because many of the phone calls and requests we receive are, in fact, stranger than fiction but entirely legitimate. I once got a call to arrange a wedding:

"Here's the thing, Father. I'm not a Roman Catholic, I'm a--what do you guys call it--a Melkite, that's right. And my bride, she's one of them Orthodoxes--Russian, Greek, I dunno, one of them things. So how do we get this thing on the road? Tell you what; I'll come in and bring that crazy girl with me, and I'll bring a few beers along too so we can have a good time while we figure this out!"

After making the appointment and instructing my interlocutor that we might wait until our second visit to "bring a few beers," I hung up. I didn't even write down the appointment, presuming it had been one of the friars putting me on with his deft combination of the Ecumenical Directory and the Jerky Boys. Funny thing, but it turned out to be real.