July 31, 2009

Appreciating the Centurion

I've been on a tear with weddings this summer, having witnessed nine marriages over the last eleven weekends. The ordinary weekly rhythm of it has become part of my routine: rehearsal on Thursday night, wedding Saturday afternoon. They don't differ a whole lot; the people change, of course, but the roles and personalities stay more or less the same. What does vary a lot is the degree of difficulty in organizing and executing the ceremony. Some are very easy and well-planned; others not so much. So what makes for the difference?

The greatest difference is surely the degree of Catholic practice of the bride and groom and their families. I have had couples who assist at Sunday Mass without fail as well as couples that I don't think had been to church since their first Holy Communion, and everything in between. It's much easier to plan and pray through a liturgy with folks who have been part of the praying community to one degree or another.

But there's another factor that makes a big difference. For whatever reason, we do a lot of weddings for cops, firefighters, and military personnel. There's something about these folks that makes them easy to work with; perhaps it's that they're used to rules and expectations. I say that I need such and such paperwork by this day, and it appears. I lay down rules about what may or may not be done in church, and they obey. It makes me think of the centurion with the sick slave in the gospels, whose words will soon be gloriously restored to the English translation of the Mass:

When he entered Capernaum, a centurion approached him and appealed to him, saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, suffering dreadfully." He said to him, "I will come and cure him.The centurion said in reply, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come here,' and he comes; and to my slave, 'Do this,' and he does it.When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, "Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. (Matthew 8:5-10)

It used to be that military service was considered a good preparation for religious life, though perhaps with the problems of decadence, New Ageism, and the general malaise in North American religious life this is less the case than it used to be. I'm thinking about all of this morning on the feast of St. Ignatius, who, like our holy father Francis, was a soldier before becoming a religious founder. For both of them, in different ways, their military service had a profound effect on the religious life they would inspire.

Ignatius, Francis, and all soldier-saints, pray for us.


ben in denver said...

My pastor was a marine. It has most definitely had a positive effect on his ministry.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles - EXCELLENT post. 3 points: First, have you heard of Father Kapaun http://www.frkapaun.org/ ? GREAT story and cause for sainthood. Second, the story of the centurion has always touched me. As he was a Roman, it shows Jesus really did come for the world, even though he was "of the Jews". And I actually got into a very heated argument with Father Z on the "non sum dignus" vs "non sum digna" when spoken by women at mass (he was against, but I pointed out that historically that was the modus operandi, but he couldn't have known this since he was ordained post Vatican II). Third, I shudder that you would put the founders of the Jesuits in the Franciscans in the same sentence.

nyuck, nyuck, nyuck...we kid the Jebbies (but not really)

Brother Charles said...

It was their feast day yesterday, after all.

M.A. said...

Interesting post, Brother Charles. I must say, I'm not entirely sold on compatibility of the priestly ethos with military life. Sure, priest-as-soldier can be a helpful metaphor, but there is, it seems to me, a temptation to take it too literally. Whenever a priest has surrendered to that temptation, the results have been embarassing, to say the least.

To cite just a few instances:

Cardinal Richelieu, who actually was preparing for an army career when his parents found him a profitable bishopric, personally directed the siege of La Rochelle. There's a painting of him dressed, improbably, in priestly vestments and a cuiraiss, inspecting the saps. He looks as though he'd rather blow the Huguenots to bits with a mine than grant them absolution. It's not an inspiring sight.

During the Second World War, many Croatian Franciscans joined Ustase units as chaplains and cheerfully set about converting Orothodox Serbs at gunpoint. Granted, few were as bad as Fr. Miroslav Fillipovic-Majstorovic, who was expelled from the order for moonlighting as a guard at Jasenovac concentration camp and slashing the throats of Serb children. But even so, their antics have damaged the Church's (and more specifically, Ven. Pope Pius XII's) reputation to this very day.

Arnaud Amalric, Cisercian abbot of Poblet, exhorted the French troops about to storm Montsegur, a city populated by both Catholics and Cathars: Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius Often translated as "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out," it has appeared on countless white-trash bumper stickers throughout the ages. Maybe it's a good thing the Cistercians have been a silent order ever since.

Me, I'm lucky. The Dominican friars who serve my parish are confirmed peaceniks, and I've always taken great comfort in that fact. They know I'm there because I want to be, not out of deference to any enlistment contract. I never have to worry that they might be tempted to go all R. Lee Ermey on me.

In any case, it's a bit of a stretch to call St. Francis a soldier-saint. Carrying a pike in one smallish Guelph-Ghibelline squabble does not a military career make.

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the comment, M.A.!

It was never my assertion that military life is helpful for priestly ministry, just that military service might help someone adjust to religious life.

Francis was a soldier-saint in the sense that he carried some of the chivalrous attitudes of his youth over into his service of the true Lord.