February 27, 2010


This weekend our pastor will be making one of our annual financial appeals at all the Masses, so I don't have a new homily to post. It's too bad, because the Transfiguration is one of my favorite mysteries of Jesus Christ. For a long time I've felt a sort of mystical affinity with it; it was on the feast of the Transfiguration in 1993 that I first consented to my religious vocation, and I was born on the Second Sunday of Lent when it is always proclaimed.

I often find myself including the Transfiguration in these posts, and so I just present three of my best:

The Resurrection, Transfiguration, and the End Times

Coincidence or Providence?

The Resurrection and the Bomb

February 26, 2010

Blood Painted Door, I Shall Pass

Since today is the day of Lent in which we arrive at this point in the Office of Readings, I couldn't resist posting its most metal treatment.

The more time goes by, the more I realize the importance of my discovery of this sort of music in early adolescence. Having realized that there was something better than what most other kids seemed to like, at once it began to dawn on me that the prevailing tastes and ideas around me were not to be trusted automatically as the best thing. I was already set on the path of wanting to renounce the world.

Let us never forget John Chrysostom's insight that the lamb's blood on the doorposts of the Hebrews is the Precious Blood of Christ on the lips of Christians.

February 25, 2010

From My Confessor

"Nobody likes to be confronted about the injustice and meanness with which we treat each other, but we must not lash out or react ungratefully when it happens. Truth is, many times we don't know how we come off, how we are perceived. Most of the time we don't know that we are dismissing, disrespecting, and bullying each other. So when we are confronted on these things we must respond with gratitude instead of allowing the old Adam to react with anger. If we have treated this one brother poorly, we will keep doing the same thing to others. We must be grateful to the one let us know by confronting us on our behavior, and thank God for his courage."

Upgrade Available

From time to time my phone asks permission to update its applications. It asks, "Do you wish to install the update? Existing user data will be saved."

It's corny, but I've come to think of it as an image for the Christian life. In the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ, God has provided an upgrade for our humanity. This upgrade--into the divine life itself--is available to us in the sacraments.

Existing user data is maintained in the process of the update. My redeemed self is the same person as my miserable self. Memories, formative experiences, tastes, talents, blind spots, and eccentricities all remain. They are transformed, however, by the upgrading of the being in which they inhere, and begin to become a means of the freedom of servanthood rather than the imprisoned misery of self.

February 24, 2010

I Can See The String! (And Masked Men)

It's one of the lines you're supposed to yell out at some point when you go to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight. I couldn't resist.

But seriously, a parishioner related something fun to me the other day. She explained how she had brought a friend to Mass, a religious sister who had once been a teacher of transitional deacons in a seminary. Sister had remarked upon her observation that I was the first priest she had seen in a long time who seemed to have been trained to make the 'hands extended' or 'orans' gesture with a procedure involving a piece of string extended between the hands or the shoulders somehow. I didn't really understand what was meant, but I guess I really do, because I was doing whatever was supposed to be the outcome of the stringy pedagogy in question.

So if I say I don't understand what the piece of string does, do I commit the masked man fallacy, given that I seemed to have learned what it was supposed to teach me?

As is often observed, one can tell a lot about a priest from his orans or extended hands posture.

February 23, 2010

Rending the Heart

The prophet Joel hit me hard in the reading for Morning Prayer today: "Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord your God."

Over the years, how many of my attempts at Lenten observances have been a rending of garments, that is to say externals, that did not serve to rend my heart! Even when I succeeded in observing Lent according to the practices woven together in my pious imaginings--and perhaps especially when I did--sometimes these things did not serve to further break my heart at either the suffering of the world or my own sins!

The presence of sin is not what distinguishes us from the saints, despite the worldly imagination that opposes 'sinner' and 'saint.' The difference is that the saints were brokenhearted at their sins in a way that we have not yet consented to.

February 22, 2010

Great Moments in Spiritual Paternity

Like when you pray and explore the Scriptures with your 11- and 12-year-old catechumens, realize that they are cooler and already more spiritual than you are, and noticing this only makes you happy and pushes you to work harder out of reverence for what God is doing in them.

Pastoral Care of the Petty Criminal

Like a lot of religious and priests, I'm not one for conflict and confrontation. When I have to challenge or confront someone, I get this urgent and frightened queasiness in my guts. Over the course of my work as parish priest, however, I've gotten better at it and now I can even confess that sometimes I almost like that feeling.

After Masses this morning, when I went into church to light some candles and make some new holy water, I had a chance to confront our local would-be poor box thief, who often hangs out in the back at that time of day. I love what I said:

[walking up to him and pointing]

"You got caught! Saturday after the funeral, you were seen trying to steal from poor St. Anthony! Now get out of here before I call the cops!

[He skulks out, and I yell after him]

And say a prayer for me!

Overheard in the Friary

"Fine. Don't accept help. Deny me my chance to be a good brother."

This utterance seemed to be made in all fun, but it's a serious soteriological statement. I was thinking about it in the context of the judgment scene from Matthew 25, which would have been the gospel of today's Mass were it not the feast of the Chair of Peter.

In the course of the judgment whatever charity and relief was given to the least brothers of the Son of Man becomes the criterion of salvation. Those who cared for them are saved and those who did not are damned. Many times I think we automatically interpret this gospel through our activist mentality; it is our call to rush out to serve the least of our sisters and brothers. This is certainly a good and holy inspiration, but we should also notice that sometimes it's the other way around. We all have times in our lives that are hard or parts of ourselves that our broken. Sometimes it is we ourselves who are the little ones, the least brothers and sisters of the Son of Man.

If we aren't humble enough to admit this, and humbler still to accept the help of others, we could be denying others their chance for salvation!

Uncovering the Head

There's one of the older friars who comes to the early Mass on Sundays. He sits quietly in the back of the friars' chapel off the side of the sanctuary and assists from there. He's more or less blind, and so is no longer comfortable offering Mass himself, and for whatever reason I guess he doesn't like the conventual Mass at the old friars' home next door.

When I'm the one to offer the Mass I ask him if he will have Holy Communion, and then I make a detour on my way to the extraordinary ministers to attend to him. Yesterday, for whatever reason, I guess he didn't expect me to come back with the Precious Blood. When he realized why I was in front of him and what I was holding, he reached up quickly and snatched the skullcap from his head. The action struck me in its automatic necessity. He found himself, all of a sudden, in the immediate presence of the Precious Blood, and so had to uncover his head. He just did it, and probably didn't even need to think about what he was doing. It was like second nature, or perhaps better, grace having built on nature.

I wish I could bottle up some of that second nature--the sense that the presence of the Lord in the Sacred Species demands a particular decorum all its own. So much of that sense seems to be lost, at least from where I stand as a minister of the Lord.

Just for fun, here's the skullcap section from our old Manual of Custom:

Priests who have completed their studies are allowed the use of the plain black skullcap. [per the universal custom of the Roman rite] It may not be worn by clerics or brothers without necessity and permission of the Minister Provincial. The skullcap is removed on entering, leaving, or passing through the choir of the church. It is taken off during Divine Office, whenever a genuflection, whether simple or double is made, while the gospel before the homily is read, while saying the Confiteor, the the Preces, and during the orations, at the final antiphon of the Blessed Virgin, a the Sacrosanctae. A priest who reads or chants the Invitorium, lessons, short responses, antiphons, martyrology, uncovers the head during such reading or chanting. The skullcap is also removed at the Asperges before the Mass on Sundays, during the Kyrie, Gospel, Credo, intercessions and from the Sanctus to the Communion of the priest or faithful inclusively, and when the blessing is given at the end of Mass. It is also removed during the exposition of the Most Blessed Sacrament, when receiving the Pax, in processions in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried, when going to confession, imparting blessings with relics, or receiving a blessing. It is likewise removed during the reading of the blessing of the Rule and during the blessing after the Lent of Benediction.

February 20, 2010

I Liked Her Too

As a religious and/or priest, you have to let people know that you are as human as everybody else, and that you're happy to chat about the same old stuff everybody talks about. But you also have to let people know that certain genres of male communication are inappropriate. I enjoy trying to find clever and funny ways to enforce this boundary without embarrassing anyone. Today I was amused when something reminded me of a dialogue I once had in a cemetery:

Male mourner, referring to female mourner: Father, did you see that one? She's a 'tall glass of water.'

Me: Do you mean the tall woman who received Holy Communion very devoutly? Yes, I like that too.

The Christian Trials

In the season of Lent, the Church as the Body of Christ goes into Jesus' own forty-day fast in the desert. As we face the trials of the Christian life, we hope to make Jesus' victory over the devil our own. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

February 19, 2010

Bonaventure on Cana

I had the morning free today, so I made my way to one of my favorite secret getaways: the library at St. Joseph's Seminary. There I read some of St. Bonaventure's commentary on the gospel of St. John. I made it up to chapter two, and Bonaventure's interpretation of the wedding at Cana, which I found sweet.

The wedding at Cana can be seen as an allegory for the marriage of the soul with God. The stone jars represent the state of our souls. At first they are empty, illustrating our state of undevotion and dryness. They must first be filled with water, and this water is the tears of our prayer. Then, at the intercession of Mary, Jesus transforms the water of our tears into the joy and warmth of the wine, which is the spiritual unction of the presence of God in our prayer.

I wasn't following the notes too closely at this point--I was running out of time--so I'm not sure if this interpretation has history.

February 18, 2010

Rambling on Sacraments and Voices

This morning I was thinking about a homily I heard once. The priest was preaching on the need for people to return to confession. One of his points went something like this: 'When you pray, no voice comes back. If you do hear a voice speak back, that's called mental illness. But on the other hand, when you receive sacramental absolution, you actually hear the voice of Jesus Christ speaking to you.'

On the one hand I liked it. I appreciated that the priest was preaching on our need for a return to the sacrament of Penance. It wasn't until I became a parish priest and got to know older Catholics that I realized the extent of the decline in this practice. Priests don't preach it a lot either, which perhaps is partly because some of them don't go themselves and many find hearing confessions tedious or boring. I do too sometimes, but then I think that it's probably nothing compared to the tedium and boredom I must have caused confessors over the years (and still do, no doubt!). Most of the time priests have treated me gently, so should I not do the same?

I also appreciated the good sacramental theology of this priest. It is our catholic belief that the divine presence of the incarnate Word of God in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth has been passed into the eschatological presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacraments. The name of this passing over is Resurrection. When we are baptized, we are in the same position as Jesus being baptized by John; the Spirit descends upon us and the Father proclaims his pleasure. When we receive Holy Communion, we are in the same condition as our Blessed Mother who consented to the Word of God being conceived in her body. When we receive sacramental absolution we are just like those whom Jesus heals, forgives, and sends in the gospels. The only difference is one of something like dimension; it is between the historical and the eschatological. Our faith tells us, however, that in the end these will be rolled into one in the New Jerusalem that is, in herself, the marriage between heaven and earth.

On the other hand, I had some trouble with what the priest said. Even though we live in a sacramental community in which the primary presence and communication of God comes to us as an assembly that extends through space and time, we cannot push this too far. God does communicate with individual souls through their prayer. Yes, if we hear a voice in the same way we hear another physical person speak to us, we should probably see the doctor. But there are suggestions that come to us in prayer, or after we have prayed for guidance. There are phenomena that occur that we might call 'interior locutions.' Of course such experiences always have to be tested and should be reviewed with a spiritual mother or father. It is very easy to be tricked in this regard.

In the end, it's true that Jesus is not my 'personal Lord and savior.' He is the savior of the world, and I wish to tag along. But we do have an individual relationship, and there's no denying it.

February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Each year on Holy Thursday evening, the sober joy of Lent gives way to the joyful wonder of the Paschal Triduum. At the Mass of the Lord's Supper, we hear the new commandment of love and act it out literally in the ritual of the washing of feet. As we put the word we hear into practice, we celebrate the Lord who has given us the grace to live "according to the pattern of his holy Gospel."

Today, at the other end of Lent, it is not so. Today too we hear a command of Jesus:

"But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you." (Matthew 6: 17-18)

At today's Mass, after hearing the Gospel, we all line up to do not what Jesus commands, but the opposite. Unlike Holy Thursday, when we act out the command of Christ as literally as we can, today we do just what Jesus says not to do. He tells us to wash our faces, and then we all scramble to have someone put dirt on our heads. It is a kind of ritualization of our failure to live the Gospel, a common confession that we have not done what the Lord commands, a plain and public admission of our unfaithfulness.

May the humility of our mutual and public confession break our hearts open. May the open wounds of our compunction be a path for the grace of baptism to pour into us anew. By the time we arrive at Holy Thursday night, may we have been transformed anew by the God who makes willing and humble disciples even out of hypocrites.

February 16, 2010

Smells Like Lent

I have read that smell is the sense most connected to memory. Even if you didn't know it was almost Lent, you would know by now here in the friary, as the smell of last year's palms being burned into this years ashes is everywhere.

People That Are Going To Hell

Leave it to the self-ironic pop punk of the Vandals to take what would otherwise be a very crass pious thought and make it amusing, safe, and comforting.

Some people are bad and they don't give a damn what they do or who they hurt
they go through their lives and don't apologize
for the stuff that they've disturbed
but they don't bother me at all
cuz i know quite well-
when they're lives are over and they're done what they've done
they're the people that are going to hell

A little levity for Pancake Day. Very solemn Ash Wednesday post will appear in the morning.

The Coming Compunction

It's my eighteenth Lent eve. I love this day, full of hopes and promise for new beginnings and a fresh start of things. I think it's a common feeling, and why Ash Wednesday is so popular.

Once in a while I get in an argument with someone about the holy days of obligation. 'They are a burden to people,' goes the usual argument, and should either all be moved to Sunday or have their obligation removed. It's too much to expect people to assist at Mass on weekdays when they have to work and do a hundred other things. My refutation of this line of argument is always the same: 'It doesn't seem to be a problem for people on Ash Wednesday.'

On the contrary; everyone goes to church on Ash Wednesday; only Christmas (among white people) and maybe Passion Sunday (among Latinos) can rival it for attendance. It's easy to get down on the people for this; as a priest it's easy to indulge disdain against the people's mania to 'get their ashes' and wonder why there couldn't be even half as much devout desire to 'get their Sunday obligation fulfilled,' 'get their sacramental absolution,' 'get their marriage regularized.' or 'get their deceased relatives a proper burial.'

But maybe that's just it: Ash Wednesday is the great 'feast day' of the not-good-enough Catholic, and the time for me to admit that I'm not only one of them but maybe the worst of all.

Perhaps everyone goes to church on Ash Wednesday not for any shallow reason--the theory of the 'A&P Catholics' comes to mind here; ashes and palms--they come when they get something--but because of some of the deepest reasons of all. We preach and teach all the time about the new life we have in Christ, about our liberation from death and sin, and our identity as an eschatological people with one foot in the New Jerusalem, the marriage of heaven and earth. (Well, at least I preach these things.) But does this doctrine really match our ordinary experience of ourselves as would-be Christians? If we are honest, isn't our ordinary experience of ourselves as Christians closer to Ash Wednesday than Easter Sunday?

Though forgiven and cleansed from guilt, doesn't the wound left in us by original sin still fester? Are we not still tricked by concupiscence and still struggling with the hooks and footholds that the world, the flesh, and the devil find in our own disordered attachments and distorted thinking?

I was baptized on a Saturday afternoon. A week and an hour later I was in the confessional on the other side of the same church, my resolutions and new life in Christ already in shambles. "Thank God for the grace of having made a good confession, tell Jesus that you love him and want to serve him faithfully from now on, say three Our Fathers and three Hail Marys and now make a good Act of Contrition..." I remember what the priest said in my first confession because I wrote it down. I keep it in order to remember that I haven't made a lot of progress since then.

We who are baptized but have yet to make a solid beginning of the Christian life, we'll be in church tomorrow.

We religious whose lives of spiritual torpor and material luxury make a mockery of God and give scandal to the world, we'll be there too.

We priests who don't say our prayers, but instead give room to our laziness and abuse the people of God by indulging our arrogance and immature need to control, we'll be saying Mass for you.

See you then, brothers and sisters. It's our feast day.

February 15, 2010

The Lord Gave Me Brothers

It's one of the most quoted lines of St. Francis; it ends up in intercessory prayers and on holy cards for professions of vows. Francis's insight that his brothers were a gift from the Lord is an attitude Franciscans hold dear, and it informs our theological idea of who we are as an Order and a movement.

Sometimes I make fun of how we use the phrase; in the Testament of Francis it is only a dependent clause:

Et postquam Dominus dedit mihi de fratribus, nemo ostendebat mihi, quid deberem facere, sed ipse Altissimus revelavit mihi, quod deberem vivere secundum formam sancti Evangelii.

"And after the Lord gave me some brothers, nobody showed me [NB, not 'us'] what I had to do, but the Most High himself revealed to me that I [note: not 'we'] had to live according to the form of the holy Gospel." (Testament, 14)

For Francis, the primary kindness of God was the revelation of his vocation to live "according to the pattern" of the holy Gospel, a gift that came attendant on the gift of brothers. To live the gospel according to the Franciscan idiom requires a consciousness of sisters and brothers given to one as a gift.

It's something of which I am increasingly aware the further I get from the program of initial formation. All along the way, brothers have been given to me in various roles to help me along: friends on the natural level, companions on the 'inner way,' confessors, and wise elders who can straighten out my thinking. Even brothers who are enemies are a gift in the sense that they provide an opportunity to carry out Jesus' teachings on charity and a chance to refuse to participate in the cultures of gossip and detraction which can so poison a religious community.

This personal experience reminds me of two spiritual attitudes I must foster in myself. First, I must have the courage to go to the brothers who are given to me. When a suggestion in prayer tells me to call this brother, or that I should talk something over with another whose wisdom I trust, these are probably the promptings of the Holy Spirit working through the fraternity. To become willing to go to others for help when the Spirit suggests it is the greatest school of humility. (Note that this is also one of the reasons why we must be living lives of daily prayer.)

Second, I must note that God is probably using me in the same way. In the mysterious economies of grace, perhaps I am the brother that somebody else needs at some time in his vocation. Many times this will be hidden from me; the Spirit does this in order to shield us from the self-consciousness and vainglory that would get in the way. Therefore, I must be attentive and present to the brothers, because I never know what the Holy Spirit is doing through me, often in spite of me, and whether I know it or not.

February 12, 2010

An Exorcist Tells His Story

Today I have finished reading Fr. Gabriele Amorth's An Exorcist Tells His Story, which I read on the advice of one of my favorite people, an extraordinarily devout layman. Frequently shocking and sometimes frightening, you have to admit that it's an entertaining read.

The book is a collection of several representative accounts of the possessions, obsessions, and supernatural illnesses that Amorth has encountered in his own ministry as exorcist, presented thematically so as to offer the reader what he has learned about the strategies and behavior of the devil and his demons. Along the way one realizes that the book is also an extended and sustained rant against the pastors of the Church for not taking the problem of supernatural evil seriously, and for not taking up Jesus' commissioning of his disciples to expel demons.

I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the book. On the one hand, I agree with the accusation that the church does not treat supernatural evil seriously. My own experience and my brief work in the care of souls have convinced me that struggles with demonic presences and diabolical temptations are not as unusual as you might think. People just don't talk about it much, and still less do they tell priests about it, which is surely a testament to their common sense.

On the other hand, it is also my experience that many times those who complain of supernatural evil do so in such a way as to absolve themselves of responsibility. It is much easier, for example, to blame troubles in one's marriage on the presence of imps or harpies hiding in the bedroom than on denial, addiction, or the unwillingness to communicate. I once asked a spiritual director if he thought a particular temptation I was going through was of diabolic origin. He said, "What does it matter where it's from? Your task is the same."

Above all, when we are reflecting on these questions, we must be careful of the temptation to imagine the universe in a Manichean way, as a kind of raging, balanced struggle between good and evil, both of which have being in their own right. One has to look to further than Star Wars to see how easily we are charmed by this model of reality. "The Dark Side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural," said Chancellor Palpatine. Unnatural or not, this is not the conception of good and evil taught by Christianity. Evil does not to lead to any abilities at all, but only to misery, death, and non-being.

The good news of Christianity is that there is no cosmic battle between good and evil because it's over. The Resurrection is the revelation of the victory of divine humility over the arrogance of sin. The Resurrection not only awaits us as the final, blessed, victorious destiny of creation, but has broken backwards into history in the Resurrection of Christ to snatch up into the first fruits of the new age anybody who is willing. From now until then there are still skirmishes and even souls that are needlessly lost, but the struggle itself has already been won.

As we read in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:

A brother asked Abba Sisoes, 'Did Satan pursue them like this in the early days?' The old man said to him, 'He does this more at the present time, because his time is nearly finished and he is enraged.'

P.s. As evidence of my earnestness in this matter, I bet I'm the only priest you know who has a copy of the new De exorcismis et supplicationibus quibusdam.

Three Hierarchs' Chapel

One of the treasures of living here in the City of Gracious Living, Yonkers, New York, is St. Vladimir's Orthodox Seminary. Whenever I'm out anywhere near there, I stop by Three Hierarchs' Chapel for a visit.

Going to Therapy

The other day I was in a discussion with a priest about the clerical obligation to the Liturgy of the Hours. His opinion was that the obligation should relaxed or reduced. To his credit, he did not come to this opinion through a desire for laxness, but out of a concern for the souls of priests; if they didn't have time for this "overwhelming volume" of prayers, why burden them under the penalty of sin?

But are we talking about an "overwhelming volume" of prayers? Wanting to be scientific about this, I did an experiment, and timed myself. How long does it take to pray the daily Office?

(Times are based on individual recitation, without rushing, with adequate pauses for meditation (according to my taste, I'll admit) The American English LoH was used, with hymns substituted from the Liber Hymnarius. )

Office of Readings: 18 minutes.
Morning and Evening Prayer: 12 minutes each.
Daytime and Night Prayer: 5 minutes each.

52 minutes all together. A 'therapeutic hour.' Not so much, actually.

That's a new way I'm going to think about the Liturgy of the Hours from now on, as a therapeutic hour I spend each day with the Divine Physician. I know well how much I need it, and I bet that He knows even better than me.

February 11, 2010

Burnout: An Examination of Conscience

There was an anonymous comment yesterday suggesting that I might be suffering from ministerial burnout, and that it might be the cause of my impatience with some of those whom the Holy Spirit has given me the privilege to serve in the parish ministry. In his or her charity, whoever wrote the comment promised to pray for me, and I'm grateful for that.

It kind of pierced me to the heart, and it invaded my prayer for the rest of the day, in a good way. Not every invasive thought that comes to us in prayer is a distraction; often they are something screaming to be looked at.

There is something there; some truth to the comment. On the psychological level you might call it burnout. Perhaps it's more or less the same thing that would be called acedia on the level of the passions and temptation. Whatever you call it, there is an internal challenge going on, and I'm grateful that somebody took the time to point it out to me.

This is a very personal sort of confession, but I've always meant this blog to exist partly for those who are curious about religious life and priesthood, about the struggles and joys of the life. I do it especially for those who might be discerning their own vocations.

So what's up? What is the trouble? As I've been reflecting on this since yesterday and examining my conscience, I think I want to describe it as a kind of emotional fatigue mixed with a mood of disappointment.

First, let me try to describe the emotional fatigue. In the parish ministry one deals daily with folks in intense emotional states, both good and bad. There's the zeal of converts and the distressed vertigo of those who feel they are losing their faith. There's the recently bereaved and the new parents. There's the tragic self-imprisonment of the scrupulous and the happy liberation of those who realize their salvation.

As a priest you are called to meet the intensity of these states with a certain commensurate degree of reverence. It is your joy to do this as a human witness on the part of God's Church, but it can also wear you out. I only realize now, with this job, what a quiet life I have led for much of my time on earth until now. I may have been happy or sad at any given moment of my life, but it was all pretty calm.

Second, let me try to describe the low-grade mood of disappointment that gets mixed in. One gets into this sort of vocation, whether religious life or priesthood or both, with a desire to live the Catholic Christian life in a particularly intense and directed way. You have found a call through your own prayer and are eager to answer it. You fall in love with God in a certain way that seems to demand an exclusive relationship, and you're ready to jump in with wholehearted trust and giddy zeal. But then you then find yourself in a community not only overly committed and spread thin, but also having trouble knowing its own corporate identity within the Church and the world. (I don't mean my province or Order in particular, but mainstream religious life here in North America.)

It can also be hard for you as someone once set on fire for prayer, observance, and the seeking of God, to be sent in the parish ministry where you suddenly have to deal with the average North American Catholic, who, as we know, does not practice the faith in a measurable way. Nevertheless, the average Catholic still wants their baby baptized even though they don't give evidence of being able to make the baptismal vows on the baby's behalf in good conscience, and the average Catholic still wants a priest to come say a prayer for their deceased loved one at the funeral home, even though they might not intend to give him a proper funeral or burial. Having these sorts of conflicts day after day on the phone and in the parlor wears me down. I want to infect these folks with the love of the God who is so good, but sometimes they seem to just see me as someone who is refusing to give them the customer service they want and are (often) willing to pay for. 'What sort of donation can fix this trouble, Father?'

All of this can be very wearying, and brings up the internal trouble or temptation of burning out. You're bored with the job and the people because you've lost sight of the grace in your own life and in theirs, respectively. You start to minister mechanically, working out of mere human charm and cleverness. This is particularly dangerous, because you can fool people if you're good, and you may even become more popular because you no longer have any prophetic edge or challenge to give your people. In the end though, you start to resent the people as a distraction; lacking God, you now have only you're own interests, pleasures, and diversions to interest you, and are annoyed when called away from them. Under different names and aspects, I have been aware of this temptation and struggle in myself.

In the end, though, I'm begging the question. For me, the heart of the Franciscan charism consists of two utterances: First, that of Francis confessing his own conversion: "The Lord granted me, brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way..." By our Franciscanism we confess that our lives are no longer our own work, but the Lord's, who has given us the grace of "beginning to do penance," of turning ourselves from our miserable and boring selves to God and his poor. Second, that of Christ crucified to Francis: "Go, Francis, repair my church, which you can see is being completely destroyed." To be a Franciscan is to be a repairer of churches, a restorer of the Body of Christ.

Therefore, a Franciscan should not be surprised to find that the Holy Spirit has put him in a corner of the Church where the thing seems to be falling down and broken. To be there is his mission. That it is overwhelming and often disappointing on the human level must drive him ever more to Christ crucified whose call and Church it is in the first place. The strength for this must come from prayer. It is only from there that I can find a way to be burned through rather than burned out. It is only there that the injuries that would be the selfish wounds of disappointment and resentment are transformed into the selfless stigmata of the Cross.

"That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men."

Thanks as always to readers, for keeping me honest and humble.

February 10, 2010

Hard Questions for Religious Life

Yesterday I watched The Oprah Winfrey Show for my first time, in order to see Lisa Ling visiting and reporting on the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. I found the treatment to be respectful, honest, and encouraging. CNA had an article about them a while back: "Ann Arbor sisters can't build fast enough to house new members."

It just goes to show that there is no such thing as a problem of vocations in the religious life. If we religious of mainstream and venerable orders are willing to read the 'signs of the times,' we have to say that religious life seems to flourish when it is centered on the Eucharist, enthusiastic about reliable and traditional prayer, committed to a clear and corporate mission, puts on the garb, and is embedded in and faithful to the larger Church.

Of course we should be willing to do all of these things, but the questions that arise for the more relaxed observers can be very difficult. It's easy to judge everyone else, and besides, the Holy Spirit hasn't put into my pastoral care the vocation of any other religious (thank God), so what about me? Am I willing to follow these 'signs of the times' into this renewal of religious life?

Would I be willing to let go of the ministries I do as an individual in favor of a complete and total commitment to corporate work? How about this blog? Even if a few of us are working in a parish, for instance, we can minister in a compartmentalized way that protects us from vulnerability and the fraternal penance of collaboration. Do I trust God enough to let go of the safety of that model? Am I ready to let go of my ministerial reputation and productivity in favor of ours, even if the "we" in question is sometimes under the domination of control freaks and micromanagers on the one hand, or indifferent souls disinterested in church teaching on the other?

How about the bourgeois entitlements that have wormed their way into the hearts of mainstream religious? Having one's own car, computer, bathroom, cell phone, etc.; all of these things relieve of us of having to communicate with one another and having to share like other poor people. But would I be ready to let go of any of these things--even the PC on which I am composing this post? How about vacations, days off, and so-called 'day off money'? Would I be ready to let go of some of these things in favor of a religious life that approximates the life of poor men rather than one committed to the entitlements and recreations of the affluent?

How about mutual accountability? If I live in a house that doesn't seem to be living up to the minimum demands of the Rule and Constitutions we have promised to observe, am I ready to go gently to my local or major superior to seek a solution? Am I ready to accept labels like 'neo-con' and 'wanting to go back' if I do? On the other hand, am I willing to have a superior challenge me about my contribution to regular observance? Am I willing to be challenged about whether I am observing the daily Mass, meditation, devotion to Our Lady, and annual retreat that universal law requires of me as a religious? Am I willing to say something to a brother whom I fear is not observing these things? How about whether or not I am faithful to the five daily prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours I promised to pray each day the morning I was ordained deacon? Would I be ready to challenge another priest on this point when he walks into the chapel and has to ask, "What week are we in?"

These are hard questions for us as religious, but if we want to read the 'signs of the times' for the future of religious life, we need to be ready to ask them, and to ask them together.

February 9, 2010


Before I was actually employed as a parish priest, I thought clerical approachability a simple virtue. Since being here in the parish, though, I've learned that it's a very delicate thing, and an important balance to maintain.

In the early days of my baptism there was a church I used to attend where the priests seemed to me very unapproachable. I would have loved to have had the chance to speak with one of them, to ask questions about prayer and discernment, or just to have the joy of attention from a representative of God. But for whatever reason, I didn't dare approach one of them.

I don't want to be like that. Franciscans, after all, are supposed to be down-to-earth. I want people to feel comfortable to call me, to make an appointment, even to interrupt me if I'm on call that day. I want to hear about people's concerns so I can unite my intentions to theirs in prayer. Thanks to PDAs and smartphones, I can answer my office phone from anywhere and make appointments too.

It's a delicate thing, though. I know this would be called heresy by some of my conferes, but I think that there is such a thing as being too approachable.

I want people to feel comfortable approaching me, but I don't want someone to come up behind me when I'm praying in church and start trying to hug me from behind. I want folks to feel comfortable calling me up to talk about what they might need, but not every day when they're just lonely. I even want someone to feel like it's o.k. to approach me randomly for confession if there is some legitimate worry about mortal sin, but I don't want a scrupulous entourage waiting for 'the nice one' every time I walk into church. I want people to feel comfortable making appointments or sharing news after Mass, but I don't want to be so surrounded by conversations in the sacristy that I can't say my vesting prayers or get recollected before Mass.

So for me it's a delicate balance. I'm not yet very good at it, but I'm learning. The challenge is to learn how to communicate these sorts of boundaries in an encouraging but firm way.

February 8, 2010

St. Josephine

For the early Mass this morning I opted to celebrate St. Josephine Bakhita, and during the Prayer of the Faithful I invited the assembly to pray for Sudan and her people, as well as for the safety of all trafficked persons and for the formation of consciences on this issue.

It's one of those days that makes you look forward to the forthcoming English translation of the third edition Roman Missal; St. Josephine has a proper collect in the 2002 MR, but we can't use it because a translation has not yet been promulgated. Here it is:

Deus, qui beatam Iosephinam a servitute abiecta,
ad dignitatem filiae tuae et Christi sponsae adduxisti,
da nobis, quaesumus, eius exemplo,
Dominum Iesum crucifixum constanti dilectione prosequi
et in caritate ad misericordiam propensos perseverare.
Per Dominum...

God, who drew blessed Josephine from abject servitude
to the dignity of being your daughter and a spouse of Christ,
grant to us, we ask, that by her example,
we may follow the crucified Jesus with constant love,
and be lovingly ready to persevere in mercy.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son...

My New Older Brother

Yesterday afternoon I had the honor and joy of attending my new nephew's circumcision ceremony at the home of my brother and sister-in-law. It was an interesting and happy event, on both the natural and spiritual levels.

"You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout all generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days." (Genesis 17: 11-12, JPS)

And so it was for my little nephew: Yesterday he was eight days old, and my brother delegated a professional mohel to bring his son into the covenant.

On the natural level, I was happy for the new parents in their gratitude and wonder at their healthy little baby boy. I was happy for him too, having arrived in the world with two bright and gentle parents. It was good to see my family as we received the blessings of new identities and reconfigured relationships; to see my brother as a father and my parents in the beginning of their grandparenthood.

The afternoon was also quite fascinating on the supernatural level. Here's what really blew my mind: I've been on this earth for almost thirty-eight years, but as I looked at this tiny, eight-day-old baby sitting on the throne that had been prepared for Elijah, I saw someone older than me. Here was my senior, not my young nephew but my elder in the faith of Abraham, the Israel of history. For me, as a member of the "Israel of God," (Galatians 6:16) of the New Jerusalem that is the eschatological marriage of heaven and earth (Revelation 21:2), of the Body of Christ which is the Risen Son of Man containing in Himself the destiny that is the End Times already here, this baby will always be my older brother.

In these last days, by the astounding mercy of God I have been grafted into the faith of Abraham. I enjoy by privilege the faith that is my nephew's by right. May I always revere and respect my new little elder.

Here he is with his father, mother, and maternal grandmother, sporting his little skullcap and sucking on some gauze soaked in Manischewitz.

February 6, 2010

Celibacy and Redemption

Celibacy is a kind of loneliness. In religious life we sometimes try to deny this--even to the point of using our denial as a selling point in our pastoral care of vocations: 'Community life is there to fulfill our needs for intimacy, for human relationship.' Perhaps it's true to some degree on the natural level--if you live in a good house--but in the end it won't get you there. Anyone who comes to religious life with the hope that it will supply his emotional needs is going to be sorely disappointed.

Celibates need to get lonely; it is the way into the Heart of the vocation. I remember when I first entered religious life at the age of twenty-two, full of the zeal of the convert and without a clue. In those days I looked upon my celibacy as something I was doing. It was this heroic privation and agonistic struggle I was accepting for the glory of God.

Some years later I now realize what a tremendous vainglory and immaturity it all was. Seeing more clearly, and perhaps a little more attuned to the subtleties of the Spirit and the Providence of God, I realize that my celibacy has not been my doing at all. It is a relationship into which God has been inviting and drawing me for a long time. Even before I could even consent to my desire for baptism, God was drawing me--in spite of myself--into this exclusive relationship.

In fact, it has required me to know well my own life as a lonely person, for in my own vow of chastity I have found the redemption of my loneliness. That's the thing: if you want to be celibate you have to consent to that searing and disorienting feeling of being terribly lonely. You have to sit in it and let in sit in you. You have to resist all of the ways that would-be celibates medicate themselves against the loneliness with alcohol, anonymous sex, pornography, mania for control, overwork, eccentric and pointless hobbies, and even the internet.

You have to refuse to medicate yourself, but instead feel the pain and find in it a path into the Wounded Heart of Christ Crucified. It is the only way that loneliness gets turned into the solitude where God speaks to the heart and gives you anything you might have to say the suffering world.

Via non est nisi per ardentissimum amorem crucifixi, said St. Bonaventure. There is no other way but through the burning love of the Crucified.

This whole dynamic strikes me sometimes on nights when I lock up the church. The parish priesthood is a very social job; in the course of a weekend I might interact with a few hundred people. But at the end of day there is nobody left, and in the big church in which you have experienced so much light and sound and humanity, it is only dark and quiet and lonely. But the loneliness of it is quickly transformed by a realization that this moment is your truest identity, as you stand in the obscurity of the Presence of the One who--in his inscrutable mercy--has always been so jealous for you.

The Prosperity Gospel

I have decided not to post a new homily this weekend, because I think my homily from three years ago continues to speak to an important question of faith in our time. Judging from search traffic, it's something that needs to be addressed. Follow this link for a homily for this weekend.

February 4, 2010

Prayer and Pizza

Sometimes on a day off I stop by a local spot that I like to call 'Classic Rock Pizza.' The walls are decorated with various photos and autographs of rock stars, including Ozzy Osbourne and Ace Frehley. I nurse a grudge against Mr. Frehley deriving from the evening of November 18, 1987, when he failed to appear for a concert at a delicate, early moment in my headbanging career.

It's also very close to the neighboring parish church, which I can always count on to be a quiet spot for solitude, quiet, and prayer.

Pictured: chicken parm slice, can of seltzer (I'm so NY), and Breviarium Romano-Seraphicum.

The Sacred Heart and The Revolution

Today I read somewhere an unsourced claim that blame for the French Revolution lies in the failure of the kings of France to fulfill a request of the Lord to consecrate France to His Sacred Heart. Does anybody know anything about this, and whether or not it derives from some approved source or apparition?

This is not the sort of thing we were taught in 'Church History III.'

My Catholicism

The other day I noticed a Facebook 'status update' from one of the classmates from theology. It was a reproduction of a quote from a 'Catholic' publication in which the hierarchy and priests were put down for being out of touch, and various sorts of deviants and dissenters were held up for what was called their heroic and long-suffering faithfulness.

It's curious to me how people could go through the same course in theology and come out with such different view of things, but I suppose it happens all the time.

I guess my trouble with such proclamations is that despite any sophisitication as a Catholic I have grown into over the years and despite the very fine theological education I have received thanks to the generosity of God's people and the trust of my Capuchin brothers, my own Catholicism still sits at its original location in a desire to 'follow the instructions.'

Part of my own conversion to the faith, and the ferocity with which I pursued it at the time, was driven by my unwillingness to live in a world without unified, demanding, and ultimate meaning. I was burned by one of my first philosophy professors who consented with glee to the conclusion of our class that there was no such thing as a 'meaning of life' but only 'meanings in life.' It wasn't good enough for me; I needed something better to stand on. And from my first St. Joseph Sunday Missal and rosary pamphlet, down to my cover-to-cover devouring of the Catechism when it first appeared in English, to the Code of Canon Law and the GIRM and GILH and my Denzinger enchiridion, I have rejoiced to find in these the authentic, apostolic interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures that I first began to read during the hot summer nights of 1991, when I took my first eager but stumbling steps to go out to meet the Person who had been coming to meet me all along, Jesus Christ.

I just want to follow the instructions and find in them deliverance from the entangled mess of confusion and passion and noise that Christian Tradition calls the 'world.'

Not that I don't have my criticisms of bishops and priests as well. All of us--bishops especially--should be doing public penance for the crimes we have committed against children. Even in this, our bishops made a mess of themselves in Dallas. Though I have known many priests who are among the sea of quiet saints who hold the Church together, men of humility and work, gentleness, devotion, and prayer, I am the first to admit that I am daily scandalized and disedified by priests who seem to take the promises of their state very lightly, seem to relish to indulge the disorderly parts of their personalities, and who display a spirit of bourgeois and privileged entitlement in their lifestyles. These things have been sources of scandal, hurt, distraction, and confusion since my very first day living among religious and clergy. At a few moments in the course of things it has gotten so bad as to distract me from everything else and threaten my own vocation and resolve. So I know what it's like to be hurt and feel betrayed.

But I will never condemn my priests and bishops, nor recommend that they 'get over it' and start to conform to the confusions, errors, and glittering fashions of the world, because it is from them that I have received the apostolic teaching that has given me a reason to live in this world and something to do while I do.

February 3, 2010

Little Fishes

(I'm putting up this post again, because now I have a picture.)

The church two parishes away has a little chapel off the left side of the main sanctuary. I don't know if they ever have Mass in there, but it would be great for a group of up to thirty people or so. Gated off on one side is the old baptistery, which fascinates me. It has a mosaic floor made to look like a pool, with fish swimming about in it. On the floor, in Roman capitals, is an inscription that has always fascinated me:


So today when I was there I wrote it down. A quick Google search reveals its origin in Tertullian's De Baptismo 1, 3:

Sed nos pisciculi secundum nostrum ιχθον Iesum Christum in aqua
nascimur, nec aliter quam in aqua permanendo salvi sumus.

"But we little fishes are born in water according to our Fish Jesus Christ, and nor are we saved in any way but by remaining in the water."

Whoever designed the baptistery perhaps left the Iesum Christum out of the quote to get the IXΘON right in the middle of the inscription, which is very striking.

From My Confessor

"You are little hard on yourself. Just think about it."

Sometimes it's the simplest messages, as well as the ones that descend to the natural level, that are the hardest to hear.

Since 'grace builds on nature,' we should remember that nobody likes to sit a long time on a hard seat. Firm perhaps, but not hard. So if our nature is too hard, maybe grace won't want to sit there either.

How's that for opening up a can of mixed metaphors?

Oculis ad Sacramentum Intentis

At the Our Father in the Mass according to the EF, the priest is directed to offer the entire prayer with eyes fixed upon the Host.

In the spirit of the Holy Father's call for the"mutual enrichment" of the two forms of the Roman rite, it's something I've been experimenting with when I offer Mass according to the modern form. I have to say that it is a pretty intense experience.

To pray Our Father, who art in heaven... while looking at this object that is--apparently--not in heaven and not a father in any way that the senses can immediately understand, it's pretty amazing. This is the God who chooses to empty his Fatherhood, his heavenliness--and indeed, even his almightyness--into a Presence through a vulnerable infant, a rejected teacher, a condemned criminal, and ultimately, the "little form of bread." For me to pray the Our Father while gazing intently at the Blessed Host before me on the altar brings up the core cognitive dissonances of Christianity, those that hold within themselves the divine reversals that confound the wisdom of this world and form the heart of the good news of the gospel.

It's curious to me that I never thought of this before. Perhaps I was looking past or over the Blessed Sacrament in order to emphasize the joining my prayer to that of the assembly. Whatever the reason, I have missed this simple, intense, and somewhat obvious spiritual practice until now. It's the sort of thing that might lend itself to reflection on Benedict's celebrated critique of worship versus populum, in the "self-enclosed circle." (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 80) In a 'gathering' around the Lord, there is always the risk that we may forget the Lord and just look at each other. Just something I've been thinking about as I try to be faithful to the cover letter to Summorum pontificum.

February 2, 2010

Relativism Rant

The parish ministry, on the natural level, is a customer service job. Sometimes, however, because it would be irresponsible (and sometimes even sacriligious) pastoral care, you can't always give people what they think they want. (Though many priests do anyway, because they can't stand not to be nice, as the Holy Father has alluded to in his recent comments to the courts of the Holy See regarding marriage cases.) In the comment box yesterday I was reminded of the quote from one of my pastors along the way: "This is not Burger King; you can't have it your way."

For me it brings up the question of relativism. We who are Catholic Christians are probably not afflicted with the "dictatorship of relativism," as Benedict has diagnosed the confusion of our time, but each of us late modern people have something of this demon within us, to one degree or another.

It reminds me of a house meeting we had in a friary I once lived in a long time ago. We were talking about the gestures made upon entering the chapel for common prayer. As it sometimes seemed that everyone was doing something different, it was asked whether or not we might try to 'get on the same page.' Each brother made an argument for his own practice. One explained that he bowed to the tabernacle because he wanted to reverence the Blessed Sacrament, but genuflecting--for him--had too much reference to "imperialism" and "patriarchy." Another said he bowed to the assembled brothers because it was in them that he "preferred" to try to contemplate the presence of Christ. Another bowed to the altar instead of reverencing the tabernacle because "the reserved host is not a devotion for me." Still another said that he made no gesture at all because this was his house and such "formalisms" are not required in the comfort of one's own home. Finally, one brother said he genuflected to the tabernacle because "that's what we do in the Roman rite."

An interesting discussion ensued, with each making theological and ecclesiological arguments for the practice that he had decided upon, some of which were quite good. Nevertheless, the very framework and nature of the discussion reveals the problem at hand: it was up to us--on our own and according to our own lights--to decide what kind of worship was 'right for us.' This is not a Catholic but Pentecostal approach; to be Catholic is to live in a community of reflection extended through time and space and to take one's cues from its Sacred Tradition and Magisterium rather than home brewing one's own practices and procedures.

Pelagius lived at Kardanoel
And taught a doctrine there
How, whether you went to heaven or hell
It was your own affair.
It had nothing to do with the Church, my boy,
But was your own affair.

(Hilaire Belloc, The Pelagian Drinking Song)

UPDATE: Ah, the synchronicity and providence of the blogosphere: I see on NLM today that a document is being prepared on liturgical formation for religious.

February 1, 2010

What's My Problem?

The majority of the most challenging and unpleasant pastoral care decisions I make in my employment as parish priest derive from the fact that...

I care less about the attachment of your sentiments to this particular church building than I care about the attachment of your soul to the Lord and His Church, and I will always challenge the former if I fear you need to consider the latter.

Maybe I'm a rotten priest, and have been told as much, but that is my sense of my own responsibility as a steward of God's Mysteries.

Y Con Tu Espiritu

Before I came here to my first assignment, my Sunday Eucharist was in Spanish for several years. In the parish where I served as deacon I used to do the childrens' liturgy of the Word during the Spanish Mass, and in the parish where I lived during studies I had the ministry of monitor--the one who reads the pious (and sometimes awful) introductions to the Mass and the readings of the day. I was also entrusted with the solemn demand that everyone turn off their mobile devices at the beginning of Mass: favor de apagar los beeperes y celulares. 'Beeperes;' that still cracks me up. In most places I've lived in the Order--with the exception of the year of novitiate--the Spanish Mass was the most vibrant celebration. I also appreciated the language practice, so the choice was clear.

I mention all of this because of a telling experience I had this morning. At our little, intimate early Mass (6:45 am in the small chapel) there was someone among us who was clearly more accustomed to Mass in Spanish. It wasn't words that gave it away, but gesture: the waving of the arms back at the priest at the 'also with yous,' the insistence on hand-holding at the Our Father, etc.

I was really struck by how foreign such behavior had become to me in less than three years in a parish of German- and Irish-American history (and sensibility) and with Mass only in English (although there is a little Latin mixed in when I do it, though in the vox secreta.) Gestures of prayer that were an ordinary part of my life for many years--though I may not have participated in them myself--had now become foreign to me.

It just goes to show how much we are formed by where and with whom we choose to pray, or where the Holy Spirit puts us.