March 31, 2010

The Betrayed Body

Preaching through this Holy Week I have been reflecting on something to which I haven't ever given much thought, but is as obvious as could be: The Body of Christ we offer and receive in the Eucharist is the betrayed Body.

I think it must be divine law that every rectory dining room or refectory in a religious house has to display an image of the Last Supper. Often it is some derivation of Da Vinci's treatment, which is unfortunate. (I agree with one of my great teachers, Charles Merrill Smith, that it is "one of a great painter's dubious efforts.") We have just such a Last Supper in the dining room here. As I have written about before, it was a source of daily amusement for me when I first arrived because of the inscription below the image: Amen dico vobis quia unus vestrum me traditurus est. Of all the beautiful things Our Lord said at the Last Supper--'Love one another as I have loved you,' 'I am the vine, you are the branches,' etc.--someone decided that this was the particular line that the friars needed to hear. So there it was; each day as you were getting your mashed potatoes or whatever: "Amen I say to you that one of you will betray me."

Over time, though, I've gotten over my amusement and come to appreciate it. After all, am I not a betrayer of the Lord? Any of us who have sinned after our baptism have handed over the members of Christ we have become. In our distraction and ingratitude, we have failed to discern the members of the Body of Christ we have become, and, like Judas, have settled for less by handing our Christ-ened selves over to trifles and sins.

This illuminates the overwhelming gentleness and humility of Christ in the Eucharist. Jesus takes his Body 'given up,' the very betrayal itself, and transforms it into nourishment for us, his betrayers.

March 30, 2010

Cute Nun Shoes and Cheap Missals

Snooping around tonight I made quite the fun discovery: a Kenedy Official Catholic Directory from 1943. It's amazing to look at the advertisements; you can tell how much construction was going on around church institutions here in the U.S.A.

A couple of the ads caught my eye in a particular way. Red Cross Shoes, "Accepted by the Reverend Sisterhoods for 50 years." Where are the hipster sisters who wear these?

And how about this? If you, unlike me, have $460 dollars burning a hole in your pocket, you can order the famed Benziger Bros. altar missal from Preserving Christian Publications. Here it is for $30! A four-volume Breviarium Romanum is advertised below, starting at $32, but you'll want to get the leather cases for $3.75 each. I have to admit that the covers seem expensive. I got a very good leather cover for my "economical edition" Liturgia Horarum for just 10 euro the last time I was in Rome.

It's also interesting to note how few advertisers are still in business today. The exceptions: Red Cross Shoes, Mont La Salle altar wine, Cathedral and Will & Baumer candles, Verdin bells, and, of course, the Kenedy directory itself.

Stuck into the book I found a very elegant printed invitation to a "Pontifical Mass of Thanksgiving" for the occasion of the golden jubilee of ordination of one Right Rev. Thaddeus W. Tierney to be celebrated on Sunday, June 3rd, 1951. I suppose we can safely pray that he rest in peace.

To Wipe or Not to Wipe

The pastor and I recently had an argument about the preparation of the chalice. It was a small point, but one with important implications for the Roman rite liturgy at this point in history.

Over time I have fallen into the habit of preparing the chalice with some of the actions only explicitly called for in the EF. I push the purificator in to wipe the inside. Then, removing the purificator to one hand, I infuse the wine and then the water with the appropriate prayer. I then wipe the stray drops before returning to the center of the altar to offer the wine.

The pastor argues that this draws too much attention to what is essentially a functional part of the modern Roman liturgy. What's more, since the Precious Blood will be consumed from all 'sides' of the cup, stray drops aren't a big deal anyway. Neither the rubrics nor the GIRM demand any such concern. On the other hand, Bishop Elliott recommends exactly the procedure I described, though without citation. (This is how I learned it, not from the EF.) He's not an official authority, but someone to whom I am grateful for answering many little questions when I was first starting to celebrate Mass. I give his book to all of our newly ordained.

It brings up some basic questions. On the one hand we don't want to clutter the "noble simplicity" of the modern Roman liturgy with Tridentine accretions. On the other hand, our Holy Father has called for a "mutual enrichment" of the two forms of the Roman rite. Does my extra-rubrical chalice preparation fall into such a category? More basically, given that it is our desire to follow the rubrics, doing less than they ask is certainly out of the question. But what about doing more than the rubrics demand?

Prayer Request

At some point today there is a meeting somewhere in which I am to be discussed. The decision of this meeting will have consequences for the future particulars of my life of penance. Thank you for your prayers for the Holy Spirit's inspiration for those meeting, and for my courage and perseverance.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
St. Charles Lwanga, pray for us.
St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us.
St. Bonaventure, pray for us.
St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.
St. Lawrence of Brindisi, pray for us.
St. Benedict Joseph Labre, pray for us.

March 29, 2010

...Broke the Chains of...?

This is a counter-symbol to Easter in so many ways, I hardly know where to begin.

As soon as it's mid-morning in France, I'm calling the semioticians.

Hugh's Advice to Lectors

Let them consider what is to be read in the indicative, what is to be pronounced as an interrogation, where there is a distinction in speech or a middle distinction is to be made, since these matters when poorly observed disturb the intellect and provoke those who are of the stamp of grammarians to laughter. The voice of the reader should consult his ears and heart, not his eyes, lest by undisciplined motion or gesture on his own account he make spectators rather than hearers, equally avoiding broken and effeminate sounds as well as coarse and rustic sounds.

--Hugh of St. Victor, De Sacramentis 2,3,6 (Deferrari's translation)

Holy Poverty

One of the adventures of religious life is to take note, over time, of how one's sense of the vows expands and shifts. Today I'm thinking about my vow of poverty, or, more precisely, my vow to live sine proprio, as we Franciscans say, "without property," or "without anything of my own."

I guess that when I first started on this Franciscan journey I understood our poverty as a fairly material thing. It was the desire and effort to live a life materially stripped down, so as to be more free for God. I still believe in this, of course, and try to live it. I know a friar who insists on having only one car load of stuff. I'm probably a little beyond that myself. Books are the real trouble.

Though simplicity of life is indispensable for any Franciscan, in recent years most of my day-to-day reflection on holy poverty has been about work rather than stuff. I remember once back in studies when I was telling my director about feeling stressed. My spiritual problem was that I resented having to feel stressed with school and formation; I just wanted to live a peaceful and prayerful life without all the distraction. My director cut through my resentment with this simple statement: "The poor man is perpetually anxious."

Since then I have tried to train myself to accept stress as a sharing in the suffering of the poor, as a solidarity with those who have only God to depend on, as a union with those whose prayer lives are not protected by any of the conceits of the professionally pious. Sometimes we religious shield ourselves from work we might do by saying to ourselves and each other, "That's not what I'm about," or "That's not what I'm called to." But these are sometimes just religious life double-speak for 'that's not what I feel like doing.'

There are lots of boring little chores associated with my employment. Sometimes in the midst of them--having already missed the chance to be praying the Jesus Prayer or meditating on one of the mysteries of our faith--I have the temptation to tell myself that with such and such education and background I shouldn't have to doing whatever it is. There are other times, because I'm not in charge, that I have to do things in some other way than I would want them done.

I thank God that I have had spiritual and formation directors along the way who have helped me to make such things into opportunities for holy poverty rather than occasions for temptations to the destructive passion of resentment. It is the condition of poor people that they have to work for a living, and a job is a job. Poor people have to take orders and are grateful to be working regardless of whether the work is interesting or suited to their gifts. Do I think that my brothers and sisters with children don't work in patience at countless tedious tasks in the name of their parenthood? Should my life as spiritual father in the care of souls be any different?

I must be willing to do the work that the Holy Spirit puts in front of me through the obediences I receive in the Order. I must pray for the willingness to work, and for diligence and honesty in working. I must be grateful not only when the work is enjoyable and interesting, but also when it is tedious and stressful. Only then will I be able to embrace a holy poverty that is not an insult to the poor.

March 28, 2010


I've written before about how sudden requests for confession have been one of the surprises of my priesthood. Well, today was the first time I refused to hear someone's confession. Perhaps it was a sin of selfishness brought on by the occasion of distracted stress, or perhaps it was good boundaries and self-care. I'm not sure.

Palm Sunday is the most stressful Sunday morning of the year. Not only is it the longest Sunday liturgy, but there is more to do in between the Masses. Between the middle and last Masses today I had exactly thirty-two minutes to greet parishioners, extinguish candles, re-set books, bring in the vessels to be re-set and brought out again, put out bread and wine, put out palms, greet servers, check in with musicians, get vested, pray my private preparation and be ready for the procession with palms. So, when I was right in the middle of this procedure, carrying out bags of palm, ripping them open and slicing the rubber bands with my trusty pocket knife, someone approached me for confession. I said that I just couldn't do it at that moment. I did point him in a direction where I was pretty sure he would find a priest who had a minute, but I still felt bad. I hate to have to do something like that for the first time.

The request was obviously unreasonable under my circumstances, but the incident reminded me that it's one thing to be able to keep appropriate boundaries, but it's quite another another to really accept them in one's scrupulous heart.

March 26, 2010

Mass in the EF with Cardinal Egan

My old friend Paul, who writes a fine blog that you all should read, bears in this world the difficult and thankless ministry of trying to get me out of the house from time to time. Last night we went to the a solemn Mass in the Extraordinary Form at which Cardinal Egan preached on the Annunciation, Evangelium vitae, and the EF itself. My fellow Connecticutians over at the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny have some pictures posted. If you click on the fourth to last one and click again to blow it up, you can see my biretta-less head as I assist in choro from the front pew on the left side.

March 25, 2010

Sexual Abuse

For years I have been praying and daily offering the intention of my sorrow for the victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Though the issues are complicated and I don't feel as if I have it all figured out, I have come to believe that this only the tragic and criminal edge of larger sicknesses that enabled both the abuse and the negligence in responding.

Nothing shocks me anymore, both because we are saturated with terrible revelations, but also because I have seen the roots of the whole thing at work. One time I met a priest and jokingly remarked to myself that I would see him in the newspaper. A couple of weeks later, there he was, not for the sexual abuse of children, thank God, but for another sort of criminal sex offense.

What does a person do with such a "coincidence?" Laugh? Cry? In my own prayer, I have to come to realize that I need to do something.

For every priest who has abused children, there are many more who are just creepy without doing anything criminal. My eye must be upon them too. With whatever authority or jurisdiction the Holy Spirit gives me, I must always be working to keep them away from any child at risk of losing his integrity or dignity in even the slightest way. In my own teaching and pastoral care of the young, I must make myself the intense servant of their dignity and freedom, doing and suffering whatever I can in the name of their flourishing. Even if I did this at every moment for the rest of my earthly life it would hardly amount to any reparation, but at least it would be something.

I must ask the Lord for the grace, willingness, and opportunity to do hard penance on behalf of my brother priests. I must be ready to accept with patience the public suspicion and anger we have brought upon ourselves.

I need to do something. Yes, dioceses have put procedures and trainings in place to protect children, and I have no doubt that they will work. I am an administrator of such procedures where I work, and I believe in them. But they don't approach the sicknesses in the priesthood itself.

I have to come to realize that at some level my own vocation has to be a lived as a response to this situation. I'm not sure exactly what this means or what it will look like, but it has become increasingly clear to me that through the ins and outs of my own journey, the Holy Spirit has been preparing me for this. Pray for me for the courage to be faithful to it.

It has been hard to write this post without crying, but that's the least I can do.

March 24, 2010

Rabbi Shlomo ben Plomo

Someone was making fun of me for my idiosyncratic habit of using generic placeholder names in my everyday speech. When I thought about, I realized that I use a lot of them.

Aulus Agerius and Nomen Nescio (The classics)

J. Random Friar, J. Random Nun, J. Random Catholic, J. Random catechumen, catechu-kid, etc. (This is a riff on a hilarious intercession once reported to me, in which the assembly prayed for the catechumen and catechuwomen.) Joe and Jane Daily Communicant, Joe and Jane Frequent Penitent, etc. (J. Random is a convention in computer slang.)

Shlomo ben Plomo and Plomo ben Shlomo, generic rabbinical authorities.

What's At Stake: Reverence

(This is the second in a series of posts that will be an attempt to articulate how the experience of parish ministry has changed me as a theological reflector. Here is the introductory post.)

I really like the church two parishes to the south. It's dark and quiet during the day, and it reminds me a little bit of the parish church in the neighborhood where I grew up. As Thomas Merton put it, "Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence." (New Seeds of Contemplation, 83) One day I was sitting in this church in the late morning of a day off. I had offered my Midday Prayer and was just contemplating the Lord's sanctuary in peace. There were a couple of others there, and though I was only dimly aware of their presence, I prayed for them too.

Suddenly a phone rang behind me. A man's voice answered and a speakerphone conversation began. English and Spanish flowed into each other complete with foul language and vulgarities in both. A violent retaliation was being planned for an act of disrespect. Both voices were indignant and frustrated.

Needless to say, I was shocked by both the conversation itself and the sacrilege it represented. As I heard of the violence being planned for the enemy of these men, I was even frightened myself. I left. As I walked down the street to my favorite taco stand, I began to reflect on how it could be possible for someone to not only be so committed to foulness and violence, but to be indifferent to profaning the Lord's sanctuary.

That's when I had a realization. The sins of our culture, such as the tolerance of abortion, the proliferation of human trafficking, the normalization of pornography, abuse, neglect, gang violence, the tacit acceptance of the poverty and hunger of others, as well as the analogous sins and crimes particular to the Church, such as clerical abuse of power and sexual abuse by clergy and religious, and even the general lack of reverence toward the sacraments, sacramentals, and the holy in general, all proceed from a lack of due reverence for persons.

I have thus become convinced that one of our critical and primary troubles as people of our time is a lack of a metaphysical sense of who we are as persons. Though we are all aware that we have hearts and minds that reach beyond space and time in thought and love, I don't think people are aware of themselves as mysteries, spiritual realities worthy of wonder. Without any sense of transcendent personhood, people become subject to commodification, as in pornography, and ultimately even disposable, as in abortion.

Since our transcendent or spiritual personhood is our primary, analogical access to divine Mystery and the Person of deity, without it we start to lose God as well. We may still practice religion in a merely natural or even consumerist way, but we do not have real reverence and 'fear of the Lord' before the Mystery of His Person. In some ways we ministers of the Church have not helped this situation, e.g. if we plan and offer liturgy in such a way as to remove reverence and mystery, we are contributing to the problem. The faith and its celebration in liturgy starts to be about us rather than God. Hymns, postures, and lack of ceremonial reverence all illustrate the shift.

Therefore, I have begun to feel the pressure of theological anthropology. The people of our time seem to need a compelling and intelligible articulation of what it means to find oneself as this mysterious, spiritual subjectivity that we call the human person. As I have mentioned, our spiritual nature is obvious to anyone who has transcended space and time by thought or love. But we seem to have forgotten how to notice that this means that the human person is a mystery worthy of reverence.

March 23, 2010

What's at Stake: Mission

(This is the first in a series of posts that will be an attempt to articulate how the experience of parish ministry has changed me as a theological reflector. Here is the introductory post.)

In the course of one day I met representatives of two very different, but equally sacramentally lost communities.

In the morning I went to visit a local reform school to hear confessions. A handful of teenage boys appeared for the sacrament, and for most it was their first time. Almost all were Hispanic and were confident that they had been baptized as infants, either in the home or in church. They reminded me of those St. Francis Xavier speaks of in his reading in the breviary, 'They only know that they are Christians.' I was impressed by their seemingly innate reverence and love for our Lord and our Lady, but I was amazed at their ignorance of the faith. They were praying people, but they didn't even know that there was a prayer that went with the rosaries they wore as amulets. The cultures of poverty, the absence of durable family structures, and especially the dislocation of immigration had taken the faith away from these young men. I asked each where he was from, and all but one told me about the dormitory at the school. They lacked a sense of being from somewhere apart from the juvenile corrections system. I realized that a visit to their world, a glimpse into their particular geography, was a trip into 'mission territory.'

That same evening I sat in the parish office planning a wedding with a young, delightful couple. They are the great-grandchildren of Irish and Italian immigrants. Their great-grandparents built the beautiful churches we have in this part of the country. Their grandparents and parents were the beneficiaries of the great American system of parishes and schools that catapulted European-American Catholics into the privileged and ruling classes of these United States. Thanks to all of that, and especially to the sisters, these young people sat before me with college educations, good jobs and good teeth. And yet, they seemed to have very little use for the faith that had done so much for their ancestors. They had received all of their sacraments, but had 'graduated' from the practice of the faith after their confirmation and were no longer practicing in any measurable way. Apparently, whatever religious education and sacramental formation they had received as children was no longer durable or relevant to their experience of themselves and the world. They weren't hostile to God or His Church, but were more or less indifferent to both. They did not have a sense of what it all had to with them and their concerns. Just as I had in the morning, I realized again that I was in a mission territory.

My point in relating these experiences is not to rant about them (I do it enough!) or even to blame anyone for this sacramental lostness. My question has to do with my own identity as a Christian and a minister, and the models implicit in the parish ministry as I have experienced it.

On the natural level, my job as a parish priest is one of 'customer service.' People appear and ask for things, i.e. sacraments, spiritual direction. I offer Mass and preach to the people who show up for it. The model of ministry is centripetal. If people want something, they come to the church to try to get it. Ministering in this fashion takes up most of my time, and staff is shrinking. When I came here this parish was served by three full-time priests, a full-time lay friar, and one retired priest who helped with Masses and confessions. Three years later, we are two full-time priests, a half-time lay friar, and another retired priest who helps out.

The ministry sails along on this model, which would seem suited to a kind of 'Christendom' situation in which the faith was fully planted and established. My experience suggests that we don't live in such a world, but in something more like a mission territory. This divergence between the ministerial model and the pastoral situation is precisely the dissonance that presses upon me, and it leaves me with three theological pressures:

The hermeneutic of suspicion angle: What are the conditions of possibility of living, preaching, and ministering in denial about the mission 'territories' all around the parish? What allows me to act like a priest who lives and works in an established Christendom when in fact this is not the case?

The practical. What would have to happen to free up preachers and ministers from the centripetal model of parish ministry, so that they would be able to 'go out' on mission, to seek those who have become lost? In other words, as staff and clergy continue to diminish, what changes in ministerial models will help us not to become burnt out and buried under the work of keeping house and free us up for the missionary needs that are right under our noses? Are we ready to hear about and imitate the God whose Love is so outrageous as to 'leave the ninety-nine?'

Preaching, catechesis, and inculturation. How can the Word be preached and the sacraments offered in a way that is compelling for the human person of today? What are the languages and articulations we need to make to help people see that the concerns of the faith are the concerns of their own hearts as well? This isn't a new question, of course, but what can learn from the errors in this area of which we heirs at this historical moment, move beyond simply condemning them, and be about the rebuilding of a compelling articulation of Christianity?

March 20, 2010

March 19, 2010

Protecting God's Grammarians

It's a beautiful day here in the City of Gracious Living, so I went out for a walk. I stopped into a local church to pray Sext, and I saw something curious on the vestibule bulletin board. On a large piece of paper a contract was presented: I agree to fully participate in the process of preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation.

Undersigned were the confirmandi, presumably. What a neat idea, I thought. This way the children are reminded each Sunday of their public commitment to the fullness of their sacramental initiation, and the rest of the faithful have the chance to know their fervor and pray for them by name.

However, some solicitous soul had tacked this note to the contract:

"Please don't split infinitives, especially in front of children." I laughed out loud.

My mother, who has some professional authority on such questions, says that the preference for integral infinitives in written English comes from the former prejudice for the normativity of Latin in academic and scientific writing. In Latin, of course, it is impossible to split an infinitive even if you want to. Since this normativity no longer obtains (except perhaps in Latin rite Catholicism) one no longer has to strictly apply the rule against splitting infinitives, if you know what I mean. In fact, my mother says that there is an age limit, which I have unfortunately forgotten. Those younger are allowed to willfully split infinitives, while those who are older may not.

My Grace is Sufficient

Preaching on St. Joseph, Bernardine of Siena comes to us in the Office of Readings today:

There is a general rule concerning all special graces granted to any human being. Whenever the divine favor chooses someone to receive a special grace, or to accept a lofty vocation, God adorns the person chosen with all the gifts of the Spirit (omnia charismata donat) needed to fulfill the task at hand.

This is a beautiful and important teaching. Hearing something like it when I was in an early spiritual impasse helped me to shift my understanding and keep going. The teaching implies that the spiritual life is not about effort, but consent. We don't have to reach up and squeeze grace out of some stingy deity. All the graces we need are there; it is only our inability to let go and accept them that holds us back from sanctity.

I often mention this teaching to the couples I am preparing for marriage. They have been given each other as a special and unrepeatable vocation in the world. Unfortunately, it is a vocation without a high success rate. They need to believe that all the graces they need to succeed are there for them, if they only stay close to the God who delights to join them as one.

March 18, 2010

Spiritual Economy Question

Here's a little quodlibetal question that came up at supper tonight:

As I understand it--and this is one of those things they never even told you about in the formation program--those of us who are priests are supposed to each offer a Mass for a friar of our province when he dies. We are supposed to do the same for the deceased parents of friars.

I'm happy to do this, of course, and think it a lovely custom. It's a difficult thing to manage in practice, however, when you work in a parish for which all of the Masses are scheduled six months in advance with exclusive intentions. Therefore, in order to find a day to persolve one of these personal Mass obligations, I have to wait for a day when I have no obligation to offer Mass publicly. There are not enough of these days to meet the backlog of intentions I have built up over the course of just a couple years of priesthood. Complicating the matter in my particular case is my role as friar funeral MC, which precludes my concelebrating at the funeral Masses themselves. Not that I begrudge this ministry. Though it gives me a lot of anxiety; I can accept the ways in which I am suited to it.

So the question arises: If someone sends me, specifically and personally, a Mass card from another church announcing that Mass will be offered for my deceased confrere, can I count that as my Mass offered? I doubt it, but it's an interesting question.

et orent pro defunctis (Rule III:4)

March 17, 2010

My Trip to the Pet Cemetery

Today I did a committal service of (human) remains at the local pet cemetery. Hartsdale Canine Cemetery is one of the oldest of such places, and it's not far from us. Apparently--who knew?--if you have previously interred your pet there, you can have yourself buried there as well, provided you get cremated (at another facility, that is, they don't do people.) One of the gravediggers told me that they have over seven hundred people buried there in just this fashion.

'You can't make this stuff up,' as the saying goes. You sure do 'see it all' in the ministry. As one of my classmates once accused me, riffing on Jerry Seinfeld's critique of his dentist's conversion to Judaism, "I think you joined religious life just for the bizarre stories!"

I was there a few minutes early and so had time to browse around the departed Fluffys and Muffins of this world. Here are a few that caught my eye.

One of many called "my little pumpkin."

I don't know if "Pet" was her name, or if she just lived namelessly for fifteen years. Cats don't know their names anyway.

And maybe you thought he was buried in Egypt! No way!

I also saw a cute mausoleum with various little urns displayed behind a grate, along with a lovely statue of St. Francis. The light wasn't right, though, and I couldn't get a picture.

Discuss what all this means.

P is for Patrick, Prettiness, and Other Things

We are fortunate here in the church where I work that our old side altars were never removed or destroyed. They are dedicated to Mary, Joseph, Francis, Anthony, and Patrick. My current pastor usually dresses up the altars for the respective feast days of their saints, which is something I appreciate. So today when I went to church for Morning Prayer and Mass, I saw that St. Patrick's altar had been covered with candles, flowers, and a beautiful cloth. Having some extra time, I took a few minutes to pray there. I tried to pray in gratitude for the Irish and Irish-American Catholics who have been a good influence and a help to me over the years. My heart alighted on one in particular, Fr. Garvey, a friar who was one of our philosophy teachers during the semester when I was alleged to be studying at NUI Galway. A classmate and I liked his lectures so much that we became his disciples and were always trying to get him to go drinking with us or to come over for dinner.

Fr. Garvey was a masterful practitioner of the ancient Franciscan tradition of teaching with earthy illustrations. I remember one spring day when he was teaching us about objects and their qualities:

A quality which is good when predicated of one sort of object is not necessarily good when predicated of another sort of object. Example: "A pretty girl is nice, but a pretty boy is problematic."

When one object derives from another, the emerging object tends to bear the qualities of the source. Example: "Healthy pee, healthy organism."

Here he is, on the evening we finally got him to accept our dinner invitation. That's me on the right.

March 16, 2010

Overheard in the Friary: Maternal Advice

Leave it to one of us to crack everybody up during an (apparent) medical emergency.

Thirty-something EMT: "Father, did you have a bowel movement today?"

Ninety-something friar: "My mother always taught us, 'Keep your bowels open and your mouth shut.'"

I'm not even sure what it means, but it was funny. Father is fine, thanks be to God.

March 15, 2010

Rayos de Oscuridad

So described John of the Cross his experience of God in prayer, as "rays of darkness." It's an image that has always spoken to me, and one that I think of in these days without electricity. Until power is restored to the whole of the friary, posting will be slow. In your charity, let's offer a prayer of thanksgiving for the patience of the senior friars, for whom the loss of the elevator and heat is difficult.

March 14, 2010

EF/OF Mixing and Matching

Someone wrote to me on the question of whether or not a cleric is free to bless water according to the older form of the Roman Ritual. I wrote this verbose response:


That's a very good question. From what I observe going on these days, I would say yes, but in my own reflection I have to say that I'm not sure.

The appropriate text is SP article 9, which gives pastors permissions to use the older ritual for baptism, marriage, penance, and anointing, gives ordinaries the same permission for confirmation, and gives the ordained general permission to use the older form of the breviary. All of this suggests, and this is how folks seem to be taking it, that the so-called "EF" is not just about the form of Mass, but about the whole of the liturgy. In what sense, and for whom, this 'whole' is to be taken is the question.

On my reading, SP has two purposes. First, it serves to regularize communities (both assemblies of the lay faithful and clerical institutes) attached to the older form of the liturgy. Second, by giving every priest of the Roman rite faculties to offer the older form of Mass if he wants to (and recent follow up teaching from Ecclesia Dei has confirmed that this is all he requires), Benedict hopes for the "mutual enrichment" he calls for in the cover letter. So it would seem to me that within a clerical institute or among a group of lay faithful that habitually prays according to the 1962 MR, baptized their children according to the old ritual, etc., of course they would also bless water in this way. To me, however, the question arises not in this case, but in cases closer to our own: those of us who live and work without apology in the Novus Ordo world. To what degree can we 'mix and match', taking one thing from one ritual and another from the other according to our own tastes or the wishes of the faithful we serve.

According to SP, it's clear that we can 'mix and match' with Mass. We can offer Mass according to the 2002 MR--may our English translation come speedily!--today, and then offer Mass according to the 1962 MR tomorrow. Even more, I think we are all called to learn it at least a little bit, because the Holy Father has given the faithful the right to demand it, at least for their weddings and funerals if not habitually. Talk about lay empowerment!

But what about 'mix and match' with the liturgy apart from Mass, according to the desires of the faithful or according to my own? Because the ritual is so much richer, can I bless holy water in the morning according to the older ritual, but then use the Book of Blessings to bless a new car in the afternoon, because I don't want the person to laugh when I start talking about eunuchs and chariots? If a traddy adopts me as his confessor, can I use the older form of penance with him without bringing it up with my pastor? Though I habitually use the newer Liturgia Horarum or one of its local translations for praying the Divine Office, can I substitute an hour from the older Roman Breviary just because I like it or because it fits better in my book bag? Again, from how I see folks behaving as we enter into this new world of two forms of one rite, I would say yes to all of these. But on the other hand, because it seems to me that the questions of the inter-relationship of these things has not been worked out yet, I'm not sure.

The most striking thing to me about the whole business is how postmodern it is, this suggestion that there can be manifold forms/expressions of a single rite. This, among other things, is why I think it a shallow critique of Benedict to say that he is trying to go backwards.

I also think that part of the problem has to do with publishing. When someone says, "Roman Ritual," folks usually think of the older form, simply because there is no longer any such single object. The ritual is now published in many parts, some of which don't even get translated or locally published, (e.g. rite of major exorcism, the martyrology, etc.) Even some priests are unaware that there is even such a thing as the "Roman Ritual" in modern form, because they have never read the title pages of their ritual books, if they have read them at all.

In the end, it would seem that we enjoy at least the benefit of the doubt, so if you want to bless water with the older ritual, rock on.

I know this is a very long answer to a 'yes or no' question, but it's a quiet Sunday afternoon, it's crappy out, I'm home alone with half of the power out in the house, and you know how I live for this stuff.



March 13, 2010

The Arboreal Observance

At one of the senior citizen residences where I go to offer Mass, they never take down their Christmas Tree from the common room. Instead, the tree is transmuted according to the season. The Christmas Tree becomes the Valentine's Day Tree, etc. There's been a 4th of July Tree, a Thanksgiving Tree, and probably others that I have missed. Most say it's all in good fun, while a minority complain that it takes away from the unique custom of the Christmas Tree once a year.

When I went today they were displaying their St. Patrick's Day Tree.

The Brothers and the Father

Looking at it again, I think my homily for this weekend three years ago is one of my better efforts, and I didn't think I could improve on it. Follow this link for my homily on the parable of the prodigal son.

March 12, 2010

What's At Stake

I've been incubating this post for a couple of weeks, and now I realize that it will have to be a series of posts. It has to do with a shift I've been going through in my internal sense of the trajectory of my own vocation within the Order.

Since the time of my perpetual profession four years ago, I have had a certain sense of how the brothers saw my assignments unfolding. I was to finish my licentiate degree, be ordained priest, spend three years working in a parish, and then return to studies to attempt a doctorate. As I begin to come close to completing those three years in the parish, I have come to notice some of my own internal assumptions about this plan and how they now demand revision. I guess I had thought that I would learn the presbyteral trade, file it away among my credentials, and then return to the library to pick up my reading where I had left off. But now I have had to admit to myself, with some difficulty and resistance, that I can't just go back to school as if nothing has happened. My experience here in the parish will have a significant impact on what I want to read and the questions I will want to write on. In other words, I didn't foresee that working as parish priest would have an effect on my life of theological reflection, but it has, and in a big way. Experience has come into the equation for me in a way I have not known before. "Knowledge without mileage equals BS," as Henry Rollins says.

It reminds me of something one of our teachers used to say. In taking up a theological question, she would challenge us to think about 'what's at stake.' What were the 'real world' implications of our reflection, and for whom? I admit that at the time I was resistant to this and sometimes found it annoying. The conceits of my Ivy League upbringing and my native love of purity of concept made it hard for me to want to think this way. (If I had not allowed myself to be distracted from mathematics towards the end of freshman year of college, perhaps none of this would have happened!) I also think that I didn't understand exactly how much is at stake for the Church and the world, and even for belief, or life itself. After three years here in the parish I'm ready to reflect through 'what's at stake.' Even more, I know that I have to if I want to ever achieve even a token level of responsibility as a steward of the mysteries of God.

This is all a little disconcerting, because it means that I have even less of a good idea of how I might approach the opportunity of going back to school. On the other hand, it's not bad because it's the giddy kind of liminality that makes you feel curiously alive because you know it's from God.

So, my thought is to try to write a series of posts on what seems to me to be at stake in my theological reflection. These are subject to change, of course, but right now I think that the topics will "Populations," "Reverence/Life," "Belief/Practice," "Catholicity/Orthodoxy," and something about the meaning and implications of sexual abuse within the Church.

The posts will begin with experiences of my ministry. These are particular to my location and moment in the Church's pilgrimage through history and geography.

March 11, 2010

Rega! What's a Hypertrophy?

If and when I get to heaven, Jeremiah is on the short list of people to whom I look forward to meeting. Here he is from the end of the first reading from Mass today:

This is the nation that does not listen
to the voice of the LORD, its God,
or take correction.
Faithfulness has disappeared;
the word itself is banished from their speech. (7:28)

Jeremiah would never make it in religious life. I can just hear the formation director pleading with him: "Brother Jeremiah, you have to learn that you can't impose your idea of righteousness on others."

In the first scripture course I ever took, when I was nineteen years old and didn't know applesauce from sin, professor Hanker gave us an examination on Jeremiah. The essay question asked, "Do you think that Jeremiah suffered from a hypertrophy of sympathy for God? Why or why not?" Since none of us knew what "hypertrophy" meant, it was a hard question to answer. I wish I knew what ever happened to Eddie Hanker. He was an important influence on me in learning how to relate to the Word with reverence. Whenever anyone was saying anything without critical foundation he would start yelling, "rega, rega!," which I think means something like 'hold on' or 'wait a minute' in Hebrew.

March 10, 2010

I Know Great Book You Must Read

The title comes from Enrique, a young Spaniard. During the semester of college in which I was alleged to be studying philosophy in Ireland, a bunch of my friends at home made a tape of their greetings and sent it to me. It was all very funny, but most amusing was how this Enrique, whom I hardly knew, would occasionally burst in with reading recommendations delivered in a thick Spanish accent. He would say, "I know great book you must read; is called...Hoog [sic] of St. Victor, On the Sacraments of the Catholic Faith" or "I know great book you must read; is called...Icelandic Sagas!" Seventeen years later I'm happy to say that I've almost read the first (in Deferrari's translation), but have not yet approached the second.

One of my ascetic principles is that I don't tell anybody what to read unless specifically asked. This is one of my particular applications of 'do unto others as I would have them do to me.' For whatever reason, I don't like being told what I need to read. I might even want to read something, but I can't. Sometimes I'm just not able to get through a book at a certain moment in my life; I tried to read The Ascent of Mount Carmel many times without success. Then, all of a sudden, on a certain retreat, I read it all the way through. Providence was saving it for the moment when I would have the right combination of desire and experience. If you really want me to read something, it would be better to tell me not to read it, so that I might do it out of curiosity and contrariness. This is how I came to read Kazantzakis's life of St. Francis when I was a novice; an older friar had told me that reading it had messed up his spiritual life when he was in novitiate. Something for the inner dualist, I guess.

Right now the thing I'm supposed to read is The Shack. If I had a nickel for every parishioner who has told me about my absolute need to read this book, I could go get tacos al pastor and a Dr. Pepper for lunch every day of the Easter season. I even tried to read it, but was unable. I got about two-fifths of the way through and was unable to proceed. Now someone has even given me a commentary on the book, but I don't want to be the guy who reads a commentary without reading the thing itself.

I love you and I thank you for your solicitude about my spiritual reading. I am sure that it is your prayers that hold me together through the day. But I can't always read the things you think I should. So world, let's come to an agreement. I won't give you unsolicited reading advice and you won't give it to me. Enrique is excepted.

For anyone who is curious to make up my negligence in the larger spiritual economy, check out the Icelandic Sagas Database.

March 9, 2010

Santo Subito

Does this count as a miracle for beatification?


In becoming an uncle, I realize that I have entered into a new moment in my religious life and priesthood.

For several weeks now I have telling my Latin gag about how though an uncle I have no obligation to be avuncular. When one woman I know got it and laughed out loud, I wanted to quote one of the great anti-heroes of my youth, Henry Rollins, and say, 'I will follow you on bloody stumps through the snow,' but that, of course, would have been inappropriate. The sentiments were there, though, in a chaste way.

When I first came into the culture of religious life, I was surprised by several aspects of how religious related to their families of origin. First, I was relieved to discover that it was entirely normal to have family members who were hostile to the religious vocation; in fact, it was often the ones from Catholic families who were given the most trouble! Second, I was surprised to see sets of siblings in religious life. I guess I had thought that a religious vocation was such an odd thing that there would never be more than one from a single family. My intuition about this was entirely wrong. I have met several sets of brothers in the Order and have known many who had sisters in religious life. Just the other day I met a young diocesan seminarian with a twin brother who is a cloistered Carmelite.

But most of all, I noticed the way religious and priests talked about their nieces and nephews. It was sort of like how other people talked about their grandchildren, rejoicing in the milestones of their lives and providing a curious, extra-parental connection to the preceding generation. When I ever had a spare moment to have a thought during the three days of obsequies for Fr. Bernard last week, I would reflect also upon his unclehood. His nephews formed a kind of inner circle of family as it related to him, and their griefs and gratitudes were so strong. One of my prayers for his passing has been to ask his prayers to obtain the grace of good friar-uncleness for me.

March 8, 2010

I Hope There Are More Selling Points

Today I was talking to a priest who half-jokingly (I think) invited me to think about going over to the diocesan priesthood.

"Think about it. You could wear pants."

Does That Count As Absolution?

I'm endlessly amused by some of the funny things people say as liturgical responses. Here's my most recent example:

Priest: The Lord has forgiven you. Go in peace.

Penitent: Same to you.

The Distracted Negativity

The Catholic faith and its institutions are in trouble, at least at the particular historical time and place where I minister. This is no secret, after all; the institutional crises have already begun and hardly need rehearsing.

This situation introduces the temptation to distracted negativity. As I sit down to pray in the morning, my distraction offers me thoughts of anxiety over sponsor forms and loss of control over funeral liturgies, sacrileges against the sacred species and the cultures of irreverence. I have to let go of such things, both in prayer and in the course of my daily work. I am so grateful for a meditative prayer practice in this regard, as a school of letting go and dis-identifying myself with my patterns and trains of thought.

Sometimes I even find myself writing posts to this blog that come out of the distracted negativity. I think I am ranting, but I'm really whining. Thanks be to God I've learned not to publish immediately.

The temptation must be fought in favor of two goals, one personal and the other ministerial. On the personal level, it is my dream to live an intense life of Catholic Christianity; that's why I joined religious life after all. If I let the anxieties and disappointments of ministering in a rough historical moment drive my personal prayer life in a negative way, then I will only emerge from my own prayer frustrated in what I want out of my own life.

On the ministerial level, I can't let the anxious negativity get to me. If I am to be a steward of the mysteries of God, I must not be in a state of distracted disappointment and frustration when I meet the average Catholic on the phone or in the office. The average Catholic is not met at Mass, and this in itself is the trouble. Nevertheless, even though the average Catholic has ceased to practice in the faith in a measurable way, and insists that he is your parishioner even though he moved far away many years ago, he still wants to be certified as a godparent, still wants to have his baby baptized, and still wants a proper funeral Mass for his mother, even though he might not be willing to give her (cremated) remains a proper burial, as the faith demands.

My encounter with this person--which is a daily work--demands from me an extreme delicacy, and in order to accomplish anything close to it I must be free of internal distractions, angers, and resentments, or at least be aware of the temptations they cause. I must be pastorally sensitive, but not 'pastoral' in the negative sense of dispensing with Church teaching. I must look after souls and not my own desire to be needed or thought to be a good priest. I must seek strategies that help set souls on fire with the love of God and the desire for prayer. This might be the only few minutes of contact that the person has had with a priest in years, and this makes my responsibility grave.

I was more or less unprepared for the internal intensity of the life of priestly ministry. The joys are almost overwhelming sometimes, but so are the frustrations. It makes me realize how quiet a life I have lived up to now. The gravity and delicacy of my pastoral encounters make me realize more and more how jealous I have to be for my own prayer and spiritual condition. I must make these an absolute priority, even if and when it might make me seem aloof or fanatical, because this is the only way I have any hope of not sinning against the people of God with my distracted negativity.

March 6, 2010

Lenten Rerun

All of the griefs and gratitudes, coordination and hospitality surrounding the three days of funeral liturgy for Fr. Bernard interrupted my ordinary rhythm of Sunday homily preparation. I'll have something simple to say by tonight, but I don't have a written and edited homily to post this week. I checked out what I had written three years ago for the third Sunday of Lent, cycle C, and I still like it, though the references to current events are now dated. Follow this link for my homily, "Burning Bush and Fruitful Tree."

March 4, 2010

Becoming a Preacher

As of this past fall, I am in my fourth year as a preacher at Sunday Mass. (I was ordained deacon on the feast of Our Lady of Rosary in 2006.) This means that I have begun my second journey through the Sunday lectionary cycles, and results in an interesting experiment: when I have prepared to preach for a weekend, I can look back and compare what I have with what I did with the same readings three years before. How am I different as I pray through the Scriptures and try to preach their good news? How have I changed in three years of Sundays? As the experiment of comparison continues week by week, I have to say that I am encouraged by what I see, and I give thanks to God who is helping me to learn how to preach.

Here's what I have noticed as I compare the homilies I prepare now to those of three years ago:
  • I have become shorter and simpler. Nowadays I aim for around two written pages. When I started I was writing about three and a half. Instead of a couple of points and a point and a sub-point, I'm now tending toward a single point. I know that the 'three points' is a classic homiletic style where I work, but I think I do better with a single point developed well. In preaching, the hard part isn't coming up with something good to say, but letting go of good things in the name of the better thing. Here I think of one of my favorite sayings, which is the definition of engineering elegance of Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry: "A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
  • I notice that I'm getting closer to the Scriptures themselves. In the effort to put the related readings together I'm less concerned with 'showing my work' and more likely to develop connections implicitly in the pursuit of simplicity. One thing I sometimes notice in my first homilies is a tendency to pick up on a single point in the readings and develop it into what is a fine spiritual reflection, but one that is tangential to the liturgy.
  • I have become less theological and more catechetical. For example, there is less exposition of Christological doctrine in my homilies and more of their practical implications for Christian practice, e.g. sacraments, religious obligations, prayer practice, etc. At least in part this comes from my own change of circumstances; when I started preaching I was a full-time theology student, but now I'm employed as a parish priest. On the other hand, I see in this shift a filling out of my studies in that I am more conscious of the larger picture of how doctrine, practice, and prayer synthesize in Christian life.

When I first decided that I was going to compose my Sunday homilies and keep them, I did it for two reasons. First, writing is a good way for me to reflect, and it keeps me more disciplined than if I don't write things out. Second, I wanted to post homilies up as a blog. But now I recognize another purpose to the formal composition of homilies; it allows someone to go back and see how he has come along as a preacher, a praying person, and a Christian. In my case, this reflection has given glory to God and encouragement to me.

March 3, 2010

Drink The Cup, If You're So Special

Today at Mass (Mt 20: 17-28) we hear about one of my favorite supporting characters in the gospels, the unnamed mother of the sons of Zebedee. I appreciate her anonymity, because she is a character one meets over and over in the ministry. Even my favorite Wikipedia article of all time--"List of names for the Biblical Nameless" doesn't provide a name for her. I suppose that down through the ages parents have been calling up schools and churches to push for the advancement of the children. Their kid is the smartest, so she needs to be in the highest academic bracket. Their kid is the best singer or the best looking, so he needs to be given the lead in the play. I'm sure anyone who is reading this has an example. Since it often works, who can blame them for the bad taste of their intrigue? After all, people who become teachers and clergy are helpers at heart and want to be nice to everyone, and they often give in. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as is said. Everybody hates whining, but we don't hate it enough to not want to get rid of it the easy way and give in.

I love how Jesus turns it around, and uses this very human moment to show how everything is different in the Kingdom of God. For His Kingdom is ruled from the throne of the Cross, and to be ambitious within it is to want to place oneself below others as their servant and slave. This is why the Cross is the salvation of the world; It undermines and subverts all of the quiet and respectable violences by which we try to 'get ahead' of each other in the selfish mess of our lives. The Cross is the escape from the cycles of violence by which we build fleeting securities and comforts for ourselves at the expense of the flourishing of others. This goes for the smallest malicious gossip all the way up to the wars and genocides of profane history.

On the Cross, Jesus gives us an example but also blazes a trail. It is a path out of the futility of violence and abuse of power. All sin is an abuse of power, after all, a misuse and deordination of what we as creatures could be for each other. When we apply the Cross to ourselves as our relationships, we learn the salvation of forgetting about getting ahead of others, and seek to put ourselves below them. This is the salvation Jesus holds out to a tired world.

March 1, 2010

RIP: Fr. Bernard Smith, OFM Cap.

Today we received news of the sudden passing of Fr. Bernard from the pilgrimage of this life. He was Provincial Minister when I entered the Order, and was something of a father figure for many of us younger friars. I will never forget the spring morning that I rushed home from Mass to wait for his phone call with the news of the results of my application. He always looked after and encouraged us along the way. The birthday email he wrote to me two days ago is still sitting here in the gmail inbox! I shall have to answer it in a different way now.

Under his always entertaining bravado and endlessly recounted travelogues, Fr. Bernard was a man of big and gentle heart, whom one could trust and love right away. May he rest in peace, and may his good example live in our hearts.

In your charity, please offer a prayer for his rest, and for all who will mourn his loss and miss his pastoral solicitude.

UPDATE: Fr. Bernard will be waked on Thursday. The funeral Mass will be on Friday. Please click this link for the obituary and specific arrangements.

Requiescat in pace.