May 31, 2010

Three Years of Parish Ministry: Stats

As of today I have completed three years in my assignment here in the parish. The triennium is a standard unit of obedience for us, and indeed, I am beginning my transition into my next big thing.

Here are my 'stats' after three years in the parish:

Baptisms: 50

Marriages witnessed: 25

Funerals: 68

I don't know what it means, if anything, but it's interesting to note to the congruence between the baptisms and the weddings (since weddings count for two persons.)

Unfortunately, the Church Militant has decreased by 18 under my watch, or about 26%. (baptisms less funerals)

May 30, 2010

The Idea of Being On Time

In the ministry we are taught that we need to be aware of our own assumptions about things. One of my own that I have to revise is my concept of being 'on time.'

For whatever reason or combination of factors, I came into this world with the following idea of what it meant to be on time:

If an event is to occur at time t, then you arrive at the location of the event at time t - n, where n is the time it takes to be ready for the event to begin. For example, if I had a class at 10 am, I would try to arrive by 9:55 at the latest, so as to have time to take out my textbook, find my pencil, etc. Thus, I would be all set to have the class begin at 10. If I arrived for the 10 am class at 10 am, I would not consider myself to be on time, because I would have not prepared myself and my things for paying attention and participation.

I have come to realize that this is a minority opinion; for most people, it seems that being on time means showing up at time t. This means, of course, that the event in question can't actually start until t + n. To me this seems like starting late, but this feeling is not shared by everybody.

And there are other concepts besides. One Sunday I had a baptism service at 2 pm. It was the last service of the day. I prayed with the folks, preached briefly, and baptized their child. It took about twenty minutes. Then I cleaned up, filed the paperwork in the parish office, changed my clothes, and decided to go out for a walk. I went out through the church because I had not yet said Daytime Prayer. When I walked out of the church it was about ten minutes to three. Some folks were coming in. Perplexed to see nothing going on, they asked me about a baptism service that was supposed to have happened at two. "The service takes an hour, so we are still on time," they said. To them the concept of being on time meant showing up anytime before the end of the event!

I say all this not to rehearse stereotypes or indulge in idle reflection, but to say that I now understand why priests arrive late for things. I used to find this to be one of the most irritating characteristics of the clergy, but now I understand. After three years in the parish ministry (as of tomorrow), I wouldn't even think of showing up for a wedding rehearsal until at least a few minutes past the scheduled time. The same goes, with a little less force, for wakes and meetings and appointments in general. You're going to have wait for people anyway, so why give them permission to waste your time?

Good boundaries in ministry, as in life, often consist in noticing and avoiding the subtle ways we needlessly give other people control over our feelings, time, and opportunity.

So I try not to judge people on things that I might later understand or even do myself.

May 29, 2010

The Most Holy Trinity

This weekend's homily contains an interpolation of the previously published rant on the same topic. Follow this link to check it out.

May 28, 2010

Theses on Blame and Merit in Community

(This is a collection in development.)

If a brother piously declines to have something assigned to him for personal use (e.g. a car, computer, cell phone, etc.) under the title of holy poverty and simplicity of life, but then needs to borrow the same thing from another brother when he needs it, it is actually the latter brother who is practicing the higher degree of charity and evangelical poverty.

If a brother carelessly picks up and walks away with your breviary, and you cannot then pray the next canonical hour properly on account of it, it is the first brother who incurs the guilt of the sin.

If someone is being passive-aggressive toward you, it might be because you have failed to make him feel safe enough to do or say something openly.

Emptying the dishwasher is always a righteous act, even when grumbled about. Leaving near-empty containers in the refrigerator or the cupboard is always condemnable, even when done with bemusement.

Names are written on leftovers not to claim them, but to warn potential snackers about who has already touched them.

People given their voice and freedom will not always want what you think they should.

If you never let another brother help you or do anything for you, you deny him his opportunity for holiness through charity.

Using Eucharistic Prayer I

An old entry on my own practice as a suggestion for priests' minimum use of Eucharistic Prayer I has turned out to be a popular post for search traffic. At that time I described my practice in this way:

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

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

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

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

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

Well, lately I have made an adjustment. I have included nuptial Masses among those for which I use Eucharistic Prayer I, because of the proper Hanc Igitur. It's not found on the bottom of the page like the others, though, so you have to do a little sacramentary hacking:

I'm very proud of my rubric-red paperclip. I'm such a geek.

Check out the original post here.

Prayer and Sex

I have a prayerful friend with whom I sometimes talk about prayer and spiritual things. Recently she mentioned something that really fascinated me. She said that it was hard for her to understand what a man's prayer life could be like. For her, the experience of prayer and her relationship with God was so nuptial, so grounded in her femaleness and the maleness of Jesus Christ, that it was hard for her to imagine the prayer life of a male Christian.

Certainly there is something deeply feminine about all of Christian spirituality. The Church is the bride of Christ, after all, the abiding sign and fruit of the marriage of humanity and God, of earth and heaven, accomplished in the Incarnation of the Word. Authentic Christian spirituality is always ordered to mission, and in this sense Christian spirituality is always Marian in nature: we are called to consent to the Holy Spirit's conception of the Word of God within us, which we then nurture and bear to the world. Nevertheless, we can't push the femininity of Christian spirituality and discipleship in absolute terms; the Church is also the Body of Christ, acting in persona Christi, served by priests who minister in persona Christi capitis. So perhaps it's a classic 'both/and.'

Grace builds on nature. Since our sexuality is a constitutive part of our nature, we can expect our graced and prayerful selves to be expressions of who we are as sexual beings. What is our sexuality, in spiritual terms? It is the part of the person that drives thought, affection, and body out of the self in the quest for creative and supportive bond with another. It is the drive, at the heart of our being, to live in a bond of mutual generativity. In this sense our sexuality is the means by which we come to the clearest expression of how we are as creatures made in the image and likeness of the infinitely mutual and generative Trinity.

This is the sense in which deep prayer becomes a sexual relationship with God. Not that it's a genital relationship, and not necessarily an erotic one, but a sexual relationship nonetheless because it derives from the sexuality of the person who seeks a supportive, creative, mutually generative bond with God.

May 27, 2010

Trinity Rant

Morning services and parish chores done, I sit down at my desk, make some coffee, put on the WMBR from MIT radio stream, and get ready to draft out a homily for Trinity Sunday.

Trinity Sunday is absolutely one of my favorite days to be a priest. Why? Because I don't have to listen to any Trinity Sunday homilies! In the fifteen Trinity Sundays from my baptism to my ordination, I don't think I heard one that was any good, fewer that were intelligible, and still fewer that had any portable spiritual teaching.

It usually goes like this: 'O.k., it's Trinity Sunday. God is a Trinity. He's three, he's one, you can't really understand it, but that's how it is. Please stand for the Creed.' Maybe if you're lucky you at least get the amusement of some limping analogies, or the excitement of a little heresy, usually modalism or Arianism.

And I always wanted to stand up and say NO! Let us not pass over the central mystery of the Christian faith with mystifying arithmetic or the boredom of obfuscating analogies!

Here's the thing: We can have an understanding of the Blessed Trinity. Not a comprehension, mind you, but some understanding. This is so for two reasons. First, that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and second, God reveals himself as Trinity in the Scriptures. It's not God that is totally incomprehensible, but that these two things, Scripture and the nature of human personhood, are often missing from our preaching!

Having been created in the image and likeness of God is the distinctive character of the human being. If we have been made in the image and likeness of God, that means that we are in the image of the Blessed Trinity. This means that our own experience of ourselves when we are at our best--when we are in love, acting with love, and especially in our capacity as creators of art, children, new ideas, etc.--we will learn something of the divine passion of the trinitarian God.

To help us understand ourselves as beings in the image and likeness of the Blessed Trinity, God reveals himself as such all through the Scriptures. From the God who creates through the utterance of his Word at the beginning of Genesis, to Lady Wisdom at play with the Creator from the beginning of time in Proverbs, to Jesus the Word made flesh, revealer of the Father, and tradition-er of the Spirit from the Cross in John, to the Lamb from whom the river of life flows in Revelation, the whole of the Sacred Scripture is one sustained revelation of the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit.

Accept nothing less in the preaching and catechesis you receive!

May 26, 2010

Good and Bad Hymns

Today I was thinking of my all-time favorite book on the Christian ministry, Charles Merrill Smith's How to Become a Bishop Without Being Religious. If you ever see a copy, I suggest you pick it up. Or, thanks to some very devout soul to which I am exceedingly grateful, you can read the whole thing online.

Smith helps us to understand the true nature of liturgy, and thus, a fortiori, liturgical music:

The weakness of your seminary training in the art of worship is that it was built on the assumption that public worship is the public worship of God. No one, least of all the author, would deny that this is a very nice assumption and perhaps the way things ought to be. In point of fact, this is not the way things are; and if you are so foolish as to operate in the parish on this assumption, not only will you never be a bishop, you will never get out of the sticks.

What your good Christian people want to worship is not God but themselves; although they do not know this and only a pastor who expects to depart shortly for other fields of endeavor will have the temerity to explain it to them. However, you need to know it, for this is the correct assumption on which all successful public worship is built.

Moving on to liturgical music:

And what is the basis or principle by which this division [knowing good hymns from bad] is accomplished? Remember what we are seeking in those songs with high nostalgia-evoking potential. The simplest method of ferreting out these hymns is to classify the contents of the book as to whether a hymn is “objective” or “subjective.” Then discard all hymns marked “objective” and use only those on the subjective list. And the rule for testing a hymn is this: If it emphasizes the attributes of God — His majesty, power, mercy, goodness, love, etc. — or recounts in some manner the story of Jesus, it is an objective hymn and thus, with possible rare exceptions, unsuitable for a public worship service. If on the other hand, the hymn is preoccupied with the feelings, reactions, desires, hopes and longings of the individual worshiper, it is subjective and guaranteed to have a religious kick in it

Surely this is applicable, mutatis mutandis, to some of our current discernments and discussions about how to properly music the Roman liturgy.

Painting the Barn

Sometimes the concepts of 'discernment' and 'processing' can be a smokescreen or a mystification of what's really going on within us. It's a spiritual pitfall I've noticed in myself and others over the years. It can very tempting to engage in an apparently diligent discernment in such a way as to "discern" red herrings, all the while living in denial about what our hearts and our prayer are really telling us.

I once lived with a funny friar who gave this response to anyone who asked him for help in making a decision:

"Brother, do what you want. You know why? Because you will anyway."

It sounds cynical, but my confrere didn't mean it that way. He was only trying to help us cut through a lot of spiritualizing and take an honest look at what our hearts were trying to say. When we use spiritual language to remain in denial, we risk making decisions that are not discerned at all.

The other day I heard a funny and pertinent example of just this sort of thing. A young priest was having a vocation crisis. He had met a woman. They had formed a friendship and he was tempted to run away with her. He asked a brother priest for help with his "discernment," explaining that he was going to take some retreat time during the summer to pray over the situation.

"Where are you going for retreat?" asked the friend.

"I'm going to her farm; I promised to paint the barn," responded our hapless discerner.

"Brother, once you agree to paint the barn, the discernment is over."

May 25, 2010

Belief and Trust

In preparing to move, I always come across old journals. I don't sit down and read them, but I usually take a glance, just to note what were my spiritual concerns at a particular time. It's often quite interesting. Last night I read a couple of entries from about two years after my baptism. I was very worked up about belief. Did I really believe what the faith proposes? Or was it just that I had become infatuated with the ideas or--even worse--the idea of believing in them?

Somehow, without noticing it, I seem to have moved beyond this problem. Is it because my faith is stronger now? Am I more convicted of the faith than I was? I don't know.

I think that in my earlier years in the faith, the concepts of its truths and my evaluation of my belief in them were all too enmeshed. It was as if my believing it made it true or not. I see this in people sometimes; because they don't know how to believe in God, they decide that there is no God. A non sequitur, for sure. As if my believing in something has any bearing on whether it is the case or not.

Trust is part of it, too. When I was younger I could only see how it was up to me alone to make the intellectual assent, to believe. Now I realize that there is a trust involved that includes other people. I believe in the resurrection, for sure, but it isn't just because I have been able to make a personal intellectual assent, but because I trust the apostolic witness that has given me the first reports of this Event. At the heart of it, I think this is what it means to be a Catholic rather than an Evangelical or a Pentecostal; we live in a community of spiritual interpretation, trusting the witness handed down to us as a key to interpret our own experience.

May 24, 2010

Conversion Story: The Silly Version

As I write about from time to time, the dynamics of telling my conversion story are truly fascinating to me. Emphases and inclusions vary with the occasions of being asked to tell the story, and also with the particularities of the audience.

Recently I was asked to tell the story at a party. Not wanting to get too serious at this particular occasion, the version that came out was kind of silly. All true, of course, but with an emphasis on some of the oddness of the process and making fun of the irregularities of my sacramental initiation. It went something like this:

When I was a freshman in college, I became curious about spiritual things. So I went to the priest who was on campus two afternoons a week and told him that I wanted to become a Catholic. I thought he would be very excited to sign me up right away, but he wasn't. He was cautious. He said,

'Read this big book and come back.' (McBrien's Catholicism)

So I read it and then went back and said I was ready to become a Catholic, and asked when I could be baptized. Nope, not yet.

'Read this book and come back.' (Bokenkotter's A Concise History of the Catholic Church)

So I read it and went back. This treatment went on for about a year, and I read several more books in the process. (In retrospect I realize the clever pastoral wisdom of the priest; he knew I could catechize myself by reading, and this was a perfect strategy for making me take my time.)

Finally I got fed up. I went back to the priest and said that I wasn't going to read anything else, and that I wanted to become a Catholic and please tell me what to do. To my surprise, he gave in right away. Then came the directions:

'You can't be baptized here. You need to go to a parish.'

'What's a parish?', I asked in my ignorance.

Father explained the nature of parishes.

"Where do I find one of these parishes?"

"Go out the Williams St. gate and turn right. Walk about a mile. Look for it on your right. Our Lady of Perpetual Help. It looks like a Pizza Hut."

So I walked down there one evening, and there it was, resembling a Pizza Hut and everything. It was the vigil of Ascension, 1992. I met the pastor after Mass, and explained to him that I had been working with Father, and that he had referred me for baptism. The pastor introduced me to the permanent deacon, who explained that he had two others in need of "convert instructions" because they were preparing for marriage to a Catholic. The five us would meet at his house over the summer, on Thursday evenings.

Now I know what you're thinking. What about the restored catechumenate? What about RCIA? I don't know. They hadn't heard of it in this parish. You know me; had I known better I would have certainly demanded such formality!

The deacon and his wife were extraordinarily gentle. Over the Thursday evenings we all watched these catechetical videos hosted by Fr. Ken Roberts, author of Playboy to Priest. They were pretty cheesy. Then we would talk about the topics. It was mellow and enjoyable.

It got to be the middle of August. Soon it would be time for school, so I asked the deacon if we could go ahead and get the thing done. We arranged that I would be baptized on a Saturday afternoon. It was August 29, the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist. Two of my Thursday night classmates served as my sponsors, God bless them.

When I was all baptized and we were done taking pictures, I asked about when I could receive my first Holy Communion.

'Come to the 9:30 Mass tomorrow, and we'll have Father give you your first Holy Communion.'

As I started to walk back to my basement room in Freeman Hall, the deacon's wife felt bad for me in my solitude and took me to Friendly's for a strawberry Fribble.

The next morning I was at the 9:30 Mass, as I had been instructed. After the regular communion procession, Father announced that here was Charles, that he was a student up-at-the-college, that he had been baptized yesterday, and now he would receive his first Holy Communion. So I went up. Father game me a whole half of the priest host, which seemed so cool and such a big deal at the time. (How times change; as a priest I regularly consume just a quarter of the priest host.) What do you think Father said when he gave me my first Holy Communion? Body of Christ? No. Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.? Not even.

"Best wishes in your new religion."

I'll never forget that. God be good to him, he was such a kind man.

After Mass, I asked the pastor and deacon when I could be confirmed.

'Hmm...I guess you probably don't need any more classes. Just show up when the kids are confirmed in December, and we'll add you to the list.'

So there I was. It was the evening of December 11, 1992. I was at the end of the line, like the big kid who had been held back a couple of grades. My long-suffering Jewish girlfriend was in attendance. Having worn her velvet pants for the occasion, she ran from the asperges in fear, one end of the pew to the other. 'You crazy Christians are trying to ruin my velvet!'

Later on that night I was at a party on campus. Standing around the barrel of beer, some kid asked me why I smelled so funny. I had to tell him about Chrism and balsam until he was sorry he asked.

And that's how I got to be a convert to Catholic Christianity!

May 23, 2010

Per Quattuor Libros Distributum

One of the joys of the liturgy nerd is the changing over of breviaries at the hinges of the liturgical seasons. Today, Pentecost, is one of those days. If you pray the Divine Office with either the typical edition Liturgia Horarum or the American English Liturgy of the Hours, there are five such switches during the year. Curiously, they do not always come on the same day of the week. Sometimes seasons end after Evening Prayer II of a Sunday, such as on the Baptism of the Lord or Pentecost, when in both cases Ordinary Time starts with the Monday following. (Oh, let us mourn for the Pentecost Octave!) Other times the new season begins with Evening Prayer I of a Sunday, as is the case with Advent and the non-seasonal change from one volume of Ordinary Time to the other around the beginning of August. In the case of the beginning of Lent, a switch of volumes is made on Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.

Here's how it breaks down:

IV-I Saturday (Ordinary Time-Advent)
I-III Sunday (Christmas-Ordinary Time)
III-II Tuesday (Ordinary Time-Lent)
II-III Sunday (Easter-Ordinary Time)
III-IV Saturday (Ordinary Time-Ordinary Time)

I consider Sunday to be the "switch day" for seasons beginning on Monday because of the universal permission to anticipate the Office of Readings after Evening Prayer of the previous day.

May 22, 2010


Pentecost marks our invitation into the new creation, the continuing, renovating work of the Creator. Follow this link for my homily for Sunday.

May 21, 2010

Mustard and Grace

As I start to think about moving, one of the things that happens is that I run into things long packed away, like journals of notes to myself. As I rearranged some things in my foot locker this morning, I turned to random page in one volume and found this amusing and biting little reflection:

March 10 [2005]

Spring break. At the soup kitchen this morning. Hot dog and chili day. Everyone was getting mad because:

1. They only got one hot dog
2. There was no mustard

Guests were mad, staff were annoyed with the guests, etc., etc. A mess of a day.

Reflection: Am I not exactly the same way with grace?

Cum Brevitate Sermonis

When I was drafting my Pentecost homily yesterday morning, it came out short. I try to aim for two pages, double-spaced. This seems to keep me around the canonical delivery time of seven minutes or so. I don't use the manuscript when I preach; I write mostly as a way to consider structure and keep a sense of length.

When I tweeted up my surprise at the brevity of my composition, a confrere replied to remind me of chapter nine of the Rule:

Moneo quoque et exhortor eosdem fratres, ut in praedicatione, quam faciunt, sint examinata et casta eorum eloquia (cf. psalm 11:7 and 17:31, Vulgate), ad utilitatem et aedificationem populi, annuntiando eis vitia et virtutes, poenam et gloriam cum brevitate sermonis; quia verbum abbreviatum fecit Dominus super terram. (cf. Romans 9:28, Vulgate) Rule IX: 3-4.

"I warn and exhort the brothers that in the preaching that they do, their words be considered and chaste, for the usefulness and edification of the people, announcing to them vices and virtues, punishment and glory with a brief word; for the Lord made a short word on earth."

So I was comforted by the reminder. After all, nobody ever faulted a priest for preaching short. In fact, to be reliably brief in homilies is one easy way to endear yourself to the people.

This brings up a larger question which is of great interest to me: is there a particularly Franciscan way to preach? Is there a particular style or approach that distinguishes the Sunday preaching of a Franciscan from, say, a Dominican or a Jesuit or a secular priest? It seems to me that this is an especially important question for us male religious in the United States, where historical accident, missionary conditions, and ministerial design have pushed so many of us into the parish ministry. Do we operate and minister in a parish in a way that is particular to our charism? Or are we secular clergy in habits, allowing the life of parish to eclipse the observance of our religious life, as often happens? People will often say that they very much appreciate the Franciscan approach to ministry, and I presume that folks in parishes of other sorts of religious say the same thing about them. But when you try to narrow down and articulate exactly what it is that constitutes this particularly, I have often found both friars and parishioners a little stumped.

I think this question is a matter of health and survival for us, and theologically interesting besides.

May 20, 2010


These days I've been in an email conversation with an old friend who is one of the most sensible and brightest people I know. He's also an atheist, and so we are able to have honest and intriguing talks about God and faith and practice. I wanted to share some of one of my emails:

The question of a/theism intrigues me these days, even more so after working as a parish priest for a few years. Some of my colleagues imagine that we are in a struggle with atheism, but for me I'm not so sure of this. My diagnosis is that many people, both religious and not, seem to have absorbed an image or idea of God which isn't credible, and sometimes isn't even attractive. So of course they become 'practical atheists,' because there is nothing compelling or lovely in the idea of God they think they are supposed to believe in.

To me the standard question of theism, 'Do you believe in God?' doesn't even seem to work anymore. Of course I believe God, in the sense that I believe what he has revealed about himself, but to believe in God seems too suggestive of God as some kind of object or some-thing that is sitting some-where waiting for me to assent to his existence. To me God is too immanent for all that. Indeed I think this is precisely the message of Christianity; that God has abandoned everything it ought to mean to be God on our human terms (i.e. honor, power, coercion, etc.), and has emptied and sacrificed himself into our humanity, in order to blaze for us a path out of the misery we insist upon for ourselves with our selfishness and violence. I guess this is part of why Christianity works for me and why I enjoy preaching it; it is a sustained critique and subversion of an idea of God created in our image, of what human beings tend to do and become when given absolute power over others. I'm still just a punk rock kid you know!

May 19, 2010

Almost Consistent

To help us remember to pray for each other, each friar in our province is given a little calendar booklet or set of cards to put in his breviary. Each friar is listed on a certain day when it is particularly appropriate to pray for him. The dead are listed on their anniversary of death. Those living who have religious names are listed on their 'name day,' the feast day of the saint or--in the case of Old Testament saints--the day on which they are listed in the martyrology. Those still on earth and without religious names are listed on their birthday.

Today is the anniversary of death of a certain Fr. Venantius. When he died in 1966, May 18 was still the feast of St. Venantius. So presuming that this was his religious name and not the name his mother gave him (it seems like a safe assumption), Father died on the day following his name day. He just missed keeping the same day in life and death as his privileged day for having the brothers pray for him.

For me to manage perfect consistency in this regard, I would have to die on my birthday, which seems rather grim. Late February is a popular time to die, however, so you never know.

Boundaries and Feelings

One time I idly accused a spiritual director of saying something just to make me feel better. He reacted somewhat sternly, and I wrote down what he said:

Don't say that; I would never try to manipulate you. That's violent and disrespectful. I just tell you the truth. Whether the truth makes you feel better is your business. I don't take responsibility for your feelings.

That has stuck with me over the years, and I have even used it myself. I've learned how important it is to have such boundaries in ministry. From what I can tell, taking responsibility for our own feelings is very difficult, and we are often eager to absolve ourselves of this responsibility by blaming them on someone else.

It might sound a little paradoxical, but it seems to me that disidentifying with feelings helps us to take this responsibility. To me this is one of the most important fruits of mental or interior prayer. Through prayer, which gets me in touch with the more interior levels of my being, I can enjoy the freedom of knowing and believing that my thoughts and feelings are things that I have, but are not me per se. Yes, my thoughts and feelings are part of me, but they float around on the periphery of my real self, the person whom God created and holds in being. I think much of our spiritual difficulty or confusion derives from an over-identification with our feelings, moods, and negative beliefs about ourselves. If these things are who I really am, of course I will go through my days thrown about, tired, and confused!

Once we have realized that we are not our thoughts and feelings these can be treated in a more objective way. Those that are good and useful--because they correspond to the truth--can be nurtured, and those that are false and destructive can be dismissed.

To refuse to take responsibility for someone's feelings--as my spiritual director did with me--can be 'tough love.' It can be very hard, because many people would rather have you be nice to them than love them. Real charity works to offer the tools the other needs to set himself free. It is not the palliative care of niceness.

May 18, 2010

Hiding with St. Felix

The Prayer After Communion for the feast of St. Felix of Cantalice today caught me especially:

Almighty God,
by the power of this sacrament and the example of St. Felix
help us always to live a hidden life with Christ,
who lives and reigns with you, for ever and ever.

From what I can tell, this prayer seems to be new in the 1974 Roman-Franciscan Sacramentary; I find no version of it in the postcommunion or any other of the prayers for St. Felix in the 1954 or 1962 editions of the Missale Romano-Seraphicum.
The prayer strikes me because it was precisely in the public life that St. Felix came to be known for his sanctity, praying and working in the streets of Rome. He didn't live anything like what we usually think of as the 'hidden' sort of religious life. The prayer reminds us, however, that the life of Christian devotion, like all human intimacies, is always secret. The grace and goodness we see in each other are not our Christianity at its secret core, but the fruits of a Spousal life which is difficult or perhaps impossible to show to a third party. There can be no pornography of the spiritual life; it is an intimacy impossible to display to someone else. Indeed, both through my own personal experience and my work as confessor and spiritual director, I realize more and more that many times much of God's intimacy with us is hidden even from ourselves, and often this is good for us and an expression of his mercy.

Pray for us, St. Felix, that we may descend into our created hearts where our lives are now hidden with Christ in God.

May 17, 2010

Confirmation with Archbishop Dolan

Yesterday Archbishop Timothy Dolan offered Mass and confirmed almost thirty young men at The Children's Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York. One of our friars works there and had prepared the boys for the sacrament. Two of them also received their first Holy Communion at the same Mass. My confrere was pleasantly surprised to have the Archbishop accept the invitation, and called on me to serve the Mass. (I'm known for my love of the ministry of acolyte and ability to stand on formality when necessary.)

The Archbishop's instruction to the boys was short and very well done. He acknowledged right away that they had already known hard struggles and violence in their lives. He invited them to engage the real battle of the spiritual struggle within, and assured them that God was ready for fight on their behalf.

The small chapel was packed. There was hardly enough room to do what needed to be done for the ritual, but we all managed. The Archbishop's secretary was exceedingly gracious to me; several times he anticipated troubles or missing equipment and saved us from crisis and embarrassment. I had one inspiration to play with him, but I suppressed it: when I was invited to assist with Holy Communion, "after His Excellency gives Communion to the confirmandi," I wanted to ask if they weren't confirmati at that point.

Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR concelebrated. (He began working at The Children's Village fifty years ago as his first assignment after ordination) Both he and the Archbishop gave me academic advice, warnings, and contacts when they heard I was on my way to Boston College.

May those who were confirmed yesterday continue to grow in the fullness of the Spirit. Amen.

May 15, 2010

Baptismal Candles

Today I was baptizing a toddler. While I was putting stuff away after the ceremony, I started to think about the little candle given to each newly baptized. Wouldn't it be cool if everyone held on to those candles devoutly, and then used them as their light at the beginning of the Easter Vigil each year? After all, it's the same candle anyway, on the spiritual level. It would be neat to see the ones that were burned down from so many years of living their baptism.

Then I had another thought: when couples want to do the whole wedding candle or unity candle thing for their weddings, I should try to make them produce their baptismal candles for this purpose!

The Spirit of Unity

The Holy Spirit, Who is the divine Unity of Father and Son, stretches that unity into the creation to offer us unity with God. The Spirit fulfills Jesus' great prayer, that "they may all be one." Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.

May 14, 2010

The Priest Didn't Come

Esteemed colleague Paul brings up a hard issue in his comment on the previous post. He is not alone in being scandalized by the failure of some priests to attend to the sick and the dying.

I've been thinking about it, and it's a hard question. On the one hand, I think almost any priest is ready to drop whatever he is doing to go minister to the dying with Anointing and/or Viaticum, etc. This is one of the classic works of the cura animarum; it is part of the identity of the priest. On the other hand, it isn't infrequent to hear of someone leaving their parish or even falling away from the faith because 'the priest didn't/wouldn't come' when a loved one was sick or dying.

So what's going on here?

First, I have always found the clergy hard to reach. Rectory office hours are shrinking, and it can be hard to get through the maze of phone menus during other hours. What's more, during the times when offices are closed, i.e. in the evening or early morning, the parish priest is often unavailable because of services and meetings. Most rectories at least have an answering machine, but my experience of the clergy is that they do not take advantage of all the technological means available to them for keeping track of emergencies.

Second, and this is hard to say, but as a parish priest you just can't answer your phone at night. When I was first in the parish, I used to forward the emergency line straight to my cell phone on the nights when I was on duty. I imagined myself as an eager parish priest ready to respond to a pastoral need at any moment. After an hour on the phone one night with someone complaining that one of the priests stole her kidney when she came to confession, and another half hour another night with someone afraid to come out of his basement because of "the aliens," I set up a voice mail account where people could leave a message. It invites people with real emergencies to leave a message, after which I will call them back. Some folks find this off-putting, but I require my sanity. I check the messages frequently, and this system seems to work pretty well. On the other hand, I realize that people who are distressed or elderly may not understand such things when they call.

Third, I think that perhaps in years past people considered calling the priest something like calling the police or the fire department; one wouldn't do it unless there were a genuine emergency. Let me assure you that nowadays people call you just because they are bored or lonely, or, most likely, have exhausted the willingness of anyone else to listen to them. Not that this kind of listening isn't an important work of charity that no parish priest should despise, but without an abundance of priests, one has to make decisions about time. Many times I have left my office phone on speaker while doing other work, the person on the line not even noticing that she had been talking for twenty minutes without my speaking a word. All of this is not a complaint, but just my reflection on my experience as I try to guess at why the clergy sometimes make themselves hard to reach.

Fourth, in an aging parish, a priest often doesn't know the most elderly parishioners. Mr. so-and-so may have been an intrepid and devoted usher for fifty years, or Mrs. so-and-so may have ironed the purificators since she was a teenager, but because their children have either moved away and/or fallen away from the practice of the faith, the priest may not even know of this great parish family. In many parishes it is precisely this middle generation that is missing from the pews, and it make it hard to keep track of the older folks. For this reason, it is good to cultivate the acquaintance of a couple of families with long histories in the parish, and a good memory of people from the past. This also brings up another ugly issue. Every Catholic, no matter how lax or unobservant, wants a few things: a baptism for their baby, their ashes on Ash Wednesday, and a priest at their deathbed. If, in between these things, they do not feel any similar need to support their parish, assist at Sunday Mass, contract marriage according to canonical form, or give their dead a proper burial, then J. Random Pastor, who can't pay the light bill, prays that it won't be him but his successor who has to close the parish school, and presides over a physical plant that is falling apart, might not feel any great urgency when he gets a sudden emergency call from someone he doesn't even know.

Fifth, in a place where there are a lot of parishes, people in an emergency will often call around until they can get a priest on the phone. This is why there was a priest already there when I went to the nursing home the other night. After leaving a message on my emergency line, the folks at the nursing home called another church. When I didn't get an answer when I called back I just went. Sometimes the priest who ends up being the one who answers the phone is not the one who is actually responsible for the individual or institution looking for help. Some priests won't care about this, but others who are already overworked will become annoyed at their brother priest who is actually responsible for the pastoral care but couldn't be reached. One can't fault the people for this; they are in distress and just want someone to come, but I think this is also part of why priests can sometimes, consciously or not, make themselves hard to reach.

Again, I think any priest is ready to leave the house at any time to attend to the dying. But sometimes it just doesn't happen, and people can be very disappointed, even to the point of spiritual injury. I offer these reflections not as a rant or indulgence of negativity, but just as my thoughts on why these secret tragedies of lost pastoral opportunity sometimes happen.

May 12, 2010

Last Rites

Well, tonight I have had my first experience of Extreme Unction.

After supper I thought I would go to the church and empty the poor boxes and the vigil light donations, so as not to disturb the folks who come to pray the rosary a little later on. Before I went, however, I checked the pastoral emergency voice mail. There was a message from one of the local nursing homes: someone was dying, could a priest please come right away. So I called the front desk at the nursing home, but there was no answer. Off I went.

As I approached the room, I heard something unusual: Latin. As I walked in I saw a younger priest that I had seen before at this or that event, but never met. He has praying out of the older Ritual. I walked in just in time to deliver the response et clamor meus ad te veniat. We finished the prayers together, and then he gave the apostolic pardon to the woman for whom we were there. Her family members were clearly pleased with themselves, having produced not one but two priests for her!

May she rest in peace.

Acts of Contrition

A long time ago I wrote a post about how my punctuation of the Act of Contrition had changed over the years:

I used to say the end of the prayer like this:

I firmly resolve: with the help of your grace, to confess my sins, do penance, and to my amend my life.

But I realized that I now do it like this:

I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace: to confess my sins, do penance, and to amend my life.

When I was younger I thought I needed grace to do things. Now I realize that I need the grace to even make a resolution.

The other day I was thinking about this particular prayer again, and how my understanding of what it means to pray it has continued to change. It's fascinating to me how one can pray in the same words over time, but be making a different sort of prayer through them.

When I was younger in the faith the Act of Contrition was like a substitute for the fresh start of going to confession. If I had a desire for Holy Communion, for example, but feared that I might be in a state of mortal sin and had no opportunity for confession, there was the Act of Contrition. To pray it was a fresh start, a new resolution, a renewed commitment. When I said I was sorry, and that my sorrow was true contrition and not just attrition at best, and that I was resolving to sin no more and amend my life, I believed what I prayed to myself. I thought I was telling the truth, and the "act" of the Act of Contrition was simply an external expression of an internal state.

Now, almost eighteen years baptized, I know myself too well for that. I know the infirmity of my resolutions and the fragility of my purposes of amendment. Now when I say the Act of Contrition I'm practicing, I'm telling God what I desire to be. I make an act of contrition, because I know that perfect contrition is what my heart really wants, and I'm trying to teach this to myself.

May 10, 2010

Propers for the Feast of St. Damien of Moloka'i

I checked the blog of the always diligent Fr. Daren this morning too late to take advantage of his posting of the Mass propers for the feast of St. Damien today. Any priests of these United States who haven't said Mass yet, link over and get them. Also, if you haven't said your Office of Readings yet, follow this link for the proper reading for St. Damien.

Holy Days of Opportunity

Here in New York we are privileged to be one of the last places on earth where the Ascension is celebrated on the actual fortieth day of Easter instead of being transferred to the Sunday following. So at the end of Mass yesterday I was announcing the schedule for this "Holy Day of Opportunity," as my first priest liked to say.

As it always does, this led someone to take up the old debate with me. Weekday holy days should be done away with, transferred to Sundays, or at least have their obligations relaxed so that they don't bind under penalty of sin. In our world it is too much to ask of someone to assist at Mass on a weekday when we have so many other things that have to be done and places to go. It is an unfair an onerous obligation; it's too hard for people.

My answer to this old complaint is always the same, and, to my mind, devastating:

"It doesn't seem to be a problem for people on Ash Wednesday."

It's a weekday. Nobody has the day off. It's not a holy day of obligation. And yet, it's one of the best attended days in the whole church year. Often its only rival for attendance is Christmas. Therefore, the question of assisting at Mass on the occasional weekday is a question not of hardship, but of motivation.

May 9, 2010

Getting the Most out of Spiritual Direction

This post is a request from a new friend. go and check out his blog. On the one hand, I hesitate to write it; I am not a spiritual director, and I have no formal training nor credentials in the practice. On the other hand, I have nearly twenty years of experience in using spiritual direction in a mediocre way, and I can share my own reflections on how I have tried to improve its use for myself. My reflections are bound up with my own ideas about the nature, practice, and purposes of spiritual direction. As with anything in the spiritual life, take whatever helps you to consent to the grace of God, and leave the rest.

Some ways to get the most out of spiritual direction:

Prepare and follow through with your preparation. Take the time before each meeting to pray for your director and for the Holy Spirit to inform your conversation. Examine yourself and try to notice what is going on with you spiritually. Discern and decide what will be the issues and topics you want to bring up. Most directors will regard simple listening as their basic stance toward you and will follow your lead in the conversation. Therefore, if you don't get to talk about what's really important, it's usually your own fault.

Try to be continuous from one meeting to the next. Make goals, decide on where discernments and resolutions need to be with regard to time, and work from one meeting to the next. For me, taking notes has always been a help in keeping from going around in circles. I have a notebook for spiritual direction, in which I keep track to the progress of discernments and make note of insights which I might otherwise forget. You may find that note taking makes some directors nervous. They will get over it.

Go to appointments when you are your most usual self. This may only apply to people who are moody like me, or who experience a lot of ebb and flow in fervor and devotion, also like me. Discerning the grace of God and the life of the spirit are delicate and subtle works, and if we always go to our appointments at a time when we are tired, or after we've had too much coffee, the director may develop an incorrect sense of who we are. When I was a postulant I used to have spiritual direction on Friday afternoons, when I was at my most tired moment all week. My director's office was on Washington Square North, and to get there I used to walk through the park and see all the young people having fun. Needless to say, I didn't always give a fair presentation of where I was with my vocation. In my notes I'm always amused to look back at one in particular of Sister's pronouncements: "Well, if that's how you feel, of course you should leave the Order!"

Do not fear to talk about anything. If you really desire God above everything else, you have to get over the fears and shame that keep you from bringing sins and temptations into the light and asking your director's advice about them. You also have to let go of the fear of vanity that sometimes keeps people from revealing extraordinary graces. Supernatural experiences are not as uncommon as we sometimes think; people just don't talk about them so much. If something is keeping you from holiness on the one hand or pushing you into it on the other, bring it up. If you aren't ready to trust the confidence of your director with anything, you need a new director.

Work out for yourself the relationship between spiritual direction and confession. If your director is a priest, he could also be your confessor, though this is not necessary. For some, and at some stages and moments in the spiritual life, an engaged and thorough celebration of the sacrament of penance is all that is needed for spiritual direction. Consciences are revealed, pastoral advice is offered, new resolutions are made, and the grace of sacramental absolution comes to aid it all. If your regular confessor and your spiritual director are different people, however, it is important to make sure that the two are integrated somehow. What must be avoided is the development of separate personae for the two relationships. For example, you may be at spiritual direction discussing how well you are encountering the beautiful graces offered to you in daily life, while on another day you are beating your breast in confession as you reveal yourself as someone in a terrible struggle with an attachment to some serious sin that you don't bring up in direction. I am sure that the devil rejoices in this sort of spiritual disintegration of self. Both of these characters are you; bring your whole self to spiritual direction. The Lord promised to harvest the wheat along with the weeds.

Take it easy. The spiritual life demands that we be both loose and vigilant at the same time. We can't plan it out, or even control or anticipate an hour of conversation with a director. Because of God's eternity, grace always appears to us as adventitious, and because of His goodness, it is always surprising to our stingy souls and narrow minds. I am more and more convinced that God is looking for souls willing to do the work of the spiritual life. When He finds one, He puts it to work, believe me. But we must always remember the work is His and not ours. Our primary project is to train our consciousness to notice grace, and to train our wills in consenting to it. It's an adventure for sure, but one that demands the abandonment of control. Take it easy.

I hope this helps.

Related posts:

Finding a Spiritual Director

Should I Fire My Spiritual Director?

May 8, 2010

My Peace I Give You

Because of my trip to Boston this week I didn't prepare a new homily for this weekend. I'll be giving some version of what I preached three years ago; it's new to this place in any case. Homily for this weekend is posted here. This one gets a lot of search traffic on the distinction between the peace 'the world gives' and the true peace which is Jesus' farewell gift. It also has a funny story about a girlfriend's mother.

May 7, 2010

My Trip To BC

My informal meeting with the director of the doctoral program which I am to begin in the fall was a very interesting encounter for me. The Boston College School of Theology and Ministry will my twelfth educational institution, but I can already tell that this feels like a very different thing. In trying to think about it, I came upon the word pastoral, which I will try to explain.

Up until now, school has been about someone telling me what I ought to read and write, with evaluation based upon how well I have managed to understand or apply the things I was told to learn. The tasks and questions are different now. It's not what I am supposed to read, but whose influence I want to form me and make me want to read things. It's about mentors and finding people who can help me know how to read the things I want to read and write about. It's about building connections that will help me get to the sort of campuses and libraries that have the people and books I want to form me. The director made me feel like someone who was going to be initiated into a conversation and shepherded into a culture.

I know this a corny thought and betrays my shallowness, but I came out of the meeting feeling like I had received the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, "You've taken your first step into a larger world."

The director also bought me a cup of coffee and a pistachio cookie.

Kurtz Got Off The Boat

I'm going through a serious discernment: I am thinking of renouncing the New York Yankees. It's not due to anything like the occult self-hate of the triumphant class, nor is it because I lack good Yankee credentials; I was born and raised in a part of southern Connecticut that is solidly Yankee, I have lived in the Bronx, and have been to the Stadium many times.

Here's what it is: my jurisdiction of the Order is New York and New England, and I have a desire to opt out of the obvious rivalry. The drive to deal with conflict by either transcending or opting out of the binary context altogether is rooted somewhere deep in my personality, and isn't unrelated to my particular vocation.

Becoming a Red Sox fan doesn't solve anything in this regard. Besides, my New England ancestors were Boston Braves fans, and so despised the Red Sox, como Dios manda. Almost nobody grasps this particular protest against Red Sox fandom when I make it. Is it such obscure reasoning?

The problem: articulating intelligible and durable criteria for whom to adopt, if I should decide to apostatize. The Braves, given the ancestral connection related above? If that why not Cleveland, where my father is from, and where he has maintained his baseball allegiance? I've never been there, however. In fact, the only place I have ever lived with any other strong baseball identity was my year of novitiate in Wisconsin.

So some questions arise, for which I invite comment. First, ought I to pursue this inclination to convert? Second, if so, to whom, and by what reasoning?

May 6, 2010

Report From The Library

Today was my first visit to the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry where I am supposed to begin doctoral studies in the fall. I had a good meeting with the director of the program, which did a lot better than to "lend content to my anxiety" as I explained the purpose of the meeting to one of the brothers this morning.

I also inspected the library, and have a mixed report. The folio opera omnia of St. Bonaventure which used to be in the reference section at Weston Jesuit seems not to be there; though there is a perfectly good smaller edition in the general collection. Everything else I could think of was there. I forgot to check for Cajetan's commentary on St. Thomas, which was the only glaring omission I ever noticed at the old WJST library in Cambridge.

On the good side, the library was quiet. On the bad side, it was rather dimly lit in places and somewhat dreary in general. Also, when I went to make a photocopy of St. Anthony's sermon for Holy Thursday (I'm using it for a talk I'm giving at a prayer breakfast next month), I found that the copy machines only accepted some arcane form of local currency. Perhaps I will be introduced to such things.

May 4, 2010

2nd Holy Communion

This morning it was my luck to have the grade school children for Mass; they are always a delight, especially singing with their enthusiastic choir. While I was preaching, I remarked to myself that among the children were the first communicants from this past Sunday. Presuming that they did not assist at Mass yesterday (which I think is a good bet) today would be their second Holy Communion!

It was really beautiful to see them again, much more relaxed this time and not having to be dressed up, as each devoutly came forward to receive the Host, making the proper bows and stepping to the side so well. I am very grateful for the privilege of such moments.

May 3, 2010

Seeing, Not Contemplating

Without deserving it entirely, it seems to me, I have managed to earn for myself the reputation of having traditionalist tendencies. Therefore I am presumed to be the sort of Catholic who looks forward to the forthcoming English translation of the third edition Roman Missal, would like to sing the actual parts of Mass instead of replacing them with hymns and songs, etc.

Thus, it seems good to me to point out a moment when I feel like the 'dynamic equivalence' of the soon-to-be-replaced American English Sacramentary, frequently attacked by such types as I am presumed to be, actually succeeds as a translation.

Consider the prayer after communion for today, the feast of Ss. Philip and James, apostles:

Purifica, quaesumus, Domine, mentes nostras
per haec sancta quae sumpsimus,
ut, cum apostolis Philippo et Iacobo
te in Filio contemplantes,
vitam habere mereamur aeternam.
per Christum

And the English version heard today:

by the holy gifts we have received
free our minds and hearts from sin.
With the apostles Philip and James
may we see you in your Son
and be found worthy to have eternal life.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

To me the interesting translation question is the contemplantes, which the English gives as "see." Someone who wanted to keep a certain model of strict translation would certainly be tempted to say, 'may we contemplate you in your Son.' Now contemplor certainly has the sense of seeing, but "contemplate" and "contemplation" are so loaded in our spiritual parlance as to lose the simple sense of John 14:9 in the prayer, which it is obviously meant to bring out: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father."

The 'dynamic equivalence' of "see" for contemplantes is the right decision, and I hope it's still that way in the new translation. See, I'm not so conservative.

May 1, 2010

Letter to Parishioners

Fr. Pastor asked me to write a letter to our parishioners to be included in this weekend's bulletin. Here it is:

Dear Parishioners,

Last fall the Order asked me to consider applying to Boston College to pursue the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology. I made the application, have been accepted, and will begin studies there this fall. Over the course of the month of July I will be making the transition back to full-time study and my new home at St. Francis Friary in Boston. I hope that in my last couple of months with you I have the chance to thank each of you personally for your encouragement and support these past three years. It was a special privilege to be ordained priest in the course of my assignment here, and my priesthood will always belong to you in a special way. As I enter into this transition and a new set of challenges, I will take encouragement from the knowledge of the prayers and good example of the people of Sacred Heart who have been so good to me.

God's Dwelling

"Behold, God's dwelling is with the human race." This is our joy and our challenge, to become homes for the love of God and be built into the New Jerusalem. Follow this link for my homily for this weekend.