January 30, 2014

Hope from Hyacinth

Two years ago today I put up this post:
Today at the Poor Clares I offered the Mass of St. Hyacinth Mariscotti, about whom I know nothing. 
Sister sacristan gave me the following brief account of Hyacinth's life and holiness, from which I drew great encouragement. 
Here's what sister told me. I have not checked any of it, but I do try to capture sister's hilarious tone in telling the story: 
When Hyacinth was growing up, she went to a certain convent school. The sisters found her to be a difficult and conceited child. Everyone found her very trying and annoying, and the sisters were glad to be rid of her when she graduated. 
Having grown up, she wanted to marry some important man, but was spurned. Out of spite, she decided to become a nun. (I guess there were wider limits on what counted as a 'vocation story' in those days.) When she returned to the convent seeking entrance, the sisters were alarmed. Somehow or other she was admitted, and the sisters discovered that the difficult and conceited child had grown into an even more difficult and conceited woman. 
After some years of religious life, Hyacinth had some sort of illness, and had a conversion experience. She apologized to the sisters for all of the years she had been such a pain, started to do penance, and thereafter became an exemplary religious. 
I find this story very hopeful. May God grant me to accept such a grace of conversion!
Two years later I find myself in a very different sort of life, one aspect of which is praying the Divine Office from the Liturgia delle ore secondo il rito romano e il calendario serafico, i.e. the Italian version of the Roman-Franciscan Liturgy of the Hours, and it turns out to have a little blurb on good old Hyacinth. It seems she was an Orsini, which is no small thing, and was baptized Clarice.

A quote claims to be from a "little diary" in her own hand, in which Hyacinth describes the first fifteen years of her religious life, saying that it was "of many vanities and stupidities in which I have lived in sacred religion."

Depending on how you count, I'm up to either twelve and a half or thirteen years of religious life, so there's still hope that I might accept the grace of conversion from a life of vanity and stupidity!

January 26, 2014

Fishy Ramble

Today it was my turn to be principal celebrant at Mass. I've come to hold such days precious in my current circumstances. When I was in the parish I would preside at Mass once a day at least; here, in a community of many priests without an external ministry, my turn only comes around once or twice a month. I treasure it even more when it falls on a Sunday. After all, Sunday is, as the Office of Readings reminds us today in the passage from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, "the first and greatest festival...the foundation and the kernel of the whole liturgical year."

On a Sunday, of course I also get to preach. (I tend to give a homily here only on days when the brethren have a right to one, namely on Sundays, other solemnities, and feasts. I sense that the brethren appreciate this discretion.) The gospel for today is Matthew 4:12-23, Jesus' move from Nazareth to Capernaum and the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John. Because of the limits of my Italian, I have to preach very simply, though I did play a little bit on 'fishers,' pescatori, and 'fished,' pescati. Pity I didn't think to mix peccatori and peccati, 'sinners' and 'sins,' into my Italian word salad.

I think the forced simplicity is a good thing spiritually; it makes me pay attention to what is essential, to what is the simple good news of the Scripture and how it can be communicated simply. But this also leaves my own personal reflection free of any demand that it be pointed toward the pastoral or even the communicable.

"I will make you fishers of men," says Jesus to Peter and Andrew. I think about myself in that context, as someone fished out of the world by the apostolic preaching, that is, by the New Testament and Sacred Tradition. Ever since I was little I've had a mysterious attraction to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and for this I stand in grateful awe before God in my prayer because I firmly believe what our Seraphic Doctor St. Bonaventure teaches us, that there is no way except through the burning love of the crucified. But at the time of my exterior conversion, it was the apostolic preaching that hooked me. I read the New Testament and decided that I wanted to be a Christian. I studied, thought--and finally prayed--to know which sort of Christian I ought to become. I finally decided that it had to be one of the apostolic Churches, which for me at the time meant Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Considering myself a Westerner, "rehearsed in the rigors of Western thought" as we used to think of ourselves back in college (in our vainglory) I decided to become a Roman Catholic.

And what of me, as one thus fished? What happens to a fish when it comes to be fished? It struggles, it flops around in the hopes of returning to the sea, it dies, and is turned into food.

When you convert, at first it seems like a smooth and glorious thing to be thus fished, to be "saved from immersion in the sea of lies and passions which is called 'the world'" (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation) But soon you struggle because the worldliness and the lies within begin to have trouble breathing. So in their panic they make us flop about, here falling into doubt, there slipping into sin. But eventually they die, buried in baptism, and you find yourself free to be turned into food, into nourishment for your sister and brother sinners. In this regard I think of an ordination homily I once heard from Se├ín O'Malley. The Cardinal remarked that each day, when a priest consecrates the offered bread saying, for this is my body, which will be given up for you, he is also talking about himself, his own body, his own life, united to the sacrifice of Christ, handed over to be broken in the nourishment of the People of God and the world.

Struggle, death, nourishment for others. So our being fished offers us a description of stages of the spiritual life, not unlike many others. Purgative, illuminative, unitive. Selfishness to self-oblation. Death to life. When I was younger I used to read about such plans and stages of the spiritual life with great delight, and the more steps the better. I would imagine myself reaching the highest stages of prayer and contemplation, of sanctity and self-abnegation before too long, without a lot of effort, and along a bright and consoling path. But years later I realize that spiritual things are not conformed to the time we measure in the passing days and years. It is not a neat progression from one stage to another, such that the flesh might feel a sense of advancement through some set of grades or ranks. The truth is that I am always flailing around as the selfishness and attachment in me panics and suffocates, hoping to catch, just one more time, a couple nasty breaths of the dirty air of sin. I am always entering the peace that comes with the death of this person I thought was me but is unknown to the Creator. I am always discovering the delight that the very brokenness that results from this process leaves me broken open for others, for nourishing my fellow sufferers.

January 24, 2014

Devout and Depressed

A quote from St. Francis de Sales for his feast day today:
Be sure, my daughter, that if you seek to lead a devout life, you must not merely forsake sin; but you must further cleanse your heart from all affections pertaining to sin; for, to say nothing of the danger of a relapse, these wretched affections will perpetually enfeeble your mind, and clog it, so that you will be unable to be diligent, ready and frequent in good works, wherein nevertheless lies the very essence of all true devotion. Souls which, in spite of having forsaken sin, yet retain such likings and longings, remind us of those persons who, without being actually ill, are pale and sickly, languid in all they do, eating without appetite, sleeping without refreshment, laughing without mirth, dragging themselves about rather than walking briskly. (Introduction to the Devout Life)

January 22, 2014

Praying for the Unborn

Today here in Rome it's the feast of St. Vincent Pallotti, founder--you guessed it--of the Pallottines. His obligatory memorial creates the potentially confusing liturgical situation of suppressing the optional memorial of his namesake, St. Vincent, deacon and martyr.

But I can't forget that as folks wake up at home in the States, it's neither the feast of one Vincent nor the other, but the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. May I remember in prayer today first of all the unborn who find themselves in danger and for their parents. May I pray for all who by prayer, work, and witness seek to defend the right to life of our sisters and brothers not yet born.

May I pray for the grace of conversion for our culture and our Churches, that our hearts might be softened toward all human life from conception to natural death: the child, the elderly, the foreigner, the sick, the abused, the imprisoned, those suffering from the many forms of poverty, but especially for the unborn because they, unlike the others, enjoy no legal protection and even more, because the disposability of their lives has become--in our tragic confusion--something even to rejoice in.

In my time as a parish priest I received the occasional criticism. Most were easily dismissed either as someone's misunderstanding of Church teaching or my intentions, but some stuck with me. One of these latter is the lady who came up to me after Mass and said,

"You're a good priest, Father Charles, but you're not pro-life enough."

So just as it has become part of my ordinary intentions that the Lord would let me know what I can do in reparation for the crimes of my brother priests who have sexually abused children, today, as I join my prayers to everyone praying at home, I also pray the Lord that he would let me know how I can be more pro-life.

January 19, 2014

Blessed Maria Teresa Fasce

One of the reasons I appreciate learning about the saints is that often enough their lives didn't proceed in a straight line according to human standards, but had their share of confusions, setbacks, and moments of obscurity. This is a great encouragement to me when I think of my own life so far as a Christian, especially in its false starts (like my doctoral studies), my life as a Franciscan friar having begun well enough with the OFM but then rebooted a few years later with the Capuchins, and, more than anything else, finding myself firmly embarked on middle age and having often enough the thought (or the temptation!) that I have yet to make a solid beginning of anything in life.

January 10, 2014

Dipped in the Petrine Magisterium

Here in Rome the proper calendar includes several blessed and canonized popes that don't appear in the General Roman Calendar. The Pope, after all, is our local bishop. It's a town of Popes. I think of it each time I'm on the 881 bus and it announces, "next stop [the corner of] Gregory VII [and] Pius XI."

Yesterday and today in the liturgy we get two popes in row, yesterday having been the optional memorial of Pope Blessed Gregory X and today the obligatory memorial of Pope St. Agatho. Not knowing if there are proper readings for their Offices of Readings and not knowing anyway where to look for them if they did indeed exist, this led to me praying over the same second reading two days in a row, a passage from the sermons of that mainstay of the breviary, Pope St. Leo the Great, which the Liturgy of the Hours provides for popes in the Common of Pastors.

At the end Pope Leo provides a wonderful definition of Petrine primacy:
In universa namque Ecclesia, Tu es Christus, Filius Dei vivi, cotidie Petrus dicit, et omnis lingua, quae confitetur Dominum, magisterio huius vocis imbuitur. 
In the whole Church, Peter says each day, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God, and every tongue which confesses the Lord is dipped in the magisterium of his voice.

January 9, 2014

From My Confessor

I've taken to going to the Lateran basilica for confession. They're OFMs there and sometimes it's just easier to confess to a Franciscan in case I want to refer to our Rule or the Testament of St. Francis. Besides, Francis recommends that we confess to "priests of our religion." (Earlier Rule, XX:1) So here's a paraphrase of what a priest of our religion said to me last night:

In a certain sense it's a good thing for you to have an experience of sin, of being a sinner. There is so much suffering that comes to you as a priest in the sacrament of Reconciliation, and you must receive it with all gentleness and mercy, knowing yourself as a brother sinner who prays to God and celebrates his mercy together and in communion with his brother and sister sinners. Our Pope Francis has emphasized our role as confessors in this sacrament of mercy. You must know the suffering of sin, the frustration, the difficulty, the feeling of being trapped in precisely what you don't want to be and what you know is less than the person God creates. From this comes real compassion, the suffering-with that moves beyond superficial sorts of kindness.

On the other hand, this is not enough. As a priest you have an even greater responsibility to overcome sin, to be about all the means available to you to allow the Holy Spirit to defeat sin within you. Only with this will you be able to communicate real hope to those who come to you for confession; you must believe in the possibility of liberation from sin with a belief that comes from your own experience. You must know at least something of the rest and peace that comes from this freedom from sin--which is freedom for God--if you want your promise of its possibility to be genuine and confident.

So repent and be converted for God's sake, but also for the sake of your brother and sister sinners.

January 5, 2014

Second Sunday After Christmas

Journeying through my twenty-second Christmas season since my baptism, I find myself celebrating a liturgical day for the first time, namely the Second Sunday after Christmas. In the U.S.A. the second Sunday after Christmas is Epiphany, but here in Italy--so as not to offend the Befana, I'm sure, such that she brings you coal instead of candy--Epiphany remains on its traditional date of January 6. Last year, my first Christmas in Italy, January 6 fell on a Sunday.

So I was very curious to experience the Mass of this day which I had not known until now.