December 15, 2023

Greccio at 800

(This is a reflection I prepared for our quarterly magazine, The Capuchin Journey)

One of St. Francis of Assisi’s early biographers, Brother Thomas of Celano, relates how St. Francis, three years before his passing from this life, planned and celebrated Christmas in the little hill town of Greccio, located about halfway between Rome and Assisi. Three years before his death would make that the Christmas of 1223, of which we mark and celebrate the eighth centenary this year.

St. Francis enlisted the help of local friend, a certain nobleman named John, to help gather everything that was necessary for his idea of putting together a living nativity scene. St. Francis exclaimed,

“I wish to enact the memory of the babe who was born in Bethlehem: to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he rested on hay.” (1)

This desire, to know and to feel the love and suffering of Jesus, to follow in his footprint, was Francis’s particular devotion to Christ and his vocation in him. This desire was most perfectly realized in Francis’s experience of the stigmata, which, as St. Bonaventure writes, transformed the lover, Francis, into the image of the Beloved, Christ. (2)

When that Christmas Eve arrived, everything was prepared according to St. Francis’s expressed wish. The ox and the ass were led to the spot, the local faithful approached with lamps and torches for light, and the holy Mass of the vigil of Christmas was celebrated over a manger filled with hay. St. Francis himself sang the gospel of that holy night, and preached with remarkable devotion and sweetness on the King born poor, the ‘babe of Bethlehem’ whom Francis loved and desired with all his heart. It is said that contact with the hay from the manger subsequently restored many animals to good health, and even some people as well.

A curious and yet beautiful vision came to pass during the celebration. One of those present and at prayer, perhaps John of Greccio himself, (3) the friend who had helped St. Francis prepare for that night, saw a baby, apparently lifeless in the manger. St. Francis approached the vision, touched the baby, and awakened him from a deep sleep. St. Bonaventure writes that St. Francis even picked up the baby to embrace him. (4)

The early Franciscan writers note that this vision of St. Francis awakening the child suited the Christmas moment because of Francis’s mission to awaken the presence of Christ in the hearts of many, to stir up in their souls the love of God and devotion to the newborn Christ of Bethlehem. This invitation remains for us today—an invitation, as we approach Christmas ourselves and the eighth centenary of the celebration at Greccio—to allow the example and devotion of Francis of Assisi to stir up to new life the presence of Christ in our hearts.

As we set up our own nativity scenes in our homes, or as we pray before them in our churches, let us ask the Holy Spirit for some small share of St. Francis’s own desire to see with his own bodily eyes the hiddenness and poverty of the Lord born in Bethlehem, and even the ‘discomfort of his infant needs’, born away from home and in a place where there was no room for him or his parents at the inn. And may we also find the answer to this prayer in a renewed vision of the suffering Christ in the poor of our neighborhoods and our country as well as in the fear and terror of those in places, much in our thoughts these days, that are suffering the horror of war.

We need not fear our hearts breaking as we contemplate these sufferings of Christ in the peoples of this world, for if we allow our hearts to break open, we also have hope, and indeed a saving hope. For open hearts are ready to receive the Holy Spirit. And just as at Christmas the Holy Spirit conceives the Word of God as the human life of Jesus of Nazareth, anointing him as Lord and Savior of the world, so the same Spirit, in the same way, can conceive the presence of God in us, making of us Christians, anointed members of Christ after Christ’s own Heart, awakening in us the presence of Jesus.

Opening ourselves to the Holy Spirit in this way as we approach another Christmas, we can let the Spirit make of our own hearts a living nativity scene, a little ‘Greccio’. And if we fear that our hearts might not be fit for God because they can sometimes harbor darkness or even be a little cold at times, let us rejoice, for the good news of Bethlehem is that it is precisely in such places that God wills—indeed desires—to born among us. In this awareness of the littleness and the poverty of our inner self, where Christ wishes to be born and abide—in order to make us a dwelling place for God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22)—we can marvel with St. Francis at the humility and poverty of the God who empties himself into the poverty of our little hearts, so that by his poverty, you might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9) in blessing and grace.

Then, having celebrated Christmas within, having prepared a little ‘Greccio’ in our hearts where God hides and makes himself little in order to glorify our littleness and poverty from the inside, let us let that love of God out, into the outside, where the ‘infant needs’ of Christ are heard in the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. In this way, the Love of God, made incarnate for us at Christmas, may continue to take flesh in the gentleness and charity we reflect out toward a suffering world.

_____

1. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. I: The Saint. Eds. Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M. Cap., J. A. Wayne Hellman, O.F.M. Conv., and William J. Short, O.F.M. (New York: New City Press, 1999), 255. (Hereafter FA:ED.)

2. FA:ED, vol. II: The Founder, 710

3. FA:ED, vol. I: The Saint, 256, footnote c.

4. FA:ED, vol. II: The Founder, 610.

August 6, 2023

Retreat Report

Last week I was at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts for my annual retreat. I've been there for retreat many times, but had not been for twelve years (living in Italy, Covid, and so on). It was a very good week with lots of time for prayer, reading, and reflection.

The monks made some improvements to the retreat house over its Covid closure, including an expansion of the retreatants' dining room, which used to be a little cramped when there was a full house. They also cleaned up the inner courtyard, which, if I remember correctly, was rather overgrown before. It's lovely now and you can sit out there on a nice day.

I had one of the rooms on the west side of the retreat house that have a little tiny enclosed backyard, I guess so you can pretend you're a Carthusian. The weather was good all week so I was able to leave my back door open at night (there's a screen door) and enjoy the cool air and the sounds of nature.

The back door to my room from my little backyard

It was good to see the monks again, and I recognized a few of them from past visits, though I don't know their names for the most part. They had aged, as I suppose I have as well. One monk introduced himself to me when we were cleaning up after lunch one day, and explained how he had followed his brother, a TOR Franciscan, into religious life. He said that he had been in the monastery for fourteen years, which means he may have been a novice the last time I was on retreat there. He then explained how he had only recently been ordained a priest, within the last year. I thought of asking him for his blessing, but I was worried about the other retreatants getting the idea and it becoming a scene. But maybe I should have done it. As old Fr. John Proppe, may he rest in peace, once told me, "The blessing of a new priest is worth wearing out two horses."

I saw that there was a novice. Novices stick out in choir with the white scapular. On Thursday there also appeared in choir a tall young man in secular clothes, with a beard that would make a Capuchin novice proud. Maybe he's discerning. One time when I was walking into church I saw the novice helping him find his place in the book, and that gave me delight. Let's pray for the two of them and thank God for their vocations.

The meals were in silence, of course. On my past retreats we have listened to an audio book, but this time it was music. On one day we started listening to N.T. Wright's Paul: A Biography, but after that it was back to music. There was no explanation for this. I was a little disappointed because I had found the beginning of the book entertaining. Then I thought I would buy the book and finish it myself when I got home, but I haven't done it yet. I have to decide if I'm curious enough for $15.95 (Kindle edition). Maybe the monks and the publisher are in cahoots. They get you hooked on a book, and so forth.

There were two special events during the week. The first was the solemnity of the dedication of the abbey church on the first full day of the retreat.

At the first vespers of this observance, which was the first evening of the retreat, we retreatants were pretty confused about where we were in the psalter, but we seemed to have figured it out by lauds in the morning. I overheard someone saying that there were certain candles around the church that are only lit on this day each year.

The second special event was the resumption of communion under both kinds, presumably post-Covid. While the priest monks were vesting for Mass on the last morning of the retreat, a monk approached us retreatant-concelebrants in the corner of the sacristy where the albs and stoles are set up for retreatants. (When you register for a retreat, you are asked your height so that an appropriate alb can be set out for you.) The monk instructed us that, starting on that day, we would not receive by intinction, but should consume the host and then drink from the chalice. This went fine for us concelebrants when the time came, but something seemed to go wrong with the logistics of the communion of the other monks and the people in the visitors' galleries. I saw the abbot gesturing to the various priest monks who were ministering Holy Communion as if to redirect them to certain places. He also seemed to be trying to get the attention of the principal celebrant as he descended to the monks and retreatants who were lined up, but in vain. At this the abbot let out what seemed like a sigh of resignation. So it's not just friars, I thought. At that moment I recalled a previous conversation with the monk who was the principal celebrant, in which he exclaimed, "I am a free dancer." It seemed like an odd thing for a Trappist to say. That story is back in this post

There was a full house of eleven retreatants. Five of us were priests, or at least five concelebrated at Mass. Of the other six I gathered that two or three were permanent deacons. There seemed to be a couple of groups of two or three on retreat together. Retreatants there together always means more talking, unfortunately, and we were admonished about this in the middle of the week. It was far, however, from the worst group in this regard I have been with on retreat at the abbey. That's another story. I seemed to remember that at previous last breakfasts before departure we were allowed or instructed to talk so one could meet the others he had been praying with (and hopefully for) all week, but in any case it didn't happen this time. It was the usual music, so I finished the retreat without getting to know any of the other retreatants. I prayed for them, though, during the week, for their openness to and discernment of the graces God desired for them during our time at the abbey.

June 26, 2023

Bl. Giacinto Longhin on the Universal Call to Holiness

Today we have something of an embarrassment of riches in the Capuchin calendar, with two optional memorials of Capuchin blesseds. There's Blessed James of Ghazir (1875-1954), who was called 'the Lebanese St. Vincent de Paul', as well as Blessed Giacinto Longhin (1863-1936) who was bishop of Treviso, Italy.

Just for fun, I decided to translate Blessed Giacinto's reading for the Office of Readings today. (You see, here in the anglosphere, our superiors don't love us enough to provide officially updated Capuchin liturgical propers. It's one area, anyway, in which the Italians are ahead of us.)

Holiness in the Christian and religious life is an obligation. Our ignorance and acedia makes us believe that holiness isn’t possible for us, because we imagine ourselves in ecstasy, as if to be saints we need to have the gift of raptures or of visions or of prophecy or of miracles; we imagine ourselves on the cross, as if it were necessary to make great fasts or perform austerities and penances with the discipline unto blood, with hair shirts, and so on. It’s a trick.

Holiness consists in simpler things that are within everyone’s reach. It is not said to anyone: whip yourself, fast, go into ecstasy … no, this is asked of no one. It is said only that you love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength, and that you love your neighbor as yourself. It is in this that all the perfection and true holiness of the Christian life is found. 

Who in the world can say that they can’t love the Lord? To please him by doing his will shown to us in the commandments of the Decalogue, by the holy Church, and by our legitimate superiors? Who can say, I am not able to avoid deliberate venial sin and failures in charity, humility and obedience?

St. Thomas, to a sister who asked how she could become a saint, said: If you wish! Do you understand, my dear Maria? If you will to become a saint, it’s done. Grace will not be lacking for you and with grace we are all-powerful.

April 29, 2023

Moments of Grace

Update to this old post below. As part of my World Day of Prayer for Vocations homily this weekend, I used the story of the kid in the library. Just for fun, I looked him up to see if I could find out what he is up to thirty years later. I found his LinkedIn page. He's an employment counselor. How fitting!

Old post:

The other day there was a program on TV about St. Maria Goretti. At one point it showed a picture of the priest who gave Maria her first Holy Communion. He looked like a regular, unremarkable priest. I was thinking about him a little. In all of the joys and struggles of his life, whatever they were, in all of the highs and lows of his vocation, that particular moment, when he ministered first Holy Communion to Maria Goretti, was probably one of the most important moments of his life. What I mean is that it was so from God's perspective, from the point of view of the larger economies of grace.

I think that we're often unaware of the way God wishes to make instruments of us in particular moments with one another. God knows that it works better this way, without the interior tangles of pious self-awareness. In the economies by which God pours out his own sanctity in the world, we never know how God is making use of us.

Here's an example from my own life. When I was a senior in college I was considering religious life. There was another kid among the philosophy majors who had been a seminarian. I didn't really know him. One night we ran into each other in the library. He asked me if it was true, that I was thinking of entering religious life. I said that it was. "Good luck with your vocation," he said.

For him it was surely an offhand comment, but for me it made a big difference. Your vocation. It made the whole business real. I had been considering religious life, for sure, but as my idea. The idea of being a Franciscan friar attracted me, and so I was thinking of trying it out. I remember standing there after the guy walked away, jarred by the idea of having a vocation, a call from God. He had named something for me with a clarity that I hadn't known. God used him to accomplish an important grace for me at that moment, probably without his having any idea.

This is why it's good to pray that God guide our speech and interaction with others, and that we work whatever spiritual practices we need to stay open and attentive when we are with one another. Nevertheless, we may not be aware of the graces God works through us, and mercifully so. God keeps us ignorant of these movements a lot of the time, saving us not only from temptations to vanity but also keeping us from messing up the plainness of grace with the clumsiness of self-conscious piety. So we may get to heaven and find out that the most graced moments of our lives were things we hadn't even thought about. In fact, we may as well presume that this will be the case; it will help us to be humble on this pilgrimage and keep us from taking what we know of ourselves as graced before God, which is very little, too seriously.

April 8, 2023

The Easter Itinerancy

(An old post updated)

Every year on this holy night I reflect on the grace of itinerancy that the Holy Spirit has given me; only twice in my whole baptism have I been in the same place for the Easter Vigil for more than two years in a row. When I think about all the places I've been for the Vigil, it puts me in awe of God and in a state of gratitude for my journey.

Here's my Easter Vigil history:
  • 2023: Annunciation, Crestwood, Yonkers, NY (concelebrant)
  • 2022: Our Lady of Sorrows, White Plains, NY
  • 2021: Our Lady of Sorrows, White Plains, NY

  • 2020: (COVID-19 pandemic, prayed what is provided in the Liturgy of the Hours for qui sollemni Vigilæ paschali non interfuerunt)
  • 2019: Basilica of St. Teresa of Ávila, Rome
  • 2018: Basilica of St. Camillo de Lellis, Rome
  • 2017: Basilica of St. Camillo de Lellis, Rome (in the 25th year of my baptism)
  • 2016: Capuchin General Curia, Rome (concelebrant)