Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

31 January 2013

Form und Drang: The Appearance of Catholic Marriage

In his recent address to the Roman Rota (a fuller version found here), Pope Benedict XVI makes a strong connection between the contemporary crisis in faith and the increasing invalidity of marital bonds.  He covers the prevalent problems in marital attempts: one or both parties' lack of will, understanding, or ability to enter into what the Church wills and understands as "sacramental marriage."    The Holy Father speaks with characteristic eloquence about the crisis of faith--the rejection of the "divine proposal" undergirding all human proposals.  Alongside understanding, voluntariness, and capacity, there is one more crucial component in a sacramental Catholic marriage: canonical form.

Complete This Form

Baptized Catholics must marry according to the proper "form," or format, for marriage: in the presence of a duly-authorized Catholic priest or deacon and two witnesses.

Obtaining witnesses usually isn't a problem, because couples want people to witness their wedding.  The standard "best man" and "maid/matron of honor" must be a man and a woman who are of sufficient age and mental competence to have a basic understanding of what Jack and Jill are doing in this action.

The problem usually occurs when the couple fails to secure the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon as witness to their vows.  This especially happens with baptized Catholics who do not attend Mass, and who therefore might not consider a specifically Catholic wedding necessary or desirable.  At least six months prior to their wedding date, a Catholic spouse-to-be must approach his or her parish priest (either personally or through the parish administrative assistant) to secure the availability of the church.   In the course of their preparation, couples must follow particular diocesan requirements: attendance at premarital classes, retreats, workshops, etc., and meetings with the priest or deacon who is preparing them for marriage.

If the couple didn't know or care about these requirements, and then marries outside the Church, their marriage is "invalid," and the Catholic party/ies cannot participate in the Sacraments until the marriage is "convalidated," or rectified.  The first step is to approach a priest or deacon.  Under his direction, the Catholic party/ies must make a thorough Confession, and then rectify the invalid marriage by "re-enacting" their wedding vows before a priest or deacon with (at least) two witnesses.  The original "best man" and "maid/matron of honor" need not be the witnesses, but certainly could be.

One typical example of a violation of canonical form takes place with outdoor weddings.  As far as I know, no diocese permits outdoor weddings.  Gardens, parks, and beaches are beautiful places.  They exhibit God's creation and manifest His presence.  But the sacred public action of marriage is limited to the sanctuary of a Catholic Church building.  In this and every unconventional scenario, it is best to consult the Chancery of the particular Diocese.  (Read one canonist's take on the matter.)

If people simply want to do what they want to do--have their "dream wedding" regardless of what the Church has to say about it--perhaps, for our benefit and theirs, it's best to let them go.  If they should eventually desire to return to the practice of their faith and reception of the Sacraments, we can help with convalidating their vows as soon as possible.  Couples must consider their motives, lest they intend to resort to subsequent convalidation just so they can get their way the first time.  Moreover, with the increasing likelihood of divorce, a wedding not conducted according to canonical form is easier to declare null.  We don't welcome divorce, but we don't ignore its unfortunate prevalence either.

Catholics who desire a second marriage in the Church when their first one was not conducted according to canonical form, cannot for that reason ignore that first "attempted" marriage.  It must be declared null by a version of the ecclesiastical annulment process that is less complicated than a "regular" declaration of nullity.  Either process--full-fledged ("formal") or half-fledged ("documentary")--helps the couple to deal squarely with the realities that precipitated the breakup of the first marriage, lest they repeat the physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual errors of the previous situation.  When a third marriage is sought, or for other reasons, the Church may stall a new celebration until the couple undergoes counseling.

Unless they have received an ecclesiastical "dispensation" (a relaxation of the law for this particular case, for just reasons, obtained through the agency of the priest/deacon preparing the couple for marriage), canonical form is the norm.

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Not to sound pessimistic...I shudder at the thought that many people, enmeshed in the "current crisis of faith" that the Pope describes--
  • hellbent on autonomy,
  • prostrating themselves before none, 
  • averse to adversity, 
  • willing above all their personal fulfillment as they currently envision it-- 
are incapable of valid sacramental marriage.  "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be."  "The poor you will always have with you."

"Now they have wine...and soon, they will have whine."

As a priest I cannot judge certain invalidity in any couple's situation, although I may express suspicions, tactfully yet honestly.  In fact, I would be remiss to withhold grave reservations, just as much as a seminary formator would be for a severely narcissistic seminarian's advancement to Holy Orders.  Remember, Matrimony and Holy Orders each support the flourishing of the Church, and each therefore deserves the other's attentive regard.  If I could assist a couple to break off their engagement because one or both parties have discerned good reasons not to be married to each other, that would be a service to them, to the Church, and to society.  At the same time, I would also be remiss to discount or forget the grace of God: though it builds upon people's nature, it is always available to people who become willing to change even their worst character defects.

The Pope affirms at length and in depth the possibility of valid marriage, though formation for such must begin in the home, be nourished in the school, be practiced in the university, barracks, workplace, and wherever people are formed...quam primum (ASAP)!

If it seems, patient reader, like this blog's Reverend Author is on a "marriage kick," it's only because the Church and the world are, too.  People are still giving it a go.  Good for them, and good for the Church!  Marriage continues to be held in considerable esteem, despite the many assaults against it.  Even the assaults are a backward hommage to the institution.

29 January 2013

Pontifex Minimus

People have gone Papa Gaga over the epiphany of @Pontifex, the hallowed handle of Pope Benedict XVI.  On 12 Dec 2012, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Holy Father tweeted thus:

Blogger Kathy Schiffer recently posted on the recent World Communications Day message, in which he called for the use of social media to promote respectful, truth-seeking dialogue, in contrast to the shock-and-awe tactics often found online.

This very blog is my attempt to embrace said media with skill, compassion, and humor.  It is not a substitute for actual personal interaction--an easy temptation, I believe, for bloggers, facebookers, tweeters, etc.  For my dollar, there's nothing like personal interaction.  Priests, in particular, are pontifices--"bridge-builders"--facilitators of the personal interaction between God and the human race.  

Very deeply related to the God-Man encounter is the building of a intra-parochial bridge: when parishioners in separate milieux are introduced to each other.  Having been the Assistant Pastor of HGA for five years now, I have gotten to know or at least recognize most of the faithful.  Nothing lights me up like one parishioner whom I know from a particular ministry (or none at all) meeting another parishioner.  That's the work of a pontifex, strengthening the infrastructure of the "city" that is, in my case, Holy Guardian Angels.  Of course, it also can happen in a more regional setting, as when I give to an infertile couple in our parish the email address of a woman from another parish who teaches the Creighton Model of Fertility Awareness.  It's all about helping people to make worthy contacts.

Because the Holy Father is the Great Bridge-Builder (Pontifex Maximus), and because from 1998 to 2009 he shared his authority locally with Bishop Cullen, who saw fit to ordain me a priest and to elicit from me obedience to him and to his successors (currently Bishop Barres), I am a Pontifex Minimus (Small Bridge-Builder).

Of course, the major bridge work takes place in the celebration of the Sacraments and the proclamation of the Gospel; but the care of souls (including connections between parishioners) is important.

That's all.  I just wanted to share that meditation with you.  It may not seize you with wonder and delight, but I sure enjoy the notion, especially when I act upon it.

26 January 2013

March Sanity

I sit once again in warmth, gratefully contemplating this 25th of January 2013, the fortieth March for Life in Washington, D.C.  Youth and adults from our parish filled two busses.  We were especially grateful for the presence of several Knights of Columbus, who have played an important role in the March since its inception.  Our seventh and eighth graders got to see that many, many people in our nation do take the sanctity of human life very seriously.  If they or their parents would have watched the mainstream media coverage of the March, they might have learned that it happened.

This was the first year I recall having been so close to the dais where the speeches took place.  If I had to select four noteworthy participants, it would be these:

  1. A 19 year old man who was conceived in rape, whose continued existence testifies to the courage of his biological mother and adoptive parents--a good spokesman for our increasingly pro-life youth and for the preservation of all babies, however conceived
  2. Georgette Forney, the founder of the "Silent No More Awareness Campaign," whose members--male as well as female--speak openly about their participation in abortion, and the repentance and healing that have taken place since
  3. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, whose youngest daughter, Bella, was born with Trisomy 18 and remains a miracle and a gift to her family despite doctors' suggestions to abort her
  4. The director of a crisis pregnancy center, who helps to provide women with viable abortion alternatives in a safe and caring environment
I could bet that, within a 100-yard radius of wherever a person was standing, he might have encountered someone in each category: a person who was conceived in, or subjected to, rape; a post-abortive woman who has begun to share her story or who may yet do so, whenever or however appropriate; a couple who decided to carry to term and raise their genetically-compromised baby amid medical and familial suspicions; and a woman who benefited from the services of a pregnancy center, which perhaps made the difference for her child's life and helped give the woman herself a more hopeful future.

The speakers put flesh on a reality that for many people is nothing more than an issue to argue about at the neighborhood pool or at the office.  May the truth continue to be spoken in love so that no unborn child might die in vain.

"You gave them Bread from Heaven, which contains all sweetness"
Not at all incidental to today's March is the liturgical celebration, viz., the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.  The second reading of the Liturgy of the Hours Office of Readings is an excerpt from a homily of St. John Chrysostom (full text here, though you must scroll nearly to the end).  My choice for a line/passage "for the win" is this description of the Apostle:

The most important thing of all to him...was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ.

Would that such words could be said of each of us; would that we could say them of ourselves!  Humble security in the awareness of divine love just might save a few, or a few million, lives--before or after their involvement in a sinful choice.  

25 January 2013

The Altar: A Conversion Table

On the heels of Saint Francis de Sales the Church celebrates Saint Paul.  While the Church has come to revere him as "the Apostle," he described himself as "abnormally born" (1 Cor 15:8) because he was an apostolic latecomer, not one of the original twelve-plus-one.

The Church commemorates certain events in the lives of particularly noteworthy saints in addition to their "personal day."  Think of Mary-as-Godbearer (1 Jan) as well as her Maternal Consent (25 Mar), her Assumption (15 Aug), her own birth (8 Sep) and Immaculate Conception (8 Dec).  Think of John the Baptist (24 Jun) alongside his martyrdom (29 Aug).  Saint Paul's conversion (25 Jan) is honored in addition to his being the "two" of the "one-two punch" of Saints Peter and Paul (29 Jun).

I have a particular appreciation for the 24th and 25th of January because of a priest-friend and mentor  who for nearly 20 years was pastor of a Saint Francis de Sales Parish and whose birthday has been celebrated on the feast of Paul's conversion since 1938.  Although I was intrigued with the priesthood since the age of five, priests like this one have inspired me through the years to embrace kindness, devotion, wisdom, and knowledge, with humor and humility.

Some astute camera-wielding individual thought enough to take a picture of this priest and another priest (a classmate and dear friend from another diocese) while they were embracing me at the "Kiss of Peace" which takes place within the Ordination Rite.  These two photos are in the next room as I write.  Upon ordination I presented each of them a copy on which the phrase was inscribed, Ecce quomodo amabat eum: "See how much He loved him" (Jn 11:36).  You may recognize that as the remark of the Jews who beheld Jesus weeping upon the death of His friend Lazarus.  The affectionate greeting of those brother priests--whom I still marvel to call "peers"--reflected their love for me and for the sacrificial priesthood in which we share.

My best pose
Following the embrace of those men and dozens of others, my classmate and I were led to the Altar, having been "converted" from deacons into priests by the laying on of hands, a consecratory prayer, the Chrismation of our hands, and the repositioning of our stoles from over the left shoulder to around the neck.

I have settled into the living-out of "my" sacrament perhaps no better but no worse than any married persons.  At tonight's RCIA, part two of our matrimonial considerations, the presenter noted how she and her husband didn't fully understand what they were getting into either, what personal changes they would be prompted to make over the years, what joys awaited them.  I mentioned how the priest mentioned above inspired me to adopt the custom of kissing the ring hands of couples whose vows I had just witnessed--a gesture of mutual reverence that priests and married couples should offer because we all build up Christ's Mystical Body.  Earlier today, in talking to the 4th and 5th graders, I offered preliminary premarital formation by talking about the formation of conscience and the blessing of repentance, unique to human beings among all of God's creation by virtue of our will and intellect.  If we but contemplated our own divinized humanity a bit more deeply and a bit more often, who knows what might happen?

The "conversion" of me is only beginning, it seems; but the Altar of God is always the place of "reversion"--where I must return and love to return for the Offering of Peace and Sacrifice of Praise.  Whenever people join me at this altar, I am the richer for it.  Even when I am alone, however, I am never truly alone, for all the angels and saints are there; and soon the Lord of heaven and earth is there.

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Later this morning I will be leaving for the March for Life in Washington, D.C.  It will be blasted cold, I know; but this might be a spiritual boon for someone who doesn't gladly tolerate the winter, or anything else he perceives to be an inconvenience.  Pray for the health and safety of the traveling participants.  Pray especially for all who have participated in abortion by commission, coercion, suggestion, assistance, approval, and governmental support: for the repentance of those who still need it, for the continued growth of all who have repented, and finally, that the enveloping merits of Christ's sacrifice will shake the people of this nation into a new and comprehensive reverence for our own existence and worth.

24 January 2013

Of Hamburger and Filet Mignon

A recent RCIA subject was the Sacrament of Marriage.  While I was the presenter ("A bald-headed barber can cut hair," said a venerable deceased priest of our diocese), there are two Catholic couples who have joined us this year for a refresher course.   I could rely upon them for insights into authentic Catholic marriage, for refutation or support.

On the whiteboard I wrote down Canon 1055.1 as the point of departure:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
I hardly began to unpack that rich definition before a vibrant discussion ensued.  Looking back, I think the catalyst was an early digression on the distinction between celibate (properly defined as "non-marriage") and chaste (sexuality expressed appropriately in one's "state in life," whether married or not).  I do this to myself.  

Former high school students can recall how class discussions often went (imagine the last glug glug glug of the toilet bowl), but we have something greater than high schoolers here.  The average age of the group is, give or take a couple of years, 40.  By this point our good people have had some experience in the gamut of human relationships, certainly once as children, but now as co-workers, spouses, and parents.  They can testify to the blessings of marriage amid some considerable wounds.

By evening's end we basically treated the subject, though not without diversions aplenty.  "We will revisit this topic next week"...and perhaps a few more times, because the marital analogy pervades Catholic theology.  As we adjourned one candidate noted, "When it came to everything else we've learned so far, it was easier to just accept what was being discussed.  But when it came to marriage..."  Yes--marriage and family life are one big fat sensitive nerve that runs through the person and society.  It is akin to the "Bread of Life Discourse" (cf. Jn 6) in terms of its effects on the confounded crowd.   It is the foremost point of departure between All-In Catholics and Cafeteria Catholics.

"Lord, to whom shall we go? The Kardashians aren't even around yet!"

As much as I trembled at the sound of contention, in my heart I rejoiced.  There is no other way for understanding and healing to begin, except in the encounter of truth, undertaken in an atmosphere of brutal honesty and tender acceptance.  "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off" (Gloria Steinem, whom I never ever expected to quote in a post on the Catholic vision of human sexuality).

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A priest I know likes to say, "Why settle for hamburger when you can have Filet Mignon?"  This, chiefly, in regard to Filet Mignon; but also--and, I believe, more pointedly--with respect to the Catholic Church, which still, even in Vatican II, claims to be blessed with the fullness of the means of salvation.

Matthew 25:21

Catholic speakers on the topic of human sexuality (the likes of Christopher West come to mind) might find this metaphor "meat and just" for their purposes.  The contraceptive mentality, whether it is expressed as concubinage, same-sex relations, ipsation (from the Latin ipse, "self"), or the restriction of fertility for egregiously selfish motives, is, no matter how you garnish it, hamburger.

Actually, it is hamburger laced with "mad cow disease": vitiated, unable to fulfill its intended purpose.

For many people sexual activity has no other purpose than to satisfy partners who mutually engage in it, in whatever manner suits them.  The Catholic Church maintains both a proper purpose and a proper manner for sexual expression.  Unlike many of our Protestant brethren--and to the consternation of some Catholics--the Church will neither retract nor qualify this positive Word on the One-Flesh Union.

I constantly witness the noxious effects of self-spoiled sexuality on many penitents and their families.  And Confession isn't the only forum that people don't tend to visit while on a winning streak!  (Whining, maybe.)

We are talking about the deliberate, mechanical and/or chemical separation of the procreative and the unitive purposes of the sexual act.  (I was about to call it the "marital" act, as it once was known; but why must we call it "marital," or why limit its use to that context?)  Last year a secular publication ably described the consequences of the great divorce of openness to new life and reinforcement of the nuptial bond.  Various writers, including a blogger from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), have repeated John Paul II's famous verity: The problem of pornography is not that it shows too much, but that it shows too little.

Everyone has composed his or her own variations of this danse macabre, whether from a more theoretical standpoint or from their own painful experiences.

God knows that people who have made or are preparing to make the solemn promise of chaste celibacy share concupiscence with the laity.  We have our own ill-set, including misplaced resentment and indulgence in "more socially acceptable" vices.  Moreover, our overt violations of commandments six and nine have garnered much publicity in recent years, proving old and prompting new speculation on covert violations.
I may be sounding like a critic of my own kind here, but it's more of an anticipatory volley against expected objections; besides, through working with others I've gotten to recognize and address many things over the years--a lifelong endeavor that gives much joy and saves much trouble.  There's no harm in preemptive honesty that is both accurate and charitable, made by one who knows and who wants to be part of the solution instead of the precipitate!
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With any "adult" audience, inside or outside of the liturgy, I cannot presume that they have heard it all before, or heard it right.  Fulton Sheen, I believe, said that people often hate not the Catholic Church as she really is, but what they suppose the Catholic Church to be.  Even so, they may very well understand what she teaches with regard to certain matters--sexual or otherwise--but their system just isn't accustomed to filet mignon.

Nowadays, whether I'm talking to the 4th graders or to 40 year olds in RCIA, I am plugging character formation--the gentle and determined subjection of the passions to the intellect and will.  "Emotions make an excellent servant, but a poor master."  I try to be consistent with this because, I figure, it's always appropriate to exhort my brothers and sisters in Christ to become more conscious of God's presence in their daily choices.  And I never hesitate to remind them that I am speaking as if to a mirror.

22 January 2013

We Can Grow Beyond Roe

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court that legalized abortion at any stage of pregnancy.  It is no surprise that this has become one of the most hotly-debated matters in our country, with no room for middle ground.  One major political party has legalized abortion in its platform, while the other doesn't.  Recent elections, presidential and otherwise, reveal this near-even split in loyalty and position.

But this matter concerns far more than  "loyalty and position."  It concerns the person, formed in her mother's womb with the faculties of one made to her parents' genetic likeness, and above all, to the Creator's image and likeness.

With and without legal protection--before and since 1973--millions of babies have been lost to abortion.  The current estimation exceeds 50 million, and the ticker increases along the lines of the national debt clock:

What we must "owe" to Roe!
There is no way to quantify the pain--physical, emotional, and spiritual--that a great many women and men experience after their involvement in an abortion.  As a priest I have had the privilege of assisting people along the path of healing, inside and outside the sacrament of Reconciliation.  Pro-Life advocacy must always be fortified by Post-Abortion ministry, lest so many mothers and fathers remain mired in the cauldron of condemnation. 

Speaking of which: the Diocese of Allentown conducts Project Rachel which assists women and men with counseling and a healing retreat opportunity. The toll-free number, which connects you to a real person, is (866) 3-RACHEL.  For more info on the retreats, consult Rachel's Vineyard (

In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae ("The Gospel of Life"), Pope John Paul II reinforced the Church's ardent desire for souls:
I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone's right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life. 
When and how will we recover--or acquire for the first time?--reverence for the unborn child?  What about our equal deficit of respect for life outside the womb?  Our country's embrace of abortion, alongside pandemic violence in schools, streets, social networks, and homes, will not altogether end, but rather will be transcended one encounter, one choice at a time.  Reverence for life is played out in each person's humble and determined subjection of the passions to the intellect and will.  

For this we are eternally grateful: Right now, in the wake of our mistakes, the Lord desires to move us toward repentance, serenity, and change.  If we wish, we can become compassionate witnesses to, and steadfast coworkers in, the goodness of our own existence (3 Jn 1:8).  Perhaps the shipwreck can become a harvest.

20 January 2013

Novena for Life

I link the Patient Reader to "Nine Days of Prayer, Penance, and Pilgrimage," a Novena from the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in commemoration of the Supreme Court Decision Roe v. Wade.

The novena offers prayers and acts of reparation for legalized abortion and its deleterious effects in our country and her citizens.

It comes to you a day late, but if you prayed Day 1 along with another day, God would not mind.

Come Together

In the midst of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the readings for the day (Sat, 1st week in OT, Year I) are rather appropriate.  I used the proper prayers for the BVM Collection Mass for Mary, Mother and Image of the Church.  Mary, specifically Our Lady of Guadalupe, has been called the Star of the New Evangelization.  Because she is mother of God the Son made Flesh, she is also mother of all who are incorporated into Christ through Baptism.  Mary is the greatest contributor to the motive and content of ecumenism.  If this movement is ever to move, she must be involved.

The Catechism has three short sections devoted to ecumenism (820-822, contained within this link).

CCC 820 mentions, "Christ always gives his Church the gift of unity, but the Church must always pray and work to maintain, reinforce, and protect the unity that Christ wills for her."  Our internal unity--our integrity--cannot be taken for granted.  Our times have witnessed this reality.  Statistics galore attest to the division among Catholics regarding doctrinal and moral issues.  These tenets are a "package deal" insofar as they must be accepted as one, and as they tend to be accepted or rejected as one.  There is no room for personal reservations, even though there is no human enforcement of integral acceptance and/or repentance.  Catholics' foursquare embrace of the Faith--in doctrine, liturgy, morality, and prayer--is perhaps the best possible catalyst for the ecumenical movement.  Otherwise, "How can they expect us to be interested if they themselves can't agree?"

821 lists several things that constitute an adequate call to Christian unity:

  • a permanent renewal in our own fidelity (v.s.): the "driving force"
  • conversion of heart, the absence of which causes divisions (v.s.)
  • prayer in common, the "soul" of the movement
  • fraternal knowledge of each other
  • ecumenical formation of clergy and laity
  • dialogue among theologians and members
  • collaboration in service activities
That's a good checklist, an "examination of conscience" for the individual, parish,  deanery, and  diocesan levels.  While the Catholic Church has never backed away from the claim that the true Church of Christ fully subsists in her, this does not give us the right to ignore our brothers and sisters from other faiths.  We have a good number of non-Catholic spouses who attend Mass with their family, and our friendliness toward them has a considerable effect.  This Christmas I made the point, at the beginning of my homily, to include a warm welcome to members of other faiths who came to worship with us (a practice that I first encountered at my first assignment after ordination).  At wedding Masses and funerals, where many attendees are not Catholic, I invite everyone present to pray for the newly married couple/deceased person, as well as for the reunification of all Christians.  As un-ecumenical as it may sound, using homilies and RCIA classes to explain differences between faiths can help everyone to understand the enormity of the task, and perhaps serve as a stimulus to prayer and research.  And we cannot be afraid to give the nod to other faiths for their virtues, as TJ Burdick did very well in this post.

822 reminds us, in fine, that the unification of Christians exceeds our unaided grasp; hence our need to  surrender the outcome to the Lord, who wills it anyhow (Jn 17:21).  Given the considerable, and increasing, differences between Christian communions, we can easily be given to discouragement.  It helps to recall Who is in charge.

One point from the Gospel stood out.  "I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners": You may recall the viral YouTube video that expressed common objections to creedal communities (Catholicism in particular).  Several Catholic responses soon emerged.  The objector cited an old chestnut--that the Church ought not be "a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners."  We would do well to consider the kind of vibes we give off to people who are hurting for whatever reason.  Are we even conscious of the wounds that people in our parishes bear?  We certainly cannot tire of extolling the virtues of the saints and the ways people are called to live; but there must be a way of letting people know that, amid in the various ways they fall short, they have a place here, and a place in the Redeemer's Heart.

17 January 2013

The Current Landscape, and My Roots

Last week I met with a representative from our diocesan Youth and Young Adult  (Y/YA) Ministry.  Hired only recently, she wanted to know more about the history and demographics of our parishes, the strengths and weaknesses of their Y/YA programs, etc., so that the diocese might be better able to support parochial and regional efforts.

We covered the component regarding parish statistics fairly well.  Although I have been serving our parish for only five years while the youth minister was born and raised here, I was able to share what I could regarding our kids' parochial involvement--which is considerable, though greater breadth and depth is always in order.

Eventually the dialogue turned to the age-old question of "How Have Things Gotten This Way and Whatever Can We Do About It?"  I know that we neither solved all the world's problems nor created any, but we were both able to share worthwhile articles on the subject of outreach to the "millennial" generation.

She brought an article from "Group," a print and online publication of  Fortunately the article was available online for free, so here it is for your edification.  The author, Rick Lawrence, was summarizing the observations of Neil Howe, described as a "secular prophet" of generational theory whose insights can help youth ministers understand their charges.

As a priest for the past 9.5 years, two of which were spent as a high school teacher, I have been exposed to this "millennial generation," to its assets and liabilities, its challenges and opportunities.  To some degree, this generation is the product of ours, especially in light of our (GenX's) relatively poor formation in virtue, spirituality, and religion.  We may be the parents of these kids--or, perhaps, their older siblings, uncles/aunts, sponsors for Baptism and/or Confirmation.  Many of us will be developing our own religious sense alongside these children.  As they prepare to receive the Sacraments of Initiation, we will be invited to (re)discover both the content and the commitment of our Catholic faith.

This was the article I offered, from CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.  It suggests that, when it comes to the percentage of young people who are faithful to the Church, the situation is not much different from "olden days."  The tendency to romanticize the past is afoot.  But the informational and social opportunities provided by the Internet are certainly unique, and have had their effects on this generation, to be sure.

Halfway through this "Vocation Awareness Week," I bring my own story to bear upon the matter.
For most of its history my hometown of just over 3,000 souls had eight Catholic churches (Latin and Eastern Rites), though not all had a resident pastor.  I got to know many priests and seminarians of diverse temperament and interests, and spent a fair amount of time with them--at daily and weekend Masses, parish functions, going out to lunch and dinner.  I played the organ for several churches throughout high school, which further increased my exposure to priests on and off-duty.  Without exception, they treated me with respect and compassion, were human and humorous, shared their knowledge of and devotion to the Faith, and encouraged my interest in joining their ranks.
Given the examples whose company I so eagerly kept, I recognized the awesomeness of the priesthood.  At the same time I questioned my spiritual and emotional fitness for the task.  At the earliest possible time (the beginning of my senior year of high school) I began the application process in the hopes that, if this were my vocation, the Lord would help me to grow into it.  Providence continued to supply sound instructors and formators throughout my nine years of seminary, and I continue to draw valuable guidance from priests and laypersons alike.  I am humbled to be a brother and peer to the priests I have known, and I would be humbled and amazed if a young man should list me among the influences that led him to consider the priesthood.

My story, such as I have summarized it above, speaks to one of Mr. Howe's assertions regarding the current generation, to wit, "...Salvation-by-works overshadows salvation-by-faith."  The "Group" author amplifies this point further: "...Millennial kids are far more interested in the what of religion (what can I do?) than the who or the why of religion.  They learn best by doing, not by contemplating."  I have to say that the who and the why of religion were huge selling points for me.  While I could wrap myself up in a blanket of theory and sleep forever, the apostolic activity of the priesthood has grown on me.  Sick calls, hospital visits, teaching in our elementary school, hearing Confessions, engaging engaged couples, helping bereaved families select Scripture readings for a funeral Mass, attending finance council/parish council/school board meetings--this and more is a diocesan priest's daily bread.  Prayer and reflection on the truths of our Faith is not this bread's butter, but its yeast.

As a priest so favorably influenced by priests he knew as a child, I understand the importance of personal interactions with young people.  I admit that I have not fostered as much personal interaction as I had experienced in my youth.  The clergy abuse scandal has had a considerable effect on all parties: priests, children, and parents.  The decreased number of clergy and seminarians (in our diocese, anyhow) is another factor, along with the increase of duties handled by the priests we have.  Nowadays it seems easier/safer for teenagers interested in the priesthood, consecrated life, or any other activity to conduct online research than to pal around with a real live example.  That's a shame.

But for the moment I have no better solutions.  Fidelity to my daily duties, with a visible smile and an encouraging word, is always a good start.

13 January 2013

Water Works

Recently I saw a photo of a former student of mine holding her little goddaughter. I love it when the legacy of care continues into the younger generations. It’s good that they pick up on it, just as their elders did. We need more of that care. As a celebrant of the sacrament of Baptism I am occasionally trusted to hold a child. I know that (especially) parents get "used to it"; but, wow! Holding and beholding a little one is a kind of Eucharistic Reception and Adoration! Such is the pool of miracles in which we wade.

When I teach about the sacraments, I often present a handout that lists the Church’s legal definitions of each of the seven sacraments.  Here’s how Canon Law defines Baptism:
…The gateway to the sacraments and necessary for salvation by actual reception or at least by desire, is validly conferred only by a washing of true water with the proper form of words.  Through baptism men and women are freed from sin, are reborn as children of God, and, configured to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church. (CIC 849)
Gateway: a person cannot receive a sacrament unless he or she has first received Baptism.  This includes the sacrament of matrimony: if a baptized person marries a non-baptized person in the Church, the marriage is valid but not sacramental, because an unbaptized person cannot confer the sacrament of marriage.

Necessary for salvation: we can find evidence for this in the end of Mark’s Gospel (16:15-16) where Jesus hinges salvation on faith and baptism; at the end of Matthew’s He commands the apostles to baptize.  Baptism is the ordinary means to eternal life that our Lord and Savior entrusted to His Church.  God certainly reserves the right to work around it (and who are we to say otherwise?); but like any rule, it wouldn’t have been made in order for exceptions to abound.  God certainly takes account of a person who desires baptism but for whatever reason never actually receives it (especially the person who dies in the preparatory process, which used to happen more often when martyrdom was all the rage).  A family’s desire for baptism would apply to its infants and small children, although one ought not delay very long when baptism is readily available.  
Why haven't you scheduled my Baptism yet?
True water: nothing may be added, and no water-based liquid (e.g. Kool Aid, motor oil) can be used.  

Proper form of words: the “Trinitarian formula” that Jesus prescribes at His Ascension (Mt 28:18-20).

The canon goes on to list the effects of baptism:

Freedom from sin, both the original sin and, for adults, any personal sin committed before baptism.  The effects of sin remain: weakening of the will, darkening of the intellect, confusion from the passions.  Such is the lot of every son or daughter of Adam, but that’s why we rejoice in the gifts of Prayer, Word, and Sacrament that sustain us in making good moral choices, lest we lose our cherished freedom.  

Rebirth: the baptized become “in Christ, a new creature” (2 Cor 5:17).  Like our first birth, the grace of baptism is a gift, unexpected and unmerited.  By it we share in the relations of the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, most notably as sons-by-grace in Him who is Son-by-Nature.  We get to call God our Father, Jesus our Brother, and the Holy Spirit our Advocate and Guide.  As baptized persons we can and should tap into these relations all the time.
How do we "tap into our relationship with the Trinity?"  Prayer; reflection on the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church; participation in the Liturgy; acts of charity...
An “indelible mark”: Baptism is a kind of "spiritual tattoo" that nothing can remove.  Even though mortal sin destroys charity within the heart, there remains an interior identification with God that His mercy and our repentance can restore: this we must never forget, though never take for granted either.  

Insertion into Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church: We become brothers and sisters to one another with the deepest and most enduring bond.  St. Paul designates as the “household of faith” (Gal 6:10) everyone who calls God Father and the Church Mother.  Fellow members of Christ are called to exercise fraternal charity and guidance toward one another.  Unfortunately this is something that we don’t often take as seriously as we could, but it is one of many responsibilities that accompany baptismal grace, along with the command to divine worship and obedience to the moral law.

For an interesting presentation on Jesus' Baptism, click here.
When God became flesh in Jesus, He did not have to undergo any sort of purification rite; but that’s what John’s baptism was.  By submitting to that ritual Our Lord identified most profoundly with sinful man, foreshadowed the plunge of His Passion and Death, and instituted Christian baptism as the ordinary way to share in the fruits of His life, death, and resurrection.  

Baptism starts the believer along a lifelong path of holiness and mission—getting to heaven and bringing along with us whoever we can find.  These are our marching orders, so let us begin!

Tony Bennett with Bill Evans: A Child Is Born (1976)

12 January 2013

Sacramental Sponsorship: Supernatural Selection

My point of departure for this post is a blog post by Fr. Jay Toborowsky of the blog "Young Fogeys" on the subject of the selection and qualifications of a baptismal sponsor (Godparent).

I am not posting the article to dispute with its Reverend Author, nor would I offer my own experiences as a corrective to, or corroboration with, his experience and understanding.  As I see it, we are brother priests who face days that, I sadly note, many elder brother priests are glad to say are more behind them than ahead of them.
"Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days." (Mt 24:19)
This much I can say with certainty: Fr. Toborowsky and all priests want people to grow in appreciation for the dignified role of the Godparent of a Catholic, and a fortiori, the Parent of a Catholic.  In practice, Godparents do not spend the same quality or quantity of time with children as their parents do.  While for various reasons a priest may refuse or defer authorization for a person to be a Godparent, he certainly can't do that for a person to be a parent.  That's God's call.  But the responsibilities of a parent are more grave and immediate, so the challenge is first to be issued to our parents (see image below).

Copyright whoever. It's a Michelin ad, so they can send me a couple of bucks for using their slogan.
Or free tires for life--that'll work.
The Church does not (cannot!) forbid non-practicing Catholics (or non-practicing anything) to be parents; and yet parents are charged to be the "first teachers in the practice of the faith...[and] the best of teachers" (Rite of Baptism).

We don't like to refuse Baptism to a child, though Church Law permits us to defer Baptism (Can. 868)  when the practice of the faith is non-existent--when the child doesn't currently inhabit a "village" that will raise it or a "culture" that will cultivate it.  I suspect that deferral is, in practice, not very common; that priests look for any reason (grasping at straws, even) to baptize.

Furthermore, we don't like to refuse anyone the recognition to be an Auxiliary Parent (to coin a fitting euphemism for godparent). The Romans used to say, "nemo dat quod non habet" (no one gives what he doesn't have), so how can we comfortably attest that a lapsed or weak Catholic will help to raise anything but the same (barring, of course, the grace of God who does far more than we can ever ask or imagine)?

The Church is not cruel, deferring or refusing just so people do what "we" want them to do, to toe the line.  (This creates a climate of tacit approval of laxity, anyhow, and we'd have to answer for that.)  But the Church must not abdicate her role as "mother and teacher" of the faithful.  Like it or not, that role puts priests in the position of enforcing rules that we did not make.  Rules regarding eligibility for sponsorship have in mind people's full religious, spiritual, moral, etceteral flourishing.  We don't want anyone to settle for any sort of mediocrity.

||:   I have to hold myself to the same standard.  Is it too high a standard?  That question, honestly, remains open for me.  Perhaps my lack of committal to high standards of belief and practice is wishy-washy.  Until all Catholics are practicing the Faith with greater devotion, I will encourage people to that devotion, granting permissions as often as possible and refusals as few as possible.  Will this only encourage lax and insincere identification with the Catholic Faith?   :||

10 January 2013

Returning to the Source

The readings for this Christmastide Weekday deliver a one-two punch of humility.  My belligerence must be worn down somehow, and there is no better pugilist than the Lord Himself: "The LORD, your God, who goes before you, is the one who will fight for you, just as he acted with you before your very eyes in Egypt" (Dt 1:30).  

"What's to fight about, who's to fight against?"  Things as they are; me as I am.  Sometimes I spend a fair amount of energy wondering (read: sulking) about why The Shipwrack-Harvest isn't among the blogosphere's best.  Now let's not try to improve the situation, by writing daily, providing more links in articles, covering more timely and (gasp!) controversial topics (or for that matter, more personal, human- and divine-interest stories)!

Here as always, beating my sword into a plowshare (Is 2:4) is the best line of offense.  I will offend the devil, for starters, because he is hell-bent on my dissolution, and he's crafty enough to use something as silly as a blog to accomplish it.  "See!  See!  You can't handle everything on your plate the way it is, and you wanted to start a blog.  Now other areas of your ministry aren't as strong as they'd been, and..."

Oh, what about today's Scripture readings?

Well, there's the paradigmatic passage from Luke 4: Jesus enters the synagogue of Nazareth, this time to read and preach the prophet Isaiah (61:1-2).  Jesus reads the Word of God to the assembly, and "the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him" (Lk 4:20).  That's because He just read the Word of God, for which people have an insatiable hunger.  People may claim not to care for theological commentary and magisterial application, but these (especially the latter) are more than seasonings sprinkled on an otherwise nourishing dish.  Rather the Church's Tradition (which to some extent includes the history of theological gloss) and the Magisterium are staples of the faithful Catholic's diet just as much as Sacred Scripture.
If we were to extend this gastronomic metaphor a bit to say that Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium are like carbohydrates, protein, and fats--all very much necessary for spiritual health--we'd probably be going far afield of our current topic.  ("Dammit Jim--I'm a priest, not a dietician!")
The eyes looked intently; the shepherdless sheep were hungry for teaching (cf. Mk 6:34).  They hadn't suspected that Jesus would feed them Himself: "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing."  You're looking at the Source of what you just heard.

Here's a case of God revealing Himself within human history with all the fanfare of carbon monoxide, or, as C. S. Lewis put it, slipping "clandestinely, behind enemy lines."  The Eternal Word speaks in human words, and now--what?--manifests in human flesh!

 Now burn, new born to the world,        265
            Doubled-naturèd name,
        The heaven-flung, heart-fleshed, maiden-furled
    Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder-throne!
    Not a dooms-day dazzle in his coming nor dark as he came;        270
        Kind, but royally reclaiming his own;
A released shower, let flash to the shire, not a lightning of fire hard-hurled.

(Hopkins, Wreck of the Deutschland, st. 34)

The Word of Love--it's not our bright idea, says John in his first letter: "We love God because he first loved us."  The secular arm of a humanist culture erects statues of itself on the boulevards; but we Christians find the wellsprings of salvation outside of ourselves, though the waters certainly flow therein.

What for the more subtle temptations to rely on unaided human strength?  Take, for example, the angst expressed above concerning this very blog.  I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Lord as the primary Motive and Content for Ship-Har.  With that plan of action, more eyes may look more intently...and maybe not in the form of "hits" on this site, but on Him.

07 January 2013

Ahm In

At Mass this morning, one person's response to "The Body of Christ" sounded like "Ahm in" ("I'm in").

The sound of it, the thought of it, seized me for a moment.  Now there were a dozen or more people still in line, so I couldn't just go off into ecstasy right then.  Getting lost in thought isn't an unfamiliar voyage into unfamiliar territory for me!  But, as one of our Scripture profs used to say, "There's a homily in there somewhere!"  (Or a blog post, I suppose.  But blogs weren't around yet.)  So I wanted to keep the idea fresh.

She was receiving the Eucharist, the Body of Christ.  As a fully initiated Catholic she certainly is a member of Christ's Mystical Body.  The recipient of Holy Communion is affirming both dimensions of Christ's Body: two, for the price of One.

The expression Amen derives from the Hebrew word 'emet meaning "truth."  To say "Amen," then, is to affirm the truth.  It does not make truth out of falsehood (for not even God can do that), but it does perfect the one who consciously, freely, and repeatedly assents to a reality outside of himself.

Apud te est fons vitae, et in lumine tuo videbimus lumen (Ps 36:10)
What does the communicant affirm in receiving "the Body of Christ"?  Everything: in terms of the Church's Catechism, we affirm--personally and communally--right doctrine, right worship, right living, and right praying.  The public act of receiving Holy Communion suggests that the recipient is standing (kneeling!) with the Church.  If not, then the person must first "examine himself" (1 Cor 11:28) before approaching the altar.  In nuptial parlance: drop your bouquet, run out of the church (don't mind everyone quizzically looking at you, wondering if there'll still be a reception), and clarify the relationship before declaring your vows.

Now a person's intellectual and moral difficulties--even ten thousand of them--do not equal one doubt (said Cardinal Newman).  Everyone is involved in some sort of struggle, or failure to demonstrate precise correspondence of beliefs and actions.  But the intentional reservation of one's "better judgment" over against the Church is risky--it's far more than risky.  A prompt and earnest beginning to resolve our difficulties always seems appropriate.

All, of course, in the interest of our full investment of self in the Catholic Enterprise, better known as the Body of Christ.  Can I hear an "Ahm in?"

The moment of truth, hands down

05 January 2013

Gags and Gifts

Non timeo Danaos et dona ferentes

For many years the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen would preach a sermon on Good Friday at the Church of Saint Agnes in New York City on the topic of the “Seven Last Words” of Jesus.  (For many years I wondered, “How could they call them the 'Seven Last Words,' when the last thing Jesus said wasn’t seven words long?”)  With characteristic erudition and wit, Sheen would connect Jesus’ Passion Pronouncements to other lists of seven.  These were long sermons, but the time was well spent because of both the message and the messenger!

It occurred to me that today’s feast of the Epiphany could provide a regular opportunity to preach on the “Three Gifts” from the Magi.  Two obstacles come to mind: first, I could not approximate the content or style of Bishop Sheen, and second, another preacher in our parish is fond of presenting three major points in his homilies.  But since 2013 is as good a year as any for overcoming obstacles, here we go with a meditation on the Three Gifts of the Magi and the Three Secular Sins in the first letter of St. John (2:16).
A little background on the Secular Sins might be helpful.  John writes his primary epistle to oppose the spread of Gnostic Docetism into the fledgling Church.  “Gnostic Docetism” is a two-for-one heresy.  The Docetists claimed that Jesus appeared as man, but didn’t actually assume human nature because that would be “coming too close” to us peons; the Gnostics considered Jesus as a mere stepping stone to higher knowledge of God as if such knowledge were an “exclusive offer not available in stores.”  The antidote to spiritual poison, then and now, is twofold: right teaching and right living.  If you want to know the Father, encounter the Son, specifically as one who has assumed true flesh and shed true blood.  If you want to know the Son, encounter the Church, who is known by her obedience to the Commandments, loving God and loving neighbor.  St. John addresses various subgroups in the community to encourage them that they do, in fact, know Christ.  They don’t have to wait for any secret teachings, as the Gnostics would have them believe.  Jesus’ companions know Him because, as John says, “your sins have been forgiven for His name’s sake” (2:12).  But knowledge alone doesn’t guarantee right action, nor is it a one-way ticket to everlasting life.  As John later relates, the awareness of being God's children, with its promise of likeness to Him, must lead to purity of life (cf. 3:1-2).
Whatchu talkin' about, Satan?

The evil one continues to assail us with temptations as he assailed Jesus en route to His public ministry. By His fidelity in the wilderness Jesus manifested Himself as Victor over Satan; and we share in that victory when we reject “the things of the world” (2:15)—a discordant tune that John summarizes in three notes: (1) sensual lust, (2) enticement for the eyes, and (3) a pretentious life.  The offerings of the Magi are suitable substitutes for these vicious patterns.

Sensual lust may be considered more broadly as physical gratification.  When pursued as an end in itself, gratification becomes a shortcut to forgetting God and neighbor. God made our bodies, so they’re good: this point can’t be emphasized enough, if only because our gainsayers accuse us of hating the flesh.  It’s actually the lustful, gluttonous, and slothful persons who have a hard time giving the body due reverence and care.  Consider the Magi’s gift of myrrh: a perfume, a bodily adornment.  Later in the Gospel, myrrh appears once again, when the holy women bring it to the Lord’s tomb to anoint His dead body—an act of reverence and care.  The body of Christ deserved such treatment and so do our bodies.  Reverence, however, is not pampering, for it involves the sacrifice of one’s own desires and energies.  To live this way in the world is a prophetic witness.  Modesty draws attention because it seems like a judgment upon the indulgent; at the very least, it seems novel.
Enticement for the eyes refers to the bulging of the eyes and the shrinking of the heart at the sight of another’s blessings, which are viewed as a threat to one’s own.  In the acquisition of goods, there are two extremes to avoid.  One extreme is to claim for oneself the supreme right to get whatever one wants, by whatever means, at whoever’s expense.  The Gospel parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) assigns a bleak outcome to the person who pays no attention to the person in need.  Yet we also avoid such distrust of the human person that discourages or forbids private property.  The Catechism has a splendid paragraph (1884) on how God’s respect for human freedom is the model for human governance.  The Magi’s gift of gold bears witness to Our Lord’s kingly state.  Gold is the “wealth of nations” about which Isaiah speaks—the treasure of the Gentiles, who have now been invited to share in the promise of salvation furnished by the Holy Child of Nazareth. God’s chosen and beloved people have freely shared their wealth for the benefit of every person of every place and time.
The third worldly vice, a pretentious life, is best illustrated in the depiction of just about any celebrity’s life.  But it has less to do with wealth or fame than with how people carry themselves—what rights and privileges they claim, a quick disdain for whoever doesn’t meet their qualifications, the impression of self-importance they give off, as noticeable as a cologne bath.  Of course, it’s always easier to notice someone else’s more egregious displays of vanity.  We may be drawn to the guilty pleasure of television shows that we can watch with the satisfaction, perhaps laced with gratitude, of knowing that “I’m not that bad.”  Perhaps not, and thank God for it.  But we seek the disposition that corresponds to the Magi’s offering of frankincense: a priestly, worshipful attitude, eager to observe and acclaim the virtues and achievements of others.  In the seminary I had several friends who had such a disposition.  As an amateur organist, I always admired the talents of the organists who would enter the seminary in the course of my nine years of study.  Several of them were professionally trained.  But they were often quick to compliment me when they enjoyed something I played.  The lesson: “File this under your cap, Chris, so that you can ‘go and do likewise’ in your day, starting this day!”  Many opportunities have indeed surfaced; sad to say, I haven’t taken them all, so I ought not be surprised about the many melancholy moments I’ve had, which tend to be quickly transformed by making a sincere and hearty compliment.
The life of virtue, marked by prompt giving and grateful receiving, is what St. John might call “the will of God.”  His presentation of the secular sins concludes with aphorisms reminiscent of the prophet Isaiah and the prophet Jesus: “Yet the world and its enticement are passing away.  But whoever does the will of God remains forever” (2:17).  The Magi followed the will of God to its very Source, a humble stable in an out-of-the-way place.  Their hearts were open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, who led them to appreciate a light that wasn’t their own, to adopt a fresh, spiritual way of thinking and acting.  That was their true gift, and it’s meant for us as well.