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

31 August 2013

Disparity of Cult

On this Labor Day weekend I helped to distribute Holy Communion at the 4:15pm Vigil Mass. A surge of nostalgia and comfort came upon me during the first notes of the Communion Hymn, "Come To Me" by former Benedictine monk Gregory Norbet. As a church organist I enjoyed playing and singing this hymn, for the lyrics are entirely biblical, if paraphrased. I was surprised to hear that the author has supplied more verses than the first, which had been the only one in the "PMB" (the various editions of the People's Mass Book, some of which are still used in our diocese).

I experience no small relief when I hear liturgical music that is entirely biblical, as opposed to the self-centered palaver that started hitting the shelves at about the same time as the aforementioned PMB. Numerous friends, priests and laity alike, have taken significant strides toward Catholic musical renewal in their parishes with the re-introduction (whether total or--pardon the pun--gradual) of Gregorian Chant. The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy reaffirmed that chant and organ are the primary forms of liturgical music. But whatever instrument or text we use to lift our voices to Almighty God, it is far better to praise Him than to praise ourselves.

After the Communion Hymn, our organist broke into her four-measure introduction to God Bless America, by Irving Berlin. The cantor began singing, but most of the assembly waited to chime in until "land that I love" or so. While I was heading into the sacristy to purify the sacred vessels, I began to harmonize along with the organ arrangement. Our people certainly did justice to this patriotic anthem.
A parishioner gently made an observation to me as I greeted people in a side vestibule. "Father, I couldn't help but notice how everyone sang so loud when the organist played God--"

I knew where she was headed, because it often occurs to me as well.

"--but they don't participate nearly as fully in the hymns, do they?" I responded, to a nodding head.

This is one of those weekends in which American worshippers of all faiths will belt out the patriotic songs played in their services. A lot of justifiable roof-raising!

But for some reason we have to get all solemn for the psal-ums (pronounced as my late father and other Coal Region natives sometimes pronounce film, improperly adding a schwa to make it a two-syllable word--the technical term is "epenthesis")!  Solemn as in unnecessarily reticent.

"Well, everybody knows 'America the Beautiful,' but not everybody knows 'O Bread of Life.'" "Well, if they're Catholic, why not?"

Patriotic songs honor our country, and yes, they honor the God to whom we look for protection and guidance; but sacred songs glorify God, the Mysteries of Faith, Our Lady, and all the rest, often (ideally) using the Lord's own words!

Why can't we sing them with equal gusto? Do we worship our country more than our God? I would imagine not, but it is a question worth considering. It encourages us to guard against the temptation to reduce patriotism to something we pull off the shelf on civil holidays or in times of national distress. We can keep God at arm's length as easily as anyone or anything else. A vapid civil religion suffices for many people, but it cannot suffice for faithful Catholics, especially as we hear the call to subject even our love of country to our love of God and divine values.

29 August 2013

Let's Hear It For Alphabetical Order!

While scrolling through the iPod this evening, I noticed the curious juxtaposition of two works: a dramatic reading of The Habit of Perfection by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the song "Had To Cry Today" by Blind Faith. (Both selections are available on iTunes.) I was first introduced to Hopkins by the poetry section in the back of the four-volume Liturgy of the Hours, and to Blind Faith by a seminary classmate. For the Patient Reader's convenience I shall offer both selections:

ELECTED Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:        5
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:        10
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust        15
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!        20
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride        25
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

It's already written that today will be one to remember
The feeling's the same as being outside of the law
Had to cry today
Well, I saw your sign and I missed you there

I'm taking the chance to see the wind in your eyes while I listen
You say you can't reach me but you want every word to be free
Had to cry today
Well, I saw your sign and I missed you there
And I missed you there

Had to cry today ...

More lyrics:

I propose a relationship between the content of these poetic works. Hopkins writes in praise of the consecrated, vowed ("elected" as in freely chosen) religious life. It is the avenue to perfection: the ever-deepening relationship with the Trinity which finds its consummation in heaven.

The standard spiritual supposition is that people move swiftly along the path to spiritual progress by sensory self-denial. Hopkins provides examples: intentionally forgoing conversation and other forms of external noise (ll. 1-8), visual delights (9-12), gustatory pleasures (13-16), pleasant odors (17-20), tactile comforts (21-24), and all that money can buy (25-28). Thus he corroborates the Lord's contention that the consecrated person will receive "a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (Mt 19:29), in eternity if not in time.

The firm of Clapton, Winwood, Baker, and Grech support Hopkins' case (unwittingly, I'm sure) in "Had To Cry Today." We regret ignoring opportunities to connect. Perhaps one of the worst purgatorial pains will be a video montage of what could have been if we'd paid more attention to God and to people during our lives. We happily recall, however, that Divine Providence is the backdrop for such footage; for, even if we failed to bridge an unfortunate gap, God is bigger than all the dramatis personae in the human story.

It is likewise important to note that our interior recollection makes it easier to recognize the signs of God's presence and human need. Our periodic purification efforts might be only a shadow of others' efforts, but we profit by them by becoming clearer channels of compassion.

25 August 2013

On Sin and Hell

We need to learn the realities of our holy faith so that they can strengthen God’s relevance in our lives. Understood, the right knowledge doesn’t automatically translate to the right actions. That’s why they told us in the seminary that "theology is best conducted on one’s knees": the enthusiastic fusion of learning, praying, and doing is what God and the Church are looking for, and what the world could use.

So let’s talk about hell, why don’t we? 
H-E-double-hockey-sticks. If you weren’t just a wee bit stirred over what Our Lord was saying today, you’d better check your pulse. Hell has all but ceased to occupy people’s minds, because sin has done likewise. Call me a downer, but these topics are worth revisiting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a brief section specifically on hell; it devotes only five paragraphs to the topic (1033-1037), but they’re meaty.

A mortal sin is a conscious and free choice against God, neighbor, or self in a serious matter. It results in our alienation from God, from neighbor, and from self. St. John, in his first epistle, reminds us, “He who does not love remains in death” (3:14). A callous and mindless neglect to make a good choice (a "sin of omission") achieves the same result. In the parable of the judgment of the nations, the king chastens those who failed to assist the hungry, thirsty, naked, ill, or imprisoned in their needs (cf. Mt 25:42-45). To die in this situation without repenting and accepting God’s mercy is to be forever alienated from the Source of our life and from all who have remained connected to that Source, the blessed. Hell is a “just punishment,” but the Judge acts without vengeance or impulsiveness, as we so often do. 
The only hope, or else despair
     Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
   To be redeemed from fire by fire.
(T.S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," Four Quartets)
Jesus depicts hell as “an unquenchable fire,” while Dante envisions the depths of hell as icy and frigid. Either way, it is a stifling atmosphere in which we will feel “out of place,” but permanently. I say “out of place,” because God’s children were not made for eternal torment and separation, but rather for eternal peace and union. God's love for us nonetheless respects our freedom, the freedom even to reject Him if we wished. By the use or misuse of that freedom we "prepare" for our eternal dwelling —as much as one can prepare, anyhow, for just as the joys of heaven exceed our imagination, so do the pains of hell.

The Church’s teachings on sin and hell serve to call human beings to responsibility and conversion. The sooner the better, we want to grow in communion with the Lord so that we can place our personal desires in the greater context of His love that we are called to share with others. This is a lifelong, difficult endeavor. It involves discipline, as our second reading notes: not only God’s discipline over us (which we usually consider punishment), but also (especially!) the self-discipline that heals and strengthens us for worship and service.

+ + + + +

We cannot ever forget that God is on our side in this endeavor. He wants you to succeed, and He wants to restore you when you fail! The Church’s liturgical prayer puts flesh on the Lord Jesus’ prayer “that all may be one” in love of God and neighbor. Nourished by the sacred Fruit of that Liturgy, we put flesh on that prayer by our daily choices.

24 August 2013

The Church of God, To Be Precise, Welcomes You

I was startled to learn of recently-approved revisions to the Rite of Baptism of Infants. According to the Catholic News Service, it was one of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's last decisions, along the lines of the addition of the name of St. Joseph to the second, third, and fourth Eucharistic Prayers.

What might we conclude about the nature of the Church: Were these acts a kind of eleventh-hour move for Pope Benedict? or does Holy Mother Church move so slowly that the decisions moved through the channels, finally to the Ecclesial News Desk. as late as they did? Who cares?

To review:

After the minister of Baptism asks two questions that we so often take for granted (each one post-worthy in its own right): "What name have you given your child/ren?" and, "What do you ask of God's Church for [your child/ren]?" the minister succinctly reminds the parents about the spiritual and religious responsibilities. Then he secures the parents' understanding of these, as well as the godparents' commitment to assist the parents in discharging their parental duties.

Finally, immediately before the Liturgy of the Word, the sacred minister will henceforth say the following: "[Oscar/Matilda], the Church of God welcomes you with great joy."

Previously, the rite read, "[Oscar/Matilda], the Christian community welcomes you with great joy."

Once before on this blog I modified Tip O'Neill's dictum "All politics is local" by replacing "politics" with "religion." I do not rescind that statement (although my end-of-life Retractationes will likely include many things I said from the pulpit, in classes, in beer gardens, etc.). But sometimes a little context helps.

Philosophy talks about how the universal is found in the particular (though I will leave it to the first beer garden dwellers, the philosophers, to discuss the finer points). I have a homily to finish.

In my own untutored words:
While the particular parish may happen to be the place of welcoming for little Oscar or Matilda, that parish is the local instance of the One, Holy, Catholic (kata holon, "according to the whole"), and Apostolic Church, where "what it means to participate in The Church of God" is most fully found: a parish united to its diocese, itself in communion with the Sovereign Pontiff, the Bishop of Rome.

Earlier I had received the impression that the changes to the Rite would include a brief elaboration on "the Church of God" that would include the hotly contested words, "subsists in," found in the eighth paragraph of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium; the quotation in its immediate context, along with some discussion, is lovingly lifted from Wikipedia):
This Church constituted and organized in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure. These elements, as gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, are forces impelling toward catholic unity.
Haec Ecclesia, in hoc mundo ut societas constituta et ordinata, subsistit in Ecclesia catholica, a successore Petri et Episcopis in eius communione gubernata, licet extra eius compaginem elementa plura sanctificationis et veritatis inveniantur, quae ut dona Ecclesiae Christi propria, ad unitatem catholicam impellunt.
According to my original impression, the words of the elaboration were the words in red type, but I gathered from the CNS article that the Church's Congregation for Divine Worship used those words to explain the motive for the change. (Whew!)

Had that amplification been the actual revision, the baptizing priest or deacon would be presuming of the whole assembly a basic understanding of the statement and its theological underpinnings. (Not bloody likely!) However, even if "the Church of God" is as far as it shall go, that phrase could be variously understood by all persons attending the baptism, and would therefore merit a succinct and accurate explanation by the baptizing minister. (No doubt the pre-Jordan instructor also might take the opportunity to explain the phrase!)

Properly handled, this and every word in the Liturgy can become what the Church of God's entire sacred Liturgy is: a moment for evangelization and catechesis...which might well incite some interesting dialogue after the ceremony, if anyone cares (or remembers) to discuss it.
Obiter dictum: We have bled much on the subject of "The Church of God," but theologians, priests, deacons, catechists, and other detail-dealing persons must not forget the words "welcomes you with great joy," and must endeavor to convey that joyful welcome in the celebration of Baptism and indeed in every execution of their sacred craft.
Starting with this priest.

22 August 2013

A Steady Paycheck

I watched Ghostbusters when it first ran in the theater. It was among the earliest films I remember attending, which fact hints at my age. The character and lines of Winston Zeddemore didn't particularly stand out, until a TV show or something reminded me of this credo: "I'll believe in anything if there's a steady paycheck in it." As it turns out, that's not quite what he said. Nay rather, as Wikipedia tells:
Questioned extensively during his application by Janine Melnitz as to whether he believed in a large number of supernatural occurrences and beings (such as UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster and the theory of Atlantis among others), Zeddemore replied, "If there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say."

Macht nichts; it stands nonetheless, for me, as an axiom of our time. I have variously applied it in recent years. Tonight it came to me after glancing at a piece of paper and seeing a surname that triggered the memory of two other persons of that surname (likely unrelated to the person on the paper) who entered the Church years before.

The Big Deal: Not very long after their initiation, they stopped attending Mass. Despite a handful of earnest, welcoming encounters (I hope they were!), and about as many faint expressions of interest in further conversation and promises to return to Mass, nothing materialized. (Now watch they come back, to confound me! I'll take it.)

The sight of the names and subsequent rumination stirred a bushel of assorted fruits: anger, fear, and sadness. These are a kind of unholy trinity: always present and active together, though in the moment of revelation we tend to notice only one of them.

Anger: Often the first and loudest in the trinity. It often takes the form of rash judgments and sarcastic suspicions. An example: "People join so that they don't have to pay a non-Catholic tuition rate (a "steady paycheck" of sorts)!" "He came in just to get a sponsorship letter for his niece's Confirmation." "We have a pretty church with a long aisle, great musicians and great parking (all true), and we won't see them again until the baptism of their first child."

Fear: It lurks underneath, and for me it's a close second to, anger. "What am I doing wrong?" "The system has to be fouled up! How can we possibly remediate it and retain these people?" "How much longer can the Church, or our parish, last like this?"

Scratch the surface and find the seeds of those fruits (including but not at all limited to): high expectations; low estimation of/belief in human nature; weak organization, preparation, and follow-up in the RCIA process.

Sometimes anger can be righteous, but I can't lay much legitimate claim to that. It gets really dangerous whenever somebody like me tries to back up my peeves with Divine Sanctioning!  Sometimes my fears are well-founded, or at least they hold some truth. I am not the best organizer of things and persons. It takes a parish to raise a convert (not to mention the "wealth of nations" that we call the Communion of Saints)!

Sadness: The unholy spirit at the heart of it all. Discouragement is spiritual cancer (of the heart--cor).  One synonym is "disillusionment." Put that way, it's not so bad: after all, what's so good about illusions? Face it: people use the Church. In a sense, she puts herself out there to be used. It's an occupational hazard, when your occupation is the steady paycheck of Unconditional Love.

It's sad that venal incentives could possibly, in anyone's case, prompt them to enter the Catholic Church or to seek our "services."
Since Churches have started to look like superstores, have people been starting to use them so? Has the Parish Office become a Customer Service desk, as if "the Parishioner is always right," Divine or Canon Law be damned?
It is sad that many people are not so "entranced by the beauty before [them]" as to keep coming to Mass and draw ever nearer to the Audible and Tangible Lord who reveals Himself therein. It is sad that the beauty of Catholic doctrine, liturgy, morality, and prayer can be obscured by...priests, parishioners, trite music, McChurches, and other representatives of our holy faith.

God's Love is indeed unconditional, but somehow that truth is balanced against the conditions of law and the just consequences of bad choices. It is sad that people get themselves in complicated situations as a result of the abuse of their freedom.

But shall I say that it is sad that God trusts people so much as to reveal His wisdom, power, and love through feeble signs, to feeble senses? I cannot and dare not, for that trust is itself a manifestation of divine Love. "I would let you reject Me, for otherwise you could never love Me."

15 August 2013

Marathon Man [Of The Cloth]

In the profile section of this blog, I mention that I am a "dedicated runner." I graduated from power-walking in 1999, as part of an effort to change numerous undesired lifestyle habits. Over the years I have stepped away and returned, sometimes in favor of weightlifting (though you could never tell), sometimes in favor of laziness (then, you could tell).

In the past three years things have been getting pretty serious. Runs entered double-digit territory. I started reading books on running, including a terrific one called Running Shorts, written by Schuylkill County educator Joe Muldowney. I found A Running Start, a great place to buy gear and to get good advice. Last May I began to experience mild to moderate discomfort, but I am happy to say that, through the efforts of an orthopedist and a chiropractor, my condition has been improving.

You know how an idea can get stuck in your head? It seemed that everyone had run a marathon. "26.2" magnets passed me on the highway and in town. Even though I did one 5-miler while in the seminary and for the past three years have participated in a 5K that benefits a local religious community, I do not consider myself a competitive runner, neither against myself nor anyone else.

That said, having had enough of that pesky marathon bug, I decided to register for one. After a bit of research I found one that suited me because of its timing and proximity: the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon. It's coming up on 8 September, which happens to be Our Lady's Birthday and the ninth anniversary of my father's death. Those two persons are dear to me, so I will remember them happily as I put one foot in front of the other at (I hope) no less than a nine-minute-mile pace.

Speaking of pace, I would like to finish in under four hours. That would require a 9:09 pace. I suspect I'll be faster than that--perhaps 8:30 to 8:40, which would put me at around 3h45m. In order to do this, I can't "gambol like a calf out of the stall" (Malachi 4:2). No matter how fast I start, by mile 20 my legs will likely have the consistency of Cheez Whiz. Having completed one 20-mile run (my longest to date, ever) almost two weeks ago at about 8:15/m, and facing a 22-miler on Monday, this whole long-haul pacing thing is still rather new. Better to have run my first marathon slower than I could have, than to have started too quickly and "hit the wall" before hitting the finish line.

(Did I say "my first marathon"? Yes, I did.)

My commitment to running thus far has had terrific effects on my "numbers": body weight/body fat; cholesterol; blood pressure and pulse. It has also bolstered my psyche. Friends, family, and parishioners know that I can lapse into negativity and sadness very easily, despite many blessings, talents, and advances to which I can attest and for which I thank the Lord. I cannot imagine how it would be if I didn't run!

I must admit, then, that I'm not doing this simply to pacify a gnawing interest. Whether it's their first or hundredth (Joe Muldowney has over 50 behind him!), marathon runners can cite a great accomplishment in their lives. Whatever their pace, dedicated runners and walkers are doing something good for themselves. Best of all, because we are God's children and temples of His Spirit, we are attesting to a Creator whose creations can perform feats of tremendous strength and endurance.

I am blessed to be the Assistant Pastor of a parish who also has a retired priest helping out most weekends, which means that any of us can take a rare Saturday or Sunday off without having to scramble for coverage. (It will not always be so!) That's another reason why I don't do many races--they tend to be held on Sunday mornings, and I work on Sunday mornings! I may be the only Catholic priest competing in this marathon, but one never knows.

Since Via is a good cause, I agreed to raise funds. There's still time to donate, so click here if you're interested. Of course, prayers (for the cause and for my successful completion) are always gratefully received!

14 August 2013

Reading "The Wreck," Stanzas 24-27


            Away in the loveable west,
            On a pastoral forehead of Wales,
        I was under a roof here, I was at rest,
            And they the prey of the gales;
    She to the black-about air, to the breaker, the thickly
    Falling flakes, to the throng that catches and quails        190
        Was calling ‘O Christ, Christ, come quickly’:
The cross to her she calls Christ to her, christens her wild-worst Best.

            The majesty! what did she mean?
            Breathe, arch and original Breath.
        Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?        195
            Breathe, body of lovely Death.
    They were else-minded then, altogether, the men
    Woke thee with a we are perishing in the weather of Gennesareth.
        Or is it that she cried for the crown then,
The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combating keen?        200

            For how to the heart’s cheering
            The down-dugged ground-hugged grey
        Hovers off, the jay-blue heavens appearing
            Of pied and peeled May!
    Blue-beating and hoary-glow height; or night, still higher,        205
    With belled fire and the moth-soft Milky Way,
        What by your measure is the heaven of desire,
The treasure never eyesight got, nor was ever guessed what for the hearing?

            No, but it was not these.
            The jading and jar of the cart,        210
        Time’s tasking, it is fathers that asking for ease
            Of the sodden-with-its-sorrowing heart,
    Not danger, electrical horror; then further it finds
    The appealing of the Passion is tenderer in prayer apart:
        Other, I gather, in measure her mind’s        215
Burden, in wind’s burly and beat of endragonèd seas.

I was at rest: The first half of stanza 24 comes to mind when I think of my brother priests (or their charges) who are serving in the military. While other noble souls are in the storm--whatever form the storm may take--I have nothing to complain about. Pope Francis called upon priests to acquire the scent of their flock by engaging deeply in their service. Smell like seminarians, high-school students, the elderly, prisoners, or anyone else--just be out there among them!  That's what Hopkins was doing in his particular setting, so I don't believe that Hopkins was considering his academic responsibilities as a sinecure.  It is neither proper nor helpful to compare one person's task to another's. If both do their best, working prayerfully, rigorously, and generously, God be praised!

Christ, come quickly: The recent story of the "Missouri Mystery Priest" (upon which I reflected here) tells of an alter Christus who responded to an emergency call with prayer, encouragement, and sacramental ministration. The teenage accident victim thought enough to call out for prayer at that crucial moment. The swift and cautious attention of emergency personnel is a very real kind of prayer, so if they didn't answer the young woman's request vocally, I'd understand. The second responder--the priest--surely made a vocal response!

I'd like to think that any of us priests would do that, but then I'd have to reflect on whether I'd do that!

As a newly-ordained priest I was driving back to the rectory from a visit home when I noticed police and emergency vehicles gathered at the side of a road. I stopped farther down the road and, oil stock in hand, marched over to the site. A car had lost control, broke through a guard rail, and fallen down the embankment. I hailed a responder, identified myself as a Catholic priest, and asked whether there was anything I could do. The gentleman declined, and, tail between my legs, I proceeded back to my car. On the way I muttered something to myself that revealed my ethnic and religious biases. "Catholics wouldn't have refused me." As usual, it's not about me!

Since that day I think I may have stopped once at an accident scene. Nowadays I offer a blessing and a prayer as I drive by, amid the occasional interior conviction of (1) being the priest or the Levite who passed by the beating victim, or (2) wanting to be the poster boy for the priesthood. When the opportunity presents itself again, I pray that I will respond as the Holy Spirit prompts.

But automobile accidents aren't the only kind of storm that calls for Christ to come quickly. It could be the ring of the doorbell, the tap on the shoulder, the "Father, do you have a minute for a quick Confession?", the page for me to answer the phone or hospital beeper, the e-mail, or whatever.

What did she mean? Hopkins asks the "arch and original Breath," the Holy Spirit, to help him to answer that question. Is the Spirit ("love in her") within the nun, "making intercession for the saints" (cf. Rom 8:27) through her plea? For the nun, death is "lovely." By her cry she is welcoming death and the Christ Who comes to people precisely through death. Another option Hopkins considers is the "crown" of martyrdom, the crown of life (cf. Rev 2:10). That, too, comes only through death; and usually an unpleasant one, for all its reward. The disciples gathered in the wind-tossed boat (Mt 8:23ff), flushed with fear, didn't seem to be thinking of a glorious witness for their Master; rather they were crying for divine rescue. On a purely human level, the terror of the moment suffices for anyone to wish it were all over.

The keener to come at the comfort for feeling the combatting keen: That's just a smartly alliterative way of saying, "The crown [of everlasting life] is a terrific reward for this mortifying wind."

"How do you spell relief?" In Stanza 26 Hopkins draws upon natural sources of cheer: the breaking of gloomy storm-clouds to reveal sunny or starlit skies. Then he polls the reader for his own "heaven of desire" that surpasses even the delight of the senses.

So, what did she mean anyhow? Hopkins returns to the earlier question to rule out the idea that the storm (in its myriad forms) drove her to petition for Christ's coming. "The jading and jar of the cart" (another Wreck favorite) refers to the physical, mental, and emotional erosion that often happens to laborers. The actual meteorological event is insufficient to render her virtuous or to conform her to the impassioned Christ. The mere experience of hardship doesn't of itself make a saint out of a sinner. Prayer and meditation--conscious and free alignment of the soul to God--contribute to that lifelong effort.

We imagine that this nun communicated fondly and often with her Master, so she must not have considered her present plight as an example of His absence--a gap that God might bridge, if He wanted to, by arriving, oils in hand, on the scene.

09 August 2013

A Human and Divine Interest Story

By now you may have heard about the "Angel Priest" who attended to Katie Lentz, a young woman who wrecked her car in Missouri. Like countless other stories, this one has made the virtual rounds with all speed; except this is a good story!

Despite the apparent absence of a man dressed as a priest from every photograph of the accident scene, every player in that scene has attested to his presence and activity. He came seemingly out of nowhere when the woman asked for someone to pray aloud with her. He prayed with the woman. He sprinkled her and some of the rescue workers with holy oil (she probably wasn't easily accessible for the standard anointing procedure--on the forehead and hands; the first responders would have appreciated any divine outreach). He assured everyone that the workers could reposition the car on all fours without further threat to the woman's health and safety.

Only by the time the workers thought to thank this priest for his reassuring service, he had disappeared.

Was he an actual angel disguised as a priest? Was he an actual priest who served as a kind of angel in this circumstance? Perhaps these and other questions will remain unanswered as Ms. Lentz continues to recover.

Some have noted that this incident occurred on the memorial of St. John Marie Vianney, patron saint of priests. Making connections of this sort is a Catholic thing. Nearly every day of the year we honor a saint who has played his or her unique part in salvation history. From heaven these saints continue to intercede for God's kids. Parish priests, the foot soldiers of the Lord's army, go about the Lord's daily business in the rectory, the school, the hospital and nursing home, the neighborhood and the prison. Apparently this priest--who bore no resemblance to the only parish priest in the area--had a job to do on the highway.

People soon will move on from this remarkable report, but perhaps they will consider God's hidden workings among His troubled flock. "God has visited His people" (Lk 7:16).

02 August 2013

Vitality, Worship, Mission: A Tale of Three World Youth Days

I've just about had my fill of coverage and commentary on Pope Francis's notorious airplane interview. If I were dedicating the present post to that interview, I would title it "Takes On A Plane." Instead, I offer Timothy Cardinal Dolan's thoughtful and polished reflections for your reading.  As for another voice on the Church's teaching (not connected to the Pope's interview), I offer Deacon Greg Kandra's fine summary via Catholic News Service. That is all.

My World Youth Day (hereafter, WYD) post has to do with the theme of the occasion, which I presume the Holy Father announces sometime beforehand. This year's theme was "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19).  Here is the Vatican's official list of the WYD themes.

I attended two WYDs: Denver (1993) and Cologne (2005). Following are some reflections on the personal relevance of those celebrations.

Denver: I came that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10)

This event lay at the threshold of my senior year of high school. By that point I had already decided to apply to the seminary, so I didn't need the Denver experience to solidify that decision. I later learned that a number of priestly and religious vocations came out of Denver, and that WYD had such an effect on many attendees.

It was one of my first experiences away from home for more than a couple of days, and the farthest I'd ever been away from home. It was also my first experience sleeping out in the open air. (I wasn't a boy scout, as you might have surmised.) But I was in good company--a million or so enthusiastic young people, including several high school classmates and future seminary contemporaries.

I got to know several of our diocesan priests on that trip. I was ready to say that Denver helped to make priests human to me, but that's not true: all the priests I've known were human to me, even as I knew them in my pre-teen and teenage years. Perhaps I put them on a pedestal, but only with the hopes of being able to reach that pedestal someday, not to be able to knock them down from it. One of the priests in our company noticed my fondness for the bean, and we enjoyed it together on a few occasions. He and I don't get together for coffee anymore, but he does come over for dinner and I sometimes preach for his annual Miraculous Medal Novena.

The site of the closing Mass with John Paul II, Cherry Creek State Park, was a hot mess. People were passing out as if slain in the Spirit. During the Mass I volunteered to refill three or four canteens at one of the water sites a good distance away. I really wasn't sure where the spigot was, so I just followed people. Talk about a journey of faith! When I finally arrived, there was quite a queue. An inch at a time, I arrived and started filling. It was awkward enough to carry them there, but now that they were full, it was harder. Partway back to our group, I lost my grip on one of the canteens. The lid wasn't on too tight, and most of the water spilled out. I don't recall whether I swore at the realization of my folly (I was rather pious in those days), but Homer Simpson's "D'Oh!" certainly would have expressed my reaction. Whatever the Holy Father said that day, I'm sure it was worth hearing. It was enough that he was there, and so was I.

John 10:10 remains a favorite quote of mine. As all Scripture does, this verse has grown on me, and grown in me. As one often prone to melancholy, I have appreciated the Lord's assurance of abundant life. Jesus wasn't just expressing a good wish for us, a nice idea. He was stating the purpose for the Incarnation, the reason He became flesh and entered the human scene. Life to the full--not half-life, not occasional glimpses of what joy might resemble.

JPII was an appropriate pope to proclaim that message to the world's youth. Many of us grew up with him. We had no other experience of popecraft than his. This was a vibrant man, an enthusiastic speaker, a lover of children and of the outdoors. I believe he skied the Rockies while he was in town. Perhaps some pundits noticed that, even then, he was starting to slip, but the fact that he preserved his joie de vivre endeared us to him all the more.

When John Paul II replied to the madding crowd, "JPII loves you!"
Cardinal Stafford proceeded to dump a Gatorade container on him.
Cologne: We have come to worship Him (Mt 2:2)

By early 2005 I was slated to be the associate chaplain of the local WYD contingent. Then, in April, JPII "went to the Father's house"--the desire he expressed not long before his death, the desire that pretty much characterized his life.

Then Benedict XVI was elected to occupy the Chair of Peter. Some of our kids began to wonder whether this older, apparently more serious pontiff was going to attend WYD in Cologne. While I had little doubt that he would attend, I wondered how well he would take to the festivities and to the youth. How well would he be received?

There was nothing to worry about. He shared the joy of his beloved predecessor and friend, and it seemed that he felt no need to become JPII's carbon copy in this or any other respect. That interior freedom, born of prayer, attested to the Holy Spirit's presence in Papa Bene. Both the young pilgrims and the adults recognized it.

Our coordinator and crew planned a week's stay in Rome immediately prior to the WYD events. We stayed at the Motherhouse of the Daughters of Divine Zeal, who were very gracious to us, especially because several of their own, then stationed in Reading, were part of our group. It was a joy to traverse the Tiber again, and to celebrate Holy Mass on ancient altars.

As well as things could have been planned, it's part and parcel of a pilgrimage that things will go "wrong." At the end of a day trip to Assisi, we discovered that the train operators had decided to strike that day. We had to rent a tour bus to get us back to Rome. This and other unexpected inconveniences had a strange way of bringing us together, although it didn't feel like it at the time.

Many banners were strewn along the way of the grand pilgrimage to the papal site. They featured quotes from Scripture, saints, and other sources. I can't remember a single one, although a few of them came from St. Edith Stein, whose first home as a Carmelite nun was Cologne. Those quotes fueled some interest in this holy and learned woman.

I concelebrated the papal Mass at Marienfeld with thousands of brother priests. We had to suit up in alb and stole, and line up for registration. While in line, I happened to run into a priest whose parents lived at a former parish. He would join us for daily Masses on visits home, and now I rejoined him halfway across the world!

The theme of Cologne pointed to the Magi, whose relics remain enthroned in the city's cathedral. Likewise we pilgrims shared their words and their story, as we came from various places with one aim: to know the Lord more deeply. Along the way, we made new friends and deepened current friendships. That's what happens on pilgrimages. Pope Benedict once said that WYD is the culmination of a "long exterior and interior path" (Wikipedia). As we made the interior journey we discovered the Lord's love that we could in turn share with those around us.

Liturgy is always the Church's pilgrimage of faith, hope, and charity. As a reformer of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict wanted to imbue Catholics with a profound reverence for...reverence. It must become the reason for our existence, far surpassing any previous earthly interest. Just as Jesus made clear His joyful purpose in the WYD theme of Denver, we responded with similar clarity in Cologne. Jesus came to give life to the full; we have come to worship Him.

"I always wanted to teach, but, hey, this is great too!"
Rio de Janeiro: "Go and make disciples of all nations!" (Mt 28:19)

I did not attend this year's WYD, but now with the modern media I could have seen almost every major event, or read each locution. I was not very diligent, I must admit. My sound-byte attention span doesn't help. But I read many headlines and news summaries. And let's face it: people are going to go crazy just because the Pope is in town, regardless of his personality.

Many people have heard of the young boy who expressed his desire to become a priest. This account will be one of the most memorable moments in WYD. Since the first weeks of his papacy, our gregarious Pope Francis has been eager to stop and greet people. That unforgettable encounter has planted in the heart of the world a reminder to pray for and encourage vocations.

Aside from the aforementioned embrace, the most noted news item was the airplane interview. The pope demonstrated mercy upon persons struggling with same-sex attraction. "Hate the sin, love the sinner." In a way, he thus epitomized the WYD theme of making disciples. Charity and truth make disciples of every truly open-minded individual.

Now it's not "the world" that needs to remain open-minded; it's Catholics! To date, the Bishop of Rome seems to have ruffled more traditional feathers than progressive ones. But we must remember that Francis has been reinforcing the Church's teachings all along. Most people suspect that he won't be making many innovations, but what for, anyhow? The needed "innovation" is not teachings; to an extent it may be presentation, but without question it will be people--disciples. 

The Church's centrifugal force into the 21st century must begin with a centripetal movement, an  inward movement of mercy. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict knew this, and they initiated that movement as far as they could. Now it must go into high gear.  Pope Francis is the right man for the job; at least the Holy Spirit has thought so.

"We'll check where you're at with this after the perfumes hit you."