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

26 April 2014

Meeting The Pope; Meeting A Saint

One place that American Catholics ought to visit is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. One place that every Catholic ought to visit is Rome. I've gotten to visit the former at least a dozen times, the latter, twice.

I am thankful for the many benefactors who had remembered me upon my diaconate ordination, without whose support I wouldn't have gone.

It all started as a relatively small contingent: just a dozen or so of us. Once word got out, the group just about tripled. Not many of us had been there before or knew what to expect. Well, we knew about St. Peter's. And lots, L  O   T    S of other churches. And the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, the for an itinerary, however, there was nothing of the sort, as least as far as we knew. Sometimes that's the best way to go.

Not many people boarded the only plane flying to Rome that day from Philadelphia. It seemed as if we had most of it to ourselves. While we had room to stretch our legs, I wasn't very much relaxed--not for fear of flying, but rather because of excitement!

We stayed at the North American College (NAC), the residence for seminarians from American dioceses who study in one of the Pontifical Universities. Study in Rome, perhaps after ordination, was an aspiration of mine since seminary days. People used to tell me that they could see me doing that ("Aw, I bet you say that to all the seminarians!"). But with the passage of time, a clearer realization of internal and external limitations, and acceptance of God's will in the present moment, I am increasingly content with where I'm at. In fact, the will of God positively "matches" people up with precisely who and what they need. It turns out to be splendid.

We toured churches.  Every day. It got a bit tiring, such that I took an afternoon off to nap. I might have had a lot of pasta that day, too. (I might have had a lot of pasta almost every day.) Even with my nap day, there simply wasn't enough time to cover everything.

Our guide for the fortnight was Fr. Frederick Miller, a former professor of Systematic Theology at St. Charles, more recently a professor at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, MD. At that point Father Miller was a spiritual director for the NAC. His familiarity with Romanitá enabled us to tour the Scavi, the excavations beneath St. Peter's Basilica.

He was also able to speak to now-Cardinal Dziwisz, Pope John Paul's personal secretary, who quickly and unexpectedly got us into a baciamano audience. I can best describe it as a "conveyor-belt" meeting with His Holiness, our group being one among many who were blessed to be there that day. We were instructed to be at a certain place at a certain time, which became a "Hurry Up and Wait" session. Looking back, it could have been an hour and it could have been a week...we were going to meet Pope John Paul II!

That was no cardboard cut-out of Father Miller!
It became clear as we entered the room where he was seated, this was in some respects a shadow of the vigorous man who first ascended the Chair of Peter when I was barely two years old. In August of 1993, the threshold of my senior year of high school, I traveled with other pilgrims from the Diocese of Allentown to World Youth Day in Denver. Although he had suffered numerous health problems, not to mention an assassination attempt, John Paul stood tall! For such an active man, the prospect of scaling the Rockies would be akin to a Roman pilgrim's determination to tour the Scavi or climb the Spanish Steps. In order to adhere to such a rigorous schedule when we met him nearly ten years later, this man had to be moving by dint of a Higher Power!

As people sometimes do in anticipation of meeting a famous leader or celebrity, I waited my turn, thinking about what I should say to the Holy Father. As if I should have had to say anything! What can I tell him? What if he says something to me? At this point, the Pope's debilitation was visible, but he did speak to some people, and blessed others. In reality we were all blessed, and he spoke to us all without having to say a word.

After our individual meetings, the group of us gathered behind the Holy Father to sing a Latin tribute song that we learned in the seminary:
Domine, salvum fac patrem nostrum, Ioannem Paulum, et exaudi nos in die qua invocaverimus Te.
Lord, preserve our father, John Paul, and graciously hear us on the day we call upon You.

Then, off we went, to enjoy the rest of our trip and never wash our hands again.

As John Paul II was such a "mover and shaker," he gave millions of people the opportunity to meet him. He formed and inspired thousands of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. That encounter enabled us seminarians to thank him for nourishing the seeds of faith, hope, and charity in us, so that we in our turn could nourish others.

Saint John Paul II, pray for us to Christ, so that we can be people of His Word!

20 April 2014

Memorial, Sacrifice, and Banquet: An Easter Homily

Last night at our Easter Vigil we initiated seven persons into the Catholic Church: two through Baptism and Holy Eucharist, five through a Profession of Faith, Confirmation, and Holy Eucharist. While Baptism is always the first Sacrament a person receives, Eucharist is the highest. In this Sacrament, Jesus Himself abides with us as our pledge of heaven. In the Holy Mass He comes to us as memorial, sacrifice, and banquet. These themes fit into the Easter Triduum:

Memorial: When you “remember” someone, biblically speaking, you act on his behalf. God “remembered” childless wives like Hannah and Elizabeth with children who would do great things for Him. The Psalmist boasted of how God, in His mercy, “remembered” Israel in her distress, countlessly saving her from distresses both self-inflicted (sin) and enemy-inflicted (oppression). 

On Holy Thursday, the night before His death, Jesus "remembered" His apostles: He washed their feet. He gave them His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist. He entrusted them with the power to make that Body and Blood present on our altars; in other moments He entrusted the power to forgive sins, to anoint the sick, and to bestow the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Sacrifice: Sacrifice is the heart of religion. The Jews, in particular, sacrificed their best animals and produce in order to demonstrate to God and to themselves that God deserved the best of their love. To purely materialist minds, it seems like the biggest waste; in a sense they’d be right. By spending our time and attention on divine things, somehow our perspective on earthly things changes. They become at once more important and less important: more, because now we want to use those things well, and less, because we know they're not all there is to this life. 

On Good Friday, Jesus followed through on the promise of Holy Thursday by offering His fully divine and fully human life. Everything He endured, from the lies that people levied against Him to the physical and mental torture to the crucifixion itself, He endured for our salvation. At every step, love was His motivation; no other reason would do.

Banquet: People need to eat. The act of eating often provides as much emotional satisfaction as physical. Food finds its way into most gestures of hospitality, welcoming, congratulating, and mourning—in a word, every human interaction. With good intentions we flash it around whenever we want to impress people. Among all cultures the Italians come to mind with that word, abbondanza, which to my mind includes food, but encompasses all wealth and every expression of value. 

On Holy Saturday, death’s scarcity becomes life’s abbondanza when Jesus treats the souls of the blessed to His eternal wedding feast, when He forever unites Himself to His Church in a total bond of fidelity, permanence, and fruitfulness.

The quiet Upper Room meal, the Silence of the Lamb that was slain, the darkness of the grave: these three days together form one great, mysterious day of joy and hope. We know too well how our sorrows and sins can get the better of us, but the Lord Jesus declares to us once and for all--and as often as necessary--that sin, suffering, and death do not have the final say on our lives, as long as we steep ourselves in the meaning and power of this most sacred day.

Christ our Life is risen from the dead, glorious and immortal. By our faithful participation in His Word, His Bread, and His Charity, it shall be so!

17 April 2014

Reflections on Clerical Celibacy

Patient Reader:
Following is a reprint of an article of mine that was printed last month by the A.D. Times, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown.

In early 2002 the clergy sexual abuse scandals first broke out in the Archdiocese of Boston, sending shockwaves through parishes and seminaries across the nation. The failures of some clergy revealed gaps in priestly formation, insufficient monitoring and support, and diseased attitudes about sexuality and power. Providentially, those failures also prompted a fresh discussion of the meaning and observance of celibate chastity.

The mainstream media usually remind us that celibacy is not an immutable dogma, but a retractable discipline (for future candidates, not for those already ordained). Invariably we hear, “It can change. Perhaps the next Pope…” and so forth. True, but not likely. Nor do I think making celibacy optional would result in a lasting increase in vocations, if the situation of our Eastern Catholic*, Orthodox, and Protestant brethren adds any insight.

People have considered facets of Catholicism to be perplexing, or downright objectionable, since the Church’s infancy: “Many of [Jesus’] disciples who were listening said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it?’” (John 6:60) They were referring, of course, to Jesus’ Self-designation as the “Bread of Life” and the accompanying condition, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53). It seems the prevailing human tendency is toward the exact opposites of childlike trust and honest inquiry!

Even though celibacy does not pertain to the essence of the priesthood, and vowed chastity is a voluntary counsel, their observance bears special significance and power for the Church, and is therefore worth the consideration of every Catholic.

A non-Catholic friend of mine apparently finds celibacy worth considering, too. He is happily married, but he respects the celibate life choice so much that he once suggested to one of our mutual friends, a priest: “You guys should talk to each other about celibacy more often.” How dare he recommend something to us? I’ll tell you how: he cares about us and about the people we serve. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard!

We priests should talk about what it means to us, about how to live as faithful (i.e. not just “non-violating,” but “peaceful, engaging, and fruitful”) celibates, just as married individuals and couples should talk about marriage.

In the seminary I remember one priest warning us about the danger of a “comfortable bachelorhood,” devoid of marital and family responsibilities (embodied by the uxorial epithet “Ol’ Ball-and-Chain”). While every human being ought to have hobbies and diversions, it’s rather possible for priests to attend more to such things than to their parish or family, or to charitable pursuits. I’ve become more conscious of this since returning in earnest to running a few years ago, and I don’t claim to be perfectly balanced at any given moment!

The premise in bachelorhood is, “I am accountable to nobody for the expenditure of my resources.” Celibates can give the impression that we are “free,” and gladly so, when we are in fact called to a comparable or greater level of investment in our priestly people. To live this way can be a scandal to God’s flock—not nearly as perverse as sexual abuse, but no less diminishing of our people’s respect and trust.

In order to be a better steward of God’s many gifts, I enlist a handful of priests and lay friends as friendly watchdogs. We priests ought to be vulnerable enough to amass such a cadre of honest folks, and to be numbered among others’ privy cabinets. Nobody can afford to live in an echo chamber that reflects nothing but the pleasant sounds we like to hear!

Then there are the misdeeds common to all daughters and sons of Adam, against the sixth and ninth commandments—violations more of chastity (sexual integrity) and continence (self-control) than of celibacy per se. They may be motivated more by weakness than malice, but they affect everyone from the parties directly involved to the entire Mystical Body of Christ. An unmarried person’s failures are serious enough; but those of a married, ordained, or vowed person are compounded by the solemn, public promises that they have made.

Without being an actual party to the conversation my priest friend had with our mutual friend, I surmise that the subject matter they had in mind was not the temptation to materialism inherent in “comfortable bachelorhood,” but rather the misdirection of sexual and romantic desires. The mutual friend knew well that one might consciously and freely forgo these human, God-given drives only for worthy motives and with gainful alternatives.

Recently I substituted for the 5th grade teacher in our Public School Religious Education. I was speaking about the Eucharist as sacrifice, memorial, and banquet, and mentioned that the priest spoke the words of consecration personally, offering his life for the Church in union with the Lord Jesus. Out of nowhere (where the Holy Spirit always seems to operate), a child asked me, “Is it a sacrifice not to have a wife and children?”

Immediately I thought of a quote from the Swiss priest and theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar: “When God demands of us something difficult, we often seek to be aided in our compliance by motives that rob the action of its whole value. For instance, we try to convince ourselves that what is sacrificed—friends, a comfortable life, and so on—at bottom means little to us. What if God should give us only what no longer has any value for him?” (The Grain of Wheat: Aphorisms. Ignatius Press, 1995).

So yes, I answered, it is a real sacrifice not to have a wife and children. But I also said that I frequently consider how that sacrifice has resulted in my being right where I am today: at Holy Guardian Angels Parish, speaking with these children who call me “Father” because they have become my children. Now none of that small group of children came home with me after PREP was over, but perhaps they left appreciating how Father was there for them. What is just as important, Father himself knew that.

By our very existence in our parishes, communities, and families, chaste celibates affirm the primacy of the Kingdom of God and the baptized person’s calling to seek it “first” (Mt 6:33). That’s supposed to turn heads and raise eyebrows. But if people—especially celibates themselves—do not look through the elements being renounced in favor of the blessings being received, they will continue to consider celibacy inhuman and try to bypass it however possible.

Like anyone else in the world, celibates are occasionally going to feel lonely and incomplete. This is certainly to be expected, and not to be ignored or downplayed. Here as always, the question is, “What am I to do about it?” For God’s sake and for our own, celibates have to do something—especially in light of a celibate’s intention to point to the ultimate fulfillment of heaven.

But let’s be clear: at first the lonely celibate will probably set aside any otherworldly dimension of loneliness; to suggest otherwise is naïve. After all, loneliness is a human emotion crying out for redress—or rather a question seeking a response. Without enlisting a reliable network of monitoring and support (and, alas, sometimes even with it), there is no wonder how people resort to all manner of unhealthy diversions. Hence the interest of seminaries and other houses of formation to train fundamentally sound people in human and spiritual, intellectual and pastoral virtues. Imagine how potential spouses might fare with such attention to discipleship!

Most people reading this essay either have been married or are at least open to marriage. As an intentional celibate—and as a human being—I have profound respect for the marital vocation. One of the most effective ways I can show that respect is to live joyfully as a celibate. Thus I will also be an example of humanity and holiness.

To that end I need help from fellow celibates and married couples alike. That help takes the form of friendship, accountability, compassion, and encouragement; for my part I should be equally willing to extend the same to others. Then there are everyday things that I myself must do: pray, fast, give alms, and be vigilant. These spiritual disciplines are the heritage of every baptized Christian. Priests and religious were not intended to be exempt from them; in fact, our troubles arise from the exemptions we’ve made!

By the generous embrace of their joys and sacrifices, may celibates and married persons help each other to discover the value of their respective vocations in human society and God’s Kingdom.

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*After the initial publication of the article, I decided to include "Eastern Catholic" in this sentence upon further reflection and consultation with an Orthodox friend and deacon.

It has been the ancient tradition of Orthodox Christianity, and it had been the custom of most Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, to permit clergy to be married before being ordained to the diaconate, whether "permanent" or "transitional." Bishops, however, are chosen from the unmarried and monastic clergy.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Eastern Catholics in the diaspora, especially in the United States, experienced considerable ignorance and persecution, prompting the Vatican to mandate celibacy in territories to which Eastern Catholics had migrated. The Second Vatican Council later urged Catholics of the Eastern Rites to return to traditions such as the ordination of married clergy, but U.S. Eparchies have not implemented such reforms uniformly. (reference).

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A devoted reader also sent a link to the Chrism Mass homily of Archbishop Socrates B. Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan (here is the Facebook link). The Archbishop's reflection is worth reading for his candid assessment of the pitfalls to which celibate priests are regularly exposed, as well as their remedies.

14 April 2014

The Seven Next-to-Last Words of Christ

The announced retirement of David Letterman made me think of his famous "Top Ten Lists." That famous segment of "Late Night" is the precursor of websites like BuzzFeed and Mental Floss. Now there's a list for everything!

As with most things, the Catholic Church was ahead of the curve. We were into lists before they were cool. They make excellent instructional tools! Germane to the celebration of Holy Week is the list of the "Seven Last Words of Christ." When I was a kid, I thought that was one statement consisting of seven words, as in, (1) Father, (2) into (3) Your (4) hands (5) I (6) commend (7) My (8) much for that theory.

In fact they are seven distinct statements of Jesus, taken from all four Gospels. Preachers and writers have waxed devotional on them for hundreds of years. While reflecting on the readings for Passion/Palm Sunday I found at least seven penultimate last words worth our time and attention. (I'm glad I got to use the word "penultimate" once in a post before April was up.) Each of these utterances signaled Jesus' Paschal Mystery (His passion, death, and resurrection) and various dimensions of our participation in it.

As with the traditional list, they do not together compose a single narrative, because they are culled from all four Gospels. For theological and preaching purposes--rightly or wrongly--we tend to lump the Gospels together without attending to their individual peculiarities of context, audience, etc. The words are listed in the best possible reconstruction of chronological order.
  1. "The Master has need of them/it" (Mt 21:3; Mk 11:3; Lk 19:31). Whether Jesus is speaking about a furnished room or a donkey or our talents, He boldly requests them for His dedication and use. We usually consider ourselves in terms of "what I'm supposed to do for God, what He demands of me," etc. What about God's interest in us? He has so arranged it that certain things just don't get done unless we do them.
  2. The Words of Institution ("Take and eat/drink: this is My Body...this cup is the new covenant in My Blood"; Mt 26:26-28). The Eucharistic Gift of Self keeps on giving because of the priesthood Jesus established in the Church. It fulfills the Passover and the many sacrifices of the First Covenant. It liberates us from the effects of sin, suffering, and death. When Jesus transformed bread and wine into His own Body and Blood for the remission of sins, He was in effect promising to deliver Himself physically and spiritually to the hands of men. Holy Thursday gave way to Good Friday.
  3. "What you are going to do, do quickly" (Jn 13:27). We are told that Satan "entered" Judas at that moment when Jesus dismissed him to continue the betrayal. Here Jesus encourages Judas to have a sense of urgency. If Judas is supposed to be about his business with urgency, how much more does Jesus want us to labor enthusiastically--"with God inside," according to the Greek--for the Kingdom of His Father?
  4. "It would be better for that man if he had never been born" (Mt 26:24). While it certainly is possible that Judas is in hell, or that this or that other person in history is in hell, we ought not be keen on compiling God's Naughty People List. While the Church certainly affirms the reality of hell, according to Our Lord's own witness in Scripture, her mission (and His) is to help keep it empty—in light of which this statement has an ominous ring. Moreover, the Catechism affirms that  every human person contributes to the death of Christ (CCC 598), and every person remains the recipient of His saving love. Struggle with it if you like. I'm not offering any definitive answers.
  5. "I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the Kingdom of my Father" (Mt 26:29). This quote contains the promise of Jesus' resurrection, as well as our own. We continue to "drink this fruit of the vine" in every Holy Communion, but Jesus has refrained by returning in our flesh, by the Spirit's power, to the Father. "At length, when Sacraments shall cease," the Eternal Nuptial Banquet will furnish an elegant sufficiency.
  6. "Let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will" (Mt 26:39). We may derive great consolation from the sacred humanity of Jesus. Sacred, yes; but also human. His sensibilities resisted torture and execution. Who'd enjoy it? But Jesus demonstrates the crucial fact (pardon the pun) that love is a choice and not a feeling. Love is a sustained choice that often entails a bunch of smaller choices that one makes along the way. Jesus' "intentional default setting," is the Divine Will. As He revealed in His prayer, the prospects of those next 24 hours did not appeal to His feelings and thoughts, and so they became a threat to His human will; as a result of which He reaffirmed the alignment of His human will to the Divine Will.
  7. "So you could not keep watch with Me for one hour?" (Mt. 26:40). Jesus dresses down the drowsy disciples not to expose any sin of theirs, but to heal their human frailty. We utterly need God to keep us alive and alert in His Presence. I, for one, am failing as the night progresses. Therefore
  8. Silence is the eighth of Jesus' seven next-to-last words. His opponents will hear more than enough silence from Him from betrayal to burial, and it will unnerve them. Pilate, and especially Herod, will hear it; His torturers will receive it at every lash, at every challenge to save Himself by an easier, softer Way. Jesus' silence makes His speech all the more meaningful; likewise for many of us who occasionally need a podiatric dentist to extract our feet from our mouths.

08 April 2014

Daring Conversation on the Delicate Condition

My friend Fr. Joseph Faulkner was a couple of years behind me at Saint Charles Seminary. The title of his blog, "Father Talks Too Fast," cleverly and self-effacingly points to the cadence of his homilies. Although fast talking was not among my recollections of him from seminary days, intelligence and wit certainly were.

His diocesan bishop, the Most Rev. James D. Conley of Lincoln, recently published a pastoral letter on contraception (available here). While people might not expect a Catholic cleric to speak about the topic in an encouraging and compassionate manner--if at all!--Bishop Conley does. He exhorts married couples to be open to life. Alongside fidelity, permanence, exclusivity, and totality of investment of self, openness to life is a constitutive dimension of the Sacrament of Matrimony. When any of these dimensions is absent and the offending spouses do not repent, marriages tend to fail, if they happen at all. Thanks to the chemical, mechanical, or otherwise intentional separation of babies from bonding, the sexual expression ideally reserved for sacramental marriage happens more easily outside of sacramental marriage. Even in a sacramental marriage, contraceptive sex is a reservation of self contrary to the covenant context that demands "all of me."

Father Faulkner has published (and I include here) the recent homily that develops his Ordinary's viewpoint. He provides insightful background to the current landscape, detailing not only the widespread abandonment of the established teaching among non-Catholic denominations, but also the provenance of Pope Paul VI's watershed encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the Holy Father courageously reaffirmed Church teaching against the suggestion of most of his chosen advisors. Father also discusses the effects of contraception on marriages--on the erosion of trust and sacrifice and every other aspect of Christian Love.

Various preachers around the country have begun once again to promote an integrated vision and practice of marital love. Fear undoubtedly inhibits some preachers, but at this point we may wonder what more there is to lose by keeping silent.

Human respect is one of the last strongholds. No priest or deacon longs to hear the usual barrage:
"Where do celibates get off preaching about such things, when some of them can't keep themselves in check?"
"How do they know what it's like to try to raise children? Maybe they'd change their tune if they tried just for a day."
"They don't know all the situations that have led me/us to my/our decision. How dare they judge?"
There are other objections, too. I won't answer any of them here. It's enough for me to wonder how the Catholic Church could possibly maintain her comprehensive reverence for human life for so long, amid so many objections, if the Church herself weren't true and her teachings weren't true. I don't propose that thought as a solid, discussion-ending argument, but it ends the discussion for me. From there I can listen with an open mind and heart to good presentations such as Fr. Faulkner's, or from Dr. Janet Smith, or others.

I wonder aloud whether the contraceptive tendency betrays a lack of gratitude, if not latent disdain, for the gift of our own existence. In any case, fear lies at the root of directly-willed infertility; and "perfect love casts out all fear" (1 Jn 4:18).

By month's end, the Church will be canonizing Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. The latter was a fearless force behind Humanae Vitae. In the early 1980s, John Paul developed his "Theology of the Body" out of earlier reflections that had supported his predecessor's 1968 encyclical. An entire generation of priests and religious, the present blogger included, has claimed JPII as a chief inspiration behind their calling. Without having sired a child, Pope Wojtyła has given birth to thousands of vibrant Catholics. His successors continue, in their own ways, to breathe new life into the dry bones of this post-Christian century.

I have great respect for Catholics and other people of good will who "struggle" with the Church's teaching, if by "struggle" they mean "try to understand and live it, who occasionally or often fail, but repent and try again." As for those who do not "struggle" by the above definition--those who reject it or casually ignore it, or who might even be unaware of it--I desire their salvation and every other blessing I would desire for myself. Foremost among those blessings are knowledge and love for the truth. If I were a married man, or a permanently or provisionally unmarried man, I would also "struggle," by the above definition. I'd hope, however, that my wife and I, or prospective wife and I, would want to do everything possible to live according to the Church teaching.

In the upcoming Bishops' Synod on the Family in 2015, we can be assured that openness to life within the marital embrace will continue to be a matter for conversation. I do not know the exhaustive list of synodal topics, but I would venture to include the increased divorce rate, the decrease in children, the increase in artificial means of conception (as well as contraception), and the increasing legitimization of same-sex marriage. Like the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, these issues are synoptic (i.e. they can be considered side by side and are "related" to each other).

Following Pope Francis' example, we begin always with the basic Gospel: Jesus Christ has saved us! In light of that message we then can talk about controversial matters. Catholic clergy can relate the motives and benefits of ongoing openness to life; joyful Catholic couples can share their struggles (trials and triumphs) in the practical realm. But it will require boldness, both in terms of the willingness to face objections and the willingness to field questions. Like the Greeks who gathered to hear Paul at the Areopagus (cf. Acts 17), people may want to hear more about this Good News, and as they accept it they slowly will attempt to live it. The Church's compassion (manifested most clearly in the Sacrament of Penance) can bolster those who find themselves unable and unwilling to walk this challenging way.