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

12 December 2015

The Springs of Salvation

In our responsorial psalm we heard, “With joy you will draw water from the fountain of salvation” (Is 12:3). The Christian story locates that fountain in the Sacrament of Baptism, where for the first time we concretely experience, where we see, hear, and feel (and perhaps taste) the water that signifies and accomplishes salvation.

To be more precise as to what Baptism does: it makes us children of God, heirs of heaven, temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of the Church. It frees us from the original sin and (in the case of adults) from personal sins committed beforehand. It plants in us the seeds of faith, hope, and love—the “theological virtues” that dispose us to divine realities that both lie beyond this world and permeate this world. 

Baptism moves us to continue in the path of grace (1) by activating the gifts of the Holy Spirit (viz., wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and fear of the Lord) and (2) by acting in accord with the human virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. And that “path of grace” continues in us when we receive the sacraments that complete our Christian initiation (Confirmation and, in an ongoing way, Holy Eucharist), as well as the sacrament that continually repairs and renews our relationship with God and neighbor (Penance). And without Baptism, we cannot invest our lives in the Sacraments of Marriage or Holy Orders, or in consecrated religious life. So it’s pretty much the key to everything.

Now what John the Baptist was doing wasn’t Christian Baptism, insofar as Jesus hadn’t yet appeared on the scene. You might say that, because of its focus on sorrow for the past and commitment to the future, it was the next best thing; but, as their old commercials used to say, “When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer.”

The curious thing is, when Jesus did appear on the scene and met His saintly prophetic cousin, He didn’t seem to co-opt John’s baptism into His own. As it turned out, John continued to have disciples of his own for some time. Recall the incident when some of Jesus’ purported enemies were objecting to how His disciples were conducting themselves in contrast to John’s. Jesus assured them that the two camps were not opposed to one another, but that the Best Man and fellow groomsmen certainly would be fulfilled (and, one might infer, more joyful) by attending to the Bridegroom. As the former himself said, “One mightier than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

And, if we are open to it, by the fire of His love He will separate the chaff from the wheat in us, the sin from the grace. For our life’s duration they will co-exist to various degrees in various respects. But our intentional movement along the Baptismal Voyage contains within itself the promise of Our Lord’s Presence—the same Presence He promised to the Apostles when He said, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world” (Mt 28:20).

26 November 2015

A Matter for Eating, Drinking, and Running

Though it has become a recent custom to take my annual retreat during the week of Thanksgiving, I give myself a "day pass" to attend the family dinner. While driving to my uncle and aunt's house, I listened to through my iPhone. The mini-reading of today's Morning Prayer (Thursday, Week II of the Psalter) confirmed how Providence often lines up the particulars of liturgy and life. How appropriate this sounded for the American celebration of abundance:

"The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way pleases God and wins the esteem of men. Let us, then, make it our aim to work for peace and to strengthen one another" (Rom 14:17-19).

Earlier today I engaged in another sort of liturgy: I ran for six miles along the lovely D&L (Delaware and Lehigh Rivers) Rail Trail. Part of that route is used by the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon, which I ran in 2013 as my very first marathon. The asphalt portions of the trail still display the painted mile markers.

One daily devotional resource for runners is, otherwise known by the application name of "MilePost." I am not sure whether every subscriber receives the same quote each day, but the one I got pointed once again to God's inscrutable and risible ways, as it well fit a day when we might not be so inclined to "listen to [our] body," especially when it declares satiety:

Background: Your Rev'd Blogger, with the medal he won earlier this week (Phila Half Marathon)
As I'm sure most of my readers did, I ate heartily today. I enjoyed the company of family and friends, with laughter and reminiscences of dearly departed loved ones (in particular, my maternal grandmother who would get visibly excited whenever we sat down to Thanksgiving dinners). As for many of my readers, there are fewer of us gathering around the table nowadays. The consumption is quicker and the conversation topics have changed, but the rationale remains: gratitude for the blessings we have given and received.

When I returned to my retreat location, I offered Mass, particularly mindful of Barbara K., the aunt of a longtime friend, who died earlier today. For years she was a sacristan at her parish, for which I used to play the organ during high school and on seminary breaks. Every day's Eucharist makes the day a time of Thanksgiving--especially for the gift of life, which Barb has just returned to her Creator after a long ordeal with that bastard, cancer.

I did not use the proper prayers for "Thanksgiving" in the Roman Missal (don't tell a liturgist on me!). Instead, I used the setting "In Time of Famine or for Those Suffering Hunger." I admit to giving "those who go without this day" a passing nod in pre-prandial prayers, such that even this Mass felt like a pitying gesture.

The Collect for this Mass reads: "O God, who, being good and almighty, provide for all creatures, give us, we pray, and effective love for our brothers and sisters who suffer hunger, so that famine may be banished and that they may have strength to serve you with free and untroubled hearts."

During the Mass my mind wandered to the purchases I have made for myself over the year, which far eclipsed my charitable giving. Yet I cannot downplay the time I have devoted to personal visits, telephone calls, and typed messages with people who, as my retreat master reminded me, are starving for recognition and care.

There are a diversity of gifts, St. Paul said, and a diversity of needs as well. The Holy Sacrifice covers all those needs with tailor-made divine mercy, with "justice, peace, and the joy that is given by the Holy Spirit." Every offering of service, insofar as it derives from the Liturgy and leads us back to it, is a "work for peace" and mutual reinforcement.

Dr. Sheehan advised me today not to be "a blind and deaf tenant" of my body. The same admonition applies to the soul. Retreats enable us to take stock of how we occupy our earthly abode, how we use our time, talent, and treasure for God and people (self included). Though I may take my retreat at a different time of the year in 2016, it will remain a privileged moment of gratitude for past, present, and future blessings.

Please pray that I continue to "work for peace and to strengthen" the people God entrusts to my care, for the banishment of their many and diverse hungers and for the liberation of their troubled hearts.

19 November 2015

Suffering Well

Patient Reader: Below you will find the article that appeared in a recent issue of the AD Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of Allentown (Allentown Diocese--Anno Domini--see what we did there?). Text in bold did not appear in the original article.

When I visit the hospitalized and elderly, I sometimes offer a prayer that I adapted from the Church’s Pastoral Care of the Sick and Roman Missal: “Father, Your Son and Our Savior Jesus Christ accepted our sufferings as a model of patience and strength in human illness. Hear the prayers we offer for [N.] and for all who suffer distress of body or soul. Help them to realize that You have called them to holiness by joining their sufferings to the sufferings of Christ for the salvation of the world.”

If you think such formalized prayers take a lot to say and a lot to live, I agree on both counts. For that reason, I like to say them slowly and live them slowly. I’m lying: I don’t like to live them slowly! A watched coffeepot never brews; an impatient patient never heals.

The word “patient” comes from the Latin pati, which means “to suffer, endure, put up with,” or the most basic sense, “to wait.” Pati also yields “passion,” the intensity that accompanies lovers toward love’s fulfillment. Suffering persons are also in love: they long for health and vitality, and cannot wait until they get there.

We draw only so many breaths in this life, and perhaps we pay little attention to the balance until more breaths are behind us than ahead. Meanwhile we have no guarantees that we shall retain the full use of our physical or mental faculties. 

Therefore it seems helpful to savor each breath as we draw it, each feeling as we feel it, each option as we ponder it, and each decision as we make it.

In whatever condition we currently find ourselves, while we have our faculties, we can decide to suffer well. What a curious choice! For the sake of clarity, let’s unpack it:

First, to suffer well is to recognize Jesus as the Son and Savior of Man, who alone accomplishes “universal and definitive redemption from sins” (CCC 432). He does this by taking on our human nature, entering completely into the joys and sorrows of human experience.

Did you ever consider that, by virtue of the Incarnation, Jesus accepted not just every single sin, but also every single human suffering: every pain, disappointment, and inconvenience? Upon the holy and life-giving Cross, Our Lord endured that twinge of diabetic neuropathy, the sting of that insult, that hour-long traffic jam, and that fear of perpetual infertility. From His vantage point—the best seat in the house—it’s all under control.

The problem is, we can still slog through life without necessarily considering the real-time presence of Christ in our sufferings. As a result, we begin to complain. We begin to compare our perception of how our lives are going with how we think it should be going, or how someone else’s life seems to be going—or how they want us to think it’s going. 

Practically speaking, God becomes less real and relevant in those dreary moments, and our suffering loses its value.

We can regain the value of our suffering by keeping Jesus’ Passion foremost in our minds, in weather foul or fair. Practicing in the fair may make it easier in the foul.

With the onset of each unwelcome experience, we can pray in groans to this effect: “I unite myself right now to You, Lord Jesus. As You suffered for me and with me, so I suffer for You and with You. Please accept this offering, Lord, as small it may seem, and please share it throughout the world and throughout the ages [accounting for the Holy Souls in need of post-mortem purgation] so that it may benefit whomever You will.”

I say, “pray in groans,” because you probably might not be inclined to formulate such a pious formula in the midst of pain and distress.

A couple of months ago, I was in an accident that landed me in an emergency room for most of that day with a wide laceration on my left heel and lots of deep bruises in the foot. In those first hours the thought “Thank God, it could have been far worse,” mingled with fears that I would hardly be able to walk straight, let alone run, by next year’s Boston Marathon. 

On that ER bed I did my awful best to unite my pains and anxieties with those of Our Lord upon the Cross, with the hopes that my offering could help facilitate someone’s repentance and conversion.

I am happy to report that I am recovering appropriately, although it’s not as fast as I’d prefer. At every turn in this process I have noticed how impatient a patient I am. 

But Our Lord is so patient with us! He lets us go, gives us the freedom to gripe until we return once again to our senses. In the meantime, the experience has been an opportunity to grow in compassion for the people I visit in the hospitals and nursing facilities I serve.

Even as the human race exists in a sort of “communion of sin,” joined by our profoundly wounded human nature and its self-seeking tendencies, the Church incorporates men and women into the Communion of Saints, forgiven and redeemed by the Precious Blood of Christ. 

If anything could be said about any of the saints, they suffered well, uniting themselves with their Lord for the salvation of souls. How I long to be in that number!

14 November 2015

Your Time Is Gonna Come

These readings are taking us to the “end times”: in one sense, the end of a liturgical year, but especially the end of all time when Christ comes again. The prophet Daniel foretells Archangel Michael’s great harvest of just and unjust. In Mark, Jesus seems to bypass angelic involvement in favor of His own surprise soul-sifting. Either way, to quote Led Zeppelin, “your time is gonna come.”

But that sifting time doesn’t completely and convincingly materialize this side of heaven. Meanwhile we have the perennial “problem of evil,” or as the Church’s Catechism calls it, the “mystery of evil.” Why and how does evil occur in the world—more precisely, why and how are people allowed to commit evil—sometimes seemingly without consequences, and without divine intervention?

While it remains a great scandal that God allows us to do evil, it is that very gift of freedom based on understanding and virtue that enables us to do good. Take away the possibility of evil from us, and you thereby take away the possibility of good. How incredibly powerful and complex has God made us! The fire that can, in one moment, drive people along the warpath of rage, also can drive people in the commitment of marriage, holy orders, and consecrated life. It depends on where we allow our hearts to roost.

I began to put my thoughts together before all this stuff in France happened! In case you haven’t heard it: on Friday militant Islamists killed over 120 people in Paris. The day before, it was Beirut. Not long before, a Russian airliner. Pope Francis aptly referred to these terrorist actions as a kind of drawn-out Third World War.

At the same time, wars happen, to our minds, outside of us. We are tempted to distance ourselves from them and objectify them. Beyond the initial fear and outrage, we must remember—and we do remember—that there’s the solidarity of grief and prayer; but also there is the renewed battle call to personal holiness and mission.

We might say, “Let’s hear it for children and for saints,” as they seem so enviably single-hearted in their pursuit of happiness, goodness, and faith. But a sappy love of children, or even saints, will not make us childlike or saintlike. Suddenly, having become adults, we renew our maturity again and again by harnessing of our passions for beauty, our understanding for truth, and our freedom for goodness; in so doing we pay the best homage to childhood and sanctity.

All of this is rooted in Jesus the Christ, who, Hebrews reminds us, “offered one sacrifice for sins, and took His seat forever at the right hand of God.” “Now,” the letter continues, “He waits until His enemies are made His footstool.” Are the men and women of ISIS “His enemies?” Is God’s inspired Word accomplished in their elimination? Or is the one sacrifice of Christ the means to accomplish even their salvation and consecration...even ours?

11 October 2015

Take Counsels

You may have heard of a Catholic thing called the “Evangelical Counsels.” They are called “evangelical” because they are rooted in Jesus’ teachings as found in the Holy Gospels (ευ', "good" + αγγελίον, "message"). They are called “counsels” as opposed to “commands,” because Our Lord didn’t make them mandatory; but one might say that, for the person who seeks holiness, they are as optional as a life preserver on a stormy sea. 

They are three in number: Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. Together they form three prongs of a single plug that connects us to, and keeps us grounded in, holiness--likeness to Jesus Christ. You might recognize them as the vows that men or women take to align themselves with a religious community.

The Scripture readings of last, this, and next week wonderfully illustrate this threefold way of life. Last week’s words on the Creator’s intention for marriage (sexual complementarity, fidelity, permanence, exclusivity, and openness to new life) concern Gospel Chastity; This week’s exhortations against dependence on wealth and other possessions deal with Poverty; and next week’s story of James and John in their search for status speaks to Obedience, our need to "render an account" to another person throughout our lives.

Again, the Church has called these “counsels” because Jesus presented them as paths to perfection, to become the clearest channel of divine mercy. To be perfect, however, is to be steadfast in striving toward their realization in our particular lives. In a sense, one can strive toward evangelical poverty no matter how big your bank account or home, or if you have neither. Evangelical chastity is possible for married or unmarried persons. A company’s CEO can seek evangelical obedience as readily as its janitor can.

The key is to place our individual skills and ills at the Lord’s service. Skills and ills, because God can use both for His glory and for another’s benefit. We cannot cling to anything we have as if we made it happen and it would go away if we loosened our grip. Our treasures, our plans, our institutions—whatever occupies our minds most of all–we must continually offer to God with full appreciation for it, and with a sense of its preciousness and fragility, as if He would take it away the moment we offered it. It’s not that we don’t want it, and it’s not that God will necessarily take it; but when God Himself reserves the place of priority, all else falls into place for His sake.

13 September 2015

Damage Control

On the main drag of Saint Clair there used to be a hardware store. Unlike your Home Depot and Lowe's, this wasn't much of a place to browse around, but you could get what you needed. Once I brought a key to have duplicated. As the owner practiced his keycraft, he shared, "People come to me to fix the mistakes they get up at the mall."

I sometimes feel that way about what we priests end up doing in the course of our ministry: attempting to repair the mistakes others have made before us. A couple times a week I meet people in the hospital who share war stories. Now I recognize with no small amount of gratitude that--hey, people are taking that opportunity to disclose themselves to me! They don't have to. They can send me away (and some do). But those who let me stay, must need to be cleansed, and I hope I give them a fair hearing.

People don't come to the hospital expressly intending to meet a priest with whom they can share their hurts. They want to get their knees or hips replaced; they want their gallbladder out; they want to be able to breathe more clearly. But in the course of their visit they meet this priest who invites them (explicitly or not) to submit themselves to another sort of treatment being aimed at a deeper, more insidious cancer. "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but after that can do no more. I shall you whom to fear. Be afraid of the one who after killing has the power to cast into Gehenna; yes, I tell you, be afraid of that one" (Lk 12:4-5).

"Father Yesteryear yelled at me for wearing a hat/chewing gum/playing Angry Birds in church." On the level of harms, this is among the lowest. It betrays the depth of ego deflation that needs to take place in our hearts.

"Father yelled at me in confession." This is higher on the harm scale. Maybe I come from an enlightened era, but I can't think of a reason why--scratch that. I admit that it is hard to accompany some people who seem to agonize over trifles, or who act as a sort of mirror to me with a particular quirk or fault they can't let go of.

"They closed my parish. I got all my sacraments there. My grandparents built that church." I empathize to some degree, and am not afraid to share my experience with the parochially displaced. The parish of my youth merged with the others in town seven years ago. Although my church didn't close for another five years, I still couldn't offer my "First" Mass of Thanksgiving there, because it wouldn't comfortably hold all the clergy and lay guests. As sad as that last fact was, it was more important to me that everyone was together. That many of these people hardly bothered to give the new parish in town a try, or even go to another parish if it was closer to them--that's another matter.

I usually engage the patients with reason, knowing all the while that a hospital visit scarcely furnishes any real clarity; or, if they "see my point," still more emotional repair [ego deflation] awaits. I don't have to be the one to make all that happen in that visit, or even in subsequent ones. God is bigger than me. He has the total picture of a person's life. But I don't want to cower from challenges because I might hurt a person's feelings. "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean."

The other day Pope Francis gave priests a one-two punch, when he told compassionless priests to find another job instead of spreading their misery to unsuspecting "patients," penitents who already approach the sacrament with guilt and remorse. Now the Pope exhorted all the faithful to compassion in that morning homily, but his words to priests were especially salient. I could hear a bevy of disgruntled folks ganging up on a presbyterate assembled for their Chrism Mass, taunting, "Yeah--yeah!!" And they'd be right.

Nowadays it's not often the confessional where people see the darker, human side of priests, since people don't go to confession like they used to. Now they see us that way in the rectory, the parish school, the vestibule, the funeral home, or other places they may happen upon the hospital. 

They may have wanted or at least expected to see us around the parish campus or in liturgical settings, but not necessarily in the hospital. It is something of a luxury that our diocese is still able to "afford" a couple of diocesan priests in full-time hospital ministry. Maybe we can't afford not to have some in hospitals, as they are such a fertile ground for a meaningful encounter.

Author Eve Tushnet is gathering ideas to write a book about people who have been hurt by the Church. That's a great idea, because people who pick up that book might hear someone telling their story. Hopefully they might also find how at least some of those people found their way back to the Catholic Church, or never left her, despite the flaws of her priests...or despite their own flaws, which might have been the major catalyst, or at least a factor, in the original incident.

05 September 2015

Option for the Poor

In his epistle, Saint James urged us to “show no partiality as you adhere to the faith.” He gave the example of showing partiality to the rich over the poor—something he must have noticed in Christian communities. The witness and teaching of Jesus demonstrates a certain preference for the poor as “heirs of the kingdom.” Any charity—or neglect—toward “the least of my brothers,” Jesus says (Mt 25:40), is done to Him. The Catholic Church has articulated such a preference in her social teaching: public policy and personal conduct alike must seek out ways to alleviate the burdens of the most vulnerable persons among us.

Our offerings of Christian Charity toward the needy fulfill the extensive prophetic writings on the Messianic age, when God will bring sight to the blind, sound to the deaf, speech to the mute, food for the hungry, and refreshment to the thirsty.

Specific public policies toward the needy are a source of profound division—especially, one may notice, among Christians of good will. Persons of some means don’t want to be taxed more so that their money could go to the poor. Critics are quick to denounce examples of lavish spending in transportation, clothing, and entertainment that take place alongside the use of public funds for food. Anyone can become guilty of exploitation and misuse of resources. I couldn’t begin to devise ways to foster supportive relationships among the rich and poor, ways to encourage mutual responsibility and generosity. We always do well to start at home with whoever and whatever is before us.

How about a preferential option toward the spiritually and emotionally burdened, toward persons of physical disability or mental illness? What if we started to be on the lookout for ways to help them? We might become easily discouraged when our efforts are rebuffed, or don’t seem to do any good, or if we were burned in the past.

Let’s face it: service to the poor (poverty of whatever sort) can be an uncomfortable thing. It can stretch our finances, our time, our emotions, and more. Jesus’ encounter with the man in the Gospel was rather gritty, with His groaning, spitting, and touching His tongue. Jesus’ acts of healing rankled people in power to the point that they sought His life. Maybe it was because He healed on the Sabbath; maybe His opponents simply felt uncomfortable because Jesus did something for those people while they remained idle. Whatever the case, Jesus’ every word and action is a model for us, and we are all His poor beneficiaries.

But most of all, can we recognize our own blindness and deafness and lameness, our own hesitancy, that Jesus wants to heal in us, so that we can be of better service to His people? But if expected Jesus’ healing to set in before we tried to serve, people all around us would start to shrivel and die—and so would we.

29 August 2015

Who's Got All The Dirt?

The other day I was making coffee when, after a couple of minutes into the brewing cycle, I sensed that something was amiss. Liquid began to drip over the side of the carafe. I opened the lid and spotted the culprit: the basket and hot water spout were out of alignment, which threw off the brew. Fortunately I was able to salvage some of it, much stronger than normal. As I figured, my first cup also revealed grounds at the bottom: good grounds for a homily!

What here we call grounds, in another setting we might call “dirt”—which has been well defined as “matter out of place.” Farmers don’t refer to the earth of their crops as “dirt”; rather, they call it “soil.” But when the kid drags it into the house…then they call it “dirt”! Are we so much concerned with hygiene as with order and propriety--“a place for everything and everything in its place”? That was a charm of Israel’s Law: it gave them order and harmony. On top of that, as we notice in the First Reading, the Israelites imagined that the neighboring nations admired and envied them for possessing that Law—and behind that, they admired their intimate relationship with their God. Obedience to that Law was the way the Israelites maintained union with God in every facet of their lives. Unfortunately the constant temptation was to identify literal obedience with pleasing God. That’s why Jesus so often railed against the Pharisees: many of them followed the literal traditions without necessarily paying attention to the meaning underlying those traditions.

We hear enough in the Gospels about Pharisees who are turned off by Jesus’ stern convictions, but not so often about any who heard His convictions and took them to heart. No doubt there were some who paused long enough to get honest with themselves, to place their lives humbly in the pure light of Incarnate Truth: Jesus, Himself the Law’s Only Perfect Fulfillment. Now as then, the way to fulfillment is found in Him, and not in attempted obedience to Law, in which we cannot help but fall short and reveal our need for Grace.

Can we allow God to see the “dirt” in our lives, so that He can purify us and fill us with His nourishing Word and Sacrament, whereby we can offer Him fitting worship and obedience? Whether or not anyone else takes notice of us, to compliment us on our wisdom and intelligence, can we appreciate what is best for us and seek that with all our hearts? With such a disposition of heart, we may notice the dirt in others’ lives just as much as before, but it won’t bother us so much in light of our own. We may even be inspired to seek conversion together, and therefore more effectively.

25 May 2015

Memorial Day Musings

Two beloved poems come to mind on Memorial Day: Rudyard Kipling's Recessional (1897) and Gerard Manley Hopkins' The Soldier (1885). The former is responsible for the phrase "Lest We Forget." One of our local fire departments has a plaque aside the door that often features the names of recently deceased members. Below the name(s) are the words, "Lest We Forget." The poem is a reminder that the sovereignty of God surpasses pride-impaired temporal power.

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle-line,
Beneath whose awful Hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Kipling's poem considers the "universal," the attitude of the government or the citizenry as a whole. As earthly rulers receive authority from God, to God they must render an account. There are echoes of the 51st Psalm, the Miserere ("Have mercy on me, God, in your goodness") in the second stanza, and in the final stanza, the 127th Psalm, Nisi Dominus ædificaverit domum ("Unless the Lord build the house").

Hopkins traditionally treats the "particular," so his poem extols the nobility of "any given" soldier, likening him to Christ in terms of His sacrifice. As in the first poem, pride also motivates the first-person plural subject, but Hopkins fancies soldiers as types of Christ regardless of their personal disposition toward Him or His ideals.

YES. Why do we áll, seeing of a soldier, bless him? bless
Our redcoats, our tars? Both these being, the greater part,
But frail clay, nay but foul clay. Here it is: the heart,
Since, proud, it calls the calling manly, gives a guess
That, hopes that, makesbelieve, the men must be no less; (5)
It fancies, feigns, deems, dears the artist after his art;
And fain will find as sterling all as all is smart,
And scarlet wear the spirit of wár thére express.

Mark Christ our King. He knows war, served this soldiering through;
He of all can handle a rope best. There he bides in bliss (10)
Now, and séeing somewhére some mán do all that man can do,
For love he leans forth, needs his neck must fall on, kiss,
And cry ‘O Christ-done deed! So God-made-flesh does too:
Were I come o’er again’ cries Christ ‘it should be this’.

The first word of this poem is peculiarly placed. By now, as a Hopkins fan, I should know better than to question him. I should just marvel at his Sprachgefuhl. It's the plain-and-simple affirmative, but the question he asks ("Why do we bless soldiers?") is ostensibly not a yes-or-no question. Perhaps it's the spontaneous, ebullient portent of a positive position ("Soldiers are manly, valuable, noble, and attractive, like Christ Himself").

The phrase "do all that man can do" reminds me of the former U. S. Army slogan "Be all that you can be." Do, be--recall, the military classified Sinatra "4-F," unable to serve because of his punctured left eardrum. He served, I suppose, by keeping the ladies interested in having someone to love, and the troops interested in having someone to fight.

12 April 2015

Sacraments of Healing, Sacraments of Mercy

The Church's Catechism tells us (CCC 1420-1421) that there are two "Sacraments of Healing": Penance/Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. If we were to consult Sacred Scripture for the roots of these sacred grace-meetings (and we should), I would first consider Jas 5:14-15, which the anointing priest or bishop is supposed to say as part of the rite:
Are there any who are sick among you? Let them send for the priests of the Church, and let the priests pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick persons, and the Lord will raise them up. If they have committed any sins, their sins will be forgiven them.
Incidentally (I exaggerate), Jesus Himself indicated:
These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons, they will speak new languages, they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them. They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover" (Mk 16:17-18)
In Mk 6:12-13, we read that the Twelve Apostles, in connection with a dominical* commissioning, "preached repentance[,] drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them."

Jesus described the curative successes of "those who believe," while James and Mark elaborate upon the repentance and forgiveness that accompany the priestly encounter. These data would not be in the Bible if Jesus and the early Church did not engage in such healing moments faithfully.

Regarding the foundations for the Sacrament of Penance: James says, "Confess your sins to one another" (5:16). Certainly any relationship beyond that of bowling buddies (though even there, where indicated) would entail the occasional disclosure of faults, through both commission and repentance of faults. James would not have said this, except for the presumed command and expectation to forgive confessed sins.

James, of course, was not necessarily referring to the sacramental transaction, but it makes sense alongside Jesus' post-Resurrection appearance in the Upper Room (John 20:19ff). "Jesus said to them again, 'Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.' And when He had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.'"
Recall how, at the diocesan Mass of the Oils, the Bishop breathes upon the Sacred Chrism while consecrating it. Thus he confers the Holy Spirit upon it for its sealing, consecratory purposes (most notably Baptism, Confirmation, and Ordination to Presbyterate and Episcopate). Where there is a sealing, there is a sending.
We're not supposed to wait until the last minute to seek physical healing. Often the physicians receive the patient when it is too late to do anything helpful. All the more does this pertain to one's spiritual condition. People will wait to "send for the priests" until the person is "actively dying," scarcely able to communicate for themselves.

I wonder whether my generation (X) and younger will have the presence of mind to request the sacraments of penance, anointing, and Eucharist for their dying loved ones, much less obtain these sacraments for themselves as often as befits a son or daughter of God. Provision of spiritual care and religious education are not simply a courtesy, but a responsibility. This is generally considered true for parents vis-à-vis children, and it should also be true for adults regarding their parents--when they no longer can operate for themselves.

While we have our wits, one way we take responsibility for our own spiritual and religious disciplines is frequent and honest Confession. People of all ages will contest, "I'm not a big sinner. I never killed anyone, stole [much]..."

That may be true. The Church commands us to confess only our serious sins, at the minimum of once a year. But that is a minimum. We would change our toothbrush more often, or the oil in (older) vehicles, so why not prevent sin buildup in like manner?

As an apostle of mercy I consider myself obliged to make the suggestion, especially upon an initial visit to a hospitalized person. I certainly don't accuse anyone of being a "big sinner," but I often remind them that there are ten commandments, and various ways to break them.

Most important is the priest's mission (as opposed to "agenda," a word fraught with unsavory connotations) to "draw everyone" to Christ (cf. Jn 12:32). To refuse or defer that invitation is no personal slight, nor is it necessarily a self-condemning action; but "the offer still stands," at least for the patient's length of stay, and they can always seek another priest. The time may not be right, they may want to examine their conscience first--and I can provide material for that!

In any case, it's all about whittling away at excuses, and renewing our commitment to our relationship with Jesus and all we encounter. Can you "confess to God directly"? Sure, but confess also to a priest. It costs nothing but our egos. The priest is as much a sinner as you, perhaps (God forbid) more. But as priest, he is an other Christ, and so he was commissioned by Christ and the Church "to reconcile the world to Himself" one person at a time.

Moreover, the healing is in the relationship. Relationships involve the continuous exchange of loving words and actions that heal. Every human exertion in some way creates micro-tears in our spiritual fiber, just like exercise does for our muscles. These tears are properly repaired through prayer, both communal and personal. Confession is fundamentally a prayer that acknowledges and praises God's goodness and sovereignty over our lives; in that context it is a recognition of our sins and weaknesses, which are the precise occasion for God to act in support of our relationship with Him.

I don't advocate putting off any sacramental attention (Anointing or Penance) because I don't advocate putting off any relationship attention. That's what sacraments are: not things to collect or use, not "Get Out of Hell Free!" passes. Rather, they are demonstrations of God's concern for our union with Him and with our fellow human persons, which is most fully evident in the sacraments' very Source: The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of the Incarnate Son.

*dominical: of, or pertaining to, the Lord [Jesus]; from L. dominicus, from dominus "lord, master."

19 February 2015

Collect Your Thoughts

From my seminary days I recall that one notable difference between today's Gospel from Matthew and its Lucan parallel is the use of the word "daily": "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me." Why one evangelist remembered Him saying "daily" and another did not--or however that went down--I couldn't tell you. But there is something to that word "daily": We got up this morning, and it was a new day, a new opportunity or a new need to do many of the same things we did yesterday and the day before. We have to repeat this stuff daily for it to work.

This morning a Facebook friend shared the "Morning Offering." Perhaps you recall it:
O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day: for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for all my sins, for the intentions of all my associates, and in particular for the intentions recommended to me this month by our Holy Father.
Where did I learn that? Across the street from our church, at Saint Clair Catholic, before it became a grotto. Every morning we heard it over the loudspeaker. It reminded me of this morning's collect, which I would attempt for you in my best impression of my freshman and junior year English teacher, Sister Joseph Annetta, S.S.J. (Eternal Memory!):
Direct, O Lord, we beseech You, all our actions by Your holy inspirations, and carry them through by Your gracious assistance, so that our every prayer and work may always begin with You, and by You be happily ended: through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
(Actiones nostras, quaesumus, Domine, aspirando praeveni et adiuvando prosequere, ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a Te semper incipiat, et per Te coepta finiatur: per Christum, Dominum nostrum. Amen.) [I learned it in Latin, too, because I'm goofy like that.]
That prayer collected--gathered--us from the diverse conversations that took place right up to, and sometimes a little bit after, the bell. That's one reason we refer once again to the Opening Prayer of the Mass as the collect.

Of course, the wording is now different from the version I just quoted (as was the previous Mass translation), but I remember it because we heard it from her daily. They say, repetitio est mater studiorum: "repetition is the mother of students," and it was a mother to us! But it worked.

But I would thoroughly understand if many of my classmates could not remember the prayer, especially if they haven't cared to remember it (interest makes a difference when it comes to memory), or if they haven't used it since their last class with Sister Joe. When I taught high school, I used that prayer every day, for both my theology and Latin classes.

The prayers, the hymns, the poems, the movie lines, and maybe even the times tables: These are the type of things I hope to remember when I'm retired and in our Villa, if we still have one.

Anyhow, a good Lenten practice might be to memorize a certain prayer or action, by repeating it daily. It will be one of those many worthy things we'll want to continue when Lent is over.

Every "today" is a day to choose whether or not to repeat the actions that can become our habits.

23 January 2015

Rabbit? Run!

The latest papal obiter dictum (read: leaving on a jet plane) concerned his contention that good Catholics do not have to " rabbits" when it comes to family size.

It may be accurate, though picayune, to insist that Pope Francis did not say, *breed* like rabbits, as the phrase typically is attested. Be...breed...whatever.

This post of Dr. Gregory Popčak is informative, especially his reference to paragraph 50 of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.

One segment of the citation clears up this breeding problem (emphases mine): their manner of acting, spouses should be aware that they cannot proceed arbitrarily, but must always be governed according to a conscience dutifully conformed to the divine law itself, and should be submissive toward the Church’s teaching office, which authentically interprets that law in the light of the Gospel.
Before reading the Popčak piece, I recalled a phrase that I picked up at some point in the seminary: humano modo. Context? Glad you asked:
Can. 1061 §1. A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion [humano modo] a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh. {source}
A "human manner"--a manner suitable to free and rational creatures who are "now called children of God, for that is what we are" (1 Jn 3:1). A human manner presumes a total investment of self that is permanent, exclusive, and open to new life. A human manner is not "arbitrary" and casual, fit for public display and risible observation.

Can rabbits marry each other--or dogs, cats, gerbils, or even the most intelligent orangutans? Does a total investment of self that is permanent, exclusive, and open to new life ("openness" being a uniquely human possibility) even occur to rabbits, or any of the other animals? The sexual expression of rabbits and other animals is instinctual, not free and rational.

Now maybe scientists and others have observed in animals some approximation to human love. Every concern for the other as other certainly participates in, derives from, divine love--and cannot  otherwise exist. But we are not animals; and Pope Francis is reminding us that the Catholic Church wants responsible parents who must decide wisely and generously how they will cooperate with God's gift of generation. Indiscriminate copulation, devoid of devotion, will not suffice.

Maybe I'm a "speciesist" by insisting that, however tender we may deem it to be, the procreation and rearing of animals is different from human love both in degree and in kind. Maybe my take doesn't catch the spirit of the Holy Father's words any more than the rereading by any author in the mainstream media (or even this article), but I offer it nonetheless.

11 January 2015

The Tonight Show and The Baptism of the Lord

While Johnny Carson may remain for many the all-time favorite host of The Tonight Show, I am also fond of the newest host, Jimmy Fallon. He has a whimsical, self-effacing wit, and embraces technology in his skits. He fits in with the younger generation [although, after the first Mass, an older woman came up to me, put her arm on my shoulder, and said, "I like Jimmy Fallon, too" and walked along--which made the day]. Whatever shoes he's had to fill, he seems content to be himself.
Just the other night Jimmy was interviewing actress Nicole Kidman. He recalled that they had met ten years before. On that occasion, a friend of Jimmy called him to say that he wanted to bring Nicole Kidman by his apartment.

Jimmy later realized, and Nicole affirmed, that it was a set-up date, and he’d given her a rather bland reception: playing video games, not talking much. Nicole then revealed that she had been romantically interested in Jimmy, but he was clueless about it! Imagine: he could have been Mr. Nicole Kidman—if he wasn’t so—aargh! The whole interview unraveled rather humorously after that admission, but they took it in stride. Although the awkwardness of the past could not be erased or redone, the interview opened the door to a new perspective in friendship.

Many times in life we recognize a choice before us, and many times there doesn’t seem to be a choice. In that instant when Jimmy realized the opportunity he’d missed, the audience also could see the present outcome, where both are happily married with children.

After watching the interview I wondered whether there were any times I was simply unaware of others’ intentions about me, and how things might have been different, especially if I had handled them better. But that practice is a kind of spiritual and emotional quicksand. My thoughts needed to turn to a more productive and worthwhile theme: the mysterious workings of God’s Providence, which aims to reinforce within each of us our fundamental identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.

That’s what Baptism does for us: makes us children of God, heirs of heaven, temples of the Holy Spirit, and members of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. It frees us from the Original Sin and, in the case of adults, from any personal sins we have committed. Baptism confers upon us a new identity and a new mission, leaving behind the way that leads to death. Though, like Jimmy with Nicole, we may be unaware of God’s loving intentions for us, through Baptism He inaugurates for us the strange and wonderful journey that is discipleship, where, though we participate freely, there is always Another Hand at work.

Along our life’s course we will stray, we will miss the mark, we will sin. Not just instances of wry regret like the way that Jimmy Fallon initially regarded Nicole Kidman, but snubs of the most meaningful relationships of our lives: intentional choices against God’s commandments to love Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. But no sinful choice that we ever make will erase our splendid identity as God’s beloved, made for communion with Him. That’s not to say that we can’t reject that communion or don’t need to repair it; but, even if we rejected it completely, we’d still have been made for it, which would add all the more to the frustration that is hell.

But God the Son fully identified Himself with the human race by becoming man and submitting Himself to the baptismal waters. He knew and owned His identity as the Father’s Beloved and the Savior of mankind. Through Baptism He invites all to receive that dignity and to walk in that dignity each day. In view of that wise and loving plan, God will use even our sins and our missed chances for His glory and for the good of all. Though much of life may cause real and deserved shame, God allows us to participate in our redemption and renewal.

03 January 2015

Take Me To What?

I saw this song being featured on iTunes, but it wasn't until a friend tipped me off to it that I paid it any real attention. Irish singer Andrew Hozier-Byrne, who goes by Hozier, rocketed to fame with his hit "Take Me To Church."

Now my friend jokingly marketed it to me as a song advocating Mass attendance; but when I gave it a listen, and followed up with cursory research on the song and the artist, I experienced mixed admiration, irritation, and shame.

Admiration, because I like Hozier's warm and full voice. The song is growing on me, too. "Church" is a dramatic, almost maudlin ballad with its pulsating beat and haunting background voices. It's very serious. I wonder if he's the type of person who can enjoy a chuckle; and if not, I'd like to sit him down to a Three Stooges or Monty Python marathon and see how he does.

I admit, however, that it could just be the aura necessary for this piece. After all, we're not allowed to act up in church! But tell that to his funeral-mocking lover, whom he seems to admire for her humor.

Hozier was born in 1990, around when most of my high school students were born (I taught between 2004 and 2006). Since my days as a teacher I have begun to take note of "his generation," and of generations in general--their differences, the way that other generations perceive them, etc. I don't at all style myself a theorist on these matters, but that's never kept me from theorizing, yea, even with curmudgeonly notes.

Millennials and younger sense that they are living in a moral and doctrinal wasteland. At once they object to it and wallow in it, precisely in songs like this. Hasn't that been the way of artists, though? I have to give it to millennials. They've been holding up all right, given the circumstances of their age.

Irritation and shame are of a piece. The Church has proved for Hozier and many of his generation woefully insufficient, what with its allegedly homophobic and frigid teachings alongside its abusive and elusive representatives. Besides the dearth of sound modeling, there's also the drought of catechesis and devotion. Can we therefore blame him and his generation for turning to idols? Theirs isn't even a defection; they never really came to know the Way, the Truth, and Life at all! We've been fiddling while Rome's been burning.

Hozier alludes to a line of "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens: "Born sick, but commanded to be well." If I understand this line (admittedly ignorant of its context), he posits a conflict between the Church's doctrine of original sin and her demanding moral teachings, especially with respect to the "pelvic issues" of the sixth and ninth commandments.

Hozier declares that his religion "has no absolutes," but he would fain fashion his lover (or how he feels about himself when he's with her) into an absolute. We've heard that contradiction before: "How can you say there is no absolute truth? Isn't that very statement an absolute?" One's own will or whim becomes the absolute, the standard. But worship we will--and the object of one's worship will, as he notes, "demand a sacrifice," even if it be one's own understanding and freedom.

He is right to say that there are "lots of starving faithful." While some of the Church's leaders were on their alleged "high horse," his generation has been starving for rich fare. Spare no doctrine! Spare no liturgical beauty! But only when mired in his brand of madness, free of "masters and kings" (oppressive hierarchy? oppressive everyone?) does he style himself "human" and "clean." It's hard to get any headway here, because madness consumes.

Our worshipper is not asking for pity. He is declaring his righteousness and piety before everyone. What more can be said? Yes, he is promoting the (hedonistic) worship of his "lover," a "goddess" who "demands a sacrifice." In the absence of the God of revelation, eros seems to be a trusted place to hang one's hat--trusted in the sense of typical, expected, and accessible.

Fulton Sheen and others spoke often of how we are hard-wired, geared by nature, to worship, to outpour ourselves. If the object of our worship is not God, then go with whoever or whatever else offers ecstasy, escape of oneself. But substitutes soon prove fatally flawed, and soon betray the sad fact that their slaves (dogs, he calls them!) are really worshipping the image of themselves that they see in the other. A human being is a fine wine that cannot be made into a reduction.

We have far to go with the evangelization of this generation. One place we can start is the sense of bleakness that people rightly experience amid the surfeit of earthly desires. Someone can satisfy!

This task, this responsibility, this mission--"Let it begin with me." How else will it continue?