Saturday, December 31, 2011

Firm Purpose and Hope

Before 2011 gets away from me, I want to respond again to the request of my Canadian friend to write more on the Sacrament of Penance. I do so gladly and specifically I want to offer a few thoughts on that which is required of us if our confession is to be truly sincere or, should I say, honestly contrite. We cannot be forgiven of grave or mortal sin if we are not sorry, if we do not turn to the Lord and genuinely ask His forgiveness through the ministry of His Church. This sorrow has to come forth somehow in the dialogue which is so characteristic of auricular confession. We are to display to our Father Confessor, or rather, we as penitents, manifestly, should be seized by a "firm purpose of amendment". That would be our resolve to change our ways, to not commit that sin again.

The dynamics of the confessional (some people are very nervous in Confession; some may seem defensive, but more often their tone arises either from ignorance or from an embarrassed pride that does not want to accept the fact that they have once again fallen and done so grievously) make it hard for the priest to judge whether some people are sorry enough to want sincerely to change their ways. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the priest's office as judge (the image of a "physician of souls" can be helpful as long as Father himself does not deny or ignore his role as a judge in Christ's stead). This sacrament "works" if the penitent is sorry for his or her sins confessed. The only way to establish this as fact is if the "doctor and the judge" perceives sorrow (whether out of love or out of fear, it does not matter), but sorrow which is displayed in the penitent's readiness to turn away from sin.

The issue about firm purpose of amendment comes to the fore especially or precisely for penitents with a certain habit of sin. I can remember in catechism and in spiritual conferences in the seminary when we were young, Father would always advise that in the face of a habit of sin it was important not to despair, not to excuse ourselves, but in all humility to seek forgiveness promptly, again and again in the Sacrament of Penance, attentive always to our confessor's advice and counsel. Father wanted us to live in hope of growth in holiness, of growth in virtue, of breaking free from our miserable failing or failings. The legendary stories of the firm but effective help which St. Pio of Pietralcina (Padre Pio) gave to sinners in the confessional is worth remembering. I also remember hearing poor Bernard Haering criticize Padre Pio for harshness; Haering's own approach of excusing failings did not convince me even at age 22. In Christ, the victory over personal sin must also be possible, sin is not simply covered over, but genuinely forgiven, and our lives are transformed through the aid of the sacraments He entrusted to His Church.

Many adults suffer from a sense of desperation in the face of repeated and habitual failings; they can even sincerely doubt their own contrition, as they doubt their only handle upon or gauge of that true sorrow, namely, their firm purpose of amendment. The old advice to keep trying, to never give up, and to genuinely strive to be wise by avoiding the near occasions of sin, is still the best advice. Ultimately, it is the way we witness to the true nature of hope in our lives. Hope in God is ultimately trust in His promises. The victory is indeed His, if we but seek Him in all things.

An Irish priest friend of mine, who took the pledge as a young man at confirmation and has never touched alcohol all his long life, recounted how in his early years he went around with a team, including a reformed alcoholic, to give talks on the evils of drink. His respected colleague would occasionally fall off the wagon and invariably, even in the middle of the night, would come still not yet sober seeking confession from Father and the Lord's forgiveness. He was a determined man and if no one responded to the rectory door in the wee hours, he would go under Father's window and shout, usually waking the whole house before Father himself awoke and went down to console the man. Sorrow and fear of damnation were certainly present. Faith in the power of the Sacrament of Penance was evident as well. Father certainly admonished the man to come back for confession as soon as he was sober. No doubt on that occasion "the judge" could also be assured of a firm purpose of amendment from his penitent.

We honestly do our best; we live in hope of the Son of Man, like us in all things but sin, Who took on our humanity and offers us a share in His Divine Life. The sinner should find refuge in the Lord and the priest cannot be over eager to make the Sacrament of Penance available. Our immediate act of contrition when we fail is a sine qua non. Confession and Absolution is what distinguishes us from the quiet desperation of a world which has not yet know the Wonder Counselor, Father Forever, Prince of Peace, born for us and for us given.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mistaken For Christ

For some time now, but especially since St. Stephen's Feast and again today with the Holy Innocents, I have been resisting the urge to write something about our identity as Christians in the world and the role martyrdom may have to play in this our life. 

It might be presumptuous or an exaggeration on my part to say that what I want to do (reflecting on the example of St. Stephen but perhaps more on that of the Holy Innocents) is fundamental or basic and would have implications not only for the life of the individual but for the life of the Church in a society, that society being a world or the powers which be in that world which for the most part stand us over and against (threatened by the very thought of us, as Herod was troubled unto folly by the news of the star from the magi come to worship the Universal King). 

I capitulated and decided to write something when I read the little introduction to today's Mass in MAGNIFICAT speaking of the honor accorded to the babies around Bethlehem, they having been mistaken for the Anointed One of God and dying in His place! We don't belong, let us say, any more than the Lord Jesus, Who explained to Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world. Christ's glory is in His being lifted up upon the Cross. He and we, if we follow Him, are indeed outsiders. His glory, our glory is in being relegated to the cave and manger outside Bethlehem, to being crucified outside of the city of Jerusalem and deposited in a borrowed grave. Is this indeed so for us; is our relationship to this century really adversarial?

"Arise, O LORD, confront them, strike them down! 
Let your sword deliver my soul from the wicked! 
Let your hand, O LORD, deliver me from those 
whose portion in this present life is fleeting. 
May you give them their fill of your treasures; 
may their offspring rejoice in plenty, 
and leave their wealth to their children. 
As for me, in justice I shall behold your face; 
when I awake I shall be filled with the vision of your presence." (Psalm 17:13-15)

Is it only King David, is it only the priest who has the Lord as his portion? Are we not all, the baptized, strangers or sojourners on our way to a better place? There is nothing of apathetic resignation in the awareness that the victory belongs to Stephen, to the Innocents and not to some Forbes list of the world's movers and shakers. One needs to tremble slightly at TV or radio commentary about the Vatican as the capital of Christianity. "My kingdom is not of this world." Jesus said it to Pilate.

We needs be shocked by the hateful bombings this year in Nigeria of churches on Christmas, shocked but not surprised. The old expression was that error has no rights. Perhaps it would be better to recognize soberly the absolute intolerance of relativism as ideology, of ignorance and prejudice unleashed and unrestrained, no matter how one dresses or candy-coats it. Very simply, the truth is indeed one and must be striven for, but finds few defenders even in the halls of justice.

We need only recall the Holy Father's discourse at the University of Regensburg (12 September 2006) to help us contextualize a discourse far from new to our world:

"In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις - controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death..."

Jesus prophesied that those who follow Him will be drawn before kings and rulers and all matter of tribunal for the sake of His Name. For His sake, for the sake of reason and of truth, we cannot fail to defend the family, the down-trodden and the unborn. 

I'm going to stop short of a harangue and express the hope and prayer that as we cross the threshold of another calendar year, we might draw hope and courage for battle from the psalmist, rallying to the standard of the Infant King: "As for me, in justice I shall behold your face; when I awake I shall be filled with the vision of your presence."


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Post Secular?

In the relatively brief period I have been here in Ukraine and trying to understand what is going on around me, one of the columnists on the web site RISU (Religious Information Service of Ukraine) whom I enjoy reading is Andrew Sorokowski. I am eager to recommend his most recent article "Are we in a post-secular age?" (see Sorokowski).

The author often takes as his point of departure a statement made by a leader within the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church community, in this case the rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, Fr. Boris Gudziak, and elaborates or dwells on affirmations made by the same.

This particular article's analysis of Ukrainian West and Ukrainian East religiosity in the face of past persecution and long-term, ongoing secularization in society goes far beyond the usual assessments one or at least I have been able to hear or read to date. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough or not reading the right people? In any case, I am grateful for this find and pass it on for your attention and comment.
I share the author's assessment that by far "indifference" would be characteristic of people almost everywhere here in the face of the God question; it is simply not an issue. Scripturally, this world is in a way B.C. sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death. Christ, our Light, hasn't dawned on them as yet.

The so-called "seekers after meaning in life" have set the bar none too high for themselves. In any case they are looking for something easier than what the Gospel has to offer. Here's a quote from the article:

"For those who do search for meaning, notes Fr. Gudziak, there are few ready answers. At first this may seem untrue. After all, modern society offers a broad array of answers: all kinds of religions, philosophies, and life-styles purport to answer the question of the meaning of life. One can find web-sites, support groups, and T-shirts for just about any creed, or the absence of one. But if we are speaking of true answers, indeed there are few. Christianity does not provide an answer to every question; rather, it suggests answers to a few big questions, leaving us to figure out the rest. It tells us who we are and why we are here, but it does not tell us, for example, why God permits evil. Contrary to a popular perception, the Church does not do our thinking for us, but gives us enough understanding to attack the questions that remain unanswered. A university like UCU provides students with the intellectual tools of the Christian tradition that will enable them to find their own answers to the big questions."

Let me know your thoughts or better suggest a better reading list than the one I've got so far!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Church is Where You are to be Found

The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy
Alexander Schmemann
(St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, New York, 2003)

A colleague loaned me his copy of this book which must be labelled either "a standard work" or a "classic". Reading it you get an impression, not so much of timelessness but of freshness, such that you would hardly guess that the 2003 edition is the third reprint in English of a work first translated from the Russian and published in 1963. I have some very strong objections to Schmemann's approach to history, but I learned a lot from the book especially in terms of contextualizing the experience I had of Orthodoxy while stationed in Jerusalem in the years 1993-96.

Despite my strong temptation to go after the way Schmemann yokes the Byzantine Church to temporal power, I prefer to take his observations on monasticism, not so much in the Greek form but as he describes it in Russian Orthodoxy and especially in the 15th century as point of departure for a reflection on how even ordinary Christians manifest contrition and set their hearts on the heavenly Kingdom:

"Yet amid all this darkness and decay there was the pure air of the monastery, evidence of the possibility of repentance, renewal, and purification. The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness. This must be understood for a comprehension of the origins of the "Russian soul." In the midst of its degradation it stretches toward this limitless brightness; it contains the tragic discord between the vision of spiritual beauty and purity expressed in monasticism and the sense of the hopeless sinfulness of life. Those who see a wholeness in the Russian religious mind of these ages are deeply mistaken, for just then, in the centuries after the Tatar invasion, the dualism which would mark its future course began to enter into it." (p. 308)
Elsewhere and repeatedly in his book Schmemann maintains that Christianity was imposed on the people of the Rus and only ever absorbed or integrated by an elite. He seems convinced that for the masses, the ordinary folk, Byzantine ritual was a veneer covering the "soft paganism" of the Slavic lands. He points to the rudeness in the people resulting from centuries of slavery under the brutal Tatars. So far Schmemann, the expert on Orthodoxy writing his original in Russian, and as he is dead at the moment, as they say, it hardly pays to get too worked up about what he says about post-Muscovite Slavic Orthodoxy. It is sort of like a French Dominican of over a century ago who insisted that American Catholicism had nothing to offer to the Church at large because of the hypocrisy generally of American Catholics. You have three choices in the face of such a condemnation: 1) Object with vehemence; 2) Beat your breast: 3) Get on with life as the Dominican too in question is long dead.

Getting on with the question for me in terms of Schmemann means posing another question or taking another perspective in terms of the why and wherefore of the Church in time and then ultimately. Ultimately, the Church should be our window on how things ought to be, how they will be in the fullness of time when Christ comes again in glory:
"And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light shall the nations walk; and the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, and its gates shall never be shut by day - and there shall be no night there; they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations." (Revelations 21:22-26)

 Here on earth we perforce see as through a glass darkly. The Church even at its most sublime while celebrating the Sacred Liturgy can be no more than foretaste and promise of the Kingdom which is to come. Hans Urs von Balthasar writing about the liturgy ("Liturgy and Awe", vol. II of his Explorations in Theology, Ignatius Press) attributes greater clarity to the worship of the Western Church in its classic liturgy than is preserved in the East. In another article published in the same volume ("Seeing, Hearing and Reading Within the Church), von Balthasar seems to take exception to Schmemann for blaming the Russian dualism on the Tatar yoke and points to a specific deficiency of the Byzantine liturgical tradition:

"Thus while it is true that the Eastern liturgy, where it genuinely unfolds itself, is a liturgy of seeing, in which the believer is permitted to see, through mirror and likeness, the supraheavenly mysteries of the new age in a great symbolic-representative sequence of scenes as it were solidifies into the "wall of images", the iconostasis - solidified like the ceremonial of the Byzantine court - and that this now divides the church interior into two, one space for the profane, uninitiated people who must be content with the "colorful reflection of the splendor" and one space for the mystic-initiated priest who always has the iconostasis at his back and already stands on the far side of all likenesses." (p. 485)

Von Balthasar is no less sparing in his criticism of Western liturgy, but my point would be that the basic question is another. How do we get to the Kingdom? How do we live the Christian life? The Byzantine world is filled with stories of saints and would-be saintly people who at the end of their lives took the monastic habit. The great example for me is St. Methodius' brother St. Cyrill, who took the habit at Rome when he realized he was dying. I think Schmemann has a great and beautiful description of Russian monasticism when he says of it: "The monastery is not the crown of the Christian world, but on the contrary, its inner judgment seat and accuser, the light shining in the darkness."

Taking the habit is not so much going over to a religious elite, not so much choosing the better path, as it is symbol of commitment with firm purpose to amend our lives. It is that step really which the Church asks of us all, regardless of our state in life, beyond the tears of our penance. It is our "yes" to the exhortation of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery "Go and sin no more."

As taboo as it is to speak about such things in the Church today, I cannot but think of the number of people in the West who in days gone by, on the advice of their confessors, took the hair-shirt or the discipline. Ultimately, the sense of the brown scapular of our Lady of Mount Carmel in which we were enrolled at First Communion is the same, namely as token, sign, sacramental witness of our resolve never to be separated from Christ and His Blessed Mother again.

It is not the judgment but the love, the light, the luminous witness, which draws us, and is so eloquently illustrated in the tender dialogue between the Virgin of Tepeyac and St. Juan Diego.
Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, Pray for Us!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The End of History?

The other day after a talk and discussion with a class of university students, a young lady came up and asked me if I was familiar with a lecture by Francis Fukuyama, later published as an article entitled: "The End of History?" She asked me what my opinion was on the thesis that the end of participatory and/or representative democracy would signal the end of history. I told her I did not know the article, but that for my way of thinking as there was history before democracy so there could be history after democracy. ["Sherman's Lagoon" today reminded me of this brief exchange.]

Yesterday, I started watching a lecture by Peter Kreeft on how to win the culture war [on Youtube] which he introduces by stating his thesis, that the Catholic Church is the only thing which stands in the way of the total collapse of Western Civilization... whew! It sort of reminds me of the courageous little Dutch boy who saved his town by plugging the hole in the dike with his finger.

If that were not enough, I also took in the 2nd part of Fr. Robert Barron's marvelous commentary on the figure of King David in which he draws a corollary between David's failures as a father and the failures (in fathering or governing) of the Catholic hierarchy today [Word on Fire]. Well taken, but I think the word is: ouch!

All of this and much more draws forth additional reflection for me and on my part on the question: "Where is or what is the locus of the Church?" I am asking not only about its place in my life but about its place or role in and for the life of the world. I still find no better way of dealing with this question than did Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman in his beautiful little novel "Callista: A Tale of the Third Century". In most modern and credible fashion he illustrates the miracle of how the blood of martyrs can be the seed of Christians. He paints a picture of a Church lost, a civilization really collapsed, which is renewed by a martyrdom which was willed perhaps only by God Himself.

The quintessential witness of the Church, its locus par excellence, is that of standing with Mary, John and the Magdalen at the Foot of the Cross of Christ. That witness in martyrdom doesn't necessarily attract volunteers and so I think it important to reflect on the importance of watching and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane as that which prepares us for Calvary and lest we fall into temptation. Besides coming to a knowledge of Christ and of our faith in Him through study, identifying with Him through that personal exchange with Him which is our watchful/attentive prayer, certainly goes in that direction and beyond a shadow of a doubt. Even if we do fall asleep, we pray that Jesus will come and wake us, as He did Peter, James and John in Gethsemane.

Today, as far as the greater role of the Church for the sake of civilization I was struck by the dynamics of Chapter 10 of St. John's Gospel. The setting for the part of the chapter I have in mind is winter, with Jesus walking up and down in Solomon's Portico of the Temple. The exchange or engagement between Jesus and those who surround Him, the one I maintain could save society, is very much under way. In a sense, this is all that really matters in life, especially in the life of the Church for the sake of the salvation of the world: that we engage the other, that the discourse be honest and open, that the possibility of knowing what Christ offers through His Church be provided such that those who are destined for salvation might come to be saved.

Peter Kreeft says that the only thing which stands in the way of the total collapse of Western Civilization is the Catholic Church... OK... he's a philosopher and a big name. I guess I'd say it differently. The life of the world depends upon my coming to know Christ, upon my study, my prayer, my watching with Him, as the old hymn goes... "in His temptation and His fast".

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Back in the Fold

In Ukraine I find myself far from that part of the world, and from the parish and the excitement of the first experiences with the new English translation of the Roman Missal. I have to content myself long-distance with comments in the blogosphere and candid reactions from friends at home and elsewhere in the English speaking world. Among the tidbits which have come my way, I was a bit taken off guard by a comment from an Italian priest friend who said very simply that the new English reminds him of the Italian Missal in the sense that both demand attention and application if a priest is going to pray them properly for the people. My spontaneous thought was: Looks like we're back in the fold with the greater Church around the world. Despite glitches, it is obviously a smaller but significant blessing that this old Simeon has lived long enough to see. Deo gratias!

My prayers continue for all who strive in the area of sacred music. Long term and not discounting initial hurdles and objections to abandoning much of a parish's repertoire of songs in an attempt to set forth the genuine tradition of the Western Church (read: Latin Church), I am convinced that in the area of music, sacred music, the English-speaking world is called to provide the leadership in the work of recovering plain chant and more, both in Latin and in the vernacular. I'm exposed to music in a lot of different languages and most of it involves translations of the English speaking world's hymnody or popular church music. The Western Church's vernacular music repertoire in the average community everywhere in the world is really quite limited. If you taught people or even a scola just a couple basic chant melodies and turned them loose on the propers for Mass, you'd end up with exponentially more variety (if that's what you want) than comes forth from those few hymns everybody knows and that just with verses 1 and 2, which are as far as we go. As I say, all involved in church music and pastors who have responsibility for encouraging restoration and development according to the mind of the Church are definitely in my daily prayers.

On the issue of worship ad Orientem, I'd ask your continued prayers for my carpenter who has begun preparing the new altar for my chapel. I can't wait. The other day I finally met with the priest who designed the chapel and we have agreed on the modifications which need to be made. I may have strong-armed him a bit, but the sisters were there to console him after our meeting and to assure him that the additions and changes were really going to make Father's work even more beautiful. Don't ask me to go into liturgical art consulting!

In this regard, the experience of these months of celebrating across the altar have confirmed my belief that we are dealing with a fad and not any kind of liturgical development. Both ways of preparing the gifts and praying the Eucharistic Prayer are possible in the Church today, but the great tradition and, I am thoroughly and profoundly convinced, the better way is ad Orientem

Not from my own experience (which I explained back in Island Envoy), but from listening and observing, I can see however that the change to ad Orientem where that is possible without a huge financial outlay is really a terribly high hurdle to clear. What was done overnight and in haste two generations ago (moving in a table or quickly fabricating something of TV or movie set quality) looms terribly large and immovable for most priests today when it comes to reversing a trend. What can I say? The Extraordinary Form of the liturgy today teaches eloquently and should have its impact on the Ordinary Form. Beyond the Missal and decorous music, a key component is studying and accurately celebrating the Mass according to the rubrics but doing so if and whenever possible ad Orientem

No doubt the difference from 2 generations back in time is that Father back then could act capriciously and few dared call him to account. I can only hope and pray that for our day and time genuine leadership among priests and bishops in this regard will find the way.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Embassy closings in Rome?

John Allen of NCR (inspired by the Irish decision) reports that it seems "Vatican diplomacy" or the presence of resident ambassadors to the Holy See in Rome may be on the way out  [see: Last Embassy ] at least as far as Western powers are concerned and I quote:

"Among the traditional Western powers, however, the mood is somewhat different.
In recent years, Western ambassadors have quietly complained that it has become more difficult to engage the Vatican on international issues, and that Vatican diplomacy appears to be passing through a period of retrenchment.
Vatican diplomats today, they say, are highly focused on issues of religious freedom and anti-Christian persecution, but sometimes less interested in other matters. Some diplomats point to perceptions that the Vatican was not keenly engaged on Libya in the same way it had been on earlier conflicts in the Balkans or Iraq under John Paul, as an example.
Moreover, these diplomats say, the sexual abuse crisis has created a political environment in which critics of funding missions to the Vatican can wield powerful new ammunition.
“Because of the crisis, people in my government who have always questioned why we have an embassy here are much bolder,” a senior Western diplomat told NCR in mid-November. “To be honest, I’m not sure how much longer we can hold out.”

In other words, someone among Allen's sources would have Ireland as a trend setter. That may be, but the three points offered above for closing embassies are pretexts for starting the closings with the Holy See and no more. Secular diplomacy has been changing or in flux for decades. A goodly number of ambassadors find themselves functioning not even as goodwill emissaries for their countries but as commercial attaches, working hard to bring the balance of trade into line or into their home country's favor. I can remember a German colleague working hard to recruit honorary consuls; he explained to me that they represented essentially what his government wanted: a trade representative, someone with the financial means to carry his own expenses, who has the pull needed to look after German citizens in difficulty with the law. Some countries go with experts as ambassadors. Upon my arrival in the Caribbean, many of my colleagues had backgrounds in law enforcement and surveillance of drugs and arms trafficking. Two non-Europeans of the sixteen ambassadors who presented their credentials with me here in Kyiv are nuclear experts, here to learn from Ukraine's long term experience on managing a nuclear accident (read: Chernobyl). There is hardly a European anywhere who does not complain about budget restrictions: no receptions or dinners for some, seeking sponsors for cheese and wine for another, and a friend who had to fill out a requisition form in triplicate in order to get a new mop bucket for his kitchen.

The economic crisis moved the Council of Europe to curtail the summit diplomacy of ministerial meetings which are otherwise so much the trend: G8, G20, is there still a non-alligned group? I'd love to call someone's bluff and find out just where this pullback on international issues by the Holy See has taken place. No, what has changed is not traditional Vatican diplomacy but rather the priorities and values of others. Could that mean closings? Yes, in the sense of a goodbye to the way things have been done with the sending and receiving of permanent emissaries now for a good five hundred years. One can only hope that the powers that be do not withdraw entirely from the sort of engagement which through direct personal contact has quite often fostered mutual understanding and promoted the cause of peace in the world.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Examination of Conscience

No doubt my Canadian friend is wondering if I intend to fulfill my promise and write a bit more on the Sacrament of Penance. I do so willingly in hopes to be a source of encouragement even to one person. 

I want to talk about our preparation for Confession and then about how best to confess, while repeating my advice that Confession can be both regular and frequent, should never be relegated to a perfunctory observance of that minimum precept-ed by Mother Church in all wisdom, and certainly, yes, Confession must be for seeking liberation from mortal sin and restoring the life of grace in our souls as quickly as possible after the fact. 

Preparation for Confession is both remote and proximate. By remote, we mean the daily examination of conscience which every Christian can with profit include in his or her bed time prayers (a critical review of the day, if you will). By proximate, we mean that gathering or gleaning from our daily exam for the sake of preparing our actual confession (it wouldn't be wrong to make of it a rehearsal for our part in the actual celebration of the sacrament). Why the examination of conscience? It is too little to say that we must live consciously. It is wrong to say that the unexamined life is not worth living. Even the simplest, the frailest among us is no stranger to love. As I am able, I must love. The love of my life is always on my mind or in my heart; I seek not to detract even in the smallest matters from our relationship by thought, word, action or omission. The First Great Commandment: How else can Christ live in me but that I love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength? The Second Commandment, which is like unto it: Wife? Husband? Parent? Child? Other who is in some way a part of my life? How else can I truly love them one and all like myself? I owe myself and all my significant others, and Christ in first place, my remote examination of conscience each day and my best possible confession within the sacrament itself, by reason of proximate preparation on my part for that celebration.

The Decalogue, the Ten Commandments are our point of departure for that examination. But some would say that they are so "OT", so bound to the Law, to the letter which kills as opposed to the Spirit who/which gives life! Oh, really? I hadn't noticed and I don't agree. Wouldn't it be better to use the Beatitudes (Mt. 5)? poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, persecuted for righteousness sake, all on account of Jesus... salt of the earth and light of the world...? Leave the inspired Word of God according to Matthew in its full context, as does the Church. Continue reading Matthew 5 from verse 17 on through chapters 6 and 7. Maybe you'll understand the wisdom of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Part Three: Life in Christ is indeed big, but it allows the fulness of the Christian life to shine through in a traditional examination of conscience using the Ten Commandments.

I know people who recommend and have followers who try to make a good confession by expressing themselves using the language of the virtues and vices, but in a detached almost abstract fashion. I much prefer the small boy who clearly says that he hit his sister, he lied to his teacher and he stole money from the top of his parents' dresser. Sure, he was angry, fearful and selfish, but even adults find it hard to work on abstract defects like anger, fear and selfishness. My amendment of life takes on clear form when I stop hitting, lying and stealing. He may say that he has problems managing his anger, but it would be better to say that he's guilty of beating up on the wife and children and needs to stop. Shouldn't our confession be as concrete as our sins? - What? How often? Any extenuating circumstances? - Simplicity and clarity, in the most direct form possible, are for our good.

By the same token, there are those who fail to grasp the gravity of the thoughts and desires we entertain. It is not only looks or an angry glance that can "kill". Many Easter Confessions never come to grips with the 9th and 10th Commandments. We must do so, however, as our lust or envy are really what poison the well of true love.

Frequently we have doubts as to whether the objective gravity of an act or omission isn't or couldn't be mitigated, reduced, cancelled by our frailty or lack of freedom. If you are bound and gagged of a Sunday, you certainly don't commit a sin by missing Mass. Other matters should be as obvious to people but somehow are not. For instance, the matter of the 5th and 6th Commandments (killing and illicit sexual union) are grave as such. But, we live in an ignorant world which is so in many cases in a vincible fashion (no excuse), if only people would accept the gravity of abortion and infanticide, if only they would realize that there is no alternative to a stable and chaste marital union which is open to children. I can remember years ago the rector of our college seminary, in a house conference for us men (18-24 years of age), where he cautiously and respectfully, but firmly explained the moral principles involved and offered a prayer that our hard hearts would soon come to accept sexual self-indulgence as grave sin and to confess it rightly. Too many people judge themselves helpless and hopeless.

Finally, be brief and to the point. If Father needs more details in order to forgive you he can ask. It is my hope that there will soon be so many people waiting of a Saturday afternoon at church that Father will need the time to dedicate to others, many others in need of the forgiveness which comes from God through the mediation of His Church.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

In All Things and Above All Things: Charity...

Fr. Z's commentary today on the appointment of the new nuncio for Ireland reminded me of an incident at home back in 1976-77. Those were the days when the Apostolic Delegation in Washington encouraged dioceses to draw up a profile of the man they wanted as the next bishop without naming names. However it went, our bishop, who had just retired, got hold of the results and was very hurt to think that for those who had participated in the survey he had not been some of the things on the wish list, at least that was the impression given. The diocesan administrator who had run the survey and published the summary was mortified to discover how he had offended a man whom he really idealized.... What was the point of a survey which in effect backhanded the man who had given his all for that diocese and had never counted the cost? Charity in all things and above all things!

I'm not asking Fr. Z to assume responsibility for the off-hand and ugly comments his article occasioned and which are there for all the world to see, but as far as it goes.... cui bono? What was served by his pot shots or theirs? I'll quote a bit and underline:

Apart from the brains, I know Msgr. Brown to be a prayerful, devout and dedicated priest, very close to Pope Benedict for whom he worked for many years at the CDF.
Msgr. Brown is not from the diplomatic corps crowd.  [Yes? and?] He is an American.  He is young.  He has no diplomatic experience in the sense of having worked in nunciatures.  There are a lot of reasons why his appointment is a departure from the norm.  On the other hand, with his background in theology and his experience at the CDF, it will be nearly impossible successfully to lie to Msgr. Brown about the state of affairs in Ireland.
Perhaps it is time for less diplomacy and more Catholic identity? [Diplomacy has several meanings in the dictionary and not all are positive...]
One of the pressing tasks facing the future Archbishop Nuncio will be to help gather dossiers on new bishops for Irish dioceses.  About a quarter of the dioceses are now vacant.   It may also be necessary to determine whether all those dioceses are… well… necessary to maintain.
I ask WDTPRS readers to stop and, right now, say a decade of the Rosary for Msgr. Brown, also invoking Our Lady of Knock for him and for the reevangelization of Ireland. 

May I ask WDTPRS readers to stop and, right now, say a decade of the Rosary for all of us poor "diplomats" who have some idea of what Archbishop-elect Brown will be facing as he joins our ranks and strives to share in and sustain the Petrine ministry presently entrusted to our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. And please: Charity in all things and above all things!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Basking in the Light of Noonday at the Year's Darkest Hour

The 2nd Reading from the Office of Readings for Thursday of the 33rd Week in Ordinary Time, which is an excerpt from a commentary on the Song of Songs by St. Gregory of Nyssa, got my mind rolling today and especially looking forward to the approaching season of Advent as a special time in the year for going to confession, for celebrating the Sacrament of Penance. 

I remember as a young priest at the Cathedral that this was the time when all of us priests did home visits as part of the preparation of the children who would be making First Penance before Christmas. When I was a child the two sacraments celebrated as First Confession and First Holy Communion were yoked together, but in the late 1970's a school of pedagogy had elected for a separation as a means of addressing through the home visit the issues which parents often had with Confession. It wasn't a bad idea and may even have helped some parents overcome their own fears or prejudices about Confession.

In any case, let me quote from St. Gregory:

"No one is judged worthy of this noonday rest who is not a child of light and of the day. But if anyone makes himself equally distant from the shadows of daybreak and those of nightfall, that is, from the origin of evil and its conclusion, the sun of righteousness makes him lie down at noontide. Show me, then, says the bride, how I should lie down; show me the path to this noonday repose, lest my ignorance of your truth cause me to stray from your good guidance and consort with flocks which are strangers to yours. Thus speaks the bride, anxious about the beauty God has given her, and seeking to learn how her comeliness may continue for ever." 

One of the genuine heartbreaks of a goodly priest in the confessional is being confronted by the annual or twice a year penitent, who wants to do the right thing but is both ignorant, certainly fearful, and perhaps defensive, far from the eagerness of St. Gregory's bride seeking rest in the bright light of Christ, the Bridegroom's Truth. This was the dilemma or tragedy of Father's home visits for First Penance back in the 1970's, seeing the reticence perhaps of both Mom and Dad, noting their fear and ignorance concerning the Sacrament of Penance. I pray regularly and a lot for the renewal of the Sacrament of Penance in the practice of the Church. This priceless pearl must be recovered and praying that the Holy Spirit inspire first steps back toward the light is a sine qua non. I also invite others to pray for this intention and have seen some of the fruits in the lives of people as a result of that invitation.

Beyond the straying sheep, let us say, there are also all of the rest of us who could profit from more light. When it comes to making a truly good confession even great and holy souls, canonized saints have profited from the direction of wise confessors. If you don't feel as though you are getting anything out of confession or if on those 2, 3, or 4 times of a year that you go the experience is less than satisfying and you know enough to blame yourself for having choked in the clinch or blanked, then maybe you need more practice and should consider going more often to confession. Once a month is really not that often, trust me!

Besides practicing by going more often, I think we need formation, we need to learn, we need to read or study. A big part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its edition for youth, Youcat, offer food for reflection. The programming of EWTN is not without aids in this regard too.

"Thus speaks the bride, anxious about the beauty God has given her, and seeking to learn how her comeliness may continue for ever."

Keeping up appearances is not living in the light. It could be that we have lost the beauty of our Baptism. We need but join the battle with our Savior and Redeemer, Who through the ministry of His Church can give us pardon and peace. Perseverance, prayerful supplication to God to come to our aid, seeking the light through spiritual reading. The need is urgent but the Bridegroom is waiting to see us in His Light. In Him alone our souls will find rest.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Heresy of Formlessness?

I always admire the vitality of the contributions which Fr. Christopher Smith makes to CHANT CAFE. But I am perplexed by his recent application of Martin Mosebach's famous notion "heresy of formlessness" to what Father analyzes convincingly as chaos when it comes to the liturgical prescriptions governing the celebration of the Communion Rite at Mass (A Problem of Interpretation?). I am sure it was not Father's intention, but throwing out the word "heresy" like that gives me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Granted, too many in the Church are unwilling to identify anything as heresy, even egregious errors, but I wonder whether there is any way to apply the term in this particular case. My suspicion is that even if the precepts involved in ordering certain aspects of the Communion Rite were "eindeutig" / crystal clear some folks would still go on singing the praises of the "king's new clothes" while the children continue to laugh at what is clearly folly.

Aware as I am of the tendency seminarians have had in the not so distant past to use the expression "waging liturgy", nonetheless I really do believe that when it comes to liturgical law, we have to take the legislator at his word and trust he will interpret authentically and in a binding fashion if our best efforts fail at sorting things out (Can. 16 CIC). We need but appeal and trust that the requested clarification will be forthcoming.

Rescripts, prescripts, instructions, motu proprii, et alia have their part to play. Even so, thanks to television Papal Liturgy can and does play a role which goes far beyond what the historical authors could have ever hoped for or imagined when it comes to modelling for the rest of the Church.

Personally, because it is much more immediate, I think that Cathedral Liturgy could best when at its best contribute to "forming" parish liturgy. I know a lot of lay people who are pleased by a bouncy, Sunday celebration, but would be better nourished by a consequent application to a local context of a liturgical expression thoroughly imbued with "Roman restraint". I don't think you have to appeal to the legislator to be able to fill in the blanks as to what I mean by that expression.

The inexorable logic which leads to the multiplication of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion for every Sunday use is the same one which makes anyone unsteady on his or her feet nervous at having to run (too often really) the "Communion gauntlet". Communion time is marked by haste in more parishes than we would like to admit. With that haste is also the push to get up and move which hits people in the pews ready or not to receive their Lord in Holy Communion. I'm thinking also of a couple experiences from last summer when the push to get everybody out of the pews, up and around the front, brought me face to face with children and pre-adolescents who were not Catholic and really didn't know why their Catholic friends who had brought them along to Mass had insisted they make the tour with them at Communion time. In every case the embarrassed children were happy to be sent on their way with a simple blessing. Too often, sadly, the process is not reflective and follows the logic of a movement which has been heading toward its denouement since the shuffle to shake hands or hug at the greeting of peace broke with the Our Father. The "hurry" is on! Try, as a priest celebrant, sitting just a moment too long for thanksgiving after Communion and you'll realize that you're breaking the rhythm or momentum of a runaway locomotive which won't stop until sometime after the parking lot! It's not the people's fault.

Maybe my stomach ache doesn't count, but liturgical law does not need to be the issue. Along side clear precepts also at a diocesan level we need to counter both abuse and simple haste, especially at Communion time, with constructive display, the best antidote I know for a the lack of imagination which has sold too much of contemporary liturgy to the lowest bidder.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Bishop and Unity

Today in the Roman calendar is the memorial of St. Josaphat, Bishop and Martyr. For some he was a "thief of souls" and the Catholic Church classes him the martyr of Christian Unity. I remember as a young man of 22 years of age being surprised by his altar in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. This September (so almost 40 years later) I wanted to stop and pray at his altar, entrusting my mission here in Ukraine to his patronage, only to find the altar hidden behind scaffolding, as can happen because of the ongoing maintenance of that grand edifice (my timing was off). In any case, let it be said that the martyr bishop not only laid down his life for the flock entrusted to his care but in his solicitude for the Church throughout the world he did so seeking unity with the See of Peter.

Hardly a day passes here in Kyiv where I don't read of efforts or longing on the part of many to restore Christ's seamless garment, the witness of oneness in the Lord which should be for all the world to see. Everyone, I think, out of faithfulness to the Lord affirms the need for Christian Unity; each one visualizes it a bit differently and strives in his own way to attain that prize. To my mind, apart from our fervent petition to the Lord Himself, I think it important to underline/insist upon that special responsibility or solicitude bishops carry by reason of their office and the grace of the same for the sake not only of restoring oneness, but thereby for striving to hasten the coming of God's Day.

While aspiring to martyrdom, as did even the Little Flower, is a good thing, I wish to look elsewhere for the  more persuasive model for promoting the cause. I wish to go back to the first millennium, to the patron of my episcopal ordination, to yesterday's saint, Martin of Tours. There is hardly a church or an ancient city square in central and western Europe without an image of young Martin, the catechumen, a soldier astride his horse, dividing his military cloak with a poor beggar. Youthful generosity is captivating and rightly so, but Martin lived a long life and his witness is as multiform as the ages of his life; my Martin is the elderly bishop and monk, already near death, sacrificing his preparation to meet his Lord for the sake of restoring unity to a church where the clergy were fighting among themselves and would not be reconciled without him. In the Office of Readings we have the account of this work of Martin's from a letter of Sulpicius Severus:

"Meanwhile, he found himself obliged to make a visitation of the parish of Candes. The clergy of that church were quarreling, and he wished to reconcile them. Although he knew that his days on earth were few, he did not refuse to undertake the journey for such a purpose, for he believed that he would bring his virtuous life to a good end if by his efforts peace was restored in the church... Peace was restored, and he was planning to return to his monastery when suddenly he began to lose his strength... Here was a man words cannot describe. Death could not defeat him nor toil dismay him. He was quite without a preference of his own; he neither feared to die nor refused to live. With eyes and hands always raised to heaven he never withdrew his unconquered spirit from prayer."

Which is the path to peace? Let Martin show us the way by his love and prayer!


Thursday, November 10, 2011

This one deserves a hurrah and as Fr. Z would exclaim a BRICK BY BRICK!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Water Flowing from the Temple

Reflecting on this great feast of the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, my thoughts are torn between trying to express my thoughts on the incomparable 1st reading for the feast from Ezechiel about the waters, the life-giving waters flowing from the Temple, on the 2nd reading where St. Paul reminds us that we are God's Temple, on the Gospel's "zeal for Your House will consume me", not to mention on the 2nd reading from the Office of Readings, that incomparable meditation of Caesarius of Arles, on the feast of dedication as a concrete reminder and celebration of the dignity of the baptized.

The water, life-giving as it is, the water from the Temple is going to win out this year in my thoughts for this day, despite the urgency I feel in reminding one and all, especially children of the last 40 years of our personal greatness as baptized people after the image of the temple, in that they maybe didn't hear as often as we older folk did that you are God's Temple and as Caesarius admonishes you must keep that temple spotless and filled with light!

Wasn't it St. Augustine who said that the Church is possessed of two life-giving fountains? From the one fountain within the Church flow the waters of baptism which purify the house of Satan and make it, our soul, the House of God. The other font is that of the tears of Penance which wash away sin and restore the fallen to light and life when sins are committed after baptism. Let the Scripture readings for today's feast, especially Ezechiel, move you. This abundance of life-giving water flowing from the Temple brings us hope and joy, hope and joy as God makes the desert bloom and freshens the salt sea.

In November, the month dedicated to the Holy Souls, we need to be caught up in the mystery of our glory in Christ, such that not only through penance and absolution, but through reparation for the punishment due for our sins and those of the world, we might wash and heal with the cleansing waters God has entrusted to His Church ourselves through the ministry of that Church and through our sacrifices and prayers on their behalf those who have preceded us in death unprepared for the beatific vision though not deserving of hell.

Vidi aquam! I saw water flowing from the Temple! Would that we could carry more of our world to the fountain of baptism! Vidi aquam! I saw water flowing from the Temple! Would that the tears of penance would flow more abundantly and regularly within the Church, for our sake and for the sake of the life of the world!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sacrament of Penance

My recent move to an new assignment not quite half way around the world, after 6+ years of stabilitas loci, has made me more receptive than usual to countless anxious comments by laity regarding the sacrament of penance. A change of address like mine also means finding a new confessor in a place unknown to me and with perhaps a smaller number of priests to choose from who share a common language with me. Actually, things went quite well and with very little delay I am back on a regular program of confession. Thanks be to God.

As I say, my heart goes out in a very special way to all those who find it hard to catch a priest to hear their confession, who are embarrassed at Father's unreasonable demand that they make an appointment if they want to confess, who have to put up with the uncertainty of priests who don't do their part in confession strictly by the book (especially in terms of the formula of absolution). Justice requires more of priests and beyond simple justice the laity deserve better treatment.

I would be a fool to repeat the obvious, as the culprits, if you will, don't read my blog, but this too would seem to be part of the post-conciliar rupture we are still trying to heal. Granted, Penance was a special sacrament even before the reform, because it did let personalities shine through in a way the celebration of Holy Mass never could. Even in the good old days there could be fallings out between priest and penitent over issues of communication, fits of impatience and more. Let me say one thing to all priests of good will today and namely: You have to carry the burden of the harm done by some of your predecessors who worked actively to destroy among the faithful the good habit of regular confession (monthly and even more frequently). Only your presence in church, in the confessional, ready with the proper formula for confession, together with a regular positive catechesis for your parish or school encouraging frequent confession will help to restore what has been lost in some cases within families for 4 and 5 generations.

Good old auricular confession on a regular basis with a simple, doable penance of a concrete prayer feeds people. Over these last decades people were simply deprived of this nourishment as they were of basic knowledge of the faith. Sadly, it shows. St. John Vianney did penance, sacrificed himself to bring his parish of Ars back to God. We must do the same. Very simply, the proof is in the putting in our day as well.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

My heartfelt thanks to the blog RORATE CAELI for putting me onto the marvelous interview with Bishop Slattery published in the Catholic Register: Bishop Slattery Interview

Here's hoping and praying not so much for real fighters but rather that the gentle pastoral hand and heart would prevail and our people might be genuinely fed through the opportunity to worship Sundays and always in spirit and in truth.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Winning Hearts and Minds for Truth

Here's a really important book that needs to be put on college reading lists, if they still exist (must reads for any self-respecting B.A.):

And 5 Others That Didn’t Help 
Author of Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists
Copyright © 2008 by Benjamin Wiker (Kindle Edition)

Some might accuse me of the equivalent of recommending the old "Cliff Notes" as a substitute for really reading English literature, but in an age where folks don't read much if at all this might be the book that makes a difference in terms of thought and right thinking.

Deep down what moves me is the desire to find and apply the sandpaper treatment to a world's callous which continues to keep consciences or hearts numb, dead, thick, uncomprehending, indifferent to the atrocity which is abortion. Read the book as a primer for appreciating Dr. Wiker's conclusions! 

I'm only going to quote two statements out of many I highlighted for myself from those conclusions:

By following the trajectory of these books that screwed up the world, we can wonder whether the advance of “science” over theology is an unmitigated good, and whether it is really progress. Perhaps it is bringing us to a new age of technological barbarism, wherein humanity becomes ever more religiously obsessed with health and sexual pleasure as pseudo-gods, sacrificing anything and everything to these twin deities.

The ideas of God and sin might all seem too mythical for this scientific age until we recall that whether the bad thinker is Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, or Freud, the authors we’ve covered in this book were mythmakers. They were enthralled by entirely mythical states of nature, entirely fictional alternative Edens, entranced by entirely impossible utopian paradises. Tens of millions of lives were offered up to the twin fictions of an alternative Garden of Eden and an alternative paradise, each taken and presented (falsely) as scientific fact.

Wiker's great service in this book is not unlike that performed by the little boys along the road in the children's story The King's New Clothes. Dr. Wiker points a finger at what are supposed to be the reasoned pillars of common parlance and shows them to be neither, but rather a gaping abyss, which leaves us little to hope from any self-sufficient geek's laboratory and clamoring for a better life through science (when hospitals weren't so sterile you didn't catch megaviruses). 

In his Hitler chapter Dr. Wiker attributes a modicum of conscience to some of the henchmen who were carrying out the final solution. Personally, I seriously doubt if their alcohol abuse and listlessness came from qualms over what they were doing; they were lost and that is how lost people behave: killing didn't push them to despair; despairing of life and hope pushed them to kill.

The equation just does not work, minus our Creator and Redeemer.

Ad Orientem

Bishop speaks well about orientation of worship. He does so in the context of the Extraordinary Form. He speaks of worship ad Orientem as perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Extraordinary Form. Well done, Bishop!

Personally, I think we owe to our people a concerted effort to orient the Ordinary Form whenever possible. I'm waiting on the priest who originally did my chapel here in Kyiv in hopes very soon of making the small modifications to permit the orientation of this sacred space.

Not circular, but linear and focused on the Dawn from on High, Oriens, to Whom we owe our thanks and praise: many other things will fall into place once we get our focus right. We pray for each other and we live in hope.


Friday, October 21, 2011

My First Interview in Ukraine

For all my readers who are stronger in Ukrainian than I am, you might enjoy the site of Catholic Media Center. They have the distinction of publishing my first interview since I arrived in Kyiv a month ago!
Media Center Interview

The text was prepared in Italian. I am trusting and the first reviews or reactions are positive! Enjoy!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

do not bear the yoke with unbelievers

The passage from a letter of St. Augustine to Proba offered as the 2nd Reading for the office of this 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time encouraged me a lot this morning and provoked some rambling thoughts I'd like to share. Let me quote the part which was key in that process:
"Why he should ask us to pray, when he knows what we need before we ask him, may perplex us if we do not realize that our Lord and God does not want to know what we want (for he cannot fail to know it) but wants us rather to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it. That is why we are told: 'Enlarge your desires, do not bear the yoke with unbelievers.'
The deeper our faith, the stronger our hope, the greater our desire, the larger will be our capacity to receive that gift, which is very great indeed. 'No eye has seen it'; it has no color. 'No ear has heard it'; it has no sound. 'It has not entered man's heart'; man's heart must enter into it.
In this faith, hope and love we pray always with unwearied desire. However, at set times and seasons we also pray to God in words, so that by these signs we may instruct ourselves and mark the progress we have made in our desire, and spur ourselves on to deepen it. The more fervent the desire, the more worthy will be its fruit. When the Apostle tells us: 'Pray without ceasing', he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it."

Beyond that first motion to, yes, aspire to increase my own desire/longing within myself for that gift which comes from God, I spent some time marveling at that motion or inclination in the lives of the mother foundresses or co-foundresses of the religious congregations of women whose acquaintance I have made in these last years, namely of the sisters in the Nunciature of Port of Spain, the Siervas Guadalupanas de Christo Sacerdote, who just 50 years ago came into being in the midst of the needs of priests in Mexico City as the solitude and suffering of priests touched the heart of Maria de Jesus del Amore Misericordoso Guiza Barragan and of my congregation here in the Nunciature of Kyiv, the Sister Servants of Mary Immaculate, the first community of the apostolic life of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, co-founded by Blessed Josaphata Michaelina Hordashevska, in the last decade of the 19th Century to meet (as only women could) the needs of her own poor people.

Let us say that the boundless hearts of both of these women impressed others and unleashed in girls and young women, in particular, an almost instantaneous and generous response. Both congregations, as with so many others I have not had the honor to know personally, knew a first hour and which endured for decades of rapid growth and truly fruitful apostolate. St. Augustine would identify them as women of greater and more fervent desire whose charity for others (Christ's 2nd great commandment) flowed from and complemented their love for God (Christ's 1st commandment and our salvation). In both cases or should I say always with congregations of religious dedicated to the apostolate, we're dealing with energy, with love unleashed in the midst of misery. We're dealing with a wonder so radically and so well documented in the person of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, where women not only roll up their sleeves to get a job done, but they embrace the suffering of others heedless of the consequences for themselves. They work for a purpose, they work with method, but most importantly they do all out of love. By prayer and commitment they seek first the Lord and His Kingship over their hearts and lives.

I suppose there is something of the moment in all of this and that it would be too much to expect generation upon generation, century after century to catch the living flame ignited by a founder or foundress and those initial followers. Then again, why should it not be so? Apostolic fruitfulness, when the needs to be met continue, should not flag, should it? Do hearts become smaller with the passage of time? Why do some charisms or apostolates seem to play out? Why do they no longer capture the imagination of youth? "When the Apostle tells us: 'Pray without ceasing', he means this: Desire unceasingly that life of happiness which is nothing if not eternal, and ask it of him who alone is able to give it." 

Many would say that the vocations crisis of our day must be attributed to the sterility of a society choking on its own materialistic preoccupations. Were all these young women and girls who first followed my two foundresses all half-saints with a superior prayer life? It's possible, but it's more probable that St. Augustine's scenario for hopefully growing in desire through dedication to prayer was it. In a recent interview, the Latin bishop-archbishop of Kyiv spoke of continuing formation and commitment to witnessing to the Christian life in charity amidst the people to whom he is sent as the highest priorities for priestly ministry today.

In volume II: Spouse of the Word (Explorations in Theology, Ignatius Press, 1991) Hans Urs von Balthasar examines the phenomenon of secular institutes and consecration to Christ in the world. The chapter is titled: "Toward a Theology of the Secular Institute". My own first reticence about that witness is the fact that it is lived (by definition) so uninstitutionally out there in the world. It is a celibate witness to Baptism, which honestly has all the marks of the first hour of a religious institute. Over a century ago Blessed Josaphata cooperating in creating something, yes institutional, but entirely new for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. As daring as the priests who advised her and as she herself was, I guess we have the essential pattern for witness and apostolate in the Church right there. Daring and novelty are not the components worth seeking and fostering today, but the prayerful spirit and an unceasing desire for the Bridegroom.

The Pontifical Council for the Laity is in touch with all sorts of daring and novel efforts to witness to Christ in the world. From my own little experience, I am guessing they have (perhaps in the midst of excesses) the privilege of encountering all kinds of souls in expansion, with unbounded desire to love God and neighbor. I firmly believe and hope that in the misery of our world (Wall Street protests and riots in the center of Rome, ...) there are those who have caught the flame and will gather up the man who fell among robbers and left despoiled and near death by the side of the road. It's not utopian, but it certainly is beautiful and a challenge to me to open wide my heart.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On the Money?

 It is rare that I do not watch Fr. Robert Barron without profit, i.e. without learning, without unleashing some kind of a thought process and always for the good. His two recent videos, reflecting on lessons to be learned from the movie "Moneyball" and his thoughts especially on leadership within the Church are no exception. See: "Moneyball" Commentary  and Additional Commentary

I put comments on both, but the line of the commentary on the first was centered on some touchy North vs. South business and "wordonfire2" doesn't seem to rake in the comments... Anyway! No problem for the question of personal sanctity. I see great merit in using the notion "What do you want?" as a rudder for steering my personal ship through all sorts of straits in life. Father's suggestion that a bishop can use the same double-edged sword in exercising leadership in his diocese (come what may) is for me less helpful, if not problematic. 

The Office of Readings, 2nd Reading for this Saturday of the 27th Week in Ordinary Time, as drawn from an approved author in the person of Pope St. Gregory the Great, offers me solace not in answering or contradicting Fr. Barron but maybe in attempting to save his "Moneyball" paradigm for something beyond my own quest to live at one with the Lord of my life and thereby hasten His coming not only into my life but into a world for which I am called to be light and salt. And I quote:

"Look about you and see how full the world is of priests, yet in God's harvest a laborer is rarely to be found; for although we have accepted the priestly office, we do not fulfill its demands... Pray for us so that we may have the strength to work on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, and that after we have accepted the office of preaching, our silence may not condemn us before the just judge. For frequently the preacher's tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness; while on the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people's sins, the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly... There is something else about the life of the shepherds, dearest brothers, which discourages me greatly... I speak of our absorption in external affairs; we accept the duties of office, but by our actions we show that we are attentive to other things. We abandon the ministry of preaching and, in my opinion, are called bishops to our detriment, for we retain the honorable office but fail to practice the virtues proper to it. Those who have been entrusted to us abandon God, and we are silent. They fall into sin, and we do not extend a hand of rebuke... We are set to guard the vineyards but do not guard our own, for we get involved in irrelevant pursuits and neglect the performance of our ministry."

In a sense, my replique to Fr. Barron would be that I can only or first only ask what I want of myself as did St. Jean Marie Vianney did in embracing his parish of Ars. All that followed in terms of his spiritual fruitfulness did indeed flow from his embrace, night and day, of the Cross of the Lord Whom he sought above all else and Whom he gifted to anyone he could reach. He didn't fire anyone and he certainly did not withhold the word of preaching. That "one thing" which Jesus said no one should take from Martha's sister Mary was that "one thing" which consumed Vianney in his parish ministry, overflowing as it did to the countryside and farther afield in France.

Putting together a team is something which St. Ignatius of Loyola did and consciously, but his effort was less talent scouting and more wrestling with God. Fr. Barron, whether in the first place or not, dangles the prospect of victory out there in a manner which puzzles. Jesus gives me no other option than but to start at home confident that there is still a "beam" to be withdrawn from my own eye. My own Calvary or my personal share in Christ's is seminal. What leadership is within the Church has much to do with witness, clarity of witness, and less to do with clean edged management skills.

This reflection is a work in progress... proceed with caution!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Trust's Role in the Obedience Equation

I took some time this Sunday to listen to a YouTube video posted on 30 September of Fr. Rostand, USA District Superior, as he talked in Kansas City about the current situation between the SSPX and Rome. His tone is familiar and not without humor. He states clearly that he has not yet seen the document which the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith presented to Bishop Fellay on 14 September. He characterizes the decision which will be facing Bishop Fellay after his society internal consultation on the document in Albano, Italy on 7 October as basically a prudential judgment on how best to serve the Church and the cause of the restoration of the tradition. The prudential part of it all really has to do with whether things have changed over the years, whether "Rome" can be trusted today, presuming that the doctrinal part is Catholic in the fullest sense of the term. Fr. Rostand invites his listeners to pray for the best decision for the Society and the Church on the part of Bishop Fellay.

Let me say that I found Fr. Rostand "upbeat" yet in no way unrealistically optimistic about the future. We haven't really asked more of anyone historically in the course of the life of the Church than we are asking today of the SSPX and, by contrast, in the past too often we have accommodated from others near folly. There has been an awful lot of intolerance shown toward people seeking the narrow way in obedience of faith over these last 4 decades in particular. On other matters also of importance of a more distant past, we need only look to the example of St. Joan of Arc and of Savonarola to know how things can go.

I don't want to enter into the material which divides or strains our relationship but only wish to say that trust is not necessarily part of the obedience equation. I disagree wholeheartedly with the very reasonable (humanly speaking) criterion that my decision in favor of communion in the fullest sense must be based on reasonable guarantees which restore my trust in the other. I'm excluding the notion that the stronger imposes the terms for peace on the weaker, while at the same time saying that in our Church economy truth may demand sacrifice of me for the sake of truth's ultimate victory. As romantic as it sounds, for Church the romantic choice to serve the common good or cause "outside of the structure" makes no sense. How do I save a marriage by refusing "bed and board"?

I remember years ago in Germany hearing the many object to a supposed or real Jesuit notion of unquestioning obedience. That is not the point. Because of the notion of office in the Church and obedience, and believing in the doctrine of indefectability, the question is whether I am big enough and at the same time small enough to embrace the consequences for me of the other's recognized authority come what may. St. Joan of Arc, pray for us! SANCTA MARIA, STELLA ORIENTIS, FILIIS TUIS ADIUVA!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The View with Transitional Lenses

Some Points for Reflection
Planning long-term back some months ago to provide enough time for all the briefings in Rome before I take up residence in Kyiv led me to schedule in time for my annual retreat in the fervent hope that all my appointments would fit into my first days in Rome leaving me the balance of time for spiritual exercises. Thanks be to God, it worked out nicely!
For most years of my life as a priest I have been blessed with the opportunity to make a genuine canonical retreat with a real live director. I really think we owe such to ourselves and need to fight for days in a block without interruptions for spiritual, let us say, retooling. Group retreats with a director can really be great and I am profoundly grateful for the individual directed retreats I have experienced as well. This year I have the time and a marvelous space, even if written resources will have to provide the direction.
What follow are some thoughts gleaned anecdotally from these days, which don’t necessarily give away the theme of my retreat or even the substance of what may be the essential of these days. I gladly share what for me is encouraging and directive (Stella Maris, ora pro nobis!) and might help someone else chart a course to safe harbor.
September 16: Cornelius, Pope and Martyr, and Cyprian, Bishop and Martyr
(a brief excerpt from the Office of Readings, from a letter by Saint Cyprian)
“Divine providence has now prepared us. God’s merciful design has warned us that the day of our own struggle, our own contest, is at hand. By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common. These are the heavenly weapons which give us the strength to stand firm and endure; these are the spiritual defenses, the God-given armaments that protect us.”
Youthful exposure to the lives of different saints and lessons from Church History have pointed out to me that for a long time Mother Church’s canonical saints who are proposed for the veneration and emulation of the faithful, those with a privileged reputation for intercessory power in the post-apostolic age were generally martyrs. Facit: “red” is the liturgical color of all but one Apostle and of most contemporaries among those who had walked with the Lord or immediately followed that generation of saints. Their whole-hearted response to Jesus’ personal invitation “Come follow me” led them almost without exception to Calvary. I remember learning as a boy that by way of exception or change/development the saint of the day of my episcopal ordination, St. Martin of Tours, is the first example of a canonical saint who had not shed his blood for Christ.
This passage just quoted from Saint Cyprian proffers a most significant insight regarding martyrs and the terms of their supreme sacrifice, a characteristic verified time and again in the acts of their martyrdom as transcribed in the courts by the various imperial officials of Rome both near and far. They did not die alone, in the sense that the Christian community really helped prepare them by accompanying them through their Gethsemane, often though not necessarily with a more alert participation than Peter, James and John had offered to our Blessed Lord in His agony in the garden. “By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.”
Later centuries of saintly heroes and heroines, not necessarily martyrs but certainly heroic in their virtue, in their love for Christ, would know the same. Spiritual exercises, a retreat, constitute a privileged Gethsemane experience and not without dialogue or exchange, mutual exhortation. What better locus could the Christian life have than in the garden, in this place of watching and praying with the Lord?
September 17: Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor
(an excerpt from a treatise On the Ascent of the Mind to God by Saint Robert Bellarmine)
“May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.”
In this sense, almost by way of a corrective, I’m going to cling to St. Robert Bellarmine in preference to Blessed Angela of Foligno. She and not only she describes a Christian life as lived in the midst of Christ’s Passion; pain and grief are the high road for her and seemingly with little room for the discernment alluded to by St. Robert, no doubt under the inspiration of the saintly founder of the Jesuits and his spiritual exercises. I will not, we should not nor can we withdraw ourselves from the consummatum est of the Cross. This little quote from St. Robert, however, just like the riches which are ours in the letters of St. Paul would or certainly could take us on our particular life’s journey beyond the delimitations of the Garden and the hill of Calvary with all the Stations in between (sometimes many more than fourteen).
You are free to judge whether or not with my choice of Robert over Angela I am not balking like Simon of Cyrene; that if I were to surrender and shoulder the Wood at Jesus’ side all else would fall away and I would find my full and proper context of life for here and now and forever. Viva, Angela! You decide!
In either case, I am convinced that spiritual exercises, a retreat, can or ought to be for many of us a different garden experience, something like the days St. Augustine and his brother spent in Ostia with their mother, St. Monica, to rest and prepare for their sea voyage, as the great saint and doctor of the Church recounts in his Confessions: 
“I believe that you, Lord, caused all this to happen in your own mysterious ways. And so the two of us, all alone, were enjoying a very pleasant conversation, forgetting the past and pushing on to what is ahead. We were asking one another in the presence of the Truth – for you are the Truth – what it would be like to share the eternal life enjoyed by the saints, which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, which has not even entered into the heart of man. We desired with all our hearts to drink from the streams of your heavenly fountain, the fountain of life.”
Saint Robert Bellarmine assures us that we will never tire of loving and praising God. I have no problem believing or assenting to his words; experientially I know what he is getting at from the humble experience of my own life encounters with those in the world whom I consider hands-down to be the most God-like people (read: holy, living saints if you will) and whom I can say I love for who they are and always have been for me in my life (proximately or by way of example from afar). I think that needs to be said because the scandal or tragedy of our day (its secular sterility, its Godlessness, really its dullness) makes my words less than obvious, yes, obscure. That is so from our context (noisy, distracted and worldly), from knowing how more people than just “the other half” lives, and factually, pointing all around, from having to concede just how little even we love, we, the baptized, the chosen?, the pusillus grex.
September 18, 2011, 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Since last evening and beyond I have been captivated by the generous landowner of today’s Gospel almost relentlessly pursuing the reluctant day laborers, “You too come into my vineyard and I will pay you what is just!” None of those laborers comes off very well… Truth to be told, I suppose, in your life and in mine our call is not to gird on a sword and come out to slay giants and dragons. The Lord invites us to honest work at His behest. There’s much to do in a vineyard.
Not long ago, at home, a layman was speaking to me with admiration of a smaller and lesser known Franciscan reform group, maybe fifteen in all who live in the same city, unshod (rain or snow). When there is less than what we would call “nothing” in the house they go out and beg a little peanut butter and bread from the neighborhood. The question we stuck upon in our reflection on this group was the fact that short of suicide this kind of witness of radical poverty cannot be a solitary and spontaneous witness: there is something communitarian which as component and context must go beyond the little band of poverelli at least for peanut butter as support or encouragement for them in their calling to follow Christ in His Temptation and His Fast. This something, which is at least interpersonal if not communitarian, can take its Scriptural inspiration from that Old Testament widow with her son who risked a small cake for the prophet Elijah when he begged it and was rewarded with a flour jar and an oil jug which never emptied and kept the threesome from starvation until rain returned to the land (another day’s peanut butter and bread!).
St. Teresa of Avila generally had to negotiate with towns around Spain for the placement of her reform monasteries, assuring the willingness of someone in a given neighborhood to materially carry the sisters and their prayer and sacrifice. Gethsemane! St. Cyprian, if even for just our one phrase, is indeed worthy of the title of Doctor of the Church. “By that shared love which binds us closely together, we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.” Martyrdom, Christian witness has its context as gift to the other and to the Church. Importantly for me in this reflection, martyrdom, heroic virtue is somehow sustained by the community which benefits from it as well. What else could we mean by the expression “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”? I hope I am saying something more than “no man is an island”.
Forty years ago, in my days as a student, folks still lived in the center of Rome and both the faith and a viral sort of anti-clericalism could meet you on any street corner; exchanges were real and interpersonal, for better or for worse (I think my size and a winning smile kept me from getting spit upon). Walking the center today you don’t encounter residents; the locals who drive in from the suburbs now have commercial interests (shops, boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants) and are on their best behavior; the searching glances of today which meet yours with good will are foreign to the city and come from pilgrims from every corner of the globe. I mention this because we usually and almost exclusively speak of the endangered Christian presence in the Middle East. The fight of the last decades to keep the Christian community as a vital minority presence in the Holy Land and elsewhere in the Middle East both because we belong there and for the sake of a pilgrimage which encounters, sustains and is sustained in a real, live exchange with people like the woman I met years ago in Bethlehem who told me that when people ask her what call she has as a Christian to be living there proudly presents herself as a descendent of a cousin Mary went to the hill country to visit in nearby Ein Karem. Shouldn’t the same hold true for Rome, Assisi, Santiago de Compostela, Ars? Dry bones?
September 19, 2011, St. Januarius, Bishop and Martyr
For most of these days of my retreat, the Second Reading from the Office of the Day is taken from a sermon on Pastors by St. Augustine. In Saturday’s (24th Week in Ordinary Time) excerpt this great Doctor of the Church (not a martyr himself) advises me of my duties toward the Christian as a shepherd, all Christians needing support and encouragement, no Christian being exempt from trials and perhaps even from martyrdom.
“But clearly one who is weak must neither be deceived with false hope nor broken by fear. Otherwise he may fail when temptations come. Say to him: ‘Prepare your soul for temptation.’ Perhaps he is starting to falter, to tremble with fear, perhaps he is unwilling to approach. You have another passage of Scripture for him: ‘God is faithful. He does not allow you to be tempted beyond your strength.’ Make that promise while preaching about the sufferings to come, and you will strengthen the man who is weak. When someone is held back because of excessive fear, promise him God’s mercy. It is not that temptations will be lacking, but that God will not permit anyone to be tempted beyond what he can bear. In this manner you will be binding up the broken one.”
Apart from preaching, I cannot help but think of the priest’s role in the sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance, where Father can indeed encourage even strengthen or firm up the lame or weakened limb. If you think about it even for a second, it is not hard to recognize and apply to pastoral ministry in any place, day or circumstance the example of the Patron Saint of Parish Priests, St. John Maria Vianney. He certainly had found his way to the Lord’s side in the garden of Gethsemane and used Cyprian’s counsel to prepare himself and the flock entrusted to his care for imminent struggle: “…we are doing all we can to exhort our congregation, to give ourselves unceasingly to fastings, vigils, and prayers in common.”
Gethsemane is the locus of the Christian life and it is a place of exchange not only in a vertical if you will arrangement, where shepherds do their part for the sheep and are thereby themselves encouraged on their trudge like the Cyrenean, but it is indeed horizontal and communitarian, at home and even in the city square, the work place.
“By that shared love which binds us closely together…” My sister told me about a neighbor of theirs in Switzerland who is for her and many others in their community a light and a bulwark, a woman afflicted with MS, bedridden and dependent on her husband and others, paid and volunteer, for all of her daily and nightly cares. She repays all abundantly with a witness of courage and gratitude, Christian woman that she is, she is fully aware that we live our lives in the garden with Jesus.
When duty calls her husband away from her side for more than an overnight this woman usually checks into a nearby nursing home to facilitate her cares. On a recent stay there, she met and befriended a German woman who had embraced Buddhism and was seeking meaning in her life through service to others. As our lady prepared to return home and was saying goodbye to the woman with whom she had shared a thoughtful and worthwhile dialogue, she asked permission to offer an observation. The most notable accretion from Buddhism of this German lady was a constant and implacable oriental smile. Our friend politely suggested that if she truly wished to serve those in need, those who suffer, that she should not smile all the time; this would enable her to draw closer to others. Maybe it is a European thing but I can remember years ago frequenting an indoor pool at a health spa near Bonn, Germany and being accosted in the warm mineral waters by an elderly man, who may or may not have had the kind of aches and pains for which the doctor had prescribed my visits there, as he barked at me (a perfect stranger) objecting to the smile I had on my face.
September 20, 2011, The Memorial of the Korean Martyrs
In an early sermon in the collection of the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of St. John this fearless preacher classes vainglory as the vilest, the worst of all passions because it doesn’t have even the most fleeting pleasure to its account. We’re not talking about St. Paul’s crown of leaves for the winner of the marathon here; we’re talking about self-deception striving for recognition or approval from the crowd or rabble which doesn’t know its right hand from its left. There is an interview on CBS 60 Minutes with the rapper Eminem, which can offer the alert or thinking person some insight into the misery of an entertainer’s rollercoaster ride certainly to nowhere and which leaves this man, having regained his sobriety, more than diffident about the approval of his fans. It would seem that although America’s got talent it doesn’t have much good sense when it comes to the desperate chase after vainglory.
MAGNIFICAT magazine today offers a brief life of another one of the Korean Martyrs, St. Joseph Im Ch’I-Baek, a 43 year old husband and father. He had hesitated to embrace the Catholic faith together with his wife and children, but shortly thereafter a father’s love brought him to his son’s side in prison, brought him to faith and baptism, let him lead the way and strengthen others by the firm testimony of his own martyrdom.
September 21, 2011, St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist
As the Gospel for today points out, Matthew the new convert is already leading everyone he knew to the banquet with Christ. He follows unreservedly and reaps an immediate harvest. On my travels this summer, Volume II of Explorations in Theology, Spouse of the Word by Hans Urs von Balthasar has been my companion. The book is looking more dog-eared from travel and being stuffed hurriedly into my carry-on than from my pondering as I read, but we are plugging ahead with some benefit. I have not failed to note time and again von Balthasar’s references to the grace of Baptism as a seed planted by God through the ministry of His Church which sprouts and grows mysteriously in its own good time. Sometimes from infant baptism, it unfolds with the age of reason; sometimes regardless of the moment of reception it bears fruit when least expected as a heart finally accepts the invitation to come along to the vineyard. Matthew’s initial conversion was abundantly fruitful and yet only a foretaste of his work as an evangelist and apostle/martyr.
In conversation with a dear friend and contemporary he shared with me an exchange he had with his younger bishop at home in the diocese this summer, commenting on the list of priestly retirements in the diocesan newspaper. There were seven or eight of them retiring and each had his own article recounting a life of rich and varied pastoral ministry. My friend’s home diocese is much bigger than my own. He told me he had quizzed the bishop on what these retirees all had in common besides their age; all had gone through the diocesan minor seminary; all had said “yes” to Jesus’ call the first time at age 13 or 14. The community, if you will, had openly and actively prepared them all for greater things from a tender age. The generous landowner of the Gospel parable had called them to work in the vineyard at daybreak; they accepted and went; the community carried them and prepared them with fastings, vigils and prayers in common. The communion of saints was very much at work. I think this too is Cyprian.
At home this summer, a woman maybe eight years younger than me, whom I can’t say I had ever known in my youth, introduced herself as the daughter of a couple already long deceased who had been good friends of my parents. The connection made, I marveled at the resemblance between her and her mother and told her not only of how her dad had given me a summer job at age 16 but how he had discretely, without my knowing it, kept me away from power equipment on that job, not wanting to risk the fingers and hands of a future priest (even at age 16!). Nice tears were shed. All of a sudden we can have an inkling of a little world written big, written great, a world of faith gifted with Simon of Cyrene moments and ponderous insights.
Not long ago on 15 September we celebrated Our Lady of Sorrows, which offers a choice of either the Gospel of Mary’s sorrow at the foot of the Cross or of Simeon’s prophecy in the Temple as she presents her Baby Son in fulfillment of the law and is told of the sword of sorrow to pierce her heart. I think of those icons of the Infant King holding tight to His Mother as angels hover nearby bearing the symbols of His Passion. Gethsemane, Blessed Angela of Foligno would say the Cross, was never far from Him from even before He took His first steps.
September 22, 2011,
MAGNIFICAT takes as its point of departure for the meditation of the day proud Herod’s curiosity about Jesus in the Gospel for Mass, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things? And he kept trying to see him.” The meditation quote is from St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
“The first step of pride is curiosity. How does it show itself? Now you begin to notice that wherever you are, standing, walking or sitting, your eyes are wandering, your glance darts right and left, your ears are cocked. Some change has taken place in you, every movement shows it… Are the eyes never to be raised at all? Yes, but only for two reasons: to look for help or to help others. David raised his eyes to the mountains to see if help would come to him. Our Lord looked out over the crowd to see if they needed his help. One raised his eyes in misery, the other in mercy – two excellent reasons. If when time, place and circumstances call for it, you raise your eyes for your own need or your sister’s or brother’s, I certainly will not blame you. I will think all the better of you. Misery is a good excuse. Mercy is a very commendable reason… Satan fell from truth by curiosity when he turned his attention to something he coveted unlawfully, and he had the presumption to believe he could gain it. Curiosity was the beginning of all sin and so is rightly considered the first step of pride.”
If you are like me that thought comes welling up again: “This is all too morose! What ever happened to the freedom of the sons of God? Is there no place for making a joyful noise? …for strumming a guitar? …for patting away on some bongo drums or something?” (I beg pardon for my irony!) St. Robert, come to our aid! “May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.”
Community… an essential exchange with our hearts set on the world to come… And what comes next, this side of heaven? I guess in a time of transition from the islands to the prairie it would be dishonest to deny the question. It asks itself and demands some response at least, even as it has always been part of Gethsemane, of that exchange in faith and in prayer, fastings and vigils, which prepares the martyr by stirring him or her on to heroic virtue and granting the strength to face the final test in the midst of the brethren.
Wouldn’t it be enough for me or for you to recognize your role as a Peter, James or John at His side in the Garden?