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.