Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fighting the Good Fight?

I truly love this passage from I Samuel, reported in today's Office of Readings:

"So in the dark David and Abishai made their way towards the force, where they found Saul lying asleep inside the camp, his spear stuck in the ground beside his head, with Abner and the troops lying round him.

Then Abishai said to David, ‘Today God has put your enemy in your power; so now let me pin him to the ground with his own spear. Just one stroke! I will not need to strike him twice.’ David answered Abishai, ‘Do not kill him, for who can lift his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be without guilt? As the Lord lives,’ David said ‘the Lord himself will strike him down, whether his time to die comes, or he goes out to battle and perishes then. The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed!"

While some might see David's stance as little more than a principled defense of societal institutions, in this case the God-given Kingship of Saul, I see in it a heroic profession of faith in Divine Providence on the part of David and a testimony to what God saw in the heart of this young man and which He did not see in any of David's brothers at the time of David's election and anointing by Samuel in Bethlehem at God's behest.

As Catholics we find ourselves also today at the heart of many conflicts, some where clearly the enemy is hell-bent on destroying us. The temptation to aggressive self-defense through an attempt to annihilate the adversary (all-out war or retaliatory action) is all too great. Rage and the clenched fist may be comprehensible, but yes even the warrior king of the Old Testament teaches us a different way.

The composition of the Psalms is attributed to David; they formed Israelite prayer; they were the prayer of Christ Himself; they are the prayer of His Church. How could anyone doubt that the warrior king, despite his sins and failings, was first and foremost a man of prayer, from the lonely days of tending his father Jesse's flocks (I think of the boy St. Patrick enslaved to shepherd flocks)? What are you and I doing with our lives if first and foremost we are not lifting our hearts and minds to God in prayer?

The destitution, the desolation of Christ's death upon the Cross is repeated over and over again in the lives of His followers called, as St. Paul says, to complete in our own lives what is lacking in the suffering of Christ. As He placed Himself entirely in the arms of the Heavenly Father, so from St. Stephen, the first martyr, onward we are called to embrace desolation without flinging and flailing arm and claw, confident that God does indeed reign supreme. Not easy intellectually, not easy if your solitude is not enlightened and warmed by prayer!

Over and over again in my life as a priest, the haunting image of what that desolation implies, which I can expect to share after the manner of my Crucified Lord, has been that of Damien of Molokai, going down to the harbor whenever a ship came in, in hopes to find aboard as a passenger a priest who could hear his confession. Confined by his choice to a leper colony, he couldn't even board that ship nor could the priest descend to him to provide a little privacy for the celebration of this sacrament. That for me is about as alone as you can get. Damien could not have been other than a great prayer; he had the psalms of David.

I rather suspect that many Catholics today keep the Sacrament of Penance at arm's length simply because they do not have a life of prayer, they do not live in Communion with God. Sins and fundamental life choices (divorce and remarriage) are made without reference to God, without real prayer and in rejection of the invitation to bind ourselves to the Cross with Christ, especially by embracing solitude and filling it with the prayer of the Church. 

In a sense, I guess you can say I am really sad about those rebellious priests in Austria, who are giving Holy Communion to folks and telling them it is OK to be impenitent and to flaunt God's commands; the notorious "Nuns on a bus" leave me at a total loss in terms of configuring them with the truth of God's loving plan of salvation as accomplished in and through His Son.

Much to pray about? Yes, I guess so! May the example of David, Patrick and Damien challenge and inspire us!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Gross but Thought-provoking

Perhaps this video is too aggressive or in-your-face, but it makes some points worth underlining and reflecting upon. Forgive its brutality!

Friday, June 22, 2012


Gestures like this aren't everything, but they sure are thoughtful and great.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ad Orientem - Yes! Rejoice!

Father Driscoll, in the CNS video which I linked to this blog on 15 June, makes what some might call an irenic comment affirming the value of both celebrating around the altar and celebrating ad Orientem. I rather suspect that his no doubt well-reasoned statement may have been for me personally a sort of provocation, "the last straw" so to speak, as after mulling it over for a couple days I decided to give up patiently waiting for my carpenter and an artisan to deliver and install all the pieces in their proper order here in my chapel and so still incomplete I returned to what is for me the optimal orientation for worship and celebrated Holy Mass here in Kyiv for the first time with me, the celebrant, also turned toward the Lord. 

Maybe that is the argument we need to put forward more clearly and namely that what is at issue, often enough at least to my mind, is that with Mass around the altar or across the top of  the altar, the priest celebrant is the one who is turning his back to the Lord. Please excuse me if in making such a statement I am tending toward little more than the cavalier, but there is at least as much truth to my statement as there is to funny claims that restoring continuity with the Latin and Byzantine traditions of oriented worship would be for the celebrant to turn his back on the people... Not so!

Yesterday, as we were moving the new wooden altar into place (nobler in form and better proportioned than the previous one), one of the sisters commented that now the Nuncio is going to pray like the Greek-Catholics! She said so smiling and with an air of approval! As I was celebrating this morning, now for the first time in my life here in Ukraine having had regular and direct experience as a con-celebrant of the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, it came to me just how close the structure of our two liturgies is, even if the Byzantine genius is quite different from the Roman. In both traditions the Church has always and everywhere turned toward the Lord.

I'm sure the great church architects and designers of our day would note some issues with general proportions and such in my chapel (mixed metaphors, if you will), but I nearly have my worship space the way I want it and the way I think it should be for however long the Lord blesses me with this assignment. Rejoice with me, then, and look again at the possibility of orienting yourself as a celebrant toward the Lord or if from the pew you are already oriented then encouraging your priest or bishop to turn to the Lord.

Sursum corda! Habemus ad Dominum! There is more to the people's response than meets the eye, Father!  

Friday, June 15, 2012

A Good Contribution

This video is succinct and very well put together! Congratulations to all who worked on the project!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Old but New

Its Place in the Spiritual Life 
Dom Benedict Baur, OSB, 
(German original 1922) translated by Patrick C. Barry, SJ, 
Scepter Publishers, New York, 1984.

I am truly grateful to have had occasion now finally to read this classic work on a most important topic. Dom Baur alludes frequently in the book to the growing resistance in the Church (1922!) to the laudable practice of weekly or monthly confession as an essential aid to growth in holiness. I can remember shortly after my own ordination to the priesthood receiving a confidence from an older male relative, who told me how the young priest in his parish had berated him for coming to confession every two weeks telling him to come back when he had something big to confess. We still have a long way to go toward restoring the practice of what is sometimes called devotional confession.

My generation, you might say, was either driven away from confession or brain-washed into making sparing or little use of the sacrament of penance. The painful consequences continue to haunt us yet today in many ways, not least of which is the rather calloused attitude of many toward venial sin. I would dare my contemporaries to take up this book and stay with it, but most probably have too much baggage or are so blinded as not to be able to let Dom Baur's sound traditional teaching penetrate and warm cold hearts.

Let's say then that it is a young people's book and worthy of a book club discussion or two or a study club, taking a chapter per week. 26 Chapters is half a year, but maybe if people are enthused enough a group could take on 2 chapters a week?

Many chapters will aid the reader to develop clearer ideas and distinct notions about all sorts of matters related to drawing closer to God in love through a regular practice of confession. My own favorite chapters, which could stand on their own for adult education are: Chapter 20 The Fear of God and Chapter 26 Frequent Holy Communion.

It is not a child's book, but an adult's, not because it discusses specific moral topics but because it faces issues typical of those who are full-grown, who have left childish and adolescent views behind. It is almost by a via negativa (cultivating in our hearts an abhorrence of even venial sin) that Dom Bauer lays the foundations for heroic virtue in the life of any man or woman.

It is not an all-round classic of the spiritual life but rather the gateway to the recovery of a if not the best of the tried and true means to growth in holiness, namely through the regular practice of the sacrament of penance.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Living and Dealing with Regimes

Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives 
on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine 
Edited by Athanasius D. McVay & Lubomyr Y. Luciuk 
The Kashtan Press, University of Toronto, 2011

Through the kindness of Rev. Peter Galadza, PhD, Kule Family Professor of Eastern Christian Liturgy at Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada, I just received a copy of this important little tome. As all of the source material is translated into English, it is destined to a broad reading audience. With notes and all not reaching 100 pages, I would think that no history professor should hesitate to put it on the reading list of any serious course in 20th Century European History.

In preparation for my own mission as Apostolic Nuncio here in Ukraine, I had read another book actually describing the drama of this famine through the eyes of a young boy who survived: "Execution by Hunger, The Hidden Holocaust, by Miron Dolot, W.W. Norton Company, New York, 1987" (Kindle Edition). For this reason, the samples of anonymous letters describing the Holodomor which reached Pope Pius XI sounded terribly familiar. More of our world needs to know and understand. I fear that without such lessons we may be all too inclined not to wish to face the reality that there are people "on top of the heap" who care little for human life or common decency and who seem to be able to surround themselves with a surplus of henchmen to carry out their diabolical designs. The expression "They will stop at nothing" takes on real content and terrible sense in the light of this act of genocide.

Why the Holodomor? In her Afterword to the book Laura Pettinaroli captures it well as being a part of Stalin's plan to obtain hard currency from the sale of grain for the industrialization of his empire. In a year of abundant harvest, all was taken for sale abroad. Nothing was left for the mouths of the peasants who had produced the bounty and so they died of starvation by the millions. That year's was not a poor harvest.

The analysis offered by the editors in their introduction to the documentation is a marvelous piece of scholarship which provides perspective on the possibilities for exercising its moral authority open to the Holy See through diplomacy. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012


A Novel about Don Juan of  Austria 
Louis de Wohl 
Ignatius Press 2010

I am a Louis de Wohl fan. When I first saw this reprint of a 1956 copyrighted book of Louis de Wohl I was interested both because I had not yet read it and because it was not the life of a saint but rather of a very interesting figure in the life of the Christian West. I ordered the book from Ignatius Press finally last year and this year picked it up and read it on my way back to Kyiv. I was not disappointed.

Normally you can count on Louis de Wohl to put an edifying spin for his own day and time (an early to mid 20th Century update, if you will) on the life of a saint and I was curious what he would do with a great military man. Well, destiny or God's plan for this great man is woven all through de Wohl's novel. Free will and human frailty do indeed have their place even in the life of Juan de Austria, but his encounters with saints, the great couples which took the place of the parents he never knew, especially the great women of faith who directed him to the counselors who would be key for his success, all of them are not only credible characters but larger than life, as is Juan himself by the grace of God.

"The Last Crusader" is lots of things, but for me in this moment of time it is a tale of hope about perfectibility and mission. God's plan for you or for me might not be of epic dimensions, but ultimately His love can with our openness to His grace transform our brokenness into something which freely inspires others and gives them hope as well. Soldiery and chivalry may no longer be a young man's dreams, but giving primacy to God's Will for each and every one of us has never and will never go out of fashion.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Caught Hoping

From the life of Saint Norbert, bishop, as reported in the 2nd Reading proper to the memorial in the Office of Readings for 6 June:

“Norbert is deservedly numbered by historians among those who made an effective contribution to the reform movement under Pope Gregory VII. He established a clergy dedicated to the ideals of the Gospel and the apostolic Church. They were chaste and poor. They wore “the clothing and the symbols of the new man; that is to say, they wore the religious habit and exhibited the dignity proper to the priesthood.” Norbert asked them “to live according to the norms of the Scriptures with Christ as their model.” They were “to be clean in all matters pertaining to the altar and divine worship, to correct their faults and failings in their chapter meeting, and to care for and give shelter to the poor.”
  The priests lived in community, where they continued the work of the apostles. Inspired by the practice of the early Church, Norbert exhorted the faithful to join the monastic life in some capacity. So many men and women responded to the invitation that many asserted that no man since the apostles themselves had inspired so many to embrace the monastic life.
  When Norbert was appointed an archbishop, he urged his brothers to carry the faith to the lands of the Wends. In his own diocese he tried unsuccessfully to convince the clergy of the need for reform and was confronted with noisy protests both in the street and in the church.
  One of the principal goals of Norbert’s life was to foster harmony between the Apostolic See and the German empire. At the same time he wanted to maintain Rome’s freedom in the matter of ecclesiastical appointments. Apparently his efforts were so successful that Pope Innocent II thanked him profusely in a letter in which he called him a “devoted son,” and Lothair made him chancellor of the realm.
  Norbert did all these things with a steadfast faith: “Faith was the outstanding virtue of Norbert’s life, as charity had been the hallmark of Bernard of Clairvaux’s.” Affable and charming, amiable to one and all, “he was at ease in the company of the humble and the great alike.” Finally, he was a most eloquent preacher; after long meditation “he would preach the word of God and with his fiery eloquence purged vices, refined virtues and filled souls of good will with the warmth of wisdom.” He spent many hours in contemplation of the divine mysteries and fearlessly spread the spiritual insights which were the fruit of his meditation.”

Knowing something of Central Europe, I know the impact a man like Norbert can have. Some would say that in the end the grass indeed does whither and the flowers fail, but the point is that in that moment something truly great comes into being. These encouraging words which describe the contribution of St. Norbert caught me hoping that some one or more, maybe one for each country or continent today of men could be found who like him through witnessing through clothing and symbols to the new man of the Gospel might further that reform of the priesthood which would bring light to our days.

I was visiting this morning with a very good young priest who expressed his concern over how burdened people are with all the present economic and social difficulties they and their families must face. He asked me what more we could do to help our people celebrate the Year of Faith which the Holy Father has announced for this coming October. As simple as it may sound, I'm wondering if to the extent that we priests could propose ourselves to them as modern day "Norberts" as "new men" in terms of our living out of the priesthood, as "preachers" against vice and capable of refining people in virtue and filling souls with good will, if then we wouldn't be doing our part to put the lamp back on the lamp-stand or building the city back up on the hill.

Norbert had to face hostility in his own clergy of Magdeburg, but he managed a monastic renewal comparable to any since apostolic times. A dear bishop friend asked me this summer what you do with empty monasteries and convents. I responded, even if a bit sheepishly, I guess you just pray. Just pray with me, if you will, through the intercession of St. Norbert of Xanten, for "new men" for divine worship and to carry the faith to all who still sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.