Saturday, September 28, 2013

Vocation: from God and like Nothing else

With all the hype and psychological conditioning (brainwashing?) which goes on in the attempt to sell products and even praxis, I cannot say I was surprised to discover that Cross Fit Training can kill very healthy people. Needless to say, as age and arthritis have long spared me the attraction to any form of boot camp physical training, I cannot say I am disappointed to have to strike that one off my "bucket list". My point being this: ours has always been an essentially broken world, but perhaps even more so today we need to have recourse to the tried and true (no Cross Fit!). Among other things, I'd say we're missing out on fostering or nurturing, in exchange for, well, how does "promoting" sound? Take child-rearing today for example, that is, once you step out of the home-school environment. What do you too often find? Parents as promoters and coaches, you find parents anxious for the children to perform or achieve. And to what end? To be the best at something, I guess, or at least to be better than most. That is not necessarily nurturing.

The following quote from Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, got me thinking about how we've gotten ourselves "behind the 8 ball" by comparison with former times when it comes to our language concerning priestly and religious vocations. Today we talk about it being urgent to "promote" vocations. Why is that so, if a vocation is a call which comes to us from God? There is nothing wrong in and of itself with the notion of promoting, but if God calls, isn't it better up to me to identify children who are called, as the prophet says, called from mother's womb, and nurture that call? What's the difference, you ask? For starters, I think it fair to say our discourse has become somewhat institutionalized or professionalized and has lost its sublimity. Individual vocations promoters may be nurturing types, but it seems less likely today that children speaking about a vocation will be taken seriously. The "life experience" component is held high, with little worry about stifling a vocation. A positive inclination on the part of a child toward responding to God's call is subordinated to some this-worldly stuff.

"At one time the problem was closely associated with another one: is it possible to commit no more than a simple imperfection by resisting a religious vocation? The answer ordinarily given to this question is that though the religious vocation does not oblige under pain of sin, sin is always involved in rejecting it for the reason that religion is a way of life that embraces the whole of life, and the other ways of life, being less safe than it, are never chosen in preference to it except through some inordinate attachment to the things of this world, as is seen in the example of the rich man in the Gospel. Thus, the rejection of a vocation involves an inordinate attachment (which is forbidden by divine precept) and not only a lack of generosity." [Reverend Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P. (2013-03-22). The Mother of the Saviour: And Our Interior Life (Illustrated Classics) (p. 57). Catholic Way Publishing. Kindle Edition.]

Common wisdom reminds us time and again that "best" and even "better" can very well be the enemy of the "good". It or they spoil the souffle` every single time. I have this theory that the last genuinely scrupulous person has long since died and that what we seek to combat and label as scrupulosity is rather that beautiful sensitivity and openness to the Divine Will which characterized an army of child and youth saints of another era. I guess I am speaking about the likes of Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati. I am wondering whether such a young man could find a confessor in the Church today, who wouldn't brand him as scrupulous and drive him and his search for Christ in the guise of poverty and service to the poor far from the confessional.

I say this because it helps me discount the debate of the last week in the press and blogosphere about how best to draw people to Christ, whether with the "carrot" or the "stick". I'm sure the Holy Father never intended it, but many people seem to reduce his calls for a double measure of humanity in our approach to our neighbor to lessons in proper body language and tone of voice in attempting to attract and tame brute animals. Promoting takes the upper hand, when what is really called for is a nurturing spirit. No doubt there was an old dogmatism which sought simply to keep a lid on or contain situations, often by resorting to denial, but somehow the capitulation to attempts at management of others somehow, somehow, seems a greater danger and more common occurrence today. We need only think about the way OF participation in the liturgy is regimented in many parishes, leaving little or no space per silent attentiveness to the great Mystery we are called to share. Folks in the pews have never been so under constraint as they are today.

This all indicates to me how profound the crisis in the life of the Church really is. Again the other day I had someone in an administrative role in the Church in the US express the opinion that with Safe Environment and all we have turned the corner on the abuse crisis and that next up will be money scandals a la Vatican Bank. It's a sad thought, but I'm more concerned that the Year of Faith is already coming to a close. We all set goals and promoted lots during this Year. I hope it bears or has born fruit. Do you notice where the language takes us? Toward promoting achievement: that is not necessarily a bad thing. One of the nice things about faith, about a sense of the presence of God in our lives, is that it doesn't loan itself as easily to "accomplishment speak". Even so, I'd love to know how many "lights" have been turned on this year to the love of God, how many small children find it easier at home to live in Christ's presence, how many more young people and children have been enabled to respond to God's call, how much more nurturing has gone on this year.

I've never found these kinds of processes or things other than perfectly natural and noble, as our Creator and Redeemer would have them for the sake of the life of humanity, the pinnacle of His creative and redemptive plan, in total freedom for the sake of His great love. Discerning God's Will, sorting things out in life, doesn't demand gurus or breathing techniques. We don't need to have taken off a year to trek around the world somewhere, unwashed, in order to get in touch with something that is not close at hand. Our world just plain needs more old Eli's to tell young Samuel's to just say "Speak, Lord, Your servant is listening!" It is just that simple and natural and I appeal to the authority of G.K. Chesterton, well, as an approved author.

"The true key of Christian mysticism is not so much self-surrender, which is a painful and complex thing, as self-forgetfulness, which we all fall into in the presence of a splendid sunrise or a little child, and which is to our highest nature as natural as singing to a bird." [Chesterton, G.K. (2011-10-20). In Defense of Sanity (p. 81). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.]

Year of Faith? Nurturing in the context of a tried and true tradition? Sorry, but it all seems so simple.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Liturgical Movement Revisited

"What the Liturgical Movement turned into in its late cancer phase was second-rate modern(ist) theology embedded in a prosaic, earthbound, unimaginative spirituality, along with a tremendous naivete about sociology and worship, plus a good bit of plain dishonesty in their lopsided ressourcement, advocacy scholarship, narrow agendas, and peculiarly modern form of archaicism that did not seek to restore the mentality and spirituality that corresponded to the external elements they purportedly recovered from early Christianity."

Peter Kwasniewski over at NLM has done us or me a great service with his article entitled "Carrying Forward the Noble Work of the Liturgical Movement". Maybe others have written better, but I find it the most valued piece I have read in a long time and a marvelous incentive to all who are or wish to contribute to restoring the Liturgy.

Congratulations, Peter!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Our Way in the Desert

Motherland Lost: 
The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity
Samuel Tadros
Hoover Institution Press. Kindle Edition.

Don’t ask me to explain why I was drawn to this book by Samuel Tadros, except that two articles by him recently surfaced in my “reader” and drew me to the book title. I am glad I bought and read the book, even though I probably have more questions now than before. I hope I am more sensitive to certain issues because of my reading and am surely more sceptical than ever about the mindless way much of western society accommodates itself to what is tagged as pluralism through a brand of tolerance which tyrannically denies truth its primacy and hates Christianity with a stupid darkness, as pagan as it is superstitious, naked as the king in the nursery story, as convinced of the sufficiency of their atheism as he was, vain fool, of his clever tailors’ handiwork.

So much for spitting venom! I’d like to address two sets of questions come to me from Tadros’ story of his people. The first would regard our duties, yours and mine as Christians, to the more than ever endangered first sees in practically all of the lands of Christ’s Church: Antioch, Baghdad, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Constantinople. Naturally, one could take Tadros to task and chide him for capitulating and that would be the end of it. I don’t think I have the wherewithal to challenge his prediction that the Coptic pope will soon have to move Church headquarters outside Egypt, as the Assyrians have already abandoned Iraq. The author seems determined for his Church to find ways to survive in their homeland of Egypt, without neglecting to take on exile as a serious commitment in faith with important ramifications for the survival of a priceless patrimony.

The question “Why leave?” stems from and receives a response in his elucidation of his Church’s inability to face the hostile environment in the Copts’ home of two thousand years. The response to an ingenuous, perhaps, question is no less uncontorted and seems undeniable: "Because we cannot stay." The problem is named “Islamism” or “Islamists”.  

“The Islamists’ goal is not the annihilation of Copts. Copts are not likely to face a holocaust in the future, though local pogroms are all but guaranteed. The Islamists’ goal is to subjugate Copts to their notions of their proper place as dhimmis under benevolent Islamic rule. It is for Copts to accept dhimmitude, live by it, and embrace it. Copts will be allowed to live in Egypt, tolerated as second-class citizens recognizing and accepting their second-class status. Any attempt by Copts to break those chains of dhimmitude and act as equals is frowned upon as an affront to the supremacy and primacy of Islam in its own land.” [Tadros, Samuel (2013-07-22). Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (Kindle Locations 3038-3042). Hoover Institution Press. Kindle Edition.]

Fighting to hold Christian ground, so to speak, defending the relics of St. Mark and St. Athanasius buried in the Coptic Cathedral and seeing to it that their bi-millennial witness continues on, sort of sounds like a new Crusade and as doomed to failure no doubt as the first edition. I think rather in terms of my own question: regarding our duties, yours and mine as Christians, not only to the more than ever endangered first sees of Christ’s Church, but also to the Church in our midst somehow diminished by our indifference to the political machinations of our own political leaders with no respect for the Gospel.

As Catholics, we know from history that we cannot demand the love and respect of others. Important, to my way of thinking, is that we respect the ancient wisdom of the Church which forbade Christians to provoke or overtly seek martyrdom. Be it clear however, that this is not some anthropological quest to revive "Atlantis" but the recognition that the lot of the Copts, the lot of all the Church's first sees is also our fate to the extent that we can stand up to those who would deny our dignity and equality by imposing something less than the fullness of the truth which comes to us from God. Not so much reviving the unity of cross and crown or throne and altar as fighting the falsehood in the western world which feeds anti-Christian aggression around the globe. {I hope this isn't sounding like a conspiracy theory as I do not want it to be.}

My other question is tied to an invitation I will give to His Beatitude Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church to give the book a read as well. Not so much because I see the Church endangered here in Ukraine, but because his Church also faces the challenge of the Copts, the Assyrians, the Chaldeans and others, even without the persecution these others suffer at home. It is not in the case of our Church here so much a case of a shift in the center of gravity, but rather what to do to preserve the faith in the lives of people of Ukrainian descent in big numbers wherever they are found.

Further, Ukrainian Greek-Catholics pose for themselves the question Tadros asks for the Copts: What can the Church offer to the wider world. What is the missionary role of the Church? How can Churches, which up until not that long ago have exercised their role in a more limited sphere of influence (territorial or ethnic), contribute to the great work of evangelization? How today do Churches which have not really done so for a long time respond to Christ's invitation to His Church to go out to all the world and spread the Gospel?

“The Coptic exodus from Egypt will pose a colossal challenge to the Coptic Church. Today the Coptic Church has more than 550 churches outside of Egypt. At a moment in the not so distant future, the center of gravity of the Coptic Church will no longer be inside Egypt’s borders. The nature of this challenge is one the church has never faced before and is currently ill-equipped to address: how to become a truly universal church and open up the Coptic Church to the rest of Christendom while maintaining its uniqueness; how to keep both the Christian faith of the new immigrants who will move to Western countries and the specific Coptic identity in face of an open market competition what does being Coptic actually mean for those living outside of Egypt’s borders; how to provide for the material needs of the new immigrants who cling to the church not only seeking spiritual guidance; and how to cater to the ones who remain and whose lives will be increasingly difficult. These are all open questions that await history’s judgment.” [Tadros, Samuel (2013-07-22). Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity (Kindle Locations 3070-3077). Hoover Institution Press. Kindle Edition.]

Samuel Tadros is not so presumptuous as to say that the special graces his Church received in the 20th Century have prepared the Copts for something more than a rarefied existence in some corner of their homeland until such time as things change. Nonetheless, his book discusses and sorts out issues not all that foreign to our own questions today about where the Church is or should be going.

My own hope and prayer is, of course, that the Holy Name of Jesus be glorified everywhere and in every way. God so loved the world, as St. John wrote. He would never leave His flock untended.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Culture Wars or Facing Challenge of Modernity

Everywhere I turn and for years now I keep hearing "What is the Church going to do about this?" The usual referent is either some example of corruption which has found its way into the Church, what Pope Paul VI called "the smoke of Satan", or in terms of a perceived estrangement or distance of the Church from everyday concerns, in short, a kind of irrelevance. Sadly, the media have taken to Pope Francis' lengthy interview given to the world's Jesuit publications much like sharks in a feeding frenzy, less hungry, to appearances at least, than bent on tearing off a piece of the victim and carrying it off. While most of us simply wish there'd be less feeding of the sharks, it would be denial not to admit that there is something troubling about the picture the Church presents these days. There may have been a time in the early 1970's where exclusion of the Church from media coverage was perceived as discrimination, but it would be too good today to be able to attribute our casualties only to "friendly fire". To just blurt it out, I think the avid coverage does more harm than good and that we could benefit from a little down time to sort out our difficulties in private. At some point we need to realize that "Watergate" is not the only model for a catalyst for change and improvement of performance.

In the west, especially North America, the media's scrutiny of this challenge or conflict is couched in terms of "the culture wars". Here's a Fox News quote on the topic:

"I don't see how the pope's remarks can be interpreted in any other way than arguing that the church's rhetoric on the so-called culture war issues needs to be toned down," said John Green,  a religion specialist at the University of Akron's Bliss Institute of Applied Politics. "I think his language calls for less stridency on these issues." [Read more:]

It is all too clear from this quote and John Green's call for "less stridency" that the war image is happenstance and insufficient to describe our situation, the nature of the conflict and what is at stake. No doubt John is not Catholic and comes from a very different world view, unaware of the identification of Christ with His Church and the reason/mission shared, the reason for which He came into the world and for which His Bride is here until He should come again in glory. "For this I was born, and for this I came into the world , to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18,37] If it is war, even culture war, how can it be calibrated or choreographed, rendered less strident? Even the notion of culture war would seem to compliment the opponent, classing him worthy, and render opposition to the Gospel message somehow respectable.

Here in Ukraine and elsewhere in the world of eastern Christians (I'm reading a book, with lots of historical background included, on the Copts in Egypt and their plight), much the same issue is couched in terms of Church facing the challenge of modernity. Whether the issue is the Copts in 19th Century Egypt trying to stay abreast of the times and rapid change, or Byzantine monasticism which experts tell me is in total disarray today because it can't cope with the challenge of modernity, in either case my interlocutors give privilege to some notion of progress, of moving ahead and leaving what was true, good and beautiful behind, in exchange for something new seemingly and irresistible.

Both expressions want to strip seeming choices facing Christians of moral value. Life becomes a choice of costuming, accessorizing, grooming, or something: important, but somehow subject to resigning to or reconciling oneself to the inevitable march of progress. Inaction is condemned as unworthy and reaction or resistance to the flow as futile, as if the greatest piece of wisdom ever to be handed down was: "Broken eggs? Make an omelet!"

I watched a bit of the video summarizing the Valdai Discussion Group, this year's considering Russia's national identity. One gets the impression that consensus and constructive collaboration on the basis of shared values, in short, an upbeat approach will open doors to a bright and prosperous future. In the first segment of the video Putin defends Christian values and holding to Russia's historic identity. Culture wars? The challenge of modernity? Reasoned discourse based on common ground acquired by convincing, principled and inclusive argument? This would be a third construct and I am sure there are other models or metaphors, but no doubt they too fall short of greatness or fullness, simply because they all bind us to this same notion of progress as destiny.

The notions of war, challenge, discussion or debate certainly have their merit. In fact, in a sense, that is where we want to be, arguing in favor of the good, the true and the beautiful (The statement of His Beatitude Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk on the common Christian roots of Europe and the goals to be striven for together point this out). The problem rests with tying this quest to anybody's notion of progress as the litmus test for value or the compass pointing the way in this common effort.

Since my time home in South Dakota last May, one of the images which has haunted me has been that of our Benedictine Abbey of Blue Cloud empty, the monks gone. Culture? Modernity? No, the flowering of Christian monasticism has always been in response to conflict. Think of St. Anthony the Great in the midst of the Diocletian persecution! Think of St. Benedict of Nursia and generation after generation of his sons always and everywhere rising to the challenge not of modernity but social decay! Always and everywhere key to such flowerings and expansion was obedience. Of the three counsels, poverty, chastity and obedience, none's role can be diminished, but in the end obedience to Father Abbot and to the Rule was ultimately the saving grace which bestowed upon the world so much of good.

If I thought I could get by with it, I'd go to Marvin, South Dakota and start doing penance and praying, with a copy of Benedict's Rule in my pocket. Maybe I'd just die at some point thereafter and some kind soul would find me and come and bury me. Maybe the halls and farmlands would again be hallowed by the sweat and prayer (Ora et Labora) of countless young men seeking the truth through obedience.

"For this I was born, and for this I came into the world , to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18,37]


Friday, September 20, 2013

Indeed: Ut unum sint!

Ryan N.S. Topping, in his book “Rebuilding Catholic Culture”, illustrates how the Church in its fullest expression rests on the three pillars of Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium.  In his argument in favour of strict adherence to this triad as our only assurance of being faithful to Christ and to His teaching, he cites the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford, 2001, 2nd ed., 1:10 and 1:5) to illustrate the divisiveness of Protestantism. Topping holds rightly that Luther's sola scriptura is insufficient to carry Christ's Church and has a disqualifying effect on any claims to faithfulness to Christ’s will for His Church by those denying the triad.

“Even when you are not limited to literal interpretations of the Bible, you are still limited to interpretations. “The devil can cite Scripture too,” the old adage goes. And the presence of some thirty-three thousand Protestant denominations — increasing at a rate of 182 per year (i.e., one every two days), according to Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia — is certainly exploited by some as evidence that Luther’s sola scriptura principle is not without its difficulties. Indeed, the Church existed for decades before the New Testament was written and centuries before the canon was formed. There was never a moment when the text preceded the community from which it sprang. Hence, from the first principle comes a second: Scripture is interpreted best from within the Church.” [Topping, Ryan N.S. (2013-01-07). Rebuilding Catholic Culture (pp. 17-18). Sophia Institute. Kindle Edition.]

As we find ourselves once again in the midst of a "full court press" on the part of media in the service of seemingly nothing more than relativism, we should remain calm and steadfast in our own adherence to the truth which comes only from God in Jesus Christ through the ministry and authority of His One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

For the Minds and Hearts of the People

These days, for many reasons, I have been sorely tempted to try and work out a little reflection which would address (as I see it) a burning issue which many and greater than I have grappled with before me. Really, to the point of being counterproductive, people too many, albeit from various angles, have addressed this question in the Year of Faith, which is also a golden jubilee for the Second Vatican Council. More than anything else I see it for purposes of this discussion as an existential question, an attempt to clarify where we are and where we should be going. In the Broadway musical OLIVER our little orphan has a tear-jerker of a number he sings entitled "Where is Love?" The existential question we face for today may sound more prosaic, but it is no less heart-wrenching, namely, "Where is reception?" What constitutes reception of the teaching of the fathers at the Second Vatican Council? Is there a more rewarding path? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? 

For me it is ultimately the question and on so many fronts, oftentimes well-documented today but still not confronted by lots of ordinary folk both in the pews and on the cathedra. How dare we be discontent with the status quo and insist that with a whole range of things as we find them, especially in parish life, we have gotten off track and are either wasting time or more likely and tragically daily drawing farther from our goal, the Church's goal, of drawing others to Christ, for the sake of the life of the world!

Posing this question is not a pride issue as to who is right and who is wrong; it is a confidence issue for most of us and on a day to day basis. If I class a whole series of choices made or imposed (most obviously in the area of Divine Worship, but also elsewhere) as being wrong and of that world headed towards perdition, am I saying that the Church is foundering? What ever happened to the Church's indefectibility? Minor tweaks or course corrections like the new edition of the Missal, OK, but what is in play here is very much more radical. Whoever would have thought, let alone declared that retracing our steps was a viable option? Even in a worse case scenario, don't you just cut your losses and get on with it? Who in their right mind would consider recovering our lost patrimony a viable option? Never turn back somebody said, right? Where is reception if not in what we de facto achieve? What does reclaiming our past have to do with building strategies to face the "modern world"? How dare one pose the question as if the reception of the teaching of the Council had not yet or had only just begun? Some might say, well maybe it is just time for Vatican III.

Stated directly, I guess I would say that too many ordinary people have too closely circumscribed what it means to believe in the Church. En masse, not unlike fallen leaves, set out to the blustery autumn winds of a directionless secular society, we have been carried all over and been told that what was blowing was the Spirit.  Post-Enlightenment, pseudo-scientific notions of progress as value and as meandering in its search to reach points where it hasn't been, relativism really has often had the upper hand in compelling folk to move on. Once again and for many years another form of iconoclasm has reared its ugly head, not only sweeping our temples bare of images but discouraging the people from coming too. 

The great Hubert Jedin, among his other claims to fame, Catholic historian of the Council of Trent, argued that it is folly to attribute the success of the Council of Trent to some trailblazing insights which carried the Church across the threshold and into the modern era. He would say that kind of venturing forth is not an option and never has been, because it can't be; neither life nor the Holy Spirit works that way. Trent did what reasonable people always do when they want to fix things or plow ahead by the grace of God. They retrench; one regroups before moving ahead in battle. Fair to say or not, it sometimes appears as though in the post-Conciliar period (over the last half century), somebody forgot basic war college strategy about regrouping on the battle field before attacking. I will leave to you to cite the examples of heedless standard-bearers lunging forward without cover, without orders, without a reasonable plan of attack. 

By rights, I should move now to illustrate my point. I suppose I should plunge into a whole series of "red flag" issues, but full well knowing that some would turn me off and others would despair of the insurmountable odds of seeking remedy through a return to the wisdom and piety of the ages and then, as so many times before, they would turn away. I won't do it, because I don't think it is a constructive way of approaching the issue in order to move past the present and enduring impasse now that the worst of our iconoclastic period seems past. Even in my own case, I don't think it was grappling directly with the issues that got my attention concerning the essential importance of adherence to rubrics and celebration ad Orientem. Personally, I would say I ultimately responded, though haltingly, to authority in the person of Pope Benedict XVI. More of us, if truly docile to the promptings of the Spirit, should be responsive to the authority argument, but sadly that one comes up short an awful lot of the time. Would you believe that I know bishops who balk at both sound teaching and orders from on high?

By way of an example of a red flag issue, how about examining as detrimental to devotion and faith the present hurried fashion in many parishes where Holy Communion is distributed in the hand to people who can barely come to a standstill and then in some places are even discouraged from kneeling for their quiet thanksgiving after Communion? I said it, didn't I? And then what happens? Well, they look back at me annoyed or helpless. Sorry, I won't go there. Minds are either too foggy or hearts are too hard for certain topics. We altar boys of 50 years ago knew that already back then many priests were rushing along the rail and if you couldn't walk fast enough backward before him with the paten, then you'd get your toes stepped on (it did wonders for my coordination!). No, I am convinced that more is to be gained by better framing the issue than by another direct confrontation... Call it "war college strategy" and hope it works!

My tack will be less confrontational and perhaps less relevant, because more than anything else I want to frame my discourse and gain it more of a hearing among ordinary folk. Better perhaps to start on easy ground and let folks proceed at their own pace. That framing is an important part of the exercise in any case, and it also seems more constructive to me, if for no other reason, then well, because shunning obedience happens much too much these days. I hope the framing can help people on opposite sides of the issue face it better together.

I do so first by noting two talks sent my way on YouTube: one of Dr. Tom Woods, a well known Catholic author and speaker, and the other on technology and tradition by a young, clever, but perhaps too cutsy traditional priest, obviously a good man who, I pray, promises much for the future of the Church, that is, once he gets his youth behind him. Both men see the Catholic Tradition in liturgy and catechesis as sufficient for facing the deadly challenge of Relativism/consumerism today. Neither fears anything that secularists might have to throw at us. Both have clear ideas about regrouping and moving forward, not imposing but seeking to establish God's Reign, as gift, as pearl of great price. This would be a goodly part of my framing, perhaps even more marketable than some of the stuff prosperity Gospel preachers are selling in books and on CD's.

For the rest of my frame, let me examine perhaps a smaller pearl or a principle cast aside early on in the half century for reasons known only to somebody long dead (I presume) from the liturgical movement of the 1950's. That would be the practice of covering or veiling (not women!) but things in church, and most specifically altars and sacred vessels. Old folks like me remember that after Mass each day and after the last Sunday Mass, the altar boys placed a decorative covering over the altar. Most those I remember were of an off-white or a green colored felt and usually had lettering on them front and center, most often "Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus". If you didn't get it centered everyone in church would let you know. Covering the altar was an act of devotion which required skill and attention often beyond that usually required of boys between the ages of 10 and 18. Here in the Kyiv Nunciature I found on my arrival that the sisters still use the cover: green for most of the year and violet for the two penitential seasons of the liturgical calendar... smile.

Even more universal than such altar covers were the veils for chalices in the liturgical colors, tabernacle veils and the very elaborate veils for ciboria inside the tabernacle. The disappearance of all these covers and veils, which symbolized reverence, could be explained by a customary or habitual change we used to refer to when it was novel as "stay-pressed". Fine fabrics and linens, "high maintenance" things have been tucked away for safe-keeping. I won't even try and interpret the disappearance of these four categories of covers or veils as a denial of the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. My point is that through such beautiful fabrics we intended to show reverence; dressing up altars, tabernacles and vessels remains yet today to the mind of everyone's child a recognizable sign of devotion.

In this matter of clothing or veiling, there exists one more horror which cannot be excused by appealing to "stay-pressed": stripping altars bare outside of the liturgy. The tradition foresaw the stripping of altars after the Holy Thursday liturgy until the Resurrection. It symbolizes the desolation of the Cross and Grave; it does so very clearly in a fashion understandable to all. For that reason alone, why would you do it any other time of year? At its dedication we prepare and deck a new altar with the utmost of care. In the Latin rite, we anoint the altar with Holy Chrism, we burn incense and light fires upon it before clothing it with altar cloths. In the Byzantine rite, the altar is washed with soap and water, with wine and with rose water, before its anointing and clothing. The Altar of the Holy Sacrifice symbolizes Christ; besides the Eucharist, for both Latin and Byzantine traditions, the actual conferral of Holy Orders takes place in proximity to the Altar. The identification with Christ in Holy Orders is rendered tangible by that proximity.

One of the abuses in liturgy today is this stripping so as to deck the altar again for each Eucharist. Disagree with me if you will, but the altar was prepared and decked at its dedication for a reason; a symbolism was imparted and should be respected with constancy. I do not renew the dedication of the altar. If it happened a year ago or a hundred years ago, it is done and the value comes in recognizing that constancy. Catechetical conferences in LA, beyond giant puppets and dance numbers, do irreparable harm in relativizing such absolutes and simply contradicting the enduring character of the altar's significance as a symbol of Christ.

I do not wish to go down in history as one fomenting liturgical wars. Not only is the position of liturgical abuse indefensible, but much of the innovation we have seen over the last half century was neither decreed by the Council nor stands in continuity with best practices aka good sense. Perhaps this is no more than a punch or a jab at others, but I guess I don't have a better strategy, in the face of disrespect for authority, to seek to win the minds and hearts of the people for a reception of Church teaching rooted in the Tradition.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

A Case of the Confessions of St. Augustine for our Times?

In the midst of reading an autobiographical work [categorized by its author as a conversion story and not a biography] by an "old friend" (I have read several of his books and so I feel I know him), I found myself stymied as to how to review this book. Thankfully my spiritual reading of a morning came to the rescue to offer a handle as to what I might say about his confessions:

Race With the Devil: 
My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love. 
Joseph Pearce 
Saint Benedict Press, LLC, 2013. Kindle Edition. 

“2. There is therefore no holiness, if Thou O Lord, withdraw Thine hand. No wisdom profiteth, if Thou leave off to guide the helm. No strength availeth, if Thou cease to preserve. No purity is secure, if Thou protect it not. No self-keeping availeth, if Thy holy watching be not there. For when we are left alone we are swallowed up and perish, but when we are visited, we are raised up, and we live. For indeed we are unstable, but are made strong through Thee; we grow cold, but are rekindled by Thee.” [Chapter XIV, Kempis, Thomas A.; The Collected Works of Thomas A Kempis (2007-11-17). The Imitation of Christ (Location: 1486). Kindle Edition.]

…  “These two stages sum up the whole of the spiritual life: when we contemplate ourselves we are troubled, and our sadness saves us and brings us to contemplate God; that contemplation in turn gives us the consolation of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Contemplating ourselves brings fear and humility; contemplating God brings us hope and love.” [Second Reading from the Office of Readings for Wednesday of the 23rd Week in Ordinary Time, from a sermon by St Bernard of Clairvaux  on the stages of contemplation]

I guess the point would be: whether you are talking about St. Augustine or Joseph Pearce, the conversion story leads to hope and recognition of the power of God in Christ to save. The question is who can profit from Pearce's confessions or do they take on meaning only for his friends and family who can mark the change for the good in him and give glory to God? I think avid Pearce readers should be included in that circle, as we have reason too to give thanks for the gift we have received through his wonderful books.

Not all unhappy or angry young men in our world are as talented as Joseph Pearce. For that matter St. Augustine cannot be classed run-of-the-mill either. We may not be the world's best or brightest; we may not have a novel, an opera or a concert, a grand painting or powerful sculpture locked within and waiting to burst forth. I guess that's why recourse to the perspective of St. Bernard or the Imitation is what saves me.

"Contemplating ourselves brings fear and humility; contemplating God brings us hope and love.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

Bondage 100 Years Later

The Servile State
Hilaire Belloc
(2010-04-23) Kindle Edition.

“. . . If we do not restore the Institution of Property we cannot escape restoring the Institution of Slavery; there is no third course.”

Not that long ago at a gathering a young priest asked me if I had read Belloc's "The Servile State". Well, now I have and I am glad I did. Apart from being impressed by how actual a 100 year old book can be, I know I will ponder at length what Belloc deems (and I think quite rightly) slavery to be. He links it firmly with paganism and bemoans the passing of Christendom. Medieval England, Catholic England, had no slaves. Belloc would say that we peaked back then and have been losing ever since.

For Belloc the only way out of servitude is the distributive solution, putting people generally back in charge of the means of production, of property, and therefore of their own lives. He's as death on capitalism as he is on socialism: for Belloc both enslave. I say that and then I hear a very articulate friend shout no to the distributive solution. I think if I saw him again and the topic were broached, I'd take him on and ask why not.

Needless to say, we could talk at length about what makes up slavery and what human dignity. Perhaps our servitude is what makes the bounty of Tolkien's Hobbits such a wonder. If we all had property and produced our own cabbage and potatoes, perhaps in our own simple little way we would indeed be both noble and sovereign. It is all too romantic, is it not?


Sunday, September 8, 2013

LUMEN FIDEI - Take and Read!

In the fall of 1972, as a first year theology student in Rome, I can remember working very hard to prepare my very first catechesis in Italian (the folly of youth!) for the children in the Coolie's anemia wing of Bambino Gesu Hospital. To do it I memorized in Italian (horrible American pronunciation) the verse: The Lord is a lamp for my feet and a light to my path. I am sure that verse was mine in English long before 1972, but yesterday it became mine again in English as I devoted part of my day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria to a second and more reflective reading of the Pope's Encyclical Letter LUMEN FIDEI. These words are to be found in paragraph 57, which discusses the problem of suffering in our lives: 

"Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey."

I rather suspect that unless President or Mrs. Obama woke with a powerful start in the night, enough to make him rethink his calculations about American geopolitical dominance in our world divided, that we will see the US, through some violent act, throw another Mideast country into the jaws of chaos. Many will suffer and ask, Why, Lord? How can this be?

There is no hoping that our world would be any better with an enlightened Christian ruler at the helm, but I think we need to start putting up serious resistance to the dictatorship of relativism. I was thoroughly appalled by a short FoxNews video interview with some Washington expert insisting that if Obama does not choose violence we'll be stuck with a sort of Shakespearean Hamlet as our president for the next 3+ years.... This guy's hollow argument touted nothing but protagonism for the sake of playing and winning at "king of the hill" or did I miss something in his pointless words. Does a "no" to violation of the century old ban on the use of atrocious chemical and biological weapons have to be punctuated with further detonations? Has anyone to date really tried to broker peace in Syria through negotiation? Does one or more failure necessarily disqualify the reasoned approach of appealing to the justice and humanity of men and women of good will?

The Lord is a lamp for my feet and a light to my path. I pray that our world claims this verse for its own.

While I'm at it, let me put in a pitch for: 


Friday, September 6, 2013

The First Calendars for 2014 are out and about!

RISU has been documenting in summary fashion in English a recent web-conference with His Beatitude Sviatoslav Shevchuk, Major Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. Although I have learned to mistrust these RISU summaries somewhat, nevertheless, I find the one on the issue of Julian vs. Gregorian Calendar  and whether a change of calendars is in the works for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church to be of interest. Maybe interest is the wrong word. I was surprised by the reasons His Beatitude gave for being skeptical about the possibility of going over to the civil calendar, the Gregorian.

To my mind the issues concerning calendar are all primarily PASTORAL and fall under two headings: ECUMENISM and EVANGELIZATION.

Sharing the same calendar has important ecumenical ramifications. There is no way getting around it: using different calendars keeps us further apart as Christians. We saw that in the last year as the Franciscans of the Custody of the Holy Land announced their decision to go with the Julian Calendar such that the ever smaller Christian community of the Holy Land could celebrate the great feasts of Christmas and Easter on the same days. The Franciscans did not intend inter-communion or liturgies in common, but rather that families could celebrate at home on the same day. With a divergence of 5 weeks in 2013, we Latins were singing Alleluia as the Byzantine world began its Lenten fast. I can remember being invited to Christian homes in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, struggling to understand why that older brother was Orthodox, that one Latin, that cousin Maronite, and so on, all in the same extended family. Obviously, in the Holy Land there is no other way in marriage to stay Christian than to go ecumenical. At least the traditional Easter foods should be blessed and enjoyed on the same day.

Thankfully, the Christian gene pool in Ukraine is not an issue, but still it would be great if at least calendar did not divide the Latin and Byzantine worlds here. There would be just that much less estrangement if we greeted each other on the same days.

In this Year of Faith, furthering the work of evangelization becomes a real concern. I can see with my own eyes, here in Ukraine, that adhering to the old Julian calendar per se does not impede the evangelization of culture. Perhaps because secularization has so advanced as to damage or at least promote ignorance of the notion of feast, with calendars we can draw the line here or there. Lots of unbaptized people could be won for most any day if they could be won for Christ and His Church. For unbelievers, they can as well be drawn to Christmas whether it be observed on 25 December or 7 January. Even so, I would hazard that if we had the same entries we would probably end up printed on more calendars and perhaps better be known.

I'm wondering if it would really be all that counterproductive from a pastoral point of view to engage folk in the effort to reach a common calendar. The Franciscans, despite having "science and math" on their side, decided to promote family space for feasting. If the Orthodox world were all in agreement when it comes to calendar, I'd be tempted to ask Pope Francis to shelve his predecessor Gregory's contribution to time and eternity. For now, I guess we'll have to await that Orthodox general Council or Synod and hope that their deliberations would be inspired not only by pragmatic concerns but by a pastoral zeal, which is at once ecumenical and bent on evangelization, on winning our world for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.



Tuesday, September 3, 2013

There will be Blood!

Defending Constantine: 
The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom
Peter J. Leithart.
Kindle Edition. 

It's a great book! It's a fun book! I can think of all kinds of reasons why you should read it, but I particularly relish what Peter has to say about the sad lot of us moderns because of our anti-Constantinianism. His points are principally two:

"All modern states, totalitarian and democratic, renounce the Constantinian system; that is what makes them modern states. There are differences, and important ones. Totalitarian states attack the sacrificial city of the church, seeking to turn it into Diocletian's sacrifice of Christians. Democratic states more or less peacefully marginalize the church, and the Christians of democratic states too often cheer them on. For all their differences, totalitarian and democratic systems are secretly united in their anti-Constantinianism." (Kindle Locations 3712-3715).

"Second, because the modern state refuses to welcome the church as city, as model city, as teacher and judge, the modern state reasserts its status as the restored sacrificial state. This means that there must be blood. Medieval life was rough and brutish in plenty of ways and had its share of blood. But believing that the Eucharistic blood of Jesus founded the true city provided a brake on bloodshed. Bishops imposed the peace and truce of God, and monks and others continuously modeled Christ before kings. Modern states have no brakes." (Kindle Locations 3715-3718). 

Leithart ends his book defending Constantine with a kicker phrase which deserves debate, deserves to be pondered and fought over:

"An apocalypse can be averted only if modern civilization, like Rome, humbles itself and is willing to come forward to be baptized." (Kindle Location 3738). 

This coming Saturday, 7 September, Pope Francis has invited the whole Church to fast and pray with him for peace, for an end to the bloodshed. In his invitation he certainly mentions Syria and the rest of the Middle East, but he does not stop there. His invitation to prayer for peace extends to the whole world. Will there be an end to the bloodshed in Syria? Will there be an end to the bloodshed in many totalitarian states that kill without batting an eye? Will there be an end to the flow of rivers of blood by abortion? Will the unbloody Sacrifice of the Eucharist, Christ's Sacrifice for the Salvation of the World be once again renewed? Will Constantine, that enlightened ruler or leader again be found, who lays aside the trappings of empire to don the white garments of Baptism?

I would not risk writing the novel which describes the triumph of grace in our day and time, but I surely would invite you to pray with me that it be so... not the novel but the triumph!



Sunday, September 1, 2013

Reform or Restore?

Do you remember years and years ago all the paper, in the form of books and manuals, which came packed with a new computer or other electronic device? I can remember discovering too that for the most part it could all be thrown away as such items were authored by geeks who had flunked English Comp 101. If you didn't have their mindset, you could not figure it out. It was better to punt, or play the thing by ear. The greatest progress in this field has to be awarded to all who have minimized and rationalized product packaging. If all else fails in our day and time, minus the paper, you can pose your question or problem to an online forum, know that others suffer like you, and wait until you can justify purchasing something new and improved.

In all fairness, however, I must concede that one word was always used correctly with regard to computers and that is/was the word "restore". If your computer was fouled up, blocked or otherwise misbehaving, you could arbitrarily fix a "restore point" which took you back before your problem and enabled you to sort things out. This is what we mean by a "restoration". When we talk about the restoration and organic development of the liturgy, there is not a computer geek in the world who doesn't get the point, because he or she knows what a "restore point" is.

Sadly, the word "reform" does not seem to have any tech apps. This may or may not explain a certain amount of equivocation concerning its meaning and application. For the sake of clarity, I think it would be better to say that there has probably never been a time when the word, REFORM, has had a different definition than the one you find today in Merriam-Webster:
transitive verb
1 a : to put or change into an improved form or condition; b : to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses. 2 : to put an end to (an evil) by enforcing or introducing a better method or course of action.

Reforming is not restoring; it is changing or improving, not renewing but making something different and therefore new. That is why we don't restore an alcoholic, we reform him or her; we give that person skills and options for living and interacting with others that are new in his or her life. At this point, then, would begin the debate about whether "reforming the reformed liturgy" can ever heal something diagnosed as a rupture, a damaging break with the tradition, seen as the life-giving patrimony of past experience. On the other side, one might ask if it is at all possible to restore a living thing. The danger would seem to be in the temptation or inclination to resorting to paradigms drawn from movies like Jurassic Park. Even short of science fiction, we cannot argue about liturgy as if to say "What would our world be without Giant Pandas?" 

To my way of thinking, Laslo Dobszay makes the best case for restoration over reform of the reform, and Pope Benedict XVI has spoken with wisdom and authority by favoring the mutual enrichment of the two forms of the one Roman Rite. My wish or my prayer would be to live to see the day when the enrichment process would generally inspire the Church to urge the Supreme Legislator to fix that "restore point" and empower us to life and liturgy in continuity.

I was intrigued by a video from Scotland which took a very different stance from my understanding of Dobszay on the issue of whether chant is universally doable. This man, at least, is convinced that you don't need a professional schola in every parish to be able to sustain chant in its simplest forms. 

Mutual enrichment rises and falls upon the doable. Our patrimony is beautiful; restoration requires do-ability. As a child I always found our chant beautiful and never quite understood why older folk were draw to hymnody. We see life and development today, in terms of the restoration of chant as an integral part of liturgy, wherever it is chosen and wherever ears are attuned to rejecting the shrill or dull in favor of the ancient patrimony. 

In my previous piece I noted on a very different level that reform involves the hard work of repentance. If there were reason to privilege the reform of the reformed liturgy, then it would be in the sense of recovering our patrimony, of seeking earnestly for that "restore point" which will enable us to set things forth as ought.

The Baptist's Cry! Those Early Chapters

"When reform is dissociated from the hard work of repentance, and seeks salvation merely by changing others, by creating ever fresh forms, and by accommodation to the times, then despite many useful innovations it will be a caricature of itself. Such reform can touch only things of secondary importance in the Church." (Josef Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), Presentation to the Catholic Academy in Bavaria on the question of Church Renewal, 1971).

I lifted the above quote from a friend who had used it some years back in a very different context. It articulates well a piece of common sense or folk wisdom which I have carried with me for certainly 30 if not more years. A now aged prelate, back in my days in the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, shared this wisdom in his account to us younger ones of "Benelli and the Photocopy Machine". 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name "Benelli", he died relatively young and happy as the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence, Italy. He hadn't always been such. For numerous years as sostituto he was the point man for Pope Paul VI and for his efforts to do many things including reform the Roman Curia. Archbishop Benelli was for all but a small circle of younger men close to him in the Secretariat of State (including my prelate friend), a holy terror. As the story goes, on taking up his duties Benelli observed that any and all had access to the one photocopy machine in the Secretariat of State; time and money were being lost to socializing and copies for personal use. By dictate from the office of the sostituto, no one but the brother responsible was to use that machine which was reserved strictly for office copying. As my friend recounts, so things remained until the day Benelli left for Florence; the very next day things were as they had been years prior. The Ratzinger quote above explains it best and I would add: "it seeks to change things of secondary importance and cannot do so in any lasting way".

The world press, starting with Italy's vaticanisti, is blowing hot and cold these days. Yesterday the Holy Father reaped unbounded praise for having appointed Archbishop Parolin (for many of them seemingly a latter-day Pacelli) as Secretary of State. No doubt tomorrow they will have found reason to criticize or to be disappointed in this choice or in some other Pope Francis will make. I doubt very much if anyone, whether the Pope or his right hand man, will be able to please this crowd. This is the case very simply because they want to register reform/innovation, nothing more. 

My wish and prayer for Pope Francis and for Secretary of State Parolin would be for "success" in the not measurable hard work of repentance (thank you, Benedict!), which has to do with hearts, which has to do with shepherding after the Heart of the Good Shepherd. That is not to say that I don't have a long grocer's list of changes and reforms I'd like to see, because I have one. What I am saying is that whether we mark austerity by limiting access to the copy machine, the coffee machine or the water fountain, regardless of cutbacks on inflated numbers of cardinals, archbishops and monsignori in the Curia, if hearts are not changed, well, maybe another "Benelli" will leave for Florence, or a "Pius" will pass the torch to another "John", who will promote all his contemporaries to archbishop the very next day and "right the wrong" if you can say it that way.

Let's get back to the Year of Faith and to fostering Christian Family Life!