Thursday, February 28, 2013

Be Not Afraid!

I must confess that the temptation to address the topic of the vacancy of the See of Peter, which is upon us, has become irresistible. I've taken more time for news and streaming video in the last few days since I cannot remember when. It has all left me incredibly, I guess that's possible, edified. Pope Benedict and the Lord Who guides His Church, Who never leaves His flock untended, together have been gently leading us through a process which will have ramifications (to understate) for a long, long time.

It all couldn't be more beautiful, more real or regal. I am sure Castel Gandolfo tonight will not disappoint either or in the least.  

No doubt the Cardinals as a big College and then later in Conclave as a smaller electoral body will no doubt need lots of prayers that all keep their heads and hearts tuned to the Holy Spirit. The Lord has led in such kindly fashion so far, for what it is worth to the folks who know me and read me, I'm not the least bit worried or fearful.

Identi-kits? Absolute to-do-lists? No doubt the Cardinals' discernment process may include such considerations. There aren't any particular parallels to the famous scene from Acts whereby Judas' place among the Twelve was filled by establishing fundamental criteria, praying and then drawing lots. In any case, there have been too many great moments of teaching and profound professions of faith in an atmosphere of genuine esteem to have any reservations concerning what might happen when the Cardinals are locked away in the Sistine to do their duty. God will provide and we will soon be about the business of carrying on as Christ would have it.

My friend George Weigel is beating the drums for reform these days. How much of an impact he'll have on the College of Cardinals and on the election, I guess we'll never know. Satisfaction or less with the outcome of the electors efforts really has no place and would be foolish in the short term anyway.

That the Light of the Gospel may shine from end to end! That we all might cooperate with the grace given and hasten by our own adherence to the Gospel that coming of the Day of God!

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Wheat and Chaff

Reading these days from my volume of English translations of sermons by St. Augustine, I have marveled more than once at how he puts together his Easter homilies. His encouraging words for the newly baptized are counterbalanced by sharp licks and punches to those members of the faith community (seemingly not few) who remained in their sin, who had not taken the path of Lenten conversion, penance and repentance. I’m trying to imagine myself in the pulpit saying the equivalent, “Oh, and folks, choose wisely those with whom you associate here in the parish: give the hypocrites, who are little more than adulterers and fornicators, a wide berth.” Maybe if you are St. Augustine or carry his kind of stature you can punch that hard, but the Western world of our day is firmly entrenched in its accommodations of the Gospel, be it adultery, fornication, artificial birth control, abortion, euthanasia, promiscuity of all other sorts claiming constitutional guarantees and respectability, and on and on. A priest who preached like St. Augustine today would probably find himself reported to the bishop and maybe even transferred for his lack of pastoral sensitivity. A bishop after the heart of the great Western Father of the Church would have to endure vociferous attacks and, no doubt, slander. 

St. Augustine is right of course and this Second Sunday of Lent in the Second Reading for Holy Mass comes to my rescue not so much for offering a viable homily outline of what and how to say to rouse the faithful of all sorts, both to encourage, to correct and reprove error, as for a confirmation of this perspective which is apostolic and ever valid and as such enlightened the great bishop of Hippo in his preaching and teaching. Thank you, St. Paul!  

My brothers, be united in following my rule of life. Take as your models everybody who is already doing this and study them as you used to study us. I have told you often, and I repeat it today with tears, there are many who are behaving as the enemies of the cross of Christ. They are destined to be lost. They make foods into their god and they are proudest of something they ought to think shameful; the things they think important are earthly things. For us, our homeland is in heaven, and from heaven comes the savior we are waiting for, the Lord Jesus Christ, and he will transfigure these wretched bodies of ours into copies of his glorious body. He will do that by the same power with which he can subdue the whole universe. So then, my brothers and dear friends, do not give way but remain faithful in the Lord. I miss you very much, dear friends; you are my joy and my crown.
 (Philippians 3:17-4:1)

Hold steadfast! Make wise choices! Submit to Christ! 

No small number of journalists, reporters, bloggers and other authorities in our mediatocracy are having a field day discrediting and muckraking these days. They are far from doing what St. Augustine did in his Easter homilies, namely speak the truth of Jesus Himself, which has two moments. 1) The wheat and the chaff are to be separated, but for now are both there on the threshing floor, that the weeds and the wheat, by His Will, will grow together until the harvest. 2) That our duty to run the race and keep the faith involves choices of friendship and association. St. Paul says it just as clearly: "Take as your models everybody who is already doing this and study them as you used to study us."

While it would be folly to close out entirely the information of these days propagated on scandal sheets and electronically or to think that with some kind of crusade on our part or on the part of someone higher up in office that that threshing floor could be tidied up and the grain stored for eternity and secure as of the day after tomorrow, even so, make good choices on what you read and seek to build up rather than to tear down. 

By the same token, if a priest or a bishop after the manner of St. Augustine brings down the hammer and calls a spade a spade, support him, or as the case may be, look more closely and see whether you don't need to change your ways by turning from sin. After all, it is Lent.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bookmakers, Headhunters, Matchmakers?

With all due respect both to the office and to the sacred college, I couldn't resist posting this pretty bird. The media frenzy for whatever, as impossible as it is to predict the election of a pope, is barreling ahead full throttle. It would seem that the cardinals already have the profile that they now have to flesh out and elect from among their members: "younger (65-70)", "energetic" and "from the southern hemisphere". Those at least seem to be tops on the list at the moment and the bookmakers percentages are falling in line with their predictions.

It is all folly, of course, and my only worry is that such distractions draw the faithful away from our very sublime task at this important time in the life of the Church, of praying that all involved will cooperate with the grace given for the sake of the Kingdom. Thinking of today's Scripture readings for Mass of Wednesday in the First Week of Lent: That "Jonah", whoever God's chosen one might be and from whichever hemisphere, might not run away from the face of God and that Nineveh might promptly respond to his word and turn to the Lord. We need to focus on the essentials and understand the lesson Pope Benedict is giving us in terms of the centrality of Christ in the mission of His Church.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In the Service of the King

Louis de Wohl 
2001 Ignatius Press

This novel centering on the life of St. Francis of Assisi carried me back to Kyiv on my latest transatlantic flight. Jet-lag provided the necessary occasion to read what remained of this lovely book. I don't know how many of the de Wohl novels I have read over the years, but I am thoroughly grateful to Ignatius Press for making these classics available published again and again, and rightly so, since their original edition.

Louis de Wohl treats all his protagonists with great enthusiasm, but I am going to hazard a guess and share my impression that he had a particularly high regard for the Franciscan spirit. Whether they believe it or not themselves, I think de Wohl believed that the Franciscans were the best thing that ever happened to the Holy Land and ultimately the answer to prayers for the preservation of the holy places which enshrine in stone the memory of the earthly life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This particular volume is certainly about ultimate choices and life written bigger than most of us folk will ever know. Even so, I think it leaves room for the kind of reflection which informs great choices also in little people. I think young people should read de Wohl, as he illustrates the path out of pragmatism and despair. THE JOYFUL BEGGAR could be for one or another youth the path to life and a source of hope for the Church and the world. 

Memorization: Learning, yes, by Heart!

I enjoyed reading St. Augustine’s Sermon 212 this morning. It is entitled “At the Handing Over of the Creed”. The great Bishop of Hippo caused me to think a bit more in terms of the task which is ours in this Year of Faith, especially as regards the handing on of the faith to the next generation. I’d like to quote the last part of his sermon:

Keep the Symbol in your memory
“And in no way are you to write it down, in order to retain the same words; but you are to learn it thoroughly by hearing it, and not write it down either when you have it by heart, but keep it always and go over it in your memory. After all, everything you are going to hear in the Symbol is already contained in the divine documents of the Holy Scriptures, from which you regularly hear extracts as the need arises. But the fact that the Symbol, put together and reduced to a certain form in this way, may not be written down, is a reminder of God’s promise, where he foretold the new covenant through the prophet, and said, This is the covenant which I will draw up for them after those days, says the Lord; putting my laws into their minds, I will write them also on their hearts (Jer 31:33). It is to illustrate this truth that by the simple hearing of the Symbol it is written not on tables, or on any other material, but on people’s hearts. The God who has called you to his kingdom and his glory will ensure that it is also written on your hearts by the Holy Spirit, once you have been born again by his grace; so that you may love what you believe, and faith may work in you through love. In this way may you please the Lord God, the giver of all good things, not out of fear of punishment like slaves, but out of a love of justice like free people. So this is the Symbol which has already been imparted to you as catechumens through the scriptures and sermons in church, but which has to be confessed and practiced and made progress in by you as baptized believers.” (Augustine, Saint; Daniel Doyle, O.S.A.; Edmund Hill, O.P. (2007-01-01). Essential Sermons (pp. 263-264). New City Press. Kindle Edition.)

As children (long ago!), we did no small amount of memorizing. By the time I got to college that method of learning or appropriating wisdom was sadly already very much passé. One of the fun experiences of my time here in Ukraine has been discovering people who still learn and recite things from memory: small children, adolescents, young adults and even seniors. St. Augustine is right in what he says about the importance of memorizing the Apostles Creed as one of the steps in the process of Christian Initiation and moreover in living the faith. To learn something, anything, we must commit it to memory or it is not ours. Genuinely studious people with big personal libraries not only know which books they own; they know what those books contain. So many great saints knew the Scriptures, especially the Letters of St. Paul, by heart.

I guess I could plead old age as an explanation for my slow progress in learning the Ukrainian language, but in point of fact, I shy away from the good work of memorizing! Osmosis as a way of learning? Not hardly! There is no substitute for the hard but noble work of memorizing, of committing things to heart.

Besides learning our basic prayers by heart, I would invite those who cannot recite the Apostles Creed by heart to deepen your faith by writing the great Baptismal Symbol on your hearts this Lent. Think of it as solidarity with all those in RCIA programs or other forms of Christian Initiation who will be or should be doing it this Lent in preparation for Baptism at Easter.



Friday, February 15, 2013

The Task is Indeed Urgent

The transcription and English translation of the Holy Father’s reflection on the Second Vatican Council, shared now at the beginning of Lent in his traditional encounter with the clergy of Rome, is out and available. I hope his words on the liturgy and its sacred character are read and reflected upon, especially by priests and bishops around the world. 

The import or poignancy of his words may be derived from the context of presentation, that is, in his last address to the presbyterate and assembled auxiliary bishops of his diocese. They should have an impact not only on the Roman clergy but on that of the Church throughout the world. I think we are moving too slowly in our efforts to make reparation for all of the abuse and distortion of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite as it has been practiced over the years. The Pope’s words should disarm us and move us to reparative action and without further ado.

The Holy Father is speaking of the Council as portrayed by the media and by certain interests within the Church in the past which effectively high jacked the best efforts of the Council of the Fathers. The English seems to reflect what I heard of the Italian:

This was the case for the liturgy: there was no interest in the liturgy as an act of faith, but as a something to be made understandable, similar to a community activity, something profane. And we know that there was a trend, which was also historically based, that said: "Sacredness is a pagan thing, possibly even from the Old Testament. In the New Testament the only important thing is that Christ died outside: that is, outside the gates, that is, in the secular world". Sacredness ended up as profanity even in worship: worship is not worship but an act that brings people together, communal participation and thus participation as activity. And these translations, trivializing the idea of ​​the Council, were virulent in the practice of implementing the liturgical reform, born in a vision of the Council outside of its own key vision of faith. And it was so, also in the matter of Scripture: Scripture is a book, historical, to treat historically and nothing else, and so on.

And we know that this Council of the media was accessible to all. So, dominant, more efficient, this Council created many calamities, so many problems, so much misery, in reality: seminaries closed, convents closed, liturgy trivialized ... and the true Council has struggled to materialize, to be realized: the virtual Council was stronger than the real Council. But the real strength of the Council was present and slowly it has emerged and is becoming the real power which is also true reform, true renewal of the Church. It seems to me that 50 years after the Council, we see how this Virtual Council is breaking down, getting lost and the true Council is emerging with all its spiritual strength. And it is our task, in this Year of Faith, starting from this Year of Faith, to work so that the true Council with the power of the Holy Spirit is realized and Church is really renewed. We hope that the Lord will help us. I, retired in prayer, will always be with you, and together we will move ahead with the Lord in certainty. The Lord is victorious. Thank you.

Those who simply vilify the Popes of the last 50 years for not having resisted the iconoclasts of these times are not helping matters. Everyone needs to contribute constructively according to their station in life to the building up of God's House and especially by rendering the Lord of Life His due through the worthy celebration of the sacred mysteries. The “minority report” of an honest witness through a well-celebrated extraordinary form will contribute immensely, but in charity the “majority” must be encouraged to a change of heart and a recovery of the sacred after the mind of our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI.

There's a lot of catechesis which must be done in this Year of Faith and our efforts toward reform and renewal will be groundless unless we recover within our Catholic homes that sense of God's presence and that spirit of prayer. Even so, I think it would be a great gift if priests would share these words of the Holy Father with their parishioners and take steps together with them toward recovering that sense of the sacred in worship. In many places, terrible violence was done in the past: to our temples, to our worship, to the consciences of many folk. Now is the acceptable time.


The Pillars of Lent and the Christian Life

I must say that I drew great encouragement from the Second Reading from today’s Office of Readings, which is taken from a homily of Pseudo-Chrysostom and entitled “Prayer is the light of the soul”. Let me quote the parts of this passage which touched me particularly:

The highest good is prayer and conversation with God, because it means that we are in God’s company and in union with him. … I warn you, though: do not imagine that prayer is simply words. Prayer is the desire for God, an indescribable devotion, not given by man but brought about by God’s grace. As St Paul says: “For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself intercedes on our behalf in a way that could never be put into words.” …  To begin on this path, start by adorning your house with modesty and humility. Make it shine brightly with the light of justice. Decorate it with the gold leaf of good works, with the jewels of faithfulness and greatness of heart. Finally, to make the house perfect, raise a gable above it all, a gable of prayer. Thus you will have prepared a pure and sparkling house for the Lord. Receive the Lord into this royal and splendid dwelling — in other words: receive, by his grace, his image into the temple of your soul.

Make a good confession early this Lent and never stop asking Our Dear Lord for the gift of prayer by God's grace. "Gable" or pinnacle, let God crown your house with prayer and make His dwelling there this Lent!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

O Blessed, O Hallowed Ash Wednesday!

"After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I thirst." There was a vessel filled with common wine. So they put a sponge soaked in wine on a sprig of hyssop and put it up to his mouth. When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit." (John 19:28-30)

Yesterday there were some videos on YouTube showing the Monastery Mater Ecclesiae in the Vatican Gardens, which is being renovated as the retirement residence of Pope Benedict XVI. For some reason, the impression I got wasn't exactly cheery (something between a prison and a mausoleum kept coming to mind). Hopefully it has a nice garden and view for walking.

Having said that, I hope you can understand me when I say that I am thankful for Ash Wednesday and its sobriety, while coping with the loss of two loved ones these days: my mother, who passed away peacefully at age 87 on 25 January, and now the Holy Father. Mother we laid in the tomb and well, unless they spruce the place up a bit, there is a certain dying in the Pope's renunciation of office, symbolized for me in his soon to be home in the Vatican Gardens, which, as I say, to my mind may compare favorably with a hermitage for St. Anthony the Abbot but has a sepulchral air about it from what is displayed in the videos.

They tell me the poor Cardinal of Krakow has received a lot of flack at home in Poland for having repeated the famous line of the ailing Blessed Pope John Paul II on the question of a pope resigning, saying you can't step down from the Cross. That is unfortunate, because I am sure he intended no criticism of Pope Benedict XVI. Both in the blogosphere and elsewhere many are expressing both pondered and visceral reactions to the Holy Father's decision both pro and con. While we must firmly believe that only the Lord of Life, as is evident from the verses I quote from the Passion in the Gospel of St. John, only the Son of God lays down His life to take it up again, even so, I think the Lord grants a certain leave-way to His beloved and some possibility for laying down our lives as well.

People die in accidents, people are executed or assassinated, people die in fear; this is true. God's beloved sometimes are granted the grace of that privileged moment to show charity through a word or a squeeze of the hand which helps a child or a spouse, perhaps a dear friend to let go of the one who is dying, confident that the one departing this life is going home to God. We do not take our lives in our own hands, but I firmly believe we pass from this life as something more than roadkill.

From that day on which we first come forth into the light of day, we are all dying. Only Divine Providence knows the day and the hour when that process will be complete. Every now and again, I receive personal prayer requests for a miracle from God to spare the life of a child or a beloved young spouse. I have no doubt that God always hears those requests and in His great mercy can grant the miracle of recovery or can allow the one He is calling home to heaven to gently take leave and reassure those who may be torn apart by the very thought. He is the same God, Who at our petition might give that extra time to the unrepentant sinner to see the error of his or her ways and seek God.
St. Joseph, Patron of a happy death, pray for us!

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return! 

Thank God for the admonition of Ash Wednesday! Would that we would all heed and change our way of living to conform with His Holy Will! Would that we all amidst tears might be able to let our loved ones go home to God when the time comes! Would that Lent could help us all better to live with our hearts set on the world to come!

The serenity and sovereignty of the Pope's renunciation (at least so I hope and pray) will be a squeeze of the hand, if you will, for Christ's Holy Church and motivation toward a new and even more profound hope in the Kingship of the One Who reigns from the Tree of the Cross. So be it!

Happy Lent!