Monday, June 30, 2014

Martyrdom and Professing the Faith

The Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul, Apostles,
Sunday, 29 June 2014

Isti sunt qui, viventes in carne, plantaverunt Ecclesiam sanguine suo: calicem Domini biberunt, et amici Dei facti sunt.
Acts 12:1-11
Ex omnibus terroribus meis eripuit me Dominus.
2 Tim. 4:6-8,17-18
Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam, et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversus eam.
Matt. 16:13-19

Much can be said about the two greats whose Solemn Feast we celebrate today, the Princes of the Apostles, Saints Peter and Paul. With their blood at Rome they sealed their witness of faith in Christ Jesus: Peter crucified upside-down and Paul beheaded. Their lives, their teaching and their martyrdom teach us that human achievement is a small and passing splendor. For it is the Lord Himself, in His great mercy towards us, Who does great things for us and therefore we are glad indeed.
          Today’s liturgy places before us something which might actually seem contradictory, the famous expression or teaching: “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Christian faith”. The martyrs’ deaths contribute to the growth of the Church and do not put its continuance in peril. In imitation of Christ Crucified, the martyr gives life to the Church, the Bride of Christ. As Jesus laid down His life for the Church, sacrificed Himself for His Beloved, so too the ultimate sacrifice of the martyrs does not diminish but rather magnifies/glorifies God and so too His Body the Church. The glory of the martyrs, Peter and Paul together with the countless other proto-martyrs of the city of Rome, is the glory of the Church of Rome and of the whole Catholic world, which finds its origins in their confession of faith.
          Be it said, though, that the Church’s teaching in this matter is not exhausted by the statement that God wills that the Church of Christ prosper and grow through the example of the martyrs. It is not as simple as that. Last year for the anniversary of the Edict of Milan, promulgated by the Emperor Constantine in the year 313, I read a recent book of history written in defense of Constantine and all he did to put an end to that first age of martyrs, to stop the shedding of blood in the Roman Empire of his day. In the pagan Roman world of those early centuries it was not only the blood of Christian martyrs that was shed. There was the whole phenomenon of gladiators and others who bled and died to satisfy the pagan. Symbolically and for all times, the victory in battle of Constantine at the Milvian Bridge, under the Sign of the Cross, eventually put an end to all these bloody sacrifices and recognized as once and for all the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ nailed to the wood of the Cross. The Church, our world, needs no more bloodshed. We live by the Blood of Christ shed once and for all as we profess our faith in Him and are plunged into the saving waters of Baptism, thereby to rise with Christ to new life with Him in the glory of the Resurrection.
          We know that no true martyr of the Church, and certainly not Peter or Paul, ever sought martyrdom. Their original virtue or merit was their obedience to Christ, their confession of faith in Jesus, Son of the Living God. Their confession of faith provoked the hatred of the world around them which would not accept the Kingship of Christ and obedience to God’s Will. This is a rather common experience, which repeats itself sometimes even within our own homes and families. It is not that we as Church live simply to embrace martyrdom, but rather ours is to confess Jesus as the One and Only Savior of the World. We are born of Baptism not necessarily for martyrdom, but to lead others to the saving waters of the baptismal font. We are profoundly thankful when we can fulfill this duty in peace, without bloodshed. Our joy is in living out that witness faithfully without ending up in the lion’s jaws.
          We see the same in the lives of the two princes of today’s feast. In the first reading taken from the Acts of the Apostles, we read that God through His Angel saved Peter from death at Herod’s hands in the prison of Jerusalem. God graces us with His peace in this life. In the second Letter of St. Paul to Timothy, Paul declares that he could profess the Catholic faith everywhere thanks to the strength provided to him by God. Paul expresses his confidence in the divine protection and looks forward by the grace of God to reigning with Christ in the glory of His Heavenly Kingdom.
          Jesus founded His Church on the rock of Peter’s faith, “You are the Christ, God’s Anointed, the Son”, Peter said. Right up until our times, through the Church established on the rock of Peter’s faith, we as Church prevail against the gates of Hell, on the sure path which leads to Heaven for any who are ready to hear and follow the call to Baptism.
          We give glory to God always and everywhere. We pray for His Blessing. Grant, O Lord, that from the font of Baptism Your Church might always be able to draw forth confessors of the faith, men and women, saints, religious and priests, truly faithful married couples and parents.

          Blessed be God forever! Blessed in His Angels and in His Saints!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Two Different Worlds

Collects of the Roman Missals: 
A Comparative Study of the Sundays in Proper Seasons 
before and after the Second Vatican Council 
Lauren Pristas. 
(T&T Clark Studies in Fundamental Liturgy) 
(2013-08-01). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

I cannot say exactly what has led me twice to invest bigger money in the T&T Clark Studies in Fundamental Liturgy, but again I have a book I now genuinely treasure and which has opened new vistas for me. Believe it or not, despite the almost clinical sounding title, I found the book captivating. I may have to look into some of the other T&T Clark offerings.

With all the rigor of a truly academic work, this Pristas volume methodically lays out the difference between the Missals of Vatican II (1970, 2002, 2008) and all which went before, but especially as presented in the 1962 Missal. Nowhere have I come across such a worthwhile description of what was at stake in the calendar reform, nor such a serene treatment of what all was involved in the numerous substitutions of prayers in the Missal, regardless of whether they were new compositions or antique forms drawn from other sources and genres. I will let the author state the book's purpose:

"This study examines the pre- and post-Vatican II missals in order to discover whether they emphasize the same truths of faith and the same aspects of Christian life, whether Catholics who worship by means of the revised rites are shaped by their worship in the same way that earlier generations were shaped by theirs, and if the answer to either of the preceding questions is no, to determine the nature and significance of the differences." [Highlight Loc. 168-71]

We are reminded of worship's true purpose, as well as its effects upon the worshiper:

"Indeed, it is unfitting to ascribe any utilitarian purpose to worship, for in true worship the human person adores and honors God for his own sake alone...

"The formation of which we speak is not the purpose of worship but its effect, and this in two respects especially. First, because human beings become what they most consistently do, we are formed by the way we habitually worship – by the posture, attitudes, and dispositions we customarily assume before God and the things that we habitually say to him, or seek from him, when we speak from our hearts. Second, at worship the Church beseeches God on behalf of the faithful and seeks from him the things that they need. On the one hand, from the Church’s public prayer we can gain great insight into what God wants for us and from us; on the other, by means of these same prayers, the Church begs God on our behalf for the graces and gifts we need to become what he desires." [Highlight Loc. 198-205]

Pristas, in the end, asks more questions than draws conclusions when it comes to the post-Vatican II corpus of collects. This is certainly a prudent and moreover a constructive stance. The author realizes better than anyone the number of similar studies which would be needed to gain a full picture of what has come about through the changes to our living patrimony.

If I had a wish, it would be that young scholars would gain inspiration from this work to carry on other comparative studies.

For myself, I am left with the aching question, not so much of the preservation of the Latin in the Roman Rite, as of the impact of the vernacular on our prayer. I think it is too simple a conclusion to draw that because the vernacular predominates today that these prayers, for example, work with greater effect than when they were expressed in Latin. One of the principle motives for Pope St. John XXIII calling the Council was the recognition that the edifice of Catholic culture was endangered already back then and by some time. In many places the essential life context for celebrating the Sacred Mysteries was indeed crumbling or in ruins. People are badly mistaken who reduce the intelligibility factor in worship to the Latin vs. vernacular debate. I need a life context: a Catholic home and parish setting, with healthy educational opportunities; think of the importance, to name only one example, of monasticism for the life of the Church and of the individual Christian!

As I say, I am most grateful for Pristas' work. The task before us, however, is to rebuild a whole culture. When we do so we might better appreciate what was lost in the calendar reform and concomitant redaction of our treasury of Roman collects, mostly prayed with great devotion for long centuries, as can be documented from the 8th Century.

Mine is a thank you to Pristas and a call for more scholarship in this area. Mine is a prayer for a multiple and diversified effort to restore Catholic culture as the setting or vessel for Divine Worship.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Worthy to keep before your Eyes

The Second Reading from today’s Office of Readings, taken from St Cyprian's treatise on the Lord's Prayer, concludes with this paragraph:

“But it is the will of God that Christ both did and taught. Humility in dealings with others; steadfastness in faith; modesty in words; justice in deeds; mercifulness in works; discipline in morals. To be unable to do a wrong, and to be able to bear a wrong when it is done; to keep peace with the brethren; to love God with all one’s heart; to love God because he is a Father but fear him because he is God; to prefer nothing whatever to Christ because he preferred nothing to us; to adhere inseparably to his love; to stand faithfully and bravely by his cross; when there is any conflict over his name and honour, to exhibit in discourse that steadfastness in which we proclaim him; in torture, to show that confidence in which we unite; in death, that patience in which we are crowned – this is what it means to want to be co-heirs with Christ, this is what it means to do what God commands, this is what it is to fulfil the will of the Father.”

If I had a refrigerator of my own, I would print this one out big on some sort of bright colored paper and in bold. I'd magnet it on at eye level and resolve not to open the door without a quick read-through and a brief pause for recognition.

Yes, that is what I would do!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Vespers of Pentecost - Unleashing the Spirit

There are still times when events or experiences convince me of the limits of the visual arts, including both film and photography. Sometimes the naked eye and the physical insertion of yourself into an ambiance provides an incomparable experience. I had one of those last evening in the Kyiv Pokrovsky Monastery Saint Nicholas Church. It is the big church of a female Orthodox monastery just a short walk from home. Both for our Ukrainian Greek Catholics and for the Orthodox, first vespers of Pentecost are quite solemn and well attended. Not thinking so much about that, my intention was to show a house guest the monastery. I have been to the monastery, usually with guests, a number of times over these three years, but for me personally this time was exceptional.

As any Byzantine Church, St. Nicholas of Pokrov is oriented; the apse it toward the east. As is often the case with Orthodox Churches, the walls of the church are uniformly darkened from candle soot to the point you can hardly make out any of the frescoes on the walls. In recompense, because it is a wealthy monastery the iconostasis and numerous shrines throughout the church sparkle with gold to the point of ostentation. St. Nicholas has a towering iconostasis in brilliant gold: not so much a distraction as a striking invitation to focus on Christ as Oriens, the Dawn from on High. Either by custom or because of the exterior scaffolding over the main west entrance to the church, you enter on the north side and find yourself, despite a side chapel and a couple of shrines, right in the midst of the church. The evening office was being sung and the priest (unseen) was alternating with the nuns' choir. There are no pews or general seating in a Byzantine church, the nuns not in choir where scattered about among the laity, all assisting silently, most standing.

What struck me was that different than most Orthodox churches and even than St. Nicholas as I have otherwise experienced it, there was none of the usual milling around of people absorbed in their own devotions, signing themselves, bowing and kissing the accessible icons and relics. All stood in ordered rows, with heads slightly bowed, obviously absorbed in prayer. The rich, spiritual attention of the scene truly touched me with joy and inspired from the depths of my heart a fervent prayer for the recovery of this which was once our common heritage: orientation toward Christ and silent attentiveness to a prayer which is both ours and on our behalf.

That being said, I guess I sort of want to respond with this post to a question raised by Fr. Z. after reporting a list of advantages for priests in celebrating the Liturgy ad Orientem. He asked for input on what then would be the advantages for the congregation. My response to Father would be very simply that by not restoring our ancient tradition of orientation in worship, which we share with the Byzantine world, we are depriving our people and ourselves as priests of that which is needed for worship, focus on Christ. Orientation and an attentive silence are a sine qua non for doing that work which God calls us to do in worship, caught up to the Heavenly Court in the company of the angels and saints.

We do not have the tradition of the iconostasis and brilliant gold probably should be reserved to rich, Orthodox, female monasteries founded by pious Russian princesses in the 19th Century. We do have the tradition of the high altar and the Cross of Christ on high. We've been too distracted with horizontal exchanges which are proper to gathering spaces outside the sanctuary. After nearly fifty years, it is time to make haste to come home to the tradition of always and everywhere and restore our focus. A congregation deserves no less than the best.


Sunday, June 1, 2014

Justice and Truth - Where Else?

"It is only truth--or dogma, to give it its other name--which can make prayer efficacious, and impregnate it with that austere, protective strength without which it degenerates into weakness. If this is true of private prayer, it is doubly so of popular devotion, which in many directions verges on sentimentality. Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion. It makes prayer intelligible, and causes it to rank as a potent factor in life. If, however, religious thought is to do justice to its mission, it must introduce into prayer truth in all its fullness." [Guardini, Romano (2012-02-05). The Spirit of the Liturgy (Kindle Locations 185-191). Veritatis Splendor Publications. Kindle Edition.]

A friendly "poke" got me to pick up this Guardini classic which I had enjoyed reading years ago in Bonn, when I had access to a then new edition in German paperback of his opera omnia. This first chapter, on "The Prayer of the Liturgy", balances off truth against emotion and insists that one of the distinctions between private prayer/popular devotion and public liturgy, is the necessary adherence of Divine Worship to the fullness of truth. The Byzantine Liturgy speaks of worship as being perforce "rational". Guardini cannot see liturgy in any other way.

This got me thinking about a lot of things, but brought me to or renewed me in a firm conviction, which I would gladly share with you. The fundamental, developmental crisis in the life of the human person has little to do with "sexual awakening" but rather is centered on grasping justice and truth as central to living life to the full. When I was much younger there was a common mode of expression which described a wild young man as having been "hit hard by puberty"... utter nonsense. The passage from childhood or childishness to adolescence and on to adulthood takes place, certainly, I guess, hormonally, but more significantly with the awakening to the categories of justice and truth. One spends the rest of his or her life trying to sort out the vagaries of that all for us who are not pure spirits. Love might be the greatest, but we experience it in deed (justice done) and in truth.

When Pope Benedict spoke about the tyranny of relativism I think that perhaps also he was referring to the death of a growing perception of the demands of justice and truth in the life of a youth. If you don't catch and jealously guard from childhood that marvelous flame, not stolen by Prometheus but gifted to us by God, you are lost or at least foundering in desperate hope of a latter day conversion. As Guardini would say, you end up caught in ...the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion. Granted, not being angels capable of singleness of purpose and timeless commitment, we end up fighting all our lives to remain faithful to the demands of justice in adherence to the truth which comes to us from God in His Church, but even so we are far from lost.

When some of my favorite authors speak about restoring Catholic culture, I think that means identifying much of so-called contemporary culture as inimical to justice and truth. To step away from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion is our duty and for parents and teachers our only worthwhile endowment or gift to the charges entrusted to our care by God's Will and Providence. I don't know what it means to say someone was "hit hard by puberty", but I do know the tragedy of depriving a child of his or her innate and needs be cultivated sense of justice in faithfulness to the truth which comes to us from the God Who so loved the world as to give up His only Son for our salvation.